John Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 13, 2009

John Howell Sr.

‘Confederacy of Dunces’ alive, well in New Orleans

A classic New Orleans brouhaha boiled to a climax last week when the archbishop of New Orleans sent the police to two Uptown churches to remove squatting parishioners who resisted their closing.

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Our Lady of Good Counsel and Saint Henry’s are among those in the parish ordered closed in a downsizing by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Saint Henry’s is the neighborhood church where a number of Catholics among our neighbors worship — J. Monque’D among them.

And J. Monque’D was prominent among the resisters. They occupied the building and vowed to remain there — in shifts — to keep the doors from being locked for a final time.

The old family roots and attachments to the churches run deep and resentment ran high. But according to our neighbor Ann, for J. Monque’D (pronounce it Jay Monkey Dee) and a number of other those resisters featured in the regular coverage by the TV news, their roots ran about as deep as their heretofore semi-annual Christmas and Easter appearances at Saint Henry’s.

For Ann, too.

She once told on herself about how she got up to meet a shoeless, blind man tapping his white cane before him as he made his way down Saint Henry’s aisle toward the front of the church. She said that she had not been there enough to know that it was Frances, the church’s blind organist who customarily left his shoes near the entrance because he preferred to manipulate the organ’s foot pedals in his sock feet.

And for J. Monque’D, anywhere one or more are gathered is audience enough for him. The blues musician and mule carriage driver found squatting to his liking and regularly pulled all-night shifts in the building. The squatters’ support troops no doubt provided an array of tasty victuals in logistical support of the all-nighters, a fringe benefit no doubt appreciated by the Monkey Man.

But after 10 weeks the festive protest was abruptly halted when Archbishop Alfred Hughes ordered police to remove the trespassers during the early morning hours. Unfortunately, J. Monque’D was not among them that night, but bystanders still managed to record video footage on the order of high comedy.

Police officers are seen escorting a wobbly old man to a waiting patrol car. Protesters then stand in front of the car to prevent its departure. The car’s siren woops and wails as it eases forward against their rhetorical efforts to push back against the car’s hood.

One pious protester fakes his foot being run over by the patrol car’s front tire and then yells, “You ran over my fxxxxxx foot!”

The online stories of the Times-Picayune record comments of outrage, particularly with regard to Archbishop Hughes’ dark past which includes lateral transfers of pedophile priests when he was with the Archdiocese of Boston.

Other comments are directed at the police, shaming on them for arresting old codgers when they seem impotent in the face of rampant murder in the city.

At least one online commentor combined his outrage: “They should have told the police that the church was occupied by pedophiles, then they’d have left them alone.”

Once the squatting parishioners had been removed, the charges were dropped before there were any court appearances. The archbishop now says that he is “at peace.”

If Saint Henry’s Church sounds familiar, it may be because you have read John Kennedy Toole’s novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Saint Henry’s is the church that Irene Reilly attends. Irene is the mother of main character Ignatius J. Reilly whose Quixotic interactions with the city’s characters and his own eccentricities provide rarely paralleled hilarity.

And that’s the way it is on Laurel Street in Uptown New Orleans, where characters in fact and characters in fiction are oftenhard to tell apart.