Pope Francis has many East St. Louis and Belleville Catholics smiling today. A few yelped with joy. The pope has named their beloved “Father Ferd” — the Franciscan friar Fernand Cheri III — a bishop for the New Orleans Diocese.
Cheri, 62, lived in East St. Louis from 2002 to 2009, serving at St. Augustine Parish in East St. Louis and as a counselor at Althoff High School in Belleville. He directed dynamic youth gospel choirs at both the high school and the parish.
“He’s just a fantastic priest who especially cares about youth,” Gail Wren, a pastoral associate at St. Augustine of Hippo parish in East St. Louis, said. “He’s a kind, gentle man. It could not happen to a nicer man.” Her voice thrilled with joy and she dreams of joining East St. Louisans in New Orleans for his ordination as bishop on March 23 at New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral.
Father Ferd is the type of priest that the pope has been urging priests to be, Father Carroll Mizicko, St. Augustine pastor, said.
“He is very pastoral, very approachable with a lot of compassion for people,” Mizicko said Tuesday. Cheri phoned him shortly after the Vatican announced the news. The East St. Louis priest promised to pray for his friend. “He’s very courageous, very committed to working with young people, and has a way of bringing (the best) out of them.”
Cheri will be the only auxiliary bishop in his native New Orleans and will be one of just eight African-American Catholic bishops nationwide. While there are 3 million African-American Catholics, there are few black priests.
“This is good for the church,” Mizicko said. It is a loss, at least in membership, for the Franciscan order. Like Pope Francis, who was a Jesuit, once Cheri becomes a bishop he will be released from his Franciscans religious vows and obedience to the order. After his conversation with Cheri, Mizicko said he expects that Cheri will in sprit always remain very much a Franciscan. People still call Francis a Jesuit, after all.
“We are still Father Ferd’s family, his other family,” the East St. Louis pastor said. “We stayed in touch,” Miziko said. Wren is pleased that he often stops in East St. Louis en route to meetings.
For the past four years, Cheri has served as director of campus ministry at Quincy University in Quincy, Ill., and as vicar of the Holy Cross Franciscan Friary there. He also is coordinator for Black Catholic ministry in the Springfield, Ill., Diocese. He serves as a board member of the National Black Catholic Congress.
Cheri was a choir director and priest at St. Augustine’s and one of the three founding members of the St. Benedict the Black Friary in East St. Louis, Mizicko said. The parish church was formerly named St. Joseph’s and was renamed when several parishes merged into one campus. The Belleville diocese’s then bishop Wilton Gregory invited the Franciscans to open a friary and help at the parish.
Cheri’s day job was as a student and college counselor and choir director at Althoff High School. Staff who have warm memories of him were pleased. Cheri left the high school five years ago so none of the current students worked with Father Ferd but some had heard his excellent gospel choir, which regularly sang at Mass at the Belleville diocese’s elementary schools, John Bouc, Althoff director of campus ministry, said. The racially diverse choir of about 40 students sang at concerts around the region including the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis’ Grand Center.
“It was a really powerful moving choir,” Bouc said. “Their passion and energy really brought down the Holy Spirit like thunder at Mass.”
“Father Ferd was a real gift for our school, such a blessing,” Bouc said. The charismatic musician was well loved and an especially warm role model for African-American students who made up about 20 percent of the students, he said.
“To this day his influence continues in Althoff music.” Bouc said.
Cheri wore his brown Franciscan robes for the press conference in New Orleans. He was born in New Orleans graduated from its Notre Dame Seminary and holds an M.A. in divinity from the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University there.
His route to bishop is unusual.
He was ordained as a diocesan priest in 1978. For the first 13 years of this priesthood, he served in his native city as pastor of two poor New Orleans parishes and an administrator of a third. He lived alone and didn't like that. The priest shortage means the days of four and five priests supporting each other and sharing community prayer and meals in a parish rectory were past. He looked at religious orders who were supportive of his work mostly with poor parishes and with youth. After years of prayer under his spiritual director, Cheri chose to join the “brown friars” of Franciscans taking vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. Since then he has mostly worked as a chaplain in high schools and colleges
At the announcement press conference in New Orleans Monday, Cheri said he was surprised by a phone call one Saturday morning before Christmas. He was surprised to learn that pope was requesting that Cheri agree to become a bishop. The caller gave him until the following Monday to give the Vatican his answer. Cheri asked a few questions before he discovered that the caller was the papal nuncio in Washington. He was sworn to secrecy until the Vatican made the announcement. That silence was challenging over Christmas in New Orleans when he joined his elderly mother and several siblings, nieces and nephews. As always, they asked when he would return to the Crescent City. He didn't fib, just evaded.
At the press conference, he declared his love for New Orleans. He had followed the changes in the city after the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina. He returned many times to join his siblings in helping his mother fix, then move back into her badly damaged home. He said that he always took New Orleans with him in his Illinois assignments, and not just its music. At Quincy U. he once was a “guest cook” and made gumbo for 400.
At the press conference The New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond noted that 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the ordination of the first African-American bishop -- Harold Perry -- as an auxiliary in New Orleans. An auxiliary works for a metropolitan bishop but holds powers as a bishop and equal vote beside bishop, archbishop and cardinals at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Though often overlooked, more African Americans are Catholic than belong to many Protestant bodies including the Episcopal Church.
Cheri will become the eight African-American bishop this spring. Five of those have served in this region. Wilton Gregory, led the Belleville diocese when he served as president of the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops and recruited the Franciscans to Belleville. Gregory now the Atlanta Archbishop is the highest ranking of the group. St. Louis has had two African-American auxiliary bishops: J. Terry Steib, who now is the Memphis bishop, and Edward Braxton who left St. Louis for the Lake Charles, La., diocese and is now the bishop in Belleville.