New Catholic center reaches out to transient population

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond and other local Catholics gathered Sunday to celebrate the opening of the Bishop Perry Center, a new outreach mission at Dauphine and Touro streets that will focus on reaching out to the transient population of the Marigny, Bywater and French Quarter neighborhoods.

“This is an opportunity for us as a church to open wide our arms and our hearts and say all are welcome,” Aymond said.

The building, which was built as a church in 1859, was most recently used as an alternative school for pregnant girls, called St. Gerard Majella, between 2006 and 2012.

According to Father William Maestri, who will oversee the ministry, work began in January to transform the building so it could serve both the physical and spiritual needs of those in the area.

Maestri said the center will have a food pantry and a supply of free clothing for those who need it. It also will offer computer literacy classes and GED classes.

Mass will be said each day in the chapel, and spiritual guidance will be available for those who desire it, Maestri said.

He stressed the facility is open to all, regardless of their beliefs.

“Part of respecting people is respecting their freedom,” he said.

The ministry is named after Bishop Harold Perry, who became the nation’s first African-American bishop when he was appointed by the pope in 1966. He served until his death in 1991.

Aymond said Perry was sometimes harassed because of his race, but managed to keep great composure despite the verbal attacks.

“Literally, at his ordination at St. Louis Cathedral, there were protests because of his race,” Aymond said.

Maestri said he remembered Perry as a man of great compassion who was often able to find common ground between different groups. He was known for his outreach in the African-American community.

Between 1994 and 2005, a free Catholic school for boys operated at the site of the new center.

Aymond said the center is among a handful of programs the archdiocese has either created or re-energized as a response to Pope Francis’s call for Catholics to increase charitable work.

The archbishop cited a Bible verse from Matthew as the root of the church’s commitment to help others.

“Jesus said, ‘When I was a stranger you took me in. When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat,’” he said.

Aymond said that in addition to the Perry Center, the archdiocese is intensifying its prison ministry and its outreach to gay, lesbian and transgender Catholics. The church will also start holding retreats next month for couples who are suffering from the emotional effects of having an abortion.

On Sunday, Aymond blessed the new facility, and a portrait of Bishop Perry was unveiled on the wall.

Outside, a brightly painted mural chronicled the history of the building from its advent to the present day.

Aymond said he believes the new mission will be an asset to the Marigny neighborhood.

“We think it’s going to be a very vibrant part of the heartbeat of the area,” he said.