By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator 

Father Joel LaBauve had admittedly reached a crossroad in his life. 

father joel photo 1 b&w.tif

Father Joel LaBauve, left, is ordained by Bishop William D. Borders on Feb. 6, 1970. To Father LeBauve’s right is Father Stanley Ott, who would be installed as the third bishop for the Diocese of Baton Rouge on March 25, 1983. Catholic Commentator file photo

 

Six years removed from taking a leave of absence from the priesthood, Father LaBauve understood a decision was looming that would decide his future.  

So he went to the one place where he knew he could find the silence to converse with God, that being his boyhood church of St. John the Baptist in Brusly.  

“I remember sitting in church after Mass one day and just praying with all of my heart, saying ‘Okay God, I have to choose a career path or a commitment (to the priesthood) and put my heart and soul into it,” he said. “It was the most clear revelation I had ever had. (God said) ‘You don’t want to leave the priesthood.’  

“I enjoy it so much, I loved being a priest. So I came back.”

Although at the time he already been ordained for 19 years, Father LaBauve said it was then, at the age of 44, when he “committed to being a priest for life.

“I became happy as a lark and have been to this day.” 

In a low-key celebration, Father LaBauve recently marked his 50th anniversary of ordination during a Mass. 

“I’ve had an exciting life; I can’t even imagine a life that is more exciting,” Father LaBauve said. “There are really good times and the bad times.” 

His has been a unique ministry, one that has witnessed the darkest of days, including when he narrowly escaped death when an arsonist set fire to the rectory in which he was living at the time, but one that has also brought a joy he could have never imagined.

“When I look back on those (difficult) times, I hated them when I was in them but learned so much that has made me a better person and a better priest,” Father LaBauve said. “I can’t see that I would ever lose hope again if another down came.” 

Ordained by Bishop Donald W. Borders, Father LaBauve’s early years were demanding, at one point serving as vice-chancellor, director of religious education for the diocese and a teacher at what was then a high school for seminarians on the site of what is now the Bishop Robert E. Tracy Center. 

The stress began to extract a toll, although the warning signs were not immediately evident.

“When you are young, you are full of life and energy,” he said. “You want an exciting life.” 

But when Bishop Tracy, the founding bishop of the Diocese of Baton Rouge and a man Father LaBauve greatly admired, left, a void was created.

“That was very hard on me,” Father LaBauve admitted. “It was a very disillusioning time.” 

LaBauve, Rev Joel 099.tif

Father Joel LaBauve

 

He eventually took a three-month leave of absence and upon returning spent three years as parochial vicar at St. Patrick Church in Baton Rouge, which had been established six months earlier. 

“That was a wonderful experience,” he said. “The parish was vibrant, very dynamic.”

Father LaBauve’s first pastorship was at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in St. Francisville, an assignment that lasted eight months before he was appointed pastor at Our Lady of Prompt Succor Church in White Castle. Little did he realize life-altering events awaited him. 

“I was anxious to do things without a lot of consultation,” he said. “When you are young you think you know everything.” 

Not all of his decisions were met favorably by parishioners, including removing the last seven rows of pews in the church so people would move closer to the front.

Differences with his parochial vicar also surfaced, but no challenge was greater than the early morning fire at the rectory when Father LaBauve woke up to see the back of the house engulfed in flames. The crime remains unsolved.

“It was a miracle I got out,” he said. 

Not long after, Father LaBauve took a second leave of absence, one that would last six years. He landed a job in the governor’s office and eventually was hired as the human resources director for the Port of New Orleans.

“I was enjoying being out at first, taking care of myself financially, which is pretty scary when you leave the priesthood because you don’t have a lot of money,” Father LaBauve said. “I had no interest in coming back.” 

He said those six years were a learning experience that formed the foundation for what would become the second half of his ministry. 

“I learned so much during that leave that just freed me in ways I would never would have dreamed I could have been freed,” Father LaBauve said. “I was freed of the anger that built up, freed of an immature idea of priesthood, freed to a much more mature idea that could sustain me as a happy priest the rest of my life. 

“I found people.” 

Father LaBauve spent six years as the full-time chaplain at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which, despite inherent adversity, was also rewarding. 

“Being with people that really want to change their lives, and there are many at Angola, that’s a very inspiring and uplifting experience,” he said. 

He later served as pastor at St. Isidore the Farmer Church in Baker, St. Mark Church in Gonzales and the cluster parishes of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Plattenville and St. Anne Church in Napoleonville. 

“The way I approached priesthood before that leave was in a very institutional way,” he said. “Now, it is a very people-centered approach, which is entirely different. I’m in the life-giving stage.” 

Father LaBauve retired in 2012 at the age of 68 but remains active, unshackled from the demands of administration. He revels in the spiritual fulfillment of celebrating Mass, as well as hearing confessions, experiences he missed while on leave. 

Today, he is comfortable in his Denham Springs condo, spending time in his favorite chair reflecting on what has been a rewarding and exciting life. He hopes along the way he has touched a few of the countless parishioners he has served.

“I hope people remember me as somebody who truly cared about them, somebody who really helped them become closer to God,” Father LaBauve said. “I do believe God’s mercy knows no end. Anytime I can convey that experience, not just that knowledge, particularly sacramentally, that is a great joy.”