In late 2006 Pope Benedict XVI surprised and gladdened the Catholic community of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by elevating one of their own, Father Shelton Fabre, to the position of auxiliary bishop of New Orleans. Fabre, a lifelong Louisiana resident who had distinguished himself as a thoughtful and devoted leader in the Catholic Church, became just the tenth active African-American bishop in the nation and the youngest in the country. Ministering to the people of New Orleans, a community still wracked by the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Fabre reached out to his new parishioners, promising to aid them in rebuilding their lives. The bishop's motto made his commitment clear: "Comfort My People."
Shelton Joseph Fabre was born on October 25, 1963, in New Roads, Louisiana, the fifth of six children of Luke and Theresa Fabre. He attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools in New Roads, being graduated as valedictorian from Catholic High School of Pointe Coupee in 1981. Fabre enrolled in St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict, Louisiana, earning a bachelor's degree in history in 1985. He continued his education at the American College of the Immaculate Conception of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, completing bachelor's and master's degrees in religious studies.
Fabre was ordained as a priest on August 5, 1989, by Bishop Stanley J. Ott at St. Joseph Cathedral in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Fabre began his career in the church as an associate pastor at St. Alphonsus Liguori Parish in Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, and then at St. George Parish in Baton Rouge. During 1994 he spent a brief period as a chaplain at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. In the mid-1990s he served as an associate pastor at St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Baker, Louisiana, and then at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge. From 1996 to 2004 he served as pastor of the parishes of St. Joseph in Grosse Tete, Louisiana, and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Maringouin, Louisiana, and from 2004 to 2007 as pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and chaplain to St. Joseph's Academy, both in Baton Rouge.
During his eighteen years in Baton Rouge, Fabre served the church in many important administrative capacities as well. He was director of the Office of Black Catholics and acted as a liaison to black Catholics in the diocese from 1990 to 2005. He also chaired the Pastoral Planning Committee of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, acted as dean of the Northwest Deanery of the diocese, served on the Diocesan School Board, and was a member of the College of Consulters and Presbyteral Council.
On December 13, 2006, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Father Fabre auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese of New Orleans, the second-oldest see (bishop's seat) in the United States. Speaking of the appointment, in a statement issued by the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Bishop Robert W. Muench of Baton Rouge described Fabre as a "devoted, gifted, exemplary and highly respected priest, who comes from a faith-filled family." He went on, "He exhibits strong intellect, genuine piety and true fidelity to Christ and the Church. He is especially noted for his humble demeanor, perceptive judgment, zealous ministry and articulate preaching." Bishop Muench also noted that in appointing Fabre to the bishopric, the pope had "recognized the vibrancy of the Catholic faith in the African-American community."
Fabre was consecrated as bishop on February 28, 2007, in a ceremony held at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, in New Orleans. More than four hundred clergy attended the mass, in addition to Fabre's parents and family. As reported in the New Orleans Clarion Herald, during the ordination New Orleans archbishop Alfred C. Hughes, who presided—aided by Bishop John H. Ricard of Florida, Fabre's cousin, and Bishop Muench—called on Fabre to "comfort a people devastated by tragedy." Alluding to Fabre's father, who had worked as a bricklayer, Hughes said, "You are now to build up God's church, not with lifeless bricks, but the living stones of God's people." Going further, Hughes asked Fabre to help New Orleans unite in the face of its difficulties: "Help us to become one people across racial, ethnic and economic lines."
It is customary for each Catholic bishop to adopt an episcopal motto that becomes part of his coat of arms. This motto serves as a public statement of the bishop's priorities, describing what he intends to achieve in his position and how he will work with his parishioners. Bishop Fabre selected the motto "Comfort My People," taken from Isaiah 40:1, as a signal of his commitment to the people of New Orleans, many of whom still struggled to recover from Hurricane Katrina. In an address delivered upon his appointment, Fabre reflected on the challenges facing the city: "I know that life in this great city has changed for so many because of Hurricane Katrina. Your resiliency in faith in response to this tragedy has been witnessed by many…. As so many here in New Orleans seek to rebuild their lives and to renew their hope, it is my fervent desire and prayer that to the best of my ability I will be able in some way to bring assistance, comfort and the assurance of God's love and presence to all who are suffering."
At the time of his ordination, Fabre, then forty-three years old, was the youngest Catholic bishop in the United States. (He no longer holds this distinction, however: On June 2, 2008, Father Oscar Cantú was ordained as bishop in San Antonio, Texas, at age forty-one.) Fabre was also one of only ten active African-American bishops out of the 275 nationwide and the first African American to be appointed bishop by Pope Benedict XVI. During his ordination Fabre, the third African-American auxiliary bishop to serve the New Orleans archdiocese, received the pastoral staff that had belonged to Archbishop Joseph Rummel, who in 1962 set a civil rights precedent by excommunicating three parishioners who opposed his plan to integrate the city's Catholic schools.
At a Glance …
Born Shelton Joseph Fabre on October 25, 1963, in New Roads, LA; son of Luke (a bricklayer) and Theresa Vallet Fabre. Religion: Catholic. Education: St. Joseph Seminary College, BA, history, 1985; American College of the Immaculate Conception, Catholic University of Louvain, BA, religious studies, 1987, MA, religious studies, 1989.
Career: St. Alphonsus Liguori Church, associate pastor, 1989-92; St. George Church, associate pastor, 1992-94; Louisiana State Penitentiary, chaplain, 1994; St. Isidore the Farmer Church, associate pastor, 1994-95; St. Joseph Cathedral, associate pastor, 1995-96; St. Joseph Church, and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, pastor, 1996-2004; Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, pastor, and chaplain to St. Joseph's Academy, 2004-07; Archdiocese of New Orleans, auxiliary bishop, and pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, 2007—.
Memberships: Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, board member; Diocese of Baton Rouge, director of Office of Black Catholics, advisory board member of Catholic Community Services, member-at-large of Presbyteral Council, College of Consulters, clergy representative of Diocesan School Board, member-at-large of Clergy Personnel Board, dean of Northwest Deanery, and chair of Pastoral Planning Committee.
Addresses: Office—c/o Archdiocese of New Orleans, 7887 Walmsley Ave., New Orleans, LA 70125-3431.
In his new position as auxiliary bishop, Fabre took on the duties of vicar general, aiding Bishop Hughes in the administration of the archdiocese, including the ordination of priests and deacons. He also took on the job of pastor at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in New Orleans.
Black Catholic News, December 13, 2006.
New Orleans Clarion Herald, March 10, 2007.
"Bishop Shelton Fabre Ordained," Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, http://www.diobr.org/news/070301a.htm (accessed August 22, 2008).
"Curriculum Vitae Most Reverend Shelton Joseph Fabre," National Black Catholic Congress, http://www.nbccongress.org/aboutus/congress-directory/african-american-catholic-bishop-shelton-fabre.asp (accessed August 22, 2008).
"New Bishop for New Orleans a ‘Devoted, Gifted, Exemplary’ Priest," Catholic News Agency, December 13, 2006, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n_8272 (accessed August 22, 2008).
"Statement of Bishop-Elect Shelton Fabre on Appointment as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans," Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, December 13, 2006, http://www.diobr.org/news/061213d.htm (accessed August 22, 2008).
"Statement of Bishop Muench, Bishop of Baton Rouge, on the Appointment of Father Shelton Fabre as an Auxiliary Bishop of New Orleans," Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, December 13, 2006, http://www.diobr.org/news/061213b.htm (accessed August 22, 2008).
—Deborah A. Ring