By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

Gathered in a corner of Roselawn Memorial Park in Baton Rouge, beyond the sprawling ancient live oaks, angelic statues and massive headstones, a group of men stood quietly at the foot of a life-sized crucifix, studying the plaques on the ground. Leading the group was Father Matt Lorrain, director of seminarians for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, along with Father Andrew Merrick, director of vocations for the diocese.  

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Father Matt Lorrain, Director of Seminarians, center, along with Father Andrew Merrick, Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, shares the history of former priests with seminarians at Roselawn Memorial Park in Baton Rouge on Aug. 6. It was part of the Seminarian Back to School Retreat at the Bishop Robert E. Tracy Retreat Center, Aug. 6-7.  Photo by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator 

 

“When I was newly ordained, Father (James) Clement was the retired priest at St. Patrick (Church in Baton Rouge),” said Father Lorrain, pointing to a marker. “He grew up down around Lockhart, but he spoke both Cajun French and Parisian French.”  

With that bit of background information, the crowd responded with “oohs” and “aahs,” completely comprehending the difference in the languages. That’s because these men were familiar with south Louisiana: its traditions, its foods and its cultures. They are seminarians studying for the diocese and this was their Back to School Retreat, Aug. 6-7 at the Bishop Robert E. Tracy Retreat Center in Baton Rouge.  

“He (Father Clement) was a musician, so early on he was an organist, he worked with the office of worship,” continued Father Lorrain. “My pastor at St. Patrick was  Msgr.  (Gerald) Lefebvre, his grave is down here. Msgr.) Lefebvre was a real introvert. He’d be glad to tell me, if I had a question I go to him, but he would never volunteer any guidance or any information, so (Father) Clement was like having your grandfather living in the house with us. He passed on the old stories of priesthood, which was fantastic.” 

The stories continued with Father Lorrain pointing out the grave markers for other religious.  

“And, let’s see. Who else? Father (Victor) Baron – he died in ’62 but he was pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Brusly where I’m at, so this was one of my predecessors so I hear a lot of Baron stories,” said Father Lorrain. “There were a lot of French priests that served in our diocese in the old days and he was one of them.”  

The seminarians moved along, reading each marker, listening to the stories and background of each person who tread before them, each making their mark in the history of their faith. Some of the deceased were noted for the parishes they founded including Msgr. Dominic Blasco, founder of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Baton Rouge.  

Others had interesting stories such as Father Walter Kersey, a late vocation priest who, according to Father Lorrain, was raised in a prison environment because his mother was a warden at a women’s prison. Before becoming a priest, Father Kersey worked as a flight attendant.  

“You could ask him what’s the best way to get from here to Indianapolis and he’d tell you flight numbers and times and the routes of airlines,” recalled Father Lorrain. “He had all these flight schedules memorized in his head.”  

From there, the group moved on to grave markers of the sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady. Father Lorrain then explained how some of the streets around Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center are named after them, including Hennessy Boulevard and Didesse Drive.  

“It’s great,” said Joseph Bergan of the field trip. “I’ve been a seminarian for four years but it’s good getting an idea, like the history of my diocese, you know all the people that made our diocese possible with the hospitals and the founders of parishes.”  

The group then walked to an area of gravesites not far from where the priests are buried. These are where the members of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph are buried. In the midst of the sisters’ names on markers is one lone man, something that Father Lorrain pointed out to the seminarians. It was the gravesite of Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who was executed in 1984 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the murders of two teens. Sister Helen Prejean CSJ was his spiritual advisor and the sisters were asked to provide a burial site for Sonnier, who was also the subject of the book and movie “Dead Man Walking.” 

At the end of the tour Father Lorrain told the seminarians they are “sons and grandsons in the ministry, so to speak” of the men buried at the site. He then mentioned that other priests were buried at other Catholic cemeteries or at other churches and mausoleums. The group finished by saying a “Hail Mary” and the Prayer for Eternal Rest.  

Father Lorrain said the goal of the visit was to provide a sense of history of the diocese and how the priests “have a lasting memory in the life of the church and, of course, they are role models for all of us, too.”  

“Just to provide a context, we’re not reinventing the wheel,” said Father Lorrain. “Hopefully, we’re furthering the development of the church, the body of Christ, and, hopefully, we’re furthering the development of the priesthood, but we’re not starting from scratch. We have beautiful models for us.”  

“It was nice to see, because I knew where the sisters were,” said Deacon David Dawson. “I didn’t know the priests were buried right there and I’d always seen that crucifix. But it really shows us our own mortality and that God is far greater than us as mere humans. We’re just passing through but we can do what we can to spread his word and evangelize others in that short time that we’re here on earth.”  

“I was impressed just by looking at the dates,” said Austin Young. “There are some really old dates like in the 1800s, and people who have been through World War II, and what a different world it is today. But in a weird way, we all face different challenges with each generation, but we all have our crosses to bear and how they intercede for us, too.”  

The retreatants then met at Sacred Heart Church where they heard more about the history of the priesthood and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph from Father Miles Walsh, pastor of Sacred Heart; Father Gerald Martin, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Prairieville; and Sister Lucy Silvio CSJ.  

The remainder of the retreat included talks about human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation and pastoral formation. The men also visited St. Vincent de Paul Society.  

“I just heard a wonderful talk by Father Merrick about prayer and spiritual life, and he just knocked it out of the park, incredible talk!” said Deacon Dawson.  

For many of the seminarians, the retreat was a chance to catch up with others and establish friendships with some of the newer seminarian students. And, seeing new faces was exciting for Young.  

“It’s really encouraging to see that there are new seminarians and others who are joining us,” said Young.