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'Embodiment of Black Catholicism': Bishop Cheri remembered at Vespers ahead of Saturday funeral

New Orleans' recently deceased Black Catholic bishop was honored by the faithful on Friday at the seminary where he once studied before ordination.

The standing-room only crowd Friday evening at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans for a Vespers service in honor of Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Chei III, who died on March 21. His funeral will be held on Saturday at St. Louis Cathedral. (Eugene Harper)

NEW ORLEANS — Evening Prayer. Praise and worship. Memorial. Reunion.

All these fit the Solemn Vespers service on Friday evening for the late Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri III, OFM at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. The traditional service looked, felt, and sounded like a warmup for the Mass of Christian Burial which was soon to follow at St. Louis Cathedral on Saturday morning.

Clergy and parishioners alike were packed tightly into the small seminary chapel to pay their respects and raise their prayers, scriptures, and songs for the prelate, who died on March 21 after a lengthy illness.

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond presided over the service, assisted by Deacon Reggie Seymour of St. Genevieve Catholic Church in Slidell. The liturgy also included Archbishop Emeritus Alfred Hughes and the Cheri family, who processed into the chapel singing the traditional African-American funeral hymn “Blessed Assurance,” led by a small ensemble in the choir loft.

“The Vespers service is a part of the Catholic tradition to honor anyone, but especially deceased priests and bishops,” said Fr Anthony Bozeman, a Josephite priest and the past president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.

“So it was fitting that we come out to pray for him."

Bozeman said he felt especially honored to hold and place Cheri's crozier at the casket during the service. The bishop had received the Afrocentric wooden staff at his episcopal ordination in 2015. Bozeman said the prayer service was a chance for African-American Catholics to “bring ourselves into the liturgy, into the wholeness of the faith.”

Percussive hand-clapping among the chapel faithful accompanied powerful congregational praise, including the song “Come and Go With Me to My Father's House.” Spoken psalms and traditional chant of the “Canticle of Mary” also adorned the service, leading to intercessory prayer with Deacon Seymour petitioning, "When at last our earthly home is dissolved, give us a home, not of earthly making, but built of eternity in heaven.”

The service concluded as the mournful, solemn spirituals continued to fill the space: “Soon-ah will be done with the troubles of the world; goin’ home to live with God.”

"Bishop Cheri was the embodiment of Black Catholicism," said Fr Maurice Nutt, an administrator for the Redemptorist community in New Orleans. He added that the late bishop inspired him to pursue the priesthood.

“He had that spirit and truth in him that he always shared with everyone,” he said.

Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri III, OFM of New Orleans speaks at the 2017 National Black Catholic Congress in Orlando. (NBCC)

“While we are sad, we rejoice that he's no longer suffering, no longer in pain. But we are also sad for ourselves because he was a prophetic leader who spoke the words of ‘true truth,’ in the words of Sister Thea Bowman,” said Nutt.

He added that Black Catholics are hopeful that other prophetic leaders will step forward to fill the void.

“Who's coming next to continue to be the prophetic Black priests we need?” he implored. “Bishop Cheri, our ancestor in heaven, please send us more vocations from the African-American community.”

As he left Vespers, Dr. Ansel Augustine, head of the New Orleans archdiocese’s Office of Black Catholics, summed it up: “It was a powerful moment to see all the Black faces in here to support our bishop, who was authentically Black and Catholic.”

He said all the Black clergy and Black religious, along with all the other people present, “were all impacted by the love Bishop Cheri had for his people.”

Echoing words from Fr Joseph Brown, a Jesuit who led another prayer service at Cheri’s own St. Peter Claver Catholic Church a day earlier, Augustine said Cheri “was a bishop for all the people, not just for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.”

Eugene Harper is director of music at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and director emeritus of the St. Joseph Gospel Choir. He serves on two liturgical music boards, the Lyke Foundation and the Arlington Chapter of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. He retired as director of American Forces Press Service in the Department of Defense.

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