Nearly seven years ago, controversy and distrust soured parishioners of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in New Orleans, as police officers broke in and arrested protesters trying to save the historic Catholic church from closure.
On Sunday, however, that memory was water under the bridge as friends and neighbors celebrated the official reopening of the newly restored church building in the presence of Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
During “A Garden District Christmas Concert,” a short program celebrating the reopening, Monsignor Christopher Nalty praised the archbishop for his support and the building’s $2 million-plus facelift, which included new plaster, new millwork, refinished wood floors and a new shingle roof.
“We are very happy to be here and very appreciative of what the archdiocese has done to make it such a beautiful place,” Nalty said. “It gives me great joy that I return.”
Located on Louisiana Avenue, the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel once was the focus of a surrounding parish of the same name. Referred to by parishioners as “the most precious jewel in the crown known as the Garden District,” it was dedicated in 1894 and served the community for more than 100 years.
After Hurricane Katrina, however, Good Counsel was one of dozens of churches closed following a reorganization of the Archdiocese of New Orleans initiated by Aymond’s predecessor, Archbishop Alfred Hughes.
The closings incited a vehement public rift between many Catholics and the archdiocese at a time when the community was still reeling from the devastation caused by the storm just three years earlier.
“This was a magnificent church, embedded in the history of this neighborhood and city,” said Barbara Fortier, a former president of the parish, as she prepared for Sunday’s concert. “And the thought of it being abandoned, being sold, was heartbreaking for us. It was something we didn’t want to accept.”
Unhappy with the changes and displaced from their historic places of worship, parishioners occupied Good Counsel and another Uptown church, St. Henry’s on Gen. Pershing Street, nonstop for 10 weeks until the archdiocese called in police and forcibly evicted them in January 2009.
Eight months later, Aymond, who is a New Orleans native, returned to the city as archbishop and began to work with Nalty to rebuild a fractured community.
The church became part of the new Good Shepherd Parish, which also includes the still-open St. Stephen Church and the closed St. Henry’s. While some former parishioners continued “church-hopping” every Sunday years after being displaced, many others joined the new parish.
In late 2009, Aymond announced that Our Lady of Good Counsel would become the permanent home of the Center of Jesus the Lord, formerly housed in a dilapidated church on Rampart Street.
Friends of Good Counsel would be able to use the church for Wednesday evening rosary, for weddings and funerals and for Mass on the feast day of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Aymond said.
In the meantime, the building would undergo extensive renovation, fixing damage that dated back to Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The money would come from the sale of the church that had been used by the Center of Jesus the Lord.
Now, although Mass will be celebrated on Sundays at Our Lady of Good Counsel, it’s not what the parishioners were used to in the old days, Fortier said.
That’s because members of the Center of Jesus the Lord belong to a group of “charismatic” Catholics known to occasionally worship in tongues and to share other Pentecostalist-like traits outside the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
On Sunday, the Rev. Roy George acknowledged that the charismatic Mass might be “different” for some, but he invited the entire community to participate nonetheless.
“It is not just for the charismatic community; it is for everyone,” George told those at Sunday’s program. “See what it’s like. And see that you might like it, and want to join us.”
Aymond called the compromise a “blessing.”
“It really is two communities coming together,” he said. “Through everyone’s cooperation and spirit of love and charity, we are able to come together.”
A sense of community did seem to take hold as hundreds gathered in the gleaming church with fresh paint and shiny wood floors to enjoy the concert featuring singers Melissa Brocato, Phyllis Treigle, Kevin Rouchell and Bart Folse and musical director Brian Morgan.
Former parishioners said they saw many friendly faces, and even Nalty, who now celebrates Mass at St. Stephen Church on Napoleon Avenue, said the return was “personal.” Nalty described a rich family history involving Our Lady of Good Counsel. His grandparents were married there, he said, and that’s where his father was baptized.
“It’s great for me because I have so much history here, but it’s also great because it’s such an historic church and important to so many others,” he said. “To have it restored to this beauty, it’s good for individuals, it’s good for the parish, it’s good for the archdiocese and it’s even good for the city.”
The first Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel will be said at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 2, a Saturday. It will be celebrated by Aymond and Nalty.
The first Catholic charismatic Mass will be at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 10, a Sunday.