Xavier University of Louisiana, the nation’s Catholic HBCU, held its 2023 Baccalaureate Mass on Friday afternoon in New Orleans, celebrating graduates with a livestreamed liturgy celebrated by university chaplain Fr Victor Laroche, OP, who also serves as a special assistant to the president for Catholic identity.
The yearly event itself represents the spiritual roots of the historic institution, founded in 1925 by a Catholic saint, Katharine Drexel of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Though Catholics today make up only a small portion of the student body at XULA, the Baccalaureate Mass is held each year on the eve of commencement exercises, which will take place on Saturday.
The university’s choir rang out gospel tunes as local Black Catholic clergy processed to the altar, including Laroche and a number of priests and permanent deacons. The accompanying retinue of graduating students brought the XULA Convocation Center crowd to cheers both then and at various points during the celebration.
“Graduates, you deserve these rounds of applause, along with your parents, grandparents, teachers, and many others who accompanied you, who helped you along the way,” said Laroche during his homily.
The Dominican Order priest related the Gospel reading, St. Peter’s lakeside encounter with Jesus following the Resurrection, to the founding of XULA—noting that Drexel’s vision and mission for the school reflected her dedication to God and commitment to feeding his sheep.
“[She] said ‘yes’ to Jesus’ question. When Jesus asked her, through the voice of bishops and the pope, ‘Do you love me?’, she said yes.”
“Saying ‘yes’ has implications. It had implications for St. Katharine Drexel, who could’ve done a lot of good things while helping others, because she had a lot of money, thanks to her father. But she decided to give it all because that was her response to Jesus’ call, Jesus’ invitation, Jesus’ question.”
Laroche encouraged XULA students to likewise follow the call of God as they pursue endeavors in various career fields and further studies, as graduates of one of the top HBCUs in the country. Cultivating a spirituality of thankfulness is essential, he said, before leading the assembly in a rendition of Andraé Crouch’s “Bless His Holy Name.”
He also noted that as the university celebrates its second commencement weekend coming out of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it looks forward to 2025. In that year, the school will celebrate its centennial, as well as the 25th anniversary of the canonization of Drexel, whose legacy lives on at XULA and the various other schools and churches she helped to found.
“Let’s remember with St. Katharine Drexel herself said: ‘Let us open wide our hearts. It is joy which invited us,’” he said, rendering part of one of her most famous quotes.
“I say amen to that.”
Following the conclusion of Mass, XULA’s vice president of student affairs Dr. Curtis Wright took to the stage to present the annual university honors to graduating students.
“Your journey to this moment has been filled with opportunities and some challenges, so take this weekend to soak in your accomplishments,” he said.
Monetary awards for service and leadership were presented by both the XULA administration as well as from Black fraternities, sororities, and various undergraduate and graduate-level departments. The honors were in categories ranging from music to perseverance to Black uplift.
The national office of the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary also presented several thousand dollars in awards—including the Consuella Broussard Award to Blaise Pelote and Scotty Tunstall, the Louis Israel Award to Zion Rouege, the Gilbert Faustina Award to Janelle Davis, and the Alphonse Pierre Auguste Award to Charisma Bell.
One new award for the year, named in honor of a Black Catholic and former surgeon general in Dr. Regina Benjamin, went to a distinguished student from the Xavier Exponential, the university honors program. Benjamin herself funded the $1,000 honor, which went to Ayodele Theard-Lewis.
The university’s highest student graduate awards, the Mother Agatha Ryan Award and the St Katharine Drexel Award, went respectively to Dr. Kourtney Landry of the College of Pharmacy, and Munachismo Ugoh, who will attend Brown University as a graduate student in the fall studying public health.
XULA’s commencement exercises will begin Saturday morning with graduate and undergraduate ceremonies taking place in the Convocation Center. The latter ceremony will begin at 12pm CT and livestreams will be available for both events on YouTube.
The guest speaker for the College of Pharmacy and graduate programs commencement will be Lisa P. Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy, and social initiatives. U.S. Rep. Troy Carter (‘86) will join Shalanda Young, director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), as speakers for the undergraduate ceremony.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.