Swatting Away Katrina's Demons

Father Tony Ricard i i

hide captionFather Tony Ricard always plans something special for Mardi Gras Mass.

Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR
Father Tony Ricard

Father Tony Ricard always plans something special for Mardi Gras Mass.

Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR
In all her years attending Sunday mass, Michele Norris has never been handed a fly swatter. i i

hide captionIn all her years attending Sunday mass, Michele Norris has never been handed a fly swatter.

In all her years attending Sunday mass, Michele Norris has never been handed a fly swatter.

In all her years attending Sunday mass, Michele Norris has never been handed a fly swatter.

Altar boys acting as devils -- to be swatted away by the congregation. i i

hide captionAltar boys acting as devils — to be swatted away by the congregation.

Altar boys acting as devils -- to be swatted away by the congregation.

Altar boys acting as devils — to be swatted away by the congregation.

When I walked through the heavy wood doors that lead into Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church here on Sunday, I was greeted by a duo of friendly ushers, older men with sharp suits and warm smiles. I said good morning and extended my arm expecting that they would place a program for the day's service in my hand. Instead, they handed me a fly swatter. That's right. A blue plastic square on top of a wire handle with a label that said "super swat."

Did they have a bug problem? Did I look like an exterminator? Did the swatter double as hand-held fan?

Was I in the right place?

I came to Our Lady Star of the Sea to attend Father Tony Ricard's Mardi Gras Mass. Father Tony, as he's known, is famous in this city for his work with children and for his theatrical homilies at the largely African American parish in the St. Roch neighborhood. It's a domed sanctuary adorned with frescos in which angels all look like Beyonce. Father Tony has been known to wear grass skirts or huge Afro wigs on the last Sunday before Lent. Given his reputation, I figured that the fly swatter was an audience prop so I settled in.

I was right. Father Tony acted out a homily based on Mardi Gras and family. The popular image of Carnival involves drunken crowds and a devil-may-care attitude, but here in New Orleans the parades are a big draw for young kids who jump up and down along the route and beg for beads and trinkets tossed from the floats.

The homily's message was that families who remained strong could withstand any storm, if they kept the devil out of their lives. And that's where the fly swatters came in. As the altar boys and girls ran up and down the aisles with light-up devil's horns atop their heads, the audience was told to "swat the devil out of your life! Swat the demons of Katrina out of our lives."

The gospel choir kicked into high gear and the parishioners waved their swatters in time to the beat chanting, "It's time for you to go! It's time for you to go!" over and over again until the alter servers with their horns and white robes ran up the aisle one last time to exit the building through those heavy wooden doors.

Mass continued. The choir, decked out in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold, danced and swayed and twirled umbrellas in the air.

At Our Lady Star of the Sea, Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez (Let the Good Times Roll) even applies to high mass.

The fate of this church and its charismatic priest is a big question mark right now. The church sits high on an elevated foundation so it did not sustain significant damage. But the rectory and most of the surrounding homes took four feet of water. The archdiocese planned to close the church and consolidate its members and staff with another parish, but Our Lady Star of the Sea sent out an SOS and won a reprieve. The parishioners have six months to prove the church is still viable or it could be shut down.

Father Tony Ricard said Our Lady Star of the Sea is doing its best to take a swat at those plans.

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