Turning Lives Around in New Orleans

When Fr. Tony Rigoli, OMI, was ordained a Missionary Oblate priest 50 years ago, he dreamed of opening a shelter and food pantry for the homeless. That dream finally became a reality in 2005 in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Since then, Fr. Tony has often thought what did he get himself into. The homeless population is large in New Orleans and it is a ministry that can become overwhelming. At those times, Fr. Tony is reminded of the words of Jesus: “the poor will always be with you.”

Father Tony has been ministering in New Orleans for the past 21 years as Pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish which also includes the International Shrine of St. Jude. Located on the outskirts of the famed French Quarter, Fr. Tony and the Missionary Oblates minister in a world far removed from the tourist attractions just a few blocks away. Their ministry is in large part to the homeless, addicted and people who have lost hope.

People like Jacob, who has struggled with trauma and hopelessness nearly all his life. He was just four years old when his father killed his mother in front of him. Jacob struggled in foster care and eventually began living on the streets. Father Tony found Jacob living in a car behind the local library. He started bringing him food and eventually began building trust with him. Jacob, after years of rejection and abandonment, began taking the first steps to recover his life.

“I often ask myself, How do people like Jacob survive, especially when they don’t have a family that can step in and help,” said Fr. Tony. “And that’s where we come in, through faith and social outreach.”

Faith is experienced in unique ways at the parish. There are “jazz Masses” with their distinctive New Orleans sound and look. There is the popular St. Jude Novena four times a year which attracts many people, often not Catholic, who are looking for a path to a better life.

One of the visitors to the Novena who found hope in his hopelessness was Grammy-winning singer Aaron Neville. As his life was spiraling out of control, he found strength and healing through prayer at St. Jude Shrine. He still wears a St. Jude medal as an earring and stops by the Shrine whenever he is back home in New Orleans.

While the shrine attracts some tourists and celebrities, Mark Wahlberg once stopped by for ashes on Ash Wednesday, it is the people who nobody knows their names that Fr. Tony and the Oblates focus most of their attention on.

The beneficiaries of this work are the hundreds of men, women and children who receive breakfast and lunch at the parish community center. They are the ones who receive direction on how to turn their lives around.

 “Our neighbors are our parishioners,” said the late Fr. John Morin, OMI, when he ministered at St. Jude. “They just aren’t registered.”

Everywhere Fr. Tony and the Oblates look there is another story. Everywhere they look there is someone else in need. It might be someone living in an abandoned car down the block. Or someone in the back of the church praying for a miracle to turn their life around. It might be a simple knock at the window or door.

“We can’t fix it all. We do what we can, and maybe it will provide a little hope for some people,” said Fr. Tony. “This is truly Oblate work here because we are caring for the most abandoned.”