The steady toll of a lone church bell rang across the lawn at Notre Dame Seminary on a chilly Wednesday afternoon as a hearse pulled up to the front steps. There stood New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, along with scores of Catholic priests and seminarians, waiting to receive the body of retired Archbishop Francis B. Schulte.
Just after 3 p.m., Aymond delivered a blessing and sprinkled holy water over the casket before members of the local clergy carried it into the church hall for a prayer service and wake for the man remembered as a steady hand at the helm of the Archdiocese and a champion of Catholic education.
Schulte, who led the Archdiocese of New Orleans from 1989 to 2001, died Jan. 17 in his native Philadelphia at 89.
On Thursday, following a second wake and 2 p.m. funeral Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, Schulte will become the 11th archbishop to be buried in the crypt beneath the floor of the sanctuary.
Aymond has said that Schulte helped stabilize the finances of the archdiocese and restructured the administration in ways that remain in place today.
This week, he praised Schulte for his fidelity to church teaching and his emphasis on pastoral care but also stressed that Schulte, a former Catholic schools superintendent in Philadelphia, will be remembered for his commitment to Catholic education.
“From the very beginning to the very end, this man was for schools,” agreed the Rev. Neal McDermott, a retired preacher with the Dominican Order who attended Wednesday’s wake. “I was really grateful for that.”
McDermott, who was hired by Schulte to run the archdiocesan education department, said Schulte “was always thoughtful of the people around him.”
“He was really fun; I thought he had great humor,” said McDermott, who was one of about 200 who attended the wake. “I loved working with him.”
Schulte was ordained to the priesthood in May 1952 and served as superintendent of Catholic schools in Philadelphia until 1980, as auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia until 1985 and then as bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, until 1988, when he was named to succeed Philip M. Hannan as the 12th archbishop of New Orleans.
Since 1850, there have been 14 archbishops of New Orleans. Ten archbishops and three bishops are buried in St. Louis Cathedral, the most recent being the legendary Hannan, who died in 2011.
Bishop Leo de Neckere was the first bishop buried in the cathedral in 1833. All of the bishops and archbishops who are interred there are buried in crypts in the cathedral sanctuary, rather than side chapels.
In addition to church leaders, many early residents of the city are buried in the cathedral, as far back as 1793. In some cases, however, the exact burial spots inside the cathedral are not known.
Dominic Massa, of WWL-TV, contributed to this report.