Father Jerome LeDoux has a good answer for any question. Give him time, and he’ll talk your ear off with a great story. Spend enough time with him, and you’ll get focused stories with reasoned insight on topics ranging from music and his writing (he feels a bit scattered at times, just ask) to race and ethnicity in the world. Learn more about the man whose live of faith has spanned seven decades and continues to impact families and communities today.
Take a look at modern America and you’ll quickly realise that race is at the center of a lot of conversations. From social justice to equal opportunities for a better life, the colour of one’s skin tends to have a disproportionate impact on the course of their life. Nowhere was this more visible in the United States than in the American South. The onetime centre of slavery in the US, the South today is a distinctly unique place wherein some communities embrace the diversity that created them, while others struggle to frame their history and measure that against their progress, or lack thereof, to date.
New Orleans and portions of southern Louisiana might be one of the most unique regions of the US. Established as a French colony, Louisiana was the home of Haitians (free people of colour, white, and newly freed slaves alike) who ran from the turmoil of the successful slave revolt in the former French colony. After the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans became the centre point of a vast cultural connection that saw Haitians, Irish, Italians, French, Spanish, Native Americans, and slaves of African descent all suddenly united as American citizens and faced with new governance from the US.
Over time, numerous distinct ethnic groups, races, and cultures have emerged from the bayous of southern Louisiana. The Creole people are often held up as an example of perhaps one of the most diverse groups. Within this tangled context, there are factors that bind people together and separate them at the same time. Ask Father Jerome LeDoux, a native of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and you’ll get some very interesting takes on all of these concepts. What led this man to the church? What challenges has he faced as a man of faith along the way, and how have his experiences tinged his view of the world? Learn more about the man and his unique takes in this piece.
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana
A native of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Jerome LeDoux was born on February 26, 1930. Though he is currently a resident of Opelousas, the city and region he calls home in 2017 looks and feels a lot different from how it did in 1938. Father LeDoux remained in Lake Charles until his early teen years when he set off to join an elder cousin and his older brother at a seminary in neighbouring Mississippi. His cousin, the son of his mother’s sister, was Bishop Harold Perry, former auxiliary bishop of New Orleans. Harold Perry completed seminary studies in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi 13 years earlier than Jerome LeDoux.
Jerome LeDoux’s older brother, Louis Verlin, also chose to be a priest, attending the same seminary just four years before Jerome himself would start his schooling there. Choosing to follow a life of faith in Jesus Christ and enter the seminary isn’t something one does lightly, but Father LeDoux strikes a jovial tone when he speaks of his decision to join the seminary in September, 1943, as a 13 year old boy:
“They had gone to the seminary ahead of me. My mind drifts, searching to answer your question, “What put in your mind that you might be a priest?” Well, my cousin, Harold Perry, 13 years ahead of me, 9 years ahead of my brother Louis Verlin. Of course, they painted a picture of Bay St. Louis, which is situated right on the Bay of Saint Louis and the Gulf of Mexico. They referred to it as “The Bay,” this romantic, storied place where these boys were going. Naturally I might want to go there too. That was the start of it, back in 1943, I was 13 years old. I started high school there.”
So, aged 13, Jerome set off to follow in those footsteps and become a priest. His schooling at the seminary was anything but easy. He learned Latin, French, and Greek. Of course, the classical education the students received was furthered with instruction in the bible as well, including Scripture and religion courses. What on the surface seems to have been a tough, strict course of education at the seminary wasn’t all classical languages and arithmetic though. Music was an optional path of study, and Father LeDoux also spent time on the piano, though he admits it never really stuck.
“That was optional. They taught us basic music. One poor guy, Mr. Hemmersbach, was instructing me with the piano. If I had really stayed with the piano even one solid year, I would know music inside out. Even though I was in, I was out, I was running with Wimpy, a little rat terrier. Running the woods, running the swamps forever, instead of doing my music. I still absorbed a lot of music. I can accompany people in church if I have to and stuff like that. I can entertain people with humorous music and such.”
