With its cathedral filled with fellow archbishops, clergy and old friends he worked with 15 years ago, the Catholic church in New Orleans on Thursday buried Archbishop Francis Schulte, its 12th archbishop.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, now New Orleans’ 14th archbishop, celebrated Mass using Schulte’s old chalice, given to Schulte on his ordination as a priest 64 years ago. Aymond told hundreds of people inside St. Louis Cathedral it was a gesture that Schulte himself introduced to New Orleans and that still endures at funeral rites for deceased priests.
Schulte, who served as archbishop for nearly 13 years, died Jan. 17 at 89, after weeks of hospice care in his native Philadelphia, where, in declining health, he had returned in 2008.
His final return for burial was his first appearance at his former cathedral since 2009 when, as a former archbishop, he helped install Aymond.
As the Mass unfolded, a crypt lay freshly opened in the floor just off the altar, immediately next to the crypt containing the remains of Schulte’s predecessor, former Archbishop Philip Hannan, who was buried there in 2011.
Beginning at 9 a.m. Thursday and until the 2 p.m. Mass, Schulte’s polished wooden open casket stood at the head of the aisle for mourners to pay their respects.
He wore the symbols of office: his miter, his episcopal ring and a pallium, the woolen collar that signifies an archbishop. A rosary was twined in his hands; a book of the Gospels and his crozier, the shepherd’s staff, flanked the casket.
Schulte came to New Orleans as archbishop in 1989, arriving as the former bishop of West Virginia and coming to a church five times larger than the one he led there.
He had spent most of his priestly career as a professional educator, rising to superintendent of Catholic schools in Philadelphia before leaving for West Virginia.
Tom Costanza, a veteran of social justice ministries who worked with Schulte in New Orleans, came to the cathedral to pay his respects. He said Schulte once surprised him, telling him his heart had been set on working with labor unions on social justice issues, but his superiors diverted him into education.
Bishop Robert Muench of Baton Rouge, formerly a New Orleans priest whom Schulte championed for ordination as a bishop, praised Schulte for his quiet competence and pastoral care of the archdiocese, which contained almost 500,000 Catholics on his watch.
Schulte pursued a mostly inward-looking agenda. While he participated in the civic life of the city, bringing Catholic perspective to public policy issues, he spent most of his energy streamlining the local church’s vast reach of ministries, which had grown rapidly under Hannan.
Shortly after Schulte’s arrival in New Orleans, when fellow priests asked him to assess the new guy, Muench told the audience Thursday, he delivered good news and bad news:
“The good news is he’s organized,” Muench said. “The bad news is he’s VERY organized.”
Muench praised Schulte for his quiet effectiveness, the gentleness of his personality, his fidelity to church teaching and his care for the archdiocese.
Schulte altered the chemistry of local church governance, introducing a style of leadership that valued patient process. “He was a genius at collaboration and cooperation,” Muench said.
Schulte gave way to Archbishop Alfred Hughes in the first week of 2002. He remained in New Orleans and kept a low profile.
He had heart issues and developed prostate cancer 10 years ago. As his health declined, especially after Hurricane Katrina disrupted medical care in New Orleans, Schulte began spending more time in Philadelphia.
By 2008, his transition to full-time resident of Philadelphia was mostly complete, said Sarah McDonald, an archdiocesan spokeswoman.
A dozen bishops and archbishops from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Pennsylvania gathered to participate in the Mass. Many had served under Schulte in New Orleans.
In his eulogy, Muench recalled a memorable moment from Schulte’s 1989 installation Mass in the same cathedral, when he was new to the city.
Muench recalled Schulte’s first words from the pulpit: “I am home.”
On Thursday, as a few feet away a crypt lay open to receive Schulte’s remains, Muench said, “Today, I reapply those words back to you.
“Yes, archbishop, you are home.”