I got to visit family in New Orleans this Labor Day weekend. I enjoyed a cup of turtle soup and an oyster po-boy at Mandina’s on Canal Street, I attended a production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida at Le Petit Theatre in the French Quarter, and I sat with a high school friend in his living room after a midday thunderstorm, paging through the books by which he has embarked on a reading of The Iliad in Greek.
The city had just held commemorations of the fourth anniversary of Katrina. The first Sunday after Katrina wrought its devastation in my hometown, I had written a response that reflected some of my own history with the city:
Throughout New Orleans statues stand today in empty churches.
In the now still, hot air of the parish church I attended growing up, a white marble figure of the young Roman martyr Agnes cradles a lamb in her arms.
In a silent uptown church where a cousin got married when I was a student in parochial school, a polychrome Francis of Assisi welcomes into his arms a crucified Jesus leaning down to converse with him from the cross.
In the church on the campus where I completed my undergraduate degree, a cassocked Francis Xavier extends his right arm, holding high over an invisible congregation his missioner’s cross…
I had set myself a project for the days I was in the city this past week. I determined that I would go to each of those churches if I could, walk inside them once again, and take pictures of the statues that had stayed vivid enough in my memory that I was able to reference them in what I wrote at that sad time four years ago.
Would there be a message of hope in this venture, I wondered? Would I find reason to think that these places in my personal history still held the key to a kind of healing I needed?
More than once I needed to ring a doorbell at a rectory to gain access to a church that was locked midday. Surprises awaited me, though, in the people who interrupted their workday duties to accompany me on these visits to my past.
In one church I met a man whose family had moved to the parish in the very years that I had been an altar boy and a member of the student choir. Names of the teachers and parish priests from my years there met with recognition as this kind man and I talked. I pointed out to him the side pews where my mother and I had sat on Tuesday evenings in the summer when the novelty of air-conditioning had drawn us to the parish novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
In another church a parishioner employed at the rectory turned on the lights in the church and permitted me to photograph a remarkable statue above the main altar. Despite the vividness of my memory, I had never been this close to the two plaster representations of Francis of Assisi and the crucified Jesus. The tenderness of their embrace made me freshly aware of the hope that churches of my childhood must have given me that the kind of emotional and physical tenderness of which I felt myself capable could eventually find a place and meaning.
At one time a student for the priesthood, I sat in the pews of another church and gazed at a very familiar statue of Francis Xavier. Friends in seminary had lived out more faithfully than I the life of that traveler to distant climes. The unmistakable smells around me recalled visits to this church that I had made with my parents, who used to sit dutifully and resist my impatient urges that they come up closer and see these images.
In place after place I recognized the lure that these statues had wielded over me as I grew up. A tradition had wanted me to move beyond the written and spoken words of my faith. The training I received had urged me at times to rest in the presence of these life-size images of individuals whose hearts had mattered enough to them that they were willing to change their lives.
These images from my youth truly were life-size.
A click on each of these images will reveal details worth examining.