Courtesy of CLN Board Member Donna Mitchell
After a lengthy illness, the Most Reverend Fernand Joseph Cheri, III, OFM, Auxiliary Bishop of New Orleans, transitioned on March 21, 2023. New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Michael Aymond expressed what most who knew Bishop Cheri are feeling about this 71-year-old Black Catholic icon: “We mourn his death and thank God for his life and ministry.”
The dioceses with the largest percentage of Black Catholics are centered in the Deep South. Black Catholicism has much of its roots and current fervor in New Orleans. Bishop Cheri was a product of this heritage. He was one of only seven Black Bishops in the United States. He was a true New Orleanian and the pride of Black Catholics in his native city. It is not often that a priest is educated and serves most of his life in his native city. Bishop Cheri was the exception. He attended Epiphany Elementary School and St. John Prep in New Orleans. He received a Masters of Divinity at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and a Masters of Theology from the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University, New Orleans. His matriculation at St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict, Louisiana was the exception.
Bishop Cheri was ordained to the priesthood on May 20, 1978 at St. Louis Cathedral, the year I graduated from high school. I have seen his constructive influence in the community most of my life. After his ordination, he served as Associate Pastor of several parishes around the archdiocese as well as pastor at St. Francis de Sales Parish in New Orleans.
In 1996, he made his solemn profession in the Order of Friars Minor in the Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and became a Franciscan. Bishop Cheri spent several years dedicated to campus ministry at Quincy University in Quincy, IL. He returned to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, when his Episcopal Ordination as Auxiliary Bishop of New Orleans, and Titular Bishop of Membressa took place on March 23, 2015. He served as Auxiliary Bishop since his ordination and recently served the people of St. Peter Claver Parish, a predominately Black parish since 1920, as Administrator.
His gift of song was his trademark. In the beginning, ending and sometimes in the middle of his homilies he included a relevant song. Bishop Cheri was a popular guest speaker and revivalist. He traveled within the Archdiocese of New Orleans and nationally preaching and sharing his love of music. He loved ministering to the youth. I fondly remember the invigorating message he addressed the youth at my parish’s confirmation mass a few years ago, capturing their attention with song throughout the service. During COVID, when many watched televised masses, he was seen often at St. Louis Cathedral encouraging all through his homily, singing, and broad infectious smile. He was also an unapologetic supporter of social justice. After the George Floyd murder he led a large peaceful march that ended in a prayer service titled “The Requiem of the Black Children of God”.
In addition to his pastoral assignments, Bishop Cheri served as a member of the College of Consultors, was a teacher at St. Augustine High School, New Orleans, and campus minister at Xavier University, New Orleans. He served as the Vocation Minister for the OFM St. Louis Province, served on the Archbishop James P. Lyke Foundation, Catholic Campus Ministry Association, Episcopal Liaison to the African Congress Board of Trustees, and convener of the U.S. African American Bishops. Bishop Cheri was also very influential and active with the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver and the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University.
I thank God for Bishop Cheri’s positive impact in the lives of so many; black and white, residing in New Orleans and those across the country who knew him. His smile, humor, charisma, and gift of delivering God’s word through song and storytelling will be greatly missed.