The Rev. Jerome LeDoux, the exuberant New Orleans Catholic priest who led jubilant, musical Afrocentric Masses at his St. Augustine Church, passed away on Monday January 7 at Holy Ghost Church, Opelousas. He was 88 years old.

A student and a scholar of God

Father Jerome LeDoux had been living in Opelousas for 3 years. He came from humble beginnings, born on February 26, 1930, in Lake Charles, and graduated from high school at St. Augustine Seminary in St. Louis, Mississippi. He also graduated from college there and studied theology for 4 years before being ordained in May 1957. Father LeDoux earned two postgraduate degrees after being sent abroad to study at Gregorian University in Rome: first, a master’s degree in sacred theology and second, a doctorate in canon law. He went on to teach at both St. Augustine Seminary and, later, Xavier University until he found his calling in his long career as a priest, changing lives and serving God with passion and joy. He served at churches in the states of Texas and Louisiana.

Unique and full of life

As a priest, he became known for being open and non-traditional, with a veracity and vigour that made him unforgettable to all who met him. During his 16 years as pastor at St. Augustine’s, Father LeDoux had become an iconic figure in his vibrant vestments and signature Birkenstock sandals, dancing through the aisles and riding a donkey on Palm Sunday. To his parishioners, Father LeDoux is synonymous with St. Augustine Church, and news of his death was met with heartbreak.

St. Augustine Church is the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the USA, established in 1841, but it wasn’t always an upbeat and joyous place. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, when populations declined and revenue losses forced the consolidation of the Archdiocese, St. Augustine was designated for closure as a Parish after sustaining extensive storm damage. Volunteers working on hurricane relief barricaded themselves inside the rectory, maintaining a vigil for a week ‘in proxy’ for the absent parishioners. Tensions got so high that even armed police officers in plain dress posted at Mass in March 2006 couldn’t keep protesters from disrupting the service.

Troubled times

The protests caused a decision by the archdiocese to deconsecrate the church, but its reconsecration came in time for the Palm Sunday service that year. Father LeDoux was among the celebrants but was replaced by the Rev. Michael Jacques.

After two years, the church was granted $75,000 by the National Trust for Historic reservation and American Express to fund renovations. The church had been on probation due to its tentative financial status, but its progress enabled it to be taken off probation in March 2009. During the turbulent times, Father LeDoux always kept faith that God and Archbishop Hughes would protect the church, and his ministry touched the lives of many. Through the leadership and inspiration of Father LeDoux, St. Augustine became the country’s most thoroughly integrated congregation when tensions between races were still high – such was the sense of unity he inspired.

A life to celebrate

He is survived by two brothers: Louis, who is a reverend in Tacoma, Washington; and Nathaniel, who lives in Las Vegas. He is also survived by his sister, Veronica Mitchell, who currently resides in New York.