Howard Hall was born on March 10, 1936 to Earl and Alethia B. Hall. Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he first served the Church as a devout altar boy in his home parish. In the 10th grade, he entered the minor seminary of St. Joseph, operated by Benedictine monks near Covington, Louisiana. He completed his seminary studies at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and was awarded a Master’s Degree in Religious Education. The Diocese of Baton Rouge was established in 1961, and Fr. Howard was in the first group of priests ordained for service to that diocese, on March 17, 1962.
Coming into the priesthood during the tumultuous decade of the 1960’s, Fr. Howard eagerly embraced the historic changes in church and society ushered in by the Southern Civil Rights Movement and Vatican Council II. Despite some opposition from the pews, the Baton Rouge Diocese was successful in bringing integration to parishes and classrooms, along with major changes in liturgy and theological outlook. Through the transformative events of that era, Fr. Howard would retain a life-long commitment to social justice and reconciliation as being central to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
While the confines of seminary life delayed self-awareness of his sexual orientation, rectory living was less confining, and Fr. Howard soon came to terms with this aspect of himself. He worked to integrate his sexuality with his spirituality so it could be authentically expressed within his priestly vocation. He also recognized there were gays and lesbians among his parishioners, but they often lived closeted lives of fear and self-loathing. In the spirit of compassion he began to reach out to them in the confessional and in private conversation.
In 1973, a gay parishioner shared how he had attended a meeting of a new organization for gay and lesbian Catholics, called Dignity, during a visit to San Diego, California. They met to discuss the conundrum of their being both gay and Catholic. Fr. Howard was intrigued and agreed to assist in forming a chapter of Dignity in Baton Rouge. It was among the first Dignity chapters established outside of California. Later that summer, the first National Convention of Dignity was held in West Hollywood. Fr. Howard was sent by the nascent Baton Rouge chapter as a delegate. Uncertain about what he would encounter, he found himself among a handful of clergy and religious, and a lively group of faithful gay and lesbian Catholics. While in Los Angeles, he was invited to participate on a panel discussing “Religion and the Homosexual” that also included the Rev. Troy Perry. That event was sponsored by ONE, Inc., an early West Coast homophile organization.
In the mid-70’s, Howard was assigned to the Catholic Student Center at Louisiana State University, and the Dignity chapter began meeting there. Thereafter, L.S.U. students formed a prominent role in the life of the small chapter. By the 1980’s Fr. Howard had moved from being an Assistant Pastor to Pastor. In 1981, he led a weekend Dignity Retreat, at his parish. That summer he served as a delegate to the Dignity Convention held in Seattle. It was evident that Dignity had grown in numbers and confidence. After nearly a decade of serving as “chaplain” for the Baton Rouge chapter, he concluded it was time to take a back-seat role and allow the capable lay leadership of Dignity/BR to chart their own course. He hoped to widen his ministry to effect change in the larger Church and civil community.
There were several times in the 1980’s, when Fr. Howard made arrangements to have Fr. Bob Nugent and/or Sr. Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry in Maryland bring their ground-breaking “Bridge-Building” workshops to Baton Rouge. In 1984, Fr. Howard became a co-founder of the Baton Rouge chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG). This group soon became a successful support group where young gays and lesbians and parents could dialogue and receive assistance with the process of “coming-out”. Howard formed enduring friendships with the parents he met through P-FLAG. Although the chapter became dormant after a number of years, it experienced later revival.
In the mid-80’s, the AIDS epidemic hit Baton Rouge like a bombshell. Fr. Howard was invited to join the Board of the newly-formed Baton Rouge AIDS Task Force, and he marshaled support from the inter-faith community. He headed up planning for the first several AIDS Candlelight Memorial Services. He goaded the Catholic hospital system to take a major role in service-provision, and assisted in the founding and on-going support of St. Anthony’s House, an AIDS hospice. Later he helped bring the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN) to the area, a project in which care teams were formed by parishes and congregations to provide social support to persons living with AIDS. These projects have continued to the present-day.
Fr. Howard offered the use of his parish hall when Dignity/Baton Rouge hosted a Regional Dignity Conference at a nearby Holiday Inn in the Spring of 1986. However, in late 1986, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) issued his edict which banned Church support for gay and lesbian ministries unless they upheld traditional teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual acts. This effectively banned involvement of diocesan clergy with Dignity, and the local chapter soon became defunct. A couple gay men approached Fr. Howard about forming a group for spiritual direction. Bishop Stanley Ott suggested they become a chapter of Courage, a pontifically-approved organization. While Fr. Howard was willing to provide spirital direction, he was not in agreement with the rigidly doctrinaire stance of Courage and it’s endorsement of reparative therapy. Thus, he was relieved when lack of interest and closeted leadership soon led to the demise of the Courage chapter.
In 1990, Fr. Howard was re-assigned to St. James Parish in the lower rural reaches of the Diocese. Being at some distance from Baton Rouge inhibited involvement with gay/lesbian community activities. This was also the case with his next pastorate in Morganza, far up-river at the other end of the Diocese. Nevertheless, he turned these into fruitful assignments, and continued to make known to his parishioners his passion for a more inclusive Church. He devoted more time to deepening his own spiritual journey, and found time to shared his reflections at diocesan workshops, clergy support groups, and in several journal articles on the spiritual needs and gifts of gays and lesbians, and of gay clergy and religious.
