Northeast Metairie continued to grow in population with an influx of middle-income families from New Orleans. From 1940 to 1960, the area doubled in size every ten years as the post-World War II baby boom parents began looking for more living space and a place outside of the big city. The mobility of people increased due to the affordability of automobiles and gasoline along with the building of additional access roads through northern Jefferson Parish. People moved from the country to the city and now from the city to suburbia (Metairie).
It was in March 1964 when Archbishop John Patrick Cody of New Orleans carved out the new
St. Angela Merici Parish from two existing parishes, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Louis King of France. Archbishop Cody assigned Father Joseph J. Calato as the first pastor of this new parish. The Times Picayune posted an article on Friday morning, March 27, 1964 titled “New Parishes to be Created” which announced that four new parishes would be established in the metropolitan area of New Orleans beginning on June 1, 1964.
The Archdiocese acquired the residences located at 900 & 916 Beverly Garden Drive and about 2.4 acres of undeveloped land across the street (Pomona) for the new parish plant, before assigning Fr. Catalo as pastor.
The large undeveloped lot was located on Melody Drive a short distance north of Veterans Highway. Fr. Calato moved into the rectory at 900 Beverly Garden Drive and began to build a church and parish. The home at 916 Beverly Garden Drive would be used in the near future as a Convent for the Ursuline Nuns. Fr. Calato had no money and no place of any size to assemble. So within one week’s time, he accomplished the following:
- He convinced Marion and Mimi Leon to donate their banquet hall to be used as the temporary church facility for St. Angela Merici Parish. The Leon family owned Leon’s Restaurant and the attached banquet hall located at 706 Phosphor Avenue in Metairie. It would be used for Sunday Masses and other parish gatherings. The hall was approximately 35’ wide by 75’ long. The banquet hall building is still standing and looks the same today but has some slight cosmetic changes. It is currently owned by the Louisiana Karate Association.
- He recruited a number of parishioners to help convert the banquet hall on weekends into a reasonable facsimile of a church, with folding chairs, a make-shift moveable altar, altar linens, and curtains. Then later on Sunday afternoons the same recruits would remove the “church” facilities and return the room to a banquet hall.
- He recruited altar boys, readers, song leaders, church ushers, and almost most important, the “parking ushers.”
- He prepared and distributed the first church bulletin, called “St. Angela Merici Parish Message,” which was mailed to 900 charter families within the boundaries of the new parish.
- He had a sign staked on the property near Melody Drive that said “Site of New Catholic Church and School, Parish of St. Angela Merici.” Due to the efforts of Fr. Calato and the newly recruited parishioners, more than 1,400 attended the first three Masses held at 7:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, June 7, 1964. Getting this many people to and from Mass within a residential neighborhood resulted in massive traffic jams.
Founding parishioner Nick Gagliano, neighbors of the Leon family who lived around the corner from Leon’s Restaurant, remembers that first Sunday Mass with the following quote, “Dick Deas and I were the first [readers] and I was the first song leader. A vivid memory was the aromas coming into the temporary church from the restaurant’s kitchen, which must have been an excusable distraction during the distribution of communion.” Collections for the first Sunday totaled $851.00. Parishioners were asked to use the church support envelopes from their former parishes until the St. Angela Merici envelopes were printed. During this time of Pre-Vatican II, all Mass responses were in Latin.
The next week Fr. Calato sent out his second parish bulletin with an expanded Mass schedule for 6:00 a.m., 7:15 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 9:45 a.m., and 11:00 a.m. The first weekday Mass began on Monday, June 8th, 1964; 6:30 a.m. at the parish rectory (900 Beverly Garden). Redemptorist Fathers from St. Alphonsus Parish assisted Fr. Calato with Masses on Sunday.
Father Calato was anxious to build a place of assembly for the community as well as to help develop the characters, ideals, dispositions, attitudes, and spiritual sensitivities of those who made up the assembly. He knew the parish would increase in numbers as more homes rose to the north, south, east, and west of the plot of ground acquired for the parish plant.
