Led by the priest in full vestments and altar servers carrying crosses, St. Anna’s Episcopal Church on Esplanade Avenue celebrates Palm Sunday in big style, with members parading down the historic avenue, waving palm fronds in the air to the music of the Storyville Stompers brass band.
Though the jazz music is local, the palms are not, said St. Anna’s parish administrator, Luigi Mandile, who orders the “palm strips” from a local church supply house, which brings them in from Texas.
That won’t do for the Rev. Tyrone Jefferson, 42, who on Friday grabbed a pair of hedge clippers to prepare for Sunday’s service at Abundant Life Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church.
Jefferson sees the yardwork as being in the biblical tradition. “If Jesus can wash feet, the least I can do is cut palms,” he said.
It’s also a matter of taste. When Jefferson cuts the palms himself, he knows that everyone in his church will be able to welcome in Holy Week with a full, leafy green palm frond, the kind he imagines people in Jerusalem waved as they laid down their cloaks and hailed Jesus as the Messiah as he rode triumphantly into the city on a donkey five days before his death.
Despite the city’s tropical climate, a good number of New Orleans churches prepare for Palm Sunday by placing a phone order for palm strips, which are cleaned and packaged elsewhere and delivered to the church ready to use.
Other congregations are adamant about using locally grown greenery, most often sago palm branches.
“All of my life, palms were never an issue; people from the church always brought them,” said Wendell Stipelcovich, 75, who now attends Mass in the chapel within his residence, the Christopher Inn at Royal and Frenchmen streets. There, neighbor ladies provide palms for each year’s service, he said.
Some churches, like Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in New Orleans East, send out crews of volunteers armed with saws. Others, like St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Metairie, ask parishioners to cut the fronds themselves and bring them to the church.
In Faubourg Marigny, St. Paul Lutheran Church has never wondered what to do; a longtime member provides all the necessary palms from his lush yard each year. “It’s a gift God has given him,” said the Rev. Kevin Kieschnick.
The Rev. Ronald Calkins, of St. Catherine of Siena in Metairie, said he asks parishioners to bring palm fronds to the church but also purchases some palm strips. Some parishioners prefer one or the other, he said, so he offers a choice.
For instance, some people like to fold the flexible palm strips into crosses and tuck them behind a crucifix in their homes until Ash Wednesday the following year, when they are brought back to churches and burned to make the ashes that priests apply to parishioners’ foreheads, said Betty-Ann Hickey, of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Office of Worship.
Hickey sees the backyard cuttings as part of a larger set of customs. In the past, she said, members used to supply the bread and wine for their churches’ celebration of the Eucharist; the items now are purchased commercially. “But this is one way to really maintain that tradition, of the people bringing of themselves,” Hickey said.
For years, Adriel Poche, 62, donated 700 or 800 palm branches each year from palms he trimmed in Westwego and Marrero with his father, John C. Poche, 92, who now is too frail to continue the tradition.
Adriel Poche had no use for them himself; his home church orders palm strips from Florida, which they seem to find easier to handle, he said. But for years, the father-son team made its annual tour of backyards with an electric Sawzall and a long extension cord. Then they shaved the bristles off each sago palm branch, bundled the fronds in groups of 50 and gave them to area churches, including his father’s, Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Westwego.
New generations are now stepping up to do the work that Poche once did, said Prompt Succor parish secretary Angele Chaplain, who usually starts asking congregants for palms two weeks in advance.
This year, however, Chaplain is going through treatment for cancer and she got off track. As a result, her request was issued only one week in advance, in last week’s church bulletin. “So I was a little nervous,” she said, mentally calculating the church’s five weekend Masses and the 1,200 or so parishioners expected.
“That’s a lot of palms,” Chaplain said.
But in the middle of the week, she walked to the back of the church, where parishioners typically leave their bundles and bags of palms. “Lo and behold, all of these palms had appeared,” she said.
Every time Chaplain checked, more bundles had arrived. “They just keep coming,” she said late in the week.