St. Jude: The welcoming ‘lighthouse’ on Rampart St.
He wore a wrinkled T-shirt, unwashed jeans and a black baseball cap, and he had a black guitar case slung over his right shoulder.
The St. Jude Community Center across North Rampart Street from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church wasn’t yet open for the daily free hot breakfast, but the church – which serves the homeless and the hopeless – was vibrant, practically hopping for the 7 a.m. Mass, with a cappella music led by Oblate Father Tony Rigoli.
As the man walked into the church toward the end of Mass, he settled into one of the back pews where several homeless people regularly worship before going over to eat breakfast. A man sitting one pew behind tapped him on the shoulder and then pointed to the man’s head.
“You’re in church – take off your cap,” he advised.
When Father Rigoli left a spiritually enriching campus ministry post at D’Youville College in Buffalo 10 years ago to become pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he had deep reservations that his superior – or maybe even God – knew what he was doing.
“The thing was, I didn’t want to leave Buffalo,” Father Rigoli said. “I had loved that college. I loved being chaplain there. I wasn’t really protesting, but I wasn’t leaving with the right attitude. And then, when I came here, it was like, ‘Wow!’ This is the most diverse place I’ve ever been.”
The Gospel of the day told the story of the rich man – dressed in purple garments – who would dine sumptuously while Lazarus, covered with sores, would sit at the door hoping for the scraps that fell from the table. Dogs licked his sores.
But when the rich man died and saw from his place in the netherworld the figures of Abraham and Lazarus, side by side, he pleaded with Abraham to send a warning to his five brothers lest they follow the rich man into the flames.
“Whenever I read this Gospel during Lent, I think to myself, ‘I’m wearing these purple vestments!’” Father Rigoli told the congregation. “The rich man wasn’t tormenting or kicking or abusing Lazarus. What was his sin? He was simply ignoring him. He didn’t see him. He was invisible.”
St. Jude serves 80 breakfasts and 175 lunches a day for the homeless at the community center, run by Marianite Sister Beth Mouch. On Saturdays, Father Rigoli will spend the day at the center looking into the faces of the poor – and speaking their names.
“That’s extremely important because it gives them value,” Father Rigoli said. “They’re someone. They’re a person. Sometimes, because we don’t know them, we kind of move away from them. When you sit down with them, you start to find out they have histories. When you’re dealing with the homeless, you’re dealing with mental illness and addiction, but there’s a great number of them who just happen to find themselves down and out.”
Father Rigoli is doing whatever he can to help. Executives of the Ritz Carlton offered to give entry-level jobs to those he would recommend, and so far that program has resulted in several transformations.
“One gentleman lost his job, and he and his wife and three children came to Father Tony, and they came right over here from church to fill out an application,” said Cindy Moran, manager of associate health for Marriott. “This gentleman’s been like a shining light. We do something called lateral service. He can work in several different departments. I wish I had more jobs for everybody.”
St. Jude also runs a shelter for homeless women, allowing them to work outside jobs and save money for an apartment of their own. They hand out 400 boxes of food each week from Second Harvest Food Bank. And the center can host up to 150 volunteers at a time when they come to New Orleans to do post-Katrina rehab work. The parish has programs for drug and alcohol abusers.
“I call St. Jude the ‘Lighthouse on Rampart Street’ because it gives people direction and hope,” Father Rigoli said. “They look to the steeple and they’re looking at the clock, but they’re really looking for some direction and hope.”
Father Rigoli will be recognized next month for his efforts at St. Jude by the Catholic Library Association, which will confer on him the Aggiornamento Award for ongoing service to the church in the spirit of Vatican II.
“You get a lot of energy from this work,” Father Rigoli said. “It just seems that you’re really living. I call it Matthew 25. That’s when I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. That’s our report card at the end of our life.”
In a world where the poor have become as invisible as Lazarus, Father Rigoli remains inspired by their faith.
“There’s a man who sits in the front pew of the church for quite a long time, and one day I asked him, ‘What do you say in your prayer?’ He said, ‘Nothing. He looks at me, and I look at him, and we’re OK.’ That’s beautiful.”