Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Archbishop and Mrs. Gaillot.

The above photograph was carried in the pages of Life fifty years ago this month, capturing a dramatic meeting that occurred on Tuesday, April 17, 1962 between 85-year-old New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel and 41-year-old housewife and community activist Una Gaillot. This image has been making the round of the Catholic blogosphere this week with appearances at Conciliaria and on The Deacon's Bench, offering a reminder of a sad though fascinating chapter in American Catholic history.

Earlier in the spring of 1962, Archbishop Rummel had announced that Catholic schools in New Orleans would be desegregated at the start of the 1962-63 school year. The mother of two parochial school students, Mrs. Gaillot led grassroots opposition to the Archbishop's decision. As president of a pro-segregation group called Save Our Nation, Inc., Gaillot declared that "it's God's law to segregate," directly challenging Rummel's view that Catholic teachings supported integration and urging her fellow Catholics to resist what she regarded as heresy. Archbishop Rummel wrote privately to Mrs. Gaillot urging her to back down and accept his decision, but she refused.

On April 16, 1962 - which happened to be Monday of Holy Week - Archbishop Rummel announced the excommunication of Una Gaillot and two other outspoken opponents of integration, Judge Leander Perez and political activist Jackson Ricau. As seen in the above photo, Mrs. Gaillot confronted the Archbishop the very next day at a public event on the grounds of Notre Dame Seminary. This image captures the drama of the moment: the elderly Archbishop, dignified and unyielding; Mrs. Gaillot kneeling, her face unseen and her intentions unclear to the viewer; the women in the background looking on with what appears to be a mixture of surprise and impatience. What the image doesn't reveal is that Una Gaillot knelt not in penitence but in defiance: she did not ask Archbishop Rummel for forgiveness, but instead urged him to admit that he was wrong to excommunicate her. Archbishop Rummel offered no reply and walked away in silence.

A couple of years ago, I heard a Jesuit historian knowledgeable about this period say that Una Gaillot was still alive and that she remained unrepentant; I haven't found any indication to the contrary, so I presume that Una Gaillot is still living today, unreconciled even in her early nineties. The most recent statement on point that I could find on the Internet comes from this 2004 article:
. . . Of the three, only Gaillot is still alive. She remains committed to her segregationist views and defiantly outside the church. She believes her excommunication violates church law. It appears that she has not set foot in a Catholic church since 1962.

Although she is close to her children, she refused to attend her sons' weddings, she said. She watched one son's ceremony through a church's rear double doors held open for a mother's benefit.

She will not give in. But defiance takes its toll, she acknowledged. "If you only knew how hard it is. It used to be harder; it's starting to help."

"But Good Friday," - she hesitated, tearing up - "Damn, Good Friday's hard. And Easter Sunday. Those two days are hard. Because I can't go to church."
These are poignant words, the testimony of a woman who seems to remain a Catholic believer in an interior sense but cannot bring herself to publicly reconcile with the Church; Una Gaillot feels the pain of separation, but she seems unable to do what is needed to repair the breach. Only a person who knows that the faith of the Church is true can utter this kind of 'non serviam,' the admission that one knows what one ought to do but still cannot bring oneself to do it.

In this Easter Season, when so many of us unhesitatingly affirm that Christ is risen, perhaps we can take this story as a kind of warning. Even with our faith invigorated by the experience of Easter, do we resist really doing what we know and affirm to be right? Though we may wish to follow the Risen Christ whom we profess, is there some obstacle - large or small - that consistently holds us back? AMDG.


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