In the mid-90’s Howard became associated with the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries, led by Fr. Jim Schexnayder of Oakland, California. The approach of this organization was much like a “Plan for Diocesan Gay/Lesbian Ministry” that Fr. Howard had floated in the mid-’80’s, but which was tabled by Bishop Stanley Ott. Such initiatives had come to fruition in a few dioceses, and NACDLGM was formed as a resource network for them. Howard was able to secure the approval of Bishop Alfred Hughes for such a ministry under the umbrella of Catholic Community Services, called DBR/HOPE. It brought together lesbians, gays, and family members, for small-group sharing, reflection, and occasional liturgies. They received a surprising boost from the 1998 letter from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled “Always Our Children”, which urged parents to love and support their children regardless of their sexual orientation. Fr. Howard began attending the yearly Conventions of NACDLGM, where he was recognized as a senior sage of Catholic lesbian/gay ministry. He was invited to serve a term on the National Board. During this time, a decision was made to change the name to The Catholic Association of Lesbian Gay Ministries (CALGM), reflecting the growth of parish and campus-based ministries.
Retreats had served a seminal role in Fr. Howard’s spiritual life. In the early ‘90’s he had arranged an intensive four-day retreat for a group of gay priests led by psychotherapist Dr. Vincent Bilotta. These priests have continued to meet twice yearly ever since that formative experience. In 2006, at the instigation of Fr. Howard, the Jesuit Spirituality Center in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, agreed to host a retreat for Gays and Lesbians. Fr. Jim Schexnayder flew in from California to serve as retreat-master, and returned for the next four years. It was so successful that spin-off retreats were organized in Houston and Tampa. Once again, an initiative of Fr. Howard’s had far-reaching spiritual and social benefits for gay and lesbian Christians.
Fr. Howard felt wounded, when in 2005 “An Instruction Concerning the Criteria for Discernment of Vocations With Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to Seminary and to Holy Orders” was issued by the Roman Curia. It implied that homosexuality led to pedophilia and declared that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or involved in “gay culture” should not be permitted in the priesthood. This impugned the integrity of his dedicated and faithful ministry and that of thousands of gay clergy. In response, Fr. Howard wrote to the directors of clergy formation and education in every diocese in the country, asking them to consider the hurtful implications of such an official stance by the Catholic Church.
Chronic health problems led to Fr. Howard’s retirement from full-time ministry for the Diocese in 2004. He moved to his “Vicarage” in rural Wakefield, but his diminished health made upkeep of the property untenable, and in a few years he returned to Baton Rouge. There he settled into a cozy apartment in the gay-friendly Spanish-Town neighborhood. He would have opportunity to carry on his sacramental ministry at life-passage events, and volunteered to celebrate Sunday Mass at the Catholic Deaf Center for two years.
In May of 2011 Fr. Howard was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. He was hospitalized and medical treatment helped stabilize growth of the tumor. He moved into the Ollie Steele Burden Manor, operated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady. There he ministered to other residents, received a stream of visitors, and redecorated the Prayer Chapel. After it was found that the cancer had spread into his liver, Fr. Howard entered hospice care in early January and died on January 30, 2012. Although in life he had often seemed a lone figure in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, in death he was given a grand farewell at his Funeral Liturgy in St. Joseph Cathedral; celebrated by two bishops and most of the priests of the Diocese. He was buried in a simple pine coffin with rope straps. The message he had inscribed on his headstone reads, “ONE WHO KEENLY FELT HIS OWN LIMITS, AND REACHED OUT TO SUPPORT THE PAIN AND GROWTH OF OTHERS, ONE BY ONE, IN MANY LITTLE WAYS, ONE DAY AT A TIME”
(This biographical statement written by Joseph McCarty, L.C.S.W. in consultation with Howard Hall.)
Biography Date: December, 2011
Roman Catholic | Gramick, Jeannine | Nugent, Robert | Schexnayder, James | Dignity | National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian & Gay Ministries (NACDLGM) | New Ways Ministry | AIDS | Clergy Activist | Baton Rouge | Louisiana
“Below is the homily offered at the Funeral Mass of Fr. Howard Hall on Feb.4, 2012 at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by his seminary classmate and close friend, Msgr. Paul Metrejean
I begin with a poem. It was written by Thomas Merton around the year Howard was ordained a priest. It sums up well what I want to say in this homily. And if you get the poem, you can ignore the words by me that follow. It is called "When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple..."
When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.
Stars, as well as friends, Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions.
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.
Here you will find Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways, No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.
What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom Of men without visions.
The poor in spirit whom Jesus blesses in the gospel we read today are those who ultimately surrender everything they are and have into the hands of God, the ultimate Mystery. And the ultimate surrender we make to him is our dying. Many of us walked with Fr. Howard Hall in his journey of surrender and his journey of dying. We learned up close what being poor in spirit means. We watched him make the ultimate surrender with Jesus on the cross through his own cross of suffering and his offering of trust. "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." But as we walked with him to that final surrender, we saw many other dyings along the way: his faith in Mystery, his letting go, his giving in, his becoming more and more a man who was truly poor in spirit.
