The History of St. Francis of Assisi Parish
The genesis of St. Francis of Assisi Parish began under the tenure of Archbishop Francis Janssens, the fifth Archbishop of New Orleans. After the Civil War, New Orleans had relatively few parishioners to contribute to the financial support of the area parishes. However, with an increase in the population, particularly immigrants of German, French and Irish descent, in the new areas being developed, there came a demand for more churches to serve these people. When Archbishop Janssens was elevated to his office in 1888 he began an aggressive program of building churches and schools to minister to these new souls.
An extract from Archbishop Janssens’ diary dated October 23, 1890, stated “… Also to form two new parishes between St. Stephen’s and Carrollton in the city … The parish near the River to be given to a secular priest.”
I. The Founding of the Parish
On November 6, 1890, St. Francis of Assisi Parish was established. Father Adrian Van der Hyde, a secular priest, was appointed the founding pastor and instructed to take charge of the new parish on November 23, 1890. The fist mass was celebrated on November 23, 1890 in the double house on the uptown lake corner of State and Laurel which was renovated to serve as temporary church rectory and school. On November 30, 1890 William Joseph Finnegan was the first to be baptized in the new parish and the first wedding was on June 17, 1891.
The various records do not reveal why the parish was named after St. Francis of Assisi. There is an oral tradition of the Poor Clare Sisters that the Franciscans were to serve the new church and also provide for the spiritual needs of the just established monastery of their order. Since in 1887, a square of ground bonded by Magazine, Constance and Calhoun Streets and Henry Clay Avenue had been bought and in 1891, a modest wooden building erected which became the Monastery of St. Clare of the Blessed Sacrament this may have been the plan. However, when the time came, the Franciscans did not have any priest to send.
Some histories of the parish indicate the church was named for the patron saint of the Archbishop, noting that Archbishop Janssens’ baptismal name was “Francis.” The other parish was assigned to the Jesuits and became the Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in 1891.
II. Parish Growth
Father Adrian Van der Heyde, the first pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, served as a driving force in the development and creation of his new parish. Less than a year after the parish was founded, a new wooden frame church had been erected and was dedicated on November 8, 1891. Church records indicate that as of January 1, 1891 there was a Catholic population of 700 within the parish. By 1894, this number had risen to 750.
During this foundation period under Father Van der Heyde, a number of church organizations and societies were inaugurated including the Ladies Altar Society, a chapter of the Third Order of St. Francis and the Apostleship of Prayer. Also during this period a parochial school was started in two rooms of the rectory. The school reported, as of 1894, an enrollment of 44 boys, 59 girls and 3 religious as teachers.
Within a short period of five years, he had created with the help of the parishioners and the Sisters of Christian Charity, a living and working parish with a church and a well established school. Father Van der Heyde also had the foresight to acquire neighboring property to meet the needs of the future.
Father Van der Heyde, up until his transfer from St. Francis in 1895, remained dedicated to the formation of the parish. It was noted later by his successors that not only did he build the original church building but also furnished the stations of the cross and the statues of St. Francis, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Additionally, he left the new parish debt free often helping with his own personal funds to defray church expense.
On September 1, 1895, Father Robert V. Moise became pastor of St. Francis and continued the work of his predecessor. Father Moise was one of the first natives of Louisiana to become a priest.
During his pastorate, the first permanent school building was constructed and the present day rectory on State and Constance Streets was built. Father Moise also began plans for the construction of a new permanent church building. His greatest contributions to the parish, in addition to his building programs, were the founding of one of the oldest active parish organizations, the St. Vincent de Paul Society in 1895 and the St. Margaret Daughters in 1897. Father Moise is also credited with initiating the practice of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on the first Friday of each month. Although his pastorship lasted for only a little less than four years, he was obviously a dedicated and tireless worker.
Unfortunately, during this time of growth, St. Francis along with the City of New Orleans experienced a yellow fever epidemic. The School was closed down and the yellow flag indicating quarantine was raised while armed guards were posted. One sister died and a total of 170 victims succumbed in the area. The Parish School did not reopen until late into the year.
The advent of the 20th Century saw a continued growth for St. Francis of Assisi Parish. In 1899, Father Francis Charles Brockmeier was assigned to St. Francis as rector to relieve an ailing Father Moise. In a Short History of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Father Brockmeier recalls his first duties as pastor while Father Moise was still residing in the priest’s house, “My first Mass in St. Francis of Assisi Church was said at 6:30 a.m. on June 5, 1899, i.e. Monday, the Feast of St. Bonifacius. My first sermon I preached on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, June 9, 1899 at half past seven at night.”
