30 years ago, Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans
The leader of the world’s Catholics spent most of the weekend of Sept. 11-13, 1987, in New Orleans as part of a nine-city cross-country tour. In one jam-packed day, he visited with 3,000 clergy and religious in St. Louis Cathedral; addressed representatives of black Catholics, young people and educators in three Superdome sessions; celebrated Mass before 130,000 rain-drenched people at the University of New Orleans; and spoke about higher education at Xavier University.
Among the few tangible reminders of the historic visit are a plaque sunk into the flagstones in front of St. Louis Cathedral proclaiming the area “Place Jean Paul Deux,” and a marker at Xavier showing where the pope stood. But the intangibles — memories — are another matter. Archbishop Philip Hannan, who played host to the pope near the end of his tenure as the spiritual leader of New Orleans-area Catholics, said it was his best day ever.
- In addition to a bevy of politicians who greeted the pope when he landed in New Orleans, the Olympia Brass Band provided a frisky salute. Milton Batiste, a trumpeter, gave the pope a purple second-line umbrella his wife had decorated.
- When he stepped on the altar at UNO, he did so before a sprawling crowd that had baked in relentless sunshine and then been drenched in a downpour. As soon as the pontiff started speaking, the rain stopped.
- Three major local musicians — Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and Ronnie Kole — played during the Mass.
- Carlos Oviedo, who had just graduated from Bonnabel High School, was chosen to give the pope a gift during the youth rally. When he offered greetings from Nicaraguans driven into exile by communism, the pope enveloped Oviedo in a bear hug and whispered prayers for Nicaragua, in Spanish, into the young man’s ear.
- The pope spent two nights at Hannan’s official residence on the Notre Dame Seminary campus, where he ate off Lenox china that the company had donated. Each piece bore the archbishop’s and the pope’s coats of arms.
- John Paul died in 2005 and was canonized, along with Pope John XXIII, in 2014.
New Orleans has been a heavily Catholic city since its founding. The papal visit, the result of 16 months of planning, was an acknowledgment of the importance of the city and its people to the Church. A Times-Picayune survey a year later found that 75 percent of the respondents said that seeing John Paul provoked a spiritual renewal in their lives. Bishop Roger Morin, one of the celebrants at the UNO Mass, called that service “a mountaintop experience” and added, “If you’ve had a mystical moment every now and then in prayer or meditation, where something happens and you know that it happened, your faith is more real at that given moment.”