1957: Ordained and Sent Overseas
Father LeDoux came from humble origins in Lake Charles, but his world view was about to change dramatically in 1957. He had become ordained as a priest on May 11, 1957. By September of that same year, his SVD (Society of the Divine Word) superiors had sent him to Rome, Italy for higher education. There he picked up his JCD in Canon Law. Never one to leave his quick wit behind, Father LeDoux looks back on his time in Rome with a bit of humour in his studies: “Supposedly, it means Juris Canonici Doctor, Doctor of Canon Law or Church Law. I always say JCD means “Just Can’t Decide.” He picked up a masters in theology along the way. Those burned four years and then he came back to Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi on August 13, 1961.”
From there, Father LeDoux’s life as an ordained priest would see him move all throughout the American South around his home state of Louisiana. He remained in Bay Saint Louis for a period of time teaching at Saint Augustine Major Seminary, teaching classes in Canon law and Moral Theology. He stayed in this role until 1967, at which point he switched and taught high school for two years at Saint Stanislaus. That was followed by 11 years of teaching theology at Xavier University, which is located in New Orleans and is well known as the only historically black Roman Catholic higher-education institution in the U.S.
He lived at Saint Augustine rectory for nine years in New Orleans while he taught at Xavier University. He was assigned his first pastorate on September 17, 1981 in Prairieview, Texas at Saint Martin de Porres Church. After three years in that position, he spent 3 years and 5 months at Saint Paul the Apostle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after which he took two years off to pursue writing. He was assigned to be pastor at Saint Augustine Church on July 13, 1990, remaining there through Hurricane Katrina and serving as pastor for 15 years and 8 months. With all this time, travel, and experience, Father LeDoux has his own views on the culture of Louisiana and the surrounding regions.
What’s in a Name? Depends on Whom You Ask
Father LeDoux comes from what he calls a mixed background, but he takes exception to the inaccuracy of the term “African American.” Most of American black citizens are referred to as African Americans, but he can think of many examples of the inaccuracy behind this terminology. He points out that as a black man from Lake Charles, Louisiana, he has roots that stretch around the world. Some are, yes, from Africa, but he also knows he has roots from Europe and France via Canada, as the Acadians came from French-speaking Canada following France’s defeat by the British in the French-Indian War (Seven Years War). Much of Louisiana was, and still is, inhabited by Native American tribes. These tribes lived side by side with Acadians and other races, intermarrying over the years and contributing to the region’s Creole culture.
Father LeDoux sees inaccuracy in this phrasing as well though. He takes the long view on human history, tracing all races and colours back to Africa. Since all humans originated out of Africa, then there are no Native Americans, but rather Africans who came here to be the First Americans. As he sees it: “We also know that we have in our background what some call Native Americans. But there are no Native Americans; there are only native Africans. They migrated to all the continents. The Indians, as you well know, migrated here across the Bering Straight from Mongolia about 13,000 BC. We can call them First Americans. They are not native.”
He prefers to look at himself with greater accuracy. As so many of the people from Creole groups in and around Lake Charles have diverse roots, he thinks that should be reflective in the name when people speak about or address cultures. He thinks the only true term for someone like himself would be Afro Euro Asian American, representing the various bloodlines and cultures that contribute to the individual he is today. Race and colour weren’t barriers only in the U.S., though, as Father LeDoux encountered the barrier that words and race can create around the globe.
During his time in Rome following seminary studies, he mastered the Italian accent courtesy of his exhaustive training in Latin during the seminary. With Latin as the root language of many modern languages, and particularly influential in the formation of Italian, he was able to get the accent down in short order. People around the globe use colour terms to refer to one another, such as black, white, yellow, and other colours. But as Father LeDoux sees it, none of these are accurate either. He is considered a black man, but as he points out, those labelled white, have colour as well. They are not actually white. Colours as a term of race are weak in his mind, and often used to hold people down.
He recalls a particular encounter during his time in Italy:
“The Italians heard me speaking Italian and after a year or so I had the true accent and everything. The true accent is easy once you know Latin. So I picked up the Italian accent and everything. Some stranger would walk up for some reason and give me a strange stare and hear me say, ‘Buon Giorno’ (Good day) or something. He’d say, “Sei Italiano, non è vero?” (You’re Italian, aren’t you). That happened because some of the people in Sicily are darker than I am. They are Italians, yet darker. Distinctly darker. They would be close to some negroes.”