Thus Father Brockmeier began a pastorship that would last over 25 years. Construction was well underway on the new wooden church begun by Father Moise. Three additional rooms were added to the school to meet the needs of the growing school population which was now exceeding 150 children. Additionally, new religious societies were formed including the Ushers Society, the St. Francis Improvement Association, the St. John Berchman’s Pious Sodality for servers at the altar, and finally the Holy Name Society.
The parish was growing rapidly during this time. On December 24, 1902, the church was officially incorporated as “The Congregation of St. Francis of Assisi.” Of important note were the major construction projects under the pastorship of Father Brockmeier.
The church and particularly the school population continued to grow reflecting the emphasis by the Archbishop and the Pastor on providing a parochial education for all children. On October 4, 1905, ground was broken for the construction of a new brick school to accommodate the increasing number of children. Two years later in September 1907, the school opened its doors with an enrollment of 171 boys and 146 girls.
Father Brockmeier and his parishioners came to the realization that St. Francis was a thriving parish and, as such, was in need of a new permanent church. In 1913, the frame church and rectory on Constance Street were moved to make room for a new brick church which was estimated to cost $50,000.
By 1914, plans were formulated and ground was broken for the present day structure. However, World War I began in Europe and numerous delays were encountered in the construction. Father Brockmeier decided to postpone work on the church and after the War ended in 1918 began work again on the church with a renewed dedication.
After a total of seven years in construction, the new brick church was completed and on December 18, 1921, Archbishop John W. Shaw dedicated the new church and blessed the church bells. Included in the ceremony was the ordination of three Louisiana priests. The pastor was also invested as a member of the Cathedral Chapter of the St. Louis Cathedral.
In 1922, the magnificent stained glass windows arrived from Munich, Germany, with the exception of the two large windows on the cross aisles which arrived several months later. On Easter Sunday in 1922, the new organ was heard for the first time. The Stations of the Cross were blessed on January 21, 1923.
By this time, the parish boasted approximately 1200 families including 563 children enrolled in the school. In order to handle the growing needs of the parish, St. Francis was assigned its first assistant pastor, Father Peter Wynhoven. Father Wynhoven later founded both Hope Haven and Madonna Manor, institutions for dependent and neglected children and adolescents.
The year 1925 brought another change to the pastorship of St. Francis after the passing of Father Brockmeier. Father Frederick William Bosch was installed as pastor. At this time, the catholic population of the parish had grown to 4000 with 275 boys and 250 girls being taught at the school.
Perhaps the single greatest administrative problem facing Father Bosch was the clearing of the parish debt. In order to build the church, large sums of money needed to be borrowed. To further the challenge, the Great Depression occurred at this time. This financial disaster caused the failure of many banks and businesses and also caused a high level of unemployment of the parishioners. These factors caused the church to be in danger of not being able to meet its obligations on time. In spite of these financial woes, through the dedication of the pastor as well as the parishioners, the parish found itself out of debt by the early 1940’s and had even purchased the convent property giving the parish total ownership of the entire front facing State Street from Constance to Patton Streets.
November 24, 1940 marked a grand day in the history of the parish. It was on this day that the parish celebrated 50 years of service with a jubilee program. On this day, Archbishop Joseph Frances Rummel celebrated a pontifical mass of thanksgiving.
World War II began in 1939 and by December 1941, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States had become involved. The parish honored its members who served in the military by posting a parish honor roll at the entrance of the church. Names were added weekly and gold stars were added for those who were wounded.
By 1942, the church debt had finally been paid and a second collection was instituted every Sunday and the funds were earmarked to build a new convent and school at some point in the future.
The war ended in 1945 and the returning veterans found their parish thriving and out of debt for the first time in its 55 year history. By 1945 the population of the parish had risen to 5200 with 691 children.
Monsignor Bosch served St. Francis until is death in 1953, at which time the reins of the parish were handed over to The Right Reverend Monsignor Jules S. Toups. At the time he assumed leadership of St. Francis, the membership totaled 5780 members, composed primarily of French, German, Italian and Irish ancestry. Seven masses were said on Sunday with an average attendance of 3400, and three masses were said on weekdays with a daily attendance of around a hundred parishioners in addition to the school children. In 1954, with the help of Mae Beach Glaser, a new tradition was established. Every Monday the Rosary was recited in a parishioner’s home, led by the lay people of the parish, with an average of 35 to 60 attendees. The pastor usually only attended at Christmas time when refreshments were served.
In 1959, based on the needs of a very active parish, plans were drawn up for a new school and convent. As the parish entered the 1960s, the parish population was noted to be 4,388. 589 children attended school and were taught by nine sisters and four lay teachers. In fact, five boys were studying for the priesthood and two others for religious life – one a Brother and the other a Sister. A total of 177 babies were baptized. A major drive for funds to build the new school and convent was successful, and the project began in 1962. On December 16, 1963 Archbishop John P. Cody dedicated the two new buildings.
