By DIANA CHANDLER, Regional Reporter
CHALMETTE — St. Bernard Baptist Church has a mostly new body of believers since Hurricane Katrina, many of them former Catholics displaced from their parishes after the storm.
Paul Gregoire, who has led St. Bernard Baptist for nearly 28 years, had baptized 12 former Catholics into the congregation as of August. That’s sizable, considering the church draws about 35 people on Sundays.
“Almost everybody is new,” Gregoire said. The church’s aging congregation of about 75 believers was permanently displaced by Katrina. Outside of his family of four, only five others were Baptist when they joined the congregation, which has also drawn Lutherans and Presbyterians.
Gregoire is uniquely suited to minister to the group, having converted from Catholicism at age 30. He takes Catholics through the transition by focusing on relationship evangelism and setting a good example.
“I want them to have a personal relationship with Jesus,” Gregoire said. “That’s what I was missing as a Catholic was a personal relationship with Jesus. I want them to not depend on me to do worship service.”
Gregoire said he is excited about restoring the congregation that is about half its pre-Katrina size. He currently takes no salary as pastor, dually employed as registrar of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“I want the church to be stable first.,” Gregoire said. “The church was 40% of my income before Katrina.”
The church moved back into its pre-Katrina property on August 2, 2009, still situated just 150 yards from the Murphy Oil USA refinery, the site of a 25,000-barrel oil spill in the aftermath of the storm. Murphy Oil pursued the church site, but Gregoire said that after 18 months of negotiations, the church chose not to sell.
“Finally their offer was just too little to buy the property. We decided to start renovating the building,” Gregoire said.
St. Bernard Baptist is debt free. Renovations cost about $250,000, covered by insurance and donations from the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund and private donations. The church benefited from private donations and volunteer laborers.
Gregoire appreciates the church’s location, a high traffic area attracting 5,000 passing motorists daily. Murphy Oil has purchased most of the surrounding land, converting the formerly residential area into green space. Gregoire also appreciates that the oil refinery benefits the tax base.
The church’s biggest current expense is insurance, about $3,000 a year, Gregoire said.
Gregoire effectively ministers to the changing congregation, many of whom are accustomed to the Catholic sacraments and the role of the Catholic priest, through discipleship, education and love.
“I have not criticized,” Gregoire said. The key is to “build up who you are, (as a religion), not put down who others are,” he said.
Gregoire has not focused on stewardship, as tithing is not a Catholic teaching.
“We’ve gone from people putting $1 in the plate to putting checks in the plate,” he said. The church gives six percent of its income to the Cooperative Program and is a passionate supporter of the Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home.
Gregoire approaches with education major differences the Baptist church has with Catholicism, such as the method of Baptism and the interpretation of Communion.
“I just explain what it is,” he said, “not saying, ‘What you believe is not true.’ ”
He points out that baptism “doesn’t do anything to you. It doesn’t remove that sin.”
Gregoire understands the Catholic experience. His late father Paul was still a Catholic when he died in 1997, just 19 days after accepting Jesus as his savior. Gregoire preached the funeral.
Gregoire’s wife Mae grew up a Catholic and converted to the Baptist faith after accepting Jesus at an Amway Convention, Gregoire said, and his sister-in-law is a nun.
“People say I wish I could go back and change things. I don’t, because everything I’ve been through led me to here,” he said. “My mother (Marion) got saved at my Baptism and my little sister got saved when my mom was baptized.”
Gregoire recalls his own salvation experience.
In 1980, he was dating a Baptist woman who invited him to a revival. Attending the last night, he heard a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer and was struck by the reference to forgiving others their trespasses. The sermon reminded him of someone he had yet to forgive.
“The next morning I drove to that person’s house and asked the Lord into my heart,” he said, and joined the church during a special Saturday morning worship service that same November day.
Within two months, he was teaching the senior boys’ Sunday School class. He enrolled in seminary in March, 1982, less than two years after his conversion.
Gregoire is growing disciples by initiating community outreach events, such as block parties and Vacation Bible School. He hopes to add a Wednesday night service focusing on Baptist beliefs and to restart its pre-Katrina Spanish mission.
“We’re into sharing Christ in whatever manner we can,” he said. “We want to be that beacon of light, that people see that we’re different from other people because we have Christ in our life.”