No matter how one slices it, Father LeDoux sees racial identity as very inaccurate in the modern world. In many cases, societies develop (or already have) very powerful words they use to classify and separate everyone. Citizens have to have a classification, it would seem, to fit nicely in a box so that others can better understand them. The way Father LeDoux sees it, these do a disservice to all and serve to separate rather than promote unity and understanding.
A Life of Service and Faith Tested by Mother Nature
By 2005, Father LeDoux had provided spiritual guidance to thousands of families as the lead pastor at various churches in his life. Though his road took him to various cities and states, Louisiana was always home, and it was there that he would receive the biggest test of his life in service and faith to the Lord. Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and southern Louisiana on August 29, 2005. At the time, Father LeDoux was nearing the end of his time as pastor at Saint Augustine Church in Faubourg Treme near the French Quarter.
Though Katrina cut a swath of destruction across the city and the greater South, the French Quarter was largely spared because of its position within the city geographically and its relative height above sea level. But even without the city’s network of pumping stations and flood walls, street water never enters any of the French Quarter; that is, beyond Rampart Street toward the river. Water is also not taken by the adjacent neighbourhood of Bywater or the long strip of land between Saint Charles Avenue and the Mississippi River, continuing thus all the way toward Kenner. Father LeDoux notes that Governor Nicholls St., beginning beyond Rampart St. (the lakeside border of the French Quarter), gained just a few inches of water in the streets, and, in the first block, did not cover beyond the sidewalks.
Speaking on the challenges that arose, he notes: “Our church, Saint Augustine, was untouched. We got water up to the sidewalk and in 6 days that was gone. One of the priests there, Father Michael Jacques, pastor of Saint Peter Claver Church, another black church only about 8 blocks from Saint Augustine Church, who was dean of the area (one priest is designated dean of a certain number of parishes), had put together a plan for churches throughout the New Orleans area because of population shifts. I’m sure you’ve heard about some churches through population shift that lose many of their parishioners who go to the suburbs or some other place. Some churches just grow old, have no younger kids, few younger people, and just die out. Father Michael Jacques had devised an archdiocesan plan whereby weaker churches would merge with stronger churches: in most cases two churches; in some cases three.”
Even though Saint Augustine was spared the wrath of Katrina, the church was deemed one of the weaker churches of the archdiocese and faced the possibility of merger with others. Saint Augustine had lost a lot of its white population over the years as those individuals and families moved out into the suburbs around New Orleans. This church with such historic roots was about to have its course altered by changing demographics and a monster storm.
The Roots of a Diverse Church
To better understand Saint Augustine church, one needs better insight into the history of New Orleans, as well as its ebb and flow of ethnicity and cultures. Saint Augustine was started by Haitians who had fled to New Orleans during the slave revolt in what was then a French colony. Napoleon Bonaparte was waging war on multiple fronts across Europe and in the Caribbean trying to hold on to what was then the richest colony in the world. Most of the Haitian migrants who found themselves in New Orleans were Catholic. Having settled in the Treme neighbourhood of New Orleans, they wanted to have their own church in which to celebrate their faith each week.
Saint Augustine Church’s roots go back to 1842. Even though the cathedral is just a mile away from Saint Augustine, that distance became a formidable obstacle in the winter especially with cold and rain on unpaved streets. So the Haitians and other residents of Treme and Faubourg Marigny petitioned the bishop to build their own church. They explained that the cathedral is a mile away from Saint Augustine Church. Going there under good circumstances wouldn’t be too bad. But on a cold day in the winter, a rainy day, where the streets are not paved, you’re walking in mud. Cold, rainy, muddy.
