Cathedral Celebrates New High Altar Relief

On Aug. 17, the Diocese of Shreveport celebrated the blessing and dedication of a new high altar relief at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans. When the Cathedral underwent renovations earlier this year, the cathedra (bishop’s chair) was relocated, per Bishop Duca’s request to be closer to the people, from its place behind the altar to its current position on the left side of the sanctuary, which left an undecorated area behind the altar. An anonymous benefactor generously donated funds for the creation and installation of a new high altar relief, and the chosen design is stunningly beautiful. It depicts the Last Holy Communion of the patron saint of the cathedral parish, St. John Berchmans.

Established in 1902, the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans is the only Cathedral with him as its patron saint. In attendance was Fr. Felix van Meerbergen, pastor of the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Diest, Belgium, where St. John Berchmans was baptized and home of the original high altar relief on which the one in Shreveport is based.

St. John Berchmans’ piety was truly extraordinary. He served at Mass each morning and sometimes two Masses in a row. In all that he did, he sought perfection, but he manifested a profound humility, charity and interior peace that caused him to advance unceasingly on the road of virtue that leads directly to heaven. During his three years as a Jesuit novice in Rome, he gave continual proof of his perfect sanctity. He left nothing to chance but entrusted everything to the intercession of his Heavenly Mother, to whom his devotion increased day by day.

The story of St. John Berchmans’ last days is a touching one. He was overcome with a fever, and in a residence of several hundred priests and students, every single one followed the progress of his illness with anxious compassion. When it became clear that he would not recover, the infirmarian told his patient that he would likely receive Holy Communion as viaticum the following morning, an exception to the rule at the time that prescribed it only for Sundays.

Fr. Cepari, who gave St. John Berchmans his last Holy Communion, gave the following account:

A mattress was then laid on the floor, and he was stretched upon it, in the habit he loved so well. The room began rapidly to fill, and none could restrain their tears when they saw the wasted frame of him they loved so well on that lowly bed, and heard the burning words of love which, as if unconscious of their presence, he addressed, now to Jesus, and now to Mary…Berchmans lay motionless, absorbed in prayer; but the moment the Father drew near to place the Sacred Host on his tongue, then, he bounded up and threw himself on his knees, but his love was greater than his strength, and he would have fallen had not two who were at his side supported him under each arm. And kneeling thus…he broke forth into a magnificent Latin act of faith, unstudied and unprepared, his voice vibrating with love, which gave it a power and clearness far beyond its natural strength. “I declare that there is here really present the Son of God the Father Almighty, and of the most Blessed Mary, ever a Virgin…” …As soon as John had received his Lord, he bowed down his head, placed his arms cross wise on his breast, and remained completely taken up with the fervent reception he offered his Heavenly Guest. Nearby were his little crucifix and his rule-book, with the rosary entwined around them.

A seminarian from Diest, Jens Incognito, accompanied Fr. Felix to Shreveport, and on Aug. 13, the anniversary of the death of St. John Berchmans, the two along with Fr. Peter Mangum made a pilgrimage to Grand Coteau, LA, the site of a miracle that led to St. John’s canonization in 1888. At the Convent at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, he appeared to Mary Wilson, who, the day before she was to become a novice, fell gravely ill. After several months of weakening condition, it became clear she would die. She was offered what was thought to be the last Holy Communion. On the ninth day of a novena to Blessed John Berchmans, the saint appeared to her during prayers, and she was immediately healed.

Bishop Duca presided at the beautiful liturgy. Present also were Fr. Mangum and seven sisters from the Academy of the Sacred Heart, the project coordinator, Jeff Slusher, and the sculptor of the new high altar relief, Carolann Haggard. Sculpted in a studio outside of Rome from marble from Macedonia, the relief is truly breathtaking and will be a religious and creative inspiration to all who enter the Cathedral for generations to come.

by Kelly Phelan Powell

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