Friday, August 28, 2009
Tribute to Father Red
On the fourth anniversary of his storm-related death, friends of the Rev. Arthur Ginart -- "Father Red" -- will gather Saturday for a memorial Mass celebrating the larger-than-life character who once dominated life in a small Catholic community at New Orleans' edge.
Old friends will assemble to remember the superloyal Saints fan with the red hair and rough-cut sense of humor, the priest who for 29 years lived simply in a trailer behind the church. They'll also reunite for one of the few times since Hurricane Katrina.
Some hope it will be the beginning of a tradition.
"We're not going to let his memory die, " said Linda Giroir, a friend helping organize the 4 p.m. celebration at Resurrection of Our Lord Church in eastern New Orleans.
Neither Ginart nor his parish, St. Nicholas of Myra, survived the storm. As Katrina approached, Ginart, as usual, refused to leave his low-lying church far out on Chef Menteur Highway, near the community of Venetian Isles.
Ginart's nephew, St. Bernard Councilman Mike Ginart, said "Uncle Red" initially suggested to relatives that he would leave for safer confines at Notre Dame Seminary if Katrina seemed to be a lethal threat. But the evening of the storm, he turned aside pleas from volunteer firefighters that he leave the rectory.
In previous storm seasons, Ginart's stubbornness proved a valuable resource.
"The whole time a hurricane was going on, people would call Father Red. He'd tell them whether there were alligators on the church steps, how much water was rushing through the Chef Pass, " Giroir said. "This time, we should've made him leave. But second thoughts are no good now."
Katrina's winds and surge destroyed the church four days past Ginart's 64th birthday. His body was never recovered.
Months later, the Archdiocese of New Orleans closed the little parish.
(personal reflection here: NO Archdiocese is a group of worried old men with no cares for its parishoners.....)
A few weeks after the storm, the archdiocese celebrated a memorial Mass for Ginart in Baton Rouge, its residence in exile. And on a crisp fall day, Archbishops Alfred Hughes and Philip Hannan led family and friends in another memorial outdoors in front of the bare skeleton of the ruined church, Giroir said.
But since then, Giroir said members of the church community have scattered. And some still feel the need to come together occasionally in his memory.
Ginart grew up Irish in the 9th Ward, a ruddy extrovert whose earthly passions included a 1950s jukebox in his trailer-rectory, celebrating St. Patrick Day at Parasol's in the Irish Channel, and the Saints, for whom he sometimes exhorted extra prayers after Mass -- or blistered, when they were foundering.
Giroir said that during the woeful days of the "Aints, " he once followed his altar boys away from the altar with a paper bag over his head, his shoulders heaving with silent laughter as the congregation laughed aloud.
While Ginart was protective of his remote parish, he also didn't relish sharing living space with others during an evacuation, his nephew said.
"He didn't do well with other priests, " Ginart said. "He was very set in his ways."
In nearly 30 years at St. Nicholas, he promised families in the small, tightly knit parish that he would quit rather than take another assignment.
"Our parish was not a place to go to church, it was a whole family. It used to take us as long to leave church as it did for Father Red to say Mass, " Giroir said. "People would tell each other where the fish were biting, whether the crabs were running. It was one big family atmosphere."
Giroir said parishioners still feel a sense of loss.
Since the storm, many have scattered to other churches. The Giroirs sometimes attend nearby Mary, Queen of Vietnam, which hosted a memorial to Ginart last year, Giroir said. "They're so gracious, so welcoming. You can't say enough for them, but that's such a big parish, and you don't see your friends there, " she said.
A memorial Mass was said for the Rev. Arthur Ginart on Nov. 22, 2005, outside what remained of his church near Venetian Isles. The priest's body was never recovered.
Giroir said that after the archdiocese closed St. Nicholas, parishioners offered to rebuild on their own and asked for a part-time priest. She said they sent petitions to the archdiocese, but never heard anything back.
"We've never healed from losing Father Red, " Giroir said. "A lot of people I talked to stopped going to church because of Father Red's death. That's no excuse, I know. But the archdiocese has not done anything to help us heal those wounds."
Archdiocesan spokeswoman Sarah Comiskey noted the two memorials services for Ginart led by Hughes, but said she could not say whether an archdiocesan representative visited parishioners to discuss the closure with them.
Giroir said a few members of what was once the parish's ladies altar society still have a little money. She said they want to use a bit every year to memorialize Ginart: to put a plaque in his honor in another church, or perhaps buy a bench under an oak tree at Resurrection of Our Lord parish.
"We're going to have a memorial Mass for him every year, " Giroir said. "We're going to use the money for little gestures for him.