The Very Rev. Michael Jacques, a priest and community organizer who steered his 6th Ward Catholic parish to advocate for housing, education and prison reform, died of a heart attack early Friday, the Archdiocese of New Orleans said. He was 64.
Jacques died about 2 a.m. at Ochsner Foundation Hospital, shortly after being admitted Thursday evening for persistent chest pain over several days, Archbishop Gregory Aymond said.
Doctors found he had already had a heart attack. They attempted a repair through cardiac angioplasty, “but found there was too much damage,” Aymond said.
For 28 years Jacques was pastor of St. Peter Claver Parish, a predominantly African-American congregation of about 2,400 families who lived in and around Treme.
Friends and associates said Jacques spent decades cultivating parishioners for positions of leadership and joined with them in pressing city leaders for better neighborhood schools, housing, police protection and other improvements.
In 2008 and 2009 he became controversial, however, for his key role in helping Archbishop Alfred Hughes identify approximately three dozen Catholic parishes for closure after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
Some of those closures provoked fierce public resistance, with some parishioners occupying their churches in protest.
News of his unexpected death flashed through the Peter Claver community before dawn, friends said.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu praised Jacques as a “giant … who tirelessly advocated for the Treme neighborhood. It was common for Father Mike to remind his parishioners of the call we have to love and serve our community.”
Former Mayor Ray Nagin said via Twitter that “God has called home a good servant & dear friend who will b(e)missed.”
Daniel Schwartz, the executive director of the Micah Project, a faith-based community organizing group, praised Jacques on Friday for his expansive view of living in faith.
“For him faith was community action,” Schwartz said. “Faith was about building relationships. He integrated moral sensitivity and political savviness. He was wise to the world, but it was his moral compass that anchored him.”
Jacques helped organize campaigns for more police protection and crackdowns on noxious neighborhood bars and motels. More recently he and local community leaders helped select a new charter school operator for the nearby Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, Schwartz said.
Jacques, who was white, was a native of Maine who said he had almost no contact with African-American culture in his youth. But he joined the Society of St. Edmund, a Catholic religious order that ministers to African-Americans. He was ordained in 1982.
While at St. Peter, Jacques helped parishioners shape Masses and other rituals into events using African vestments, music and symbols in service to Catholic theology.
He became a senior priest in the archdiocese.
“For Archbishop Hughes and me, he was certainly a person we’d go to for advice,” Aymond said. “He believed in a church that was poor and for the poor, one that calls us to humility and simplicity. So we not only reach out to the poor, we become a voice in the structure of the civic community calling on others to listen to needs of poor.”
The day before he died, Jacques had returned to New Orleans from New York, where he had buried an older brother, Roger.
Funeral services, still incomplete, will be at St. Peter Claver Friday and June 15, Aymond said.
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