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Dr. Norman Francis statue unveiled at Xavier University of Louisiana

The work honors the 47-year presidential tenure of Francis at XULA, the nation's Catholic HBCU. He retired in 2015 and spoke at the historic event.

Sr Stephanie Henry, SBS, center left, helps unveil a new bronze statue of Dr. Norman C. Francis on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, at Xavier University of Louisiana's Convocation Center in New Orleans. (Minh Ha/Verite News)

Xavier University of Louisiana, the nation’s Catholic HBCU, has revealed a life-size bronze statue of its former president, Dr. Norman C. Francis, one of the longest-serving higher education administrators in U.S. history.

Francis’ 47-year tenure at the helm of the New Orleans institution—which included the latter end Civil Rights Movement, the university’s 20th-century expansion, and the devastation and recovery after Hurricane Katrina—was celebrated by more than a hundred admirers and family members at a livestreamed unveiling ceremony on Saturday in the school’s Convocation Center, according to Verite News.

“It is truly the day that the Lord has made. It is a day that reminds us of who we are, why we are, and to whom we belong,” said current president Dr. Reynold Verret during remarks at the event.

“[Dr. Francis] came and took the reins at Xavier as it was passed on by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. He is the continuation of the legacy of service, of a mission that goes more than a hundred years.”

Other speakers included in the ceremony included XULA board chair Justin Augustine, vice chair Derek J. Robinson, billionaire businessman William Goldring, Liberty Bank and Trust CEO Alden J. McDonald Jr., XULA trustee Angela Vallot, interfaith chaplain Rev. Dr. Mitchell Stevens, and Catholic chaplain Fr Victor Laroche, OP. The XULA University concert choir was also featured, offering a rendition of “The Impossible Dream.” 

Russell Whiting, who designed the sculpture of Francis to reflect his younger years as an administrator, spoke of his creative process in forming the work, which will soon be placed prominently on the university’s main quad.

“It didn’t take long to realize that the most important aspect of this commission was the fact that in a great city like New Orleans, statues of great leaders can stand for generations, even centuries,” Whiting told the assembled crowd.

“To think that future generations will see this statue and be inspired to investigate the amazing achievements of Dr. Norman C. Francis, and that some will stand on the shoulders of this giant to do great things, is both mind-boggling and gratifying beyond words.”

Francis originally became dean of men at the university in 1957, five years after his graduation, before steadily rising through the ranks and becoming the school’s first lay president in 1968. He retired in 2015 and counts among his honors the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by George W. Bush in 2006, and the University of Notre Dame’s 2019 Laetare Medal, regarded as the highest honor awarded to American Catholics.

The physical unveiling of his statue on Saturday took place with the help of Sr Stephanie Henry, who serves as president of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The order, under the leadership of foundress St. Katharine Drexel, founded Xavier University Preparatory School in 1915. The university was founded in 1925 and will soon commence centennial celebrations. 

Dr. Francis, who will turn 93 in March, gave a surprise address at the ceremony, speaking of his experiences as an administrator over roughly half a century. Asked what he valued most among his accomplishments, he cited his one-on-one connection with young people at XULA.

“At Commencement, I looked at every student who came up those steps, I shook their hands, and I said, ‘I see me in you,’” Francis said.

“That was my feeling for what happened over the 60 years I was at Xavier. It touched me.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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