Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri III, OFM of New Orleans, one of the nation’s African-American prelates, has died at the age of 71 after an extended illness. He had been hospitalized for heart and kidney ailments multiple times since the fall, and late last week entered hospice care and ceased dialysis treatments.
Following the announcement of his passing by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, tributes began pouring in from around the country, especially his native city.
“We saw him not only as a vocal advocate for African-American Catholics and advocating for our needs, but also as a shepherd to the world,” said Dr. Ansel Augustine, director of the archdiocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministries.
“When you think of bishops being shepherds, you see someone who cares about people, one on one. When you talked to him, you felt like you were the only person in the world that mattered even though he might have had eight million other things going on.”
Born in 1952, Cheri was ordained in his late 20s for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, where he was born and raised in a Catholic family. He served at various Black Catholic parishes in the region, as well as St. Augustine High School, and obtained a Master of Theology degree from the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana.
After sensing a call to religious life and considering a number of different communities, Cheri entered the Franciscan Order in 1992 and began teaching at the former Hales Franciscan High School in Chicago. After professing final vows in 1996, he pastored St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Nashville and later served at St. Augustine Catholic Church in East St. Louis.
A gifted liturgist and musician, Cheri also conducted youth gospel choirs at his various parish and school assignments and wrote a thesis on Black religious music, according to a biography from the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Cheri was also a principal organizer of the Lyke Conference, which gathered Black Catholics from around the country annually for liturgical reflection and development. He served on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Black Catholic Worship from 1984 to 1990.
His other institutional work included service on the planning committees of the National Black Catholic Congress, the Unity Explosion Conference, and the Black Catholic Joint Conference. Cheri was also a member of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium and formerly an episcopal moderator for the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, an episcopal liaison for the Black and Indian Mission Office, and a convener of the nation’s African-American Catholic bishops.
Alongside other more academic works, he co-authored “Sweet, Sweet Spirit: Prayer Services from the Black Catholic Church” with Fr Joseph A. Brown, SJ for St. Anthony Messenger Press in 2006.
In 2015, while serving in campus ministry at Quincy University in Illinois, Cheri was named the Auxiliary Bishop of New Orleans, a unique post in that it has been held mostly by African Americans since 1966—including Harold Perry, SVD, the first such prelate since the 19th century.
Not long after taking office, Cheri suffered a heart attack and soon revealed his struggle with nephrological issues. Both ailments would plague him for the remainder of his life.
“I was born with one kidney, which complicates a lot of stuff,” Cheri said in 2016, following a bypass surgery.
Cheri continued to maintain a robust schedule, traveling for speaking events and liturgies, while also maintaining a public presence as a justice-oriented prelate in a rapidly changing US episcopate. Following the murder of George Floyd in early 2020, Cheri authored the “Requiem for the Black Children of God,” a prayer service that has since come into ecumenical use across the country.
In his final years, Cheri served as a parish administrator at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in New Orleans’ historic Tremé neighborhood. He began his work there in January 2021 and remained until the onset of his final illness.
The Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary, the nation’s largest Black Catholic organization, has announced a virtual prayer service to honor Cheri’s life and legacy, scheduled for Thursday, March 23 at 9pm ET.
“Bishop Cheri was an active Claver, not only attending and participating fully in so many of our conferences and conventions, but regularly meeting with our Junior Knights, Junior Daughters, and collegiate members,” said Supreme Knight Dr. Christopher Pichon.
“Today, the Bishop calls on us to continue his mission; to be drum majors of faith, love, and justice; to live and dedicate our lives to prayer and Catholic Action; and most importantly to be a unified Church that loves and cares for one another.”
Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced for Cheri, who was one of the few active African-American Catholic bishops in the United States. His death leaves five—three of whom will have reached the mandatory retirement request age by next month.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.