During that same month of the first Mass, June 1964, Fr. Calato hired architects to begin drawing the plans for the place of assembly. He also contacted the Ursuline Nuns, whose foundress was St. Angela, to staff the school he could visualize being ready in 15 short months. Before June ended, organizational meetings, one attended by 97 men, another by 122 women, had been held. School children continued to go to St. Louis King of France and St. Catherine of Siena until the new school at St. Angela Merici opened. In August 1964 Archbishop Cody appointed Fr. Jerry Dabria of Sacred Heart parish to be an assistant priest to St. Angela.
A seven-week campaign to raise funds started in September 1964 and by the 27th of that month, the seemingly staggering sum of $700,000 was set as the cost of the place of assembly, not only for worship but also for the formation of the children who would be the future of the parish and the archdiocese.
That same month, 135 men began soliciting funds, which soon surpassed $200,000 in gifts and pledges. More importantly, the parish, still assembling in a restaurant and worshipping without the benefit of kneelers or other conveniences, had its trained ushers, Mass readers, organist, acolytes, altar society, and traffic ushers.
A construction contract for the permanent church and school building was signed on December 22, 1964. The contract was awarded to Gervais F. Favrot Co., general contractor. The completion date, by contract, was scheduled within 240 calendar days.
Near the end of 1964, pilings were driven for the new parish plant that was to have 50,000 square feet of space for church and classrooms. The church, on the first floor, will have seating in the shape as three arms of the cross with the altar in the center. The second floor will provide over 20 classrooms and office space for school administrators and faculty.
At the beginning of the New Year 1965, St. Angela Merici Parish had 1,191 families registered within the parish.
When the preliminary registration of school students took place on January 10, 1965, six months after the parish was founded, parents expressed a desire to place their children in the school that was still under construction. On registration day, 100 kindergarteners; 100 first graders, 78 second-graders, 77 third-graders, 76 fourth-graders, and 83 fifth-graders where registered.
On August 22, 1965 the boundaries of our parish were extended to include the area from Homestead Ave. to Oaklawn Dr. between Veterans Hwy. and Interstate 10. The 1965 summer was now ending and it was evident that the school would be ready for opening but the church would not. All efforts were focused on the completion of the school. The parish convent located at 916 Beverly Garden was spruced up and made ready for the Ursuline nuns by volunteer parishioners. Four Ursuline nuns were assigned to St. Angela Merici School; Mother Elizabeth, Principal, Mother Kevin Marie, Mother Maureen Therese and Mother Ann Maureen.
The school opened smoothly on September 1, 1965 and eight days later the New Orleans area was hit with the first “Billion Dollar” Hurricane named “Betsy.” The new upstairs school was used as a shelter for more than 600 persons who sought refuge from the storm.
Mass attendance had increased by approximately 80% since the first Mass on June 7th, 1964; (1,400 to 2,429). Space was becoming an issue so it was decided to open the church earlier than originally planned. Sunday, October 10th, 1965 was the last Sunday at Leon’s after 17 months of use for weekend Mass.
The first Mass at the new St. Angela Merici Church was Sunday, October 17, 1965. Even though the church was not completely furnished, it was sufficiently functional to have Sunday Masses.
The parish had grown so fast that Fr. Calato wanted to make sure the parish stayed connected, informed, and involved so he divided the parish into 16 geographical areas (block system), each with a married couple to serve as the coordinators. Husband-wife teams were assigned for each block and they formed the link between the pastor and parishioners. From this organizational structure, lay-apostles were trained to promote spiritual, cultural, educational, and social activities for the new parish – and it worked well for many years.
In 17 months, Fr. Calato, Fr. Dabria, and the entire St. Angela parish built a City of God, united as family in spirit. Msgr. Henry C. Bezou best captured this spirit in his Homily from the 10th Anniversary Mass, May 25, 1974.
In a word, St. Angela has luminously met the criteria of a vital and vibrant parish: It has had a participation of the members of the assembly; it has been blessed with the “sacrament” of unity – a “holy people brought together and organized under the direction of the bishop”; it has been universal or, simply, Catholic in its outlook; and its parishioners have realized that it is not the place, but the assembly of people in it that is the more important, so the mere edifice of dead stones or of inert concrete and steel is much less significant than the temple of living stones upon which a deanery, a diocese, and the world beyond can and must build. The parishioners of St. Angela represent well and illustriously the definition of the Second Vatican Council. You represent the visible Church as it is established throughout the world.