The Josephites’ own St Augustine High in New Orleans has been in the news quite a bit recently, but last Friday brought a less high-profile event that nevertheless should bring joy to Black Catholics—and all Catholics—nationwide.
The service came just one day before the anniversary of Venerable Augustus Tolton's ordination to the priesthood in 1886 (which doubled as the National Day of Prayer for Black Vocations), and two days before the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
A good number of the priests were present at the Mass, including the very first St Aug grad to be ordained, Fr Joseph “Yogi” Dyer ‘62, and the newest-to-be, Dcn Ajani Gibson ‘11 (scheduled for ordination on June 5th).
In-between the two chronologically were nine other priests, three of whom are Josephites themselves (Fr Kenneth Howard, SSJ ‘63; the late Fr Lawrence “Larry” Leduff-Gutierrez, SSJ ‘75; and Fr Henry “Hank” Davis, SSJ ‘84), and permanent deacon Rev. Jesse Watley of New Orleans.
One other priestly Purple Knight was formerly a Josephite (and also principal and president at St Aug), Fr John Rafael ‘85 of the Diocese of Nashville. He departed the school and eventually the society following its controversial decision to end corporal punishment for students.
Fr Dyer himself also studied to become a Josephite priest, but was eventually ordained for the Diocese of Jackson after falling victim to the tumultuous period at St Joseph Seminary during the Black Catholic Movement.
The Emmy Award-nominated documentary on the Josephites, “Enduring Faith", features a short vignette on this period, when a number of priests and seminarians left the society as Black Power and Black Consciousness became an unwelcome feature of Black Catholicism—and as a marked abandonment of Catholic practice and Catholic vocations swept the nation and world.
(A source tells BCM that, out of 16 Black seminarians at St Joseph during that time, only 4 stayed. Dyer was the only one who left and still became a priest.)
Dyer was joined on the altar by all the Purple Knight clergy present—and a few friends—as students, alumni, friends, and journalists alike witnessed four generations of Black clergy commemorated in the heartland of US Black Catholicism.
Indeed, since its founding in 1950, the Josephites’ flagship (and only) secondary school has managed to produce “the most Black Catholic priests of any high school in the United States of America", according to Fr Rodney “Tony” Ricard ‘82, who emceed the ceremony and serves as campus minister and theology department chair.
New Orleans’ local Black bishop, Fernand “Ferd” Cheri III, OFM (a graduate of the archdiocesan seminary high school), celebrated the Mass and in his homily recounted his own experiences with racism during his quest to become a Catholic priest—as well as the spiritual revelations he received from unlikely sources along the way.
“If God’s gonna choose you, you have to remember that He is the one in charge. He is the one that’s going to designate what your future is going to be about,” he told the crowd.
“He has the plan.”
Deacon Gibson, who read the Gospel, also gave a short reflection after the Mass on his time at St Aug, encouraging the students to value their time at such a historic and barrier-breaking institution.
“What we have here, my brothers, cannot be replicated. Cannot be duplicated,” he said.
“The brotherhood, the fraternity, the gift of St Augustine High School, men, changes the world.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, in priesthood formation with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).