The final journey began perhaps several years ago with his first bout with cancer. It was his first reminder, he said, of aging, of mortality, of weakening, of death. One health problem followed upon another until he lived in constant pain, bent over and stooped, barely able to move his head from side to side or to turn his neck at all. I must confess that riding while he drove became an act of profound faith and fear, and the only thing that frightened me more was the prospect of having me behind the wheel. Howard loved to travel: from New York to California, from Eureka Springs to Chicago he had friends and family whom he would visit regularly. Travel was always an adventure for him.
He and I spent a summer in Europe several years ago and although it was my sixth or seventh trip, it was his first. But I saw things and places I had never seen before or even knew about. He dragged me, I think, up every tower in Paris, Florence, Venice and half of Rome. "Why are we doing this?," I asked repeatedly. "Because it's a whole new way of seeing things," he would answer. I was exhausted. He was exhilarated. That was Howard, the explorer, the adventurer, the one who aways wanted and was open to new ways of seeing things.
We first met 56 years ago, gawky 20-year-old seminarians at Notre Dame Seminary. Our classmates, some of whom are here today, have met together for a reunion each year since ordination. Howard never missed. He was always loyal, faithful, dependable. As I recall those days, Howard was tall and thin and had a distinctly nasal Baton Rouge accent. He was artistic, talented, dedicated. But he impressed me most because he was interested in everything and had an unbelievable grasp for details and organization. And he had a deep passion for social justice. That passion was to play itself out through all the years of priesthood: his work for civil rights, for liturgies that children could grasp and understand, his devotion to the Christian Family Movement, Engaged and Marriage Encounter, campus ministry. His courageous and often heroic ministry for gay and lesbian issues, his care for the poor, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the misunderstood and the broken and his final ministering to the hearing impaired. They all taught him more and more to identify with the poor in spirit and to become truly poor in spirit. In his doing justice and loving goodness he learned to walk humbly with his God and to hunger and thirst for righteousness and mercy.
As his health steadily deteriorated, he had to surrender more. He had to let go of his beloved vicarage in Wakefield, his books, his art work, his cultural involvements in the communities he lived in, his travel treasures, his ability to travel, his apartment in Spanish Town and his constant companion, his dog, Nikki. After last summer's diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, he could visit out-of-town and state no more, but was happy to receive visitors. His special gift of hospitality never waned. Nor did his love and loyalty to his sister, his brother-in-law, his nieces and their families, his innumerable friends from every walk of life and his priest support groups. Not long ago when Doug Brouher, Michael Jung and I visited him, he was unable to come out with us, but provided us with a list of restaurants near the nursing facility with detailed directions on how to get there. And if I remember correctly, he pretty much knew the menus by heart. On another occasion when I visited him at Ollie Steele Burden he showed me how he had completely reorganized his phone and address book, his plans for renovating the prayer chapel next to his room and his detailed directions on how the kitchen services could be improved.
To be poor in spirit is to trust in God's unfailing, unconditional and steadfast love and to believe that neither death nor life nor any other creature can ever separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus. Like Jesus and Mary, Howard opened his heart to allow God to do great things in that great heart of his. The Father gazed upon his lowly servant and saw his own mercy and his Son's self-emptying surrender. Howard breathed his last quietly and peacefully and was welcomed joyfully into a new and eternal adventure. He was given a new home and offered divine hospitality he is sure to have recognized and appreciated. The last word, however, is to be Howard's. He left this mesage for me to read to you -- the last detail in a life full of wondrous detail.
"My dear friends: In whatever manner and at whatever time God chooses to close the book of my life on earth, I want the following footnote to be appended to my final chapter. I am grateful to the family that gave me life, my parents and grandparents whom I was privileged to know and live with. Special also was the love and support of my sister Lea and her husband Jack Allen and their two children, Donna Whalley and Shannon Guidry. Another meaningful gift has been the understanding and supportive gift of friendship of numerous persons who have touched my life over the years, including the fraternity of my brother priests. I recall my spiritual roots in St. Joseph Cathedral and Our Lady of Mercy Church and the guidance and inspiration of the Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Abbey. I deeply appreciate the people and events in the parishes and ministries I have served, especially the four parishes I pastored, as we shared both joys and sorrows together. From the blessings of the past I hand on now a request for p[rayer] for my eternal life and for a continuation of the ministry, especially toward those who are hurting or broken in any way. I also ask forgiveness of all whom i may have hurt in any way during my entire life. One of my frequent prayers has been: "Lord, grant that what I do or say may never lead a soul astray." I also forgive any who might feel they have hurt me. I want them to experience only peace and love." Peace and love to you, Howard,
...serene disciple, man of freedom, hero of justice. And thanks for letting us share your journey. Paul Metrejean 136 Metrejean Lane Opelousas, LA 70570 (337) 942-6123”
– as remembered by Joseph McCarty on March 16, 2012
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