“So the folks requested and were granted an audience with the bishop. “Please, Bishop Blanc, we are many in Faubourg Treme. May we build our own church? To their great relief, Bishop Antoine Blanc answered, “Yes!” They started collecting, but they were poor folks. If a person had $500 back in those days, he was considered well-off. Do you hear me? Well-off. In other words, toward the top, not toward the bottom. Man, if you had $500, you had the equivalent of something like $10,000. You were somebody. The church Saint Augustine was built for a sum of $25,000 in 1842, most of which had to be paid by Bishop Antoine Blanc.”
Then a very unique thing happened. In those days, church members rented or bought pews in a given church. Saint Augustine Church would be no exception. The free people of colour living in the neighbourhoods began to purchase pews for their families. Buying a pew ensured that your family would have a place to kneel and worship, even if you showed up late for mass. Naturally, the white folks fell in line, buying pews for their own families, precipitating what came to be known colloquially as The War of the Pews, a race for buying the most pews. In the ensuing race, with their head start, the free people of colour outpaced white residents on buying pews. Ultimately, the whites bought one main row of pews, while the people of colour bought one main row of pews. But the church also had half-rows on the sides, and free people of colour bought those pews also and gave them to the slaves who attended the church. As Father LeDoux points out, that gave Saint Augustine a unique demographic from the very beginning, with the church a community roughly split 1/3 white, 1/3 free people of colour, and 1/3 slaves. Thus, Saint Augustine became the most integrated of any churches anywhere.
Music for the Soul
Throughout his time as a priest, Father LeDoux has used music as a unifying force. He spoke at length about the importance of music, the value it brings to a service, and how music in New Orleans is just a little bit different, some might say a bit better, than anywhere else. Music in New Orleans is a result of that racial diversity that is ingrained in the region. Influences from African tribes, freed slaves, Haitians, Irish immigrants, and American folk songs, all combine to create something distinctly fresh about music in New Orleans.
Music in the Catholic churches of Louisiana integrate that into services. Father LeDoux speaks of the slave song for the Great Amen with fondness. At every major Mass he will perform the song, complete with all eight stanzas. He is also a firm believer in a vibrant service with a bit of movement:
“To render the song, “Shake the devil off!’, I had invited the people to stand up, because if you’re going to shake the devil off, you cannot do that sitting down. Rev. Darryl Jefferson, our musician, programmed the Klavinova for a New Orleans type of sound. The people were standing up. They were confined, I was not confined. At least they could do, shake, shake, shake like that and be careful not to hit one another, but I could do all the shake, shake, shake this way and the shake that way, and the shake that way. I was all over the place. Then by the second time around, our musician had the jazz band sound of Shake the Devil Off. It got into the people. It infested the people and they just kept moving. When we got to the end and I signalled the end, they were not ready to quit. We just cranked up again and we did a double and a triple and they were just going on. Just shake the devil off! It was the greatest sound I’ve ever heard for Shake the Devil Off.”
Still Active Today
Now almost 88 years old, Father LeDoux is showing no signs of slowing down, in his faith, his devotion to the church, and his general outreach to those in the community he serves. In June 2006 he was assigned to Our Mother of Mercy in Fort Worth, Texas. After nine years there, Father LeDoux’s SVD superiors got the feeling that it was his time to retire. So, he was sent back to Bay Saint Louis to retire. However, he wasn’t done serving communities of faith with his vibrant demeanour and devotion to the Lord. An SVD priest named Father Lambert asked the Provincial Superior to send Father LeDoux to Holy Ghost, the biggest African American parish in the United States. Rotating with the pastor and his associate, Father LeDoux still performs almost daily Masses and two weekend Masses at Holy Ghost, catering to the 2,500 families that call this church home.
He has faced numerous challenges in his life, from the colour of his skin in a region where such a factor mattered far too much, to the challenges that changing demographics and Mother Nature can wreak on a community. Through it all, Father LeDoux has maintained his sense of humour and a unique view of the world. If performing weekday Masses and two weekend Masses weren’t enough, Father LeDoux is also a weekly contributor to Catholic and some secular circulations.
P.S. – Update
Fr. Jerome LeDoux, 88, one of New Orleans’ most popular priests, died Jan. 7, 2019 in Lafayette, Louisiana, after surgery for a double heart bypass.