Monsignor Toups retired in 1967, but not before making lasting changes at St. Francis. He strived to promote both the spiritual and physical aspects of the parish. He also incorporated the changes brought by Vatican II so that the Mass was now said in English. In addition, the small altar of sacrifice was now installed in front of the High Altar so that the priest faced the congregation when saying Mass.
Father George A. Herbert was named as pastor upon Monsignor Toups’ retirement. Like his predecessor, Father Herbert was concerned with the physical aspects of the parish. In 1976 the church building was refurbished. Improvements included waterproofing the exterior, redecorating the interior, installing brighter lighting and new carpets, and repairing the sidewalks on State Street. New challenges also faced Father Herbert: declining parishioners and fewer assistants.
Despite these obstacles, the parish was able to achieve financial soundness. The parish debt was eliminated, and some funds were left on deposit with the Archdiocese for future repairs to the church and school. Furthermore, the weekly bingo and annual fair both provided revenue to help support the school.
Parish organizations continued to be active. The Ladies Altar Society, the Holy Name Society and the St. Vincent de Paul Society provided parishioners the opportunity to be involved in parish life, and the weekly tradition of reciting the Rosary continued.
In February 1990, Monsignor Herbert organized a committee to plan the celebration of the Centennial of the parish in the fall. A special appeal went out to all parishioners for funds to refurbish the church. Using monies from the archdiocese building fund as well as those donated, the repairing and gold plating of the tabernacle was accomplished and a new public speaking system was installed in the church. New carpeting was provided for both the church and the rectory and the rectory was painted to match the church. The landscaping of the church was improved and a centennial tree was planted.
On October 7, 1990, the Archbishop of New Orleans, the Most Reverend Francis B. Schulte, celebrated the Centennial Mass to a congregation of 600 present and former parishioners and friends. More than 30 priests and more that 30 Sisters of Christian Charity were in attendance. This event would be the hallmark of Monsignor Herbert’s tenure.
Upon Monsignor Herbert’s death in 1993, Father Kenneth Hedrick took over as pastor. Desiring to enrich the liturgical celebrations of the parish, Fr. Ken immediately focused his attention toward educating parishioners on various aspects of liturgy and recruiting individuals to serve as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, lectors and greeters. Recognizing the pastoral needs of the community, he hired a full-time minister to the elderly who organized activities for the seniors as well as visits to the homebound and hospitalized parishioners. He established the Pastoral Council and held the first parish Ministry Fair, stressing the importance of stewardship in parish life. Following renovations to the second floor, Fr. Ken opened the doors to the rectory and made it a place of welcome. Despite his best efforts, faced with a declining enrollment, he dealt with the decision to close the parish school. In 1996, now a Monsignor, Archbishop Schulte asked Fr. Ken to accept the position as Rector of the St. Louis Cathedral but not before his leadership had sowed the seed and laid the foundation for the future growth of the parish.
In July 1996 a new pastor arrived and vowed to continue the parish building process started by Fr. Hedrick. Father Desmond Crotty brought with him a desire to create a family friendly church based on a strong faith community. His determination to garner parishioner involvement could be felt through all aspects of parish life and the phrase, “The End of Your Search for a Friendly Church” soon became his motto. Enrollment grew as the community of St. Francis was no longer defined strictly by parish boundaries. In 2002, Fr. Des began to lay the groundwork for a Capital Campaign to finance a complete restoration of the Church. By 2004 the work was underway, led by KDK Architects, whose progenitor was ironically, Diboll and Owens, the original architects of the Church. Pews were removed and refinished, statues were restored, the church was repainted and the restoration of the original wooden floors was completed. In January 2005, Fr. Des proudly looked on as Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes rededicated the completely restored Church.
Upon Fr. Crotty’s death in February 2008, Father Philip Landry was named pastor. During the homily, at his Installation Mass on May 10, 2008, Fr. Philip described himself as the “spiritual father” of the parish, stressing the importance of sacramental life and stewardship in the Church . He quickly put his words into action, restructuring the previous home-study CCD program into a fully functioning Parish School of Religion, meeting the needs of the growing number of young parishioners in his care. In stressing the importance of active involvement in parish life, he formed several new ministries and committees in which such activity could occur. His efforts to maintain and preserve the beauty of our Church and its property are evident in the repainting of the rectory and school building, the renovation of the Parish Center, and refinishing of the Church doors and flooring, all of which have been completed since his arrival .
St. Francis of Assisi is a Church steeped in tradition and continuing to grow into the 21st century. Through the dedication of its pastors and parishioners throughout its long history, it has become a successful and thriving parish always mindful of its responsibility of preserving the traditions of our faith and maintaining the beauty of our Church for generations to come.