In the beginning, the Rev. Jim Wehner began reading aloud from the Bible on Notre Dame Seminary's front lawn.

As cars rumbled by on South Carrollton Avenue, the rector of the seminary tackled the first chapters of Genesis, from "Let there be light" to a rather lengthy list of "begats" tracing the descendants of the first man, Adam.

Wehner was the first of what would be 300 volunteers reading the Bible aloud during a 100-hour marathon that began Tuesday afternoon. Each stood at a podium centered in a tent on the wide green lawn, flanked by the imposing, nearly century-old seminary building.

They read through sunshine and darkness, wind and rain. It ended Saturday evening with Wehner returning to read the final chapters of Revelation and lead a candlelight procession to the chapel.

"We're not proselytizing, just simply reading," Wehner said of the Bible marathon, patterned after one that's been held for several years in St. Martinville.


Car lights can be seen on Carrollton Avenue as ministry student Maureen Wright reads the Bible in front of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans on Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

What organizers hope to gain, in part, is a healing of division. People of different denominations and faiths are among those participating, Wehner said. 

"We believe when the Word is spoken, it sanctifies the proclaimer; it sanctifies the hearer and sanctifies the time and space — even if no one is here," he said.

Readers and onlookers shuffled by throughout the five days and nights. Local Catholic school principals, lay people, members of different denominations and others took turns. Many were seminarians, who were also helping with the very earthly logistics.

Besides the 300 readers, another 50 volunteers served as captains, with 25 "super captains" to keep things running along. On Tuesday, Brother John Joseph Bourque and another volunteer were mounting large speakers in front of the tent because the microphone wasn't getting enough volume out.


It wouldn't be a New Orleans event without coffee and King Cake as people take turns reading the Bible in front of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans on Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

Organizers also made sure there was a steady supply of snacks, although Bourque said a group of kids left before he could get s'mores ready.

The early morning hours were sometimes sparsely attended, but on Friday morning, a few hearty volunteers were there, even in the dreary predawn darkness. 

An hour before sunrise, seminarian Lai Nguyen read from the Book of Isaiah in his native Vietnamese. As he finished, his place at the lectern was taken by fellow seminarian Malachi Walker, in a heavy coat, his hood over his head.

Deacon John Vu and Julie Ungarino, of Metairie, sat by the podium, a dozen or so Bibles in different languages arranged before them. Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Polish readers had already participated, Vu said.

Ungarino's job was to keep the readers, whose shifts are 20 minutes long, on schedule. "When they read in a different language, it can triple the time or do it in half the time," she said.

Bible reading Julie Ungarino

Julie Ungarino follows along with a reader during the 100-hour Bible reading marathon at Notre Dame Seminary Feb. 1, 2019.

She watched the clock and followed along in her own Bible, losing her place when a gust of wind ruffled the pages.

As Walker shuffled off the podium, Vu called out, "Go back to sleep." A silent thumbs up was his reply.

"It's not as bad as Tuesday night," said Vu, who was wearing a long black coat and hooded sweatshirt, his Roman collar peeking out from underneath. That first night, the temperature dipped into the 30s and it was windy.

"We had to bundle up," he said.

Bourque, a seminarian who brought the idea to Notre Dame from his religious community in St. Martinville, said he thinks the cold weather has been a good thing.

The tent has heaters, and he said some people passing by saw an opportunity to get warmed up.

"It made it cozy," he said.


As temperatures drop a small fire was lit to keep people warm during the night as the Bible is read out loud and in 20 minute intervals in front of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans on Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

Bourque quoted Jesus, who, when asked how people would know the Messiah had arrived, replied, "Good news is preached to the poor."

The point of the marathon isn't to give a sermon, Wehner said, although it is speaking out in faith. "In a humble way, it's God," he said. What those who listen gain is between them and God, he said, but they might have a holy moment or "maybe some consolation."

The Rev. Mike Champagne, superior of the Community of Jesus Crucified in St. Martinville, said that the schedule for the marathon was initially based on an 86-hour Bible DVD, but readers were always trying to catch up. Allowing 100 hours has worked better, he said, allowing people to speak more meditatively.

Jennifer Miller, a professor of moral theology at Notre Dame, went to the marathon in St. Martinville last year and said she was captivated by the beauty of listening to Scripture for longer than the three- to five-minute readings common in church services.

"In Isaiah it says, 'My word will not go forth without bearing fruit,' " she said. "There is something transformative about it."


Seminary students Thomas Gaines, 23, Austin Barr, 22, Anthony Romeo, 29, and Malachi Walker, 23, keep warm by a small in front of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans on Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

Caroline Butterworth, director of the Institute of Lay Ecclesial Ministry, said she was "struck by how powerful the speaking is." She smiled on Tuesday as she read the story of Jacob and the two sisters he married, Leah and Rachel, and their rivalry.

Volunteering for an early slot, she said, she knew she would get a familiar story, but now, she'll never forget the little details.

"Speaking the word has redeeming power," she said. "It's healing the city and the world. In the very beginning, God spoke, and creation is made from Him speaking."

Advocate staff writer Jerry DiColo contributed to this report.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.