History of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish

St. Gabriel the Archangel Church came to birth through the efforts of a dedicated group of Catholics who had the vision to see the needs that future growth would thrust on their community, and the dedication to provide for those needs.  In 1952, the twelve-hundred and fifty home area of Gentilly Woods, then part of St James Major parish, was completed. Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel had bought a tract of land in the new subdivision.  It became the location of the St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish plant.

On July 1, 1954, Archbishop Rummel established the parish of St. Gabriel.  Father Marquette became founding pastor and on Sunday, July 4, 1954, celebrated the first mass of the parish in the plant auditorium of the Higgins Shipbuilding Industries.  Mass continued there for nearly a year.

Over the next ten years, parishioners worked to establish the parish.  A school was opened and a temporary church was constructed.  In 1965, Archbishop Cody approved a drive, in conjunction with the United Catholic Education Fund, to secure funds for a new church.  Members of the black community, Dr. Ambrose Pratt and Ernest “Dutch” Morial (later mayor of New Orleans) took an active role in the campaign.  At the same time, the archdiocese sold a square of land in Pontchartrain Park which had been set aside for a Catholic parish in the area.  St. Gabriel the Archangel Church was officially integrated.

Parishioners worshiped for the first time in their new church on August 28, 1966.  Life in the parish continued.  As a result of the Second Vatican Council, parishioners took a more active role in ministry.  In 1965, the Parish Council was formed.  The Holy Name Society took a leadership role in the life of the parish.  In July 1976, St. Gabriel helped organize the Pontilly Association, which was intended to unite St. Gabriel Parish members and residents of Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods in a common effort to maintain their communities.

By 1993, the parish was a predominately African-American, middle to low income community of approximately 1000 registered families.   The school had been closed because of changing demographics.  Approximately 560-600 people attended one of the weekend liturgies every weekend.  There was a strong sense of ownership and loyalty to the faith community expressed in many ways: a high degree of participation by parishioners in the celebration of the liturgies as Eucharistic Ministers, lectors, altar servers, sometimes liturgical dancers and three choirs, one at each mass; about half of the parishioners involved in one or more of 40+ parish ministries.  Liturgical ministries, Education Ministries, Pastoral Care Ministries, Family Life Ministries, Justice Ministries and Support Ministries were led by a group of ten parishioners, who with subsidies from the parish, had earned Master’s Degrees from Loyola Institute for Ministry.   Parishioners were very generous in their stewardship, averaging a weekly collection of over $10,000.

The parish social justice ministry proposed to the Pastoral Council that the parish reach out in partnership to two Third World Centers, one in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua and Ferrier, Haiti.  Besides these two Third World communities, the parish supported an extensive outreach to the local poor through partnership with a local inner-city parish social service center, through St. Vincent DePaul meeting the needs of the poor in our community, through providing the physical space (rent free) for a tuition free Catholic school for 5th-8th grade girls from low income families, as well as a building for a tuition-free Catholic school for pre-K-4th grade boys and girls from low income families. Various other projects for the poor were undertaken periodically in association with other groups.  The weekend of August 29, 2005, the parish was going to launch a project in conjunction with Catholic Charities, called “Home Sweet Home” to furnish a home for a homeless family in New Orleans.  In order to finance these commitments to the poor, the parish tithed 7% of the weekly income to the poor which amounted to approximately $35,000 a year.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans.  The homes of our entire neighborhood were flooded with 3-12 feet of water. The parish church and other facilities were under 6-8 feet of water.  The water stayed for three weeks. Almost everything on ground level was destroyed.  Whatever the water didn’t destroy, the mold did.  We were not allowed back into the city for five weeks after the hurricane.  When we returned we saw thick, gray, dried mud that covered everything. We also found complete silence and lifelessness.

Most of the parishioners were scattered all over Louisiana, particularly Baton Rouge.  Parishioners had also fled to Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, California, and various other cities around the country.  One hundred and fifty families were spread through 22 different states.

Those in the Baton Rouge area (approximately 50-60 families) began to meet every other week at the end of September at St. John Vianney Parish where Father Doug Doussan, pastor, was located in the interim.  They gathered for Mass and a brief meeting for sharing, information and sup¬port.  During that time Father Doussan and Sister Kathleen, Pastoral Associate, were able to begin locating families through e-mail and cell phones.  Over 600 families were eventually located.

The parishioners of St John Vianney have shown amazing hospitality, compassion and generosity in assisting the families of St. Gabriel.  About sixty of St. John Vianney parishioners, along with a number of St. Gabriel parishioners went to the church on three Saturdays to conduct a clean¬up.  This made it possible to have the first post-Katrina mass in church on the first Sunday of Advent, November 27.  Over 365 people were present, though no one was yet living in the area.  A second mass was celebrated on Sunday January 29.  Dominic Hornsby, Jr. was baptized that day, symbolizing the new life being born in St. Gabriel parish.  On February 12, we began having weekly Sunday mass, without electricity.  Attendance, initially 150, grew to the present 360.  On March 23, 2006, we finally received electric power.  By the beginning of June we had power and air-conditioning on the second floor of the administration building, providing us with a parish office.

Parishes around the country have assisted us either by sending volunteers to help clean out, gut and sheetrock the homes of parishioners or have taken up a parish collection or sponsored fund raisers to send us financial assistance.   From April 2006 until July 2008, there have been 2000 volunteers from 50 parishes or other groups who have helped clean out 100 homes of parishioners, helped 30 families in their rebuilding efforts and assisted in rebuilding the parish plant.  Other parishes, groups and individuals have reached out to help at St. Gabriel in many creative ways. We have made the commitment to help everyone of our families that want to return to do so.  Over 150 families have received $1800 of insulation and sheetrock and the assistance of volunteers in cleaning out or rebuilding their homes.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans had an aggregate flood insurance policy of $13 million covering all parishes and diocesan facilities.   We experienced approximately $125 million of flood damage in 52 of our parishes.  St. Gabriel was one of the 26 parishes designated to be closed be¬cause of our extensive flood damage, estimated at $2 million.  We were able to remain open only by agreeing not to expect any insurance money from the archdiocese.  We did receive money from the National Collection for Hurricane Katrina that has enabled us to sign a construction contract for the restoration of our church building.  We have also received generous donations from parishes around the country that have helped us with church restoration and the rebuilding of the rectory.

The members of the parish family of St. Gabriel are humbled and deeply grateful for all the wonderful assistance that others have offered and continue to offer in the rebuilding of our lives and our parish faith community.  We believe that the enormity of the devastation we have suffered is be¬ing matched by the enormity of the care and generosity we have experienced from others.