St. Francis Xavier Church Remains True to its Mission

Michelle Phipps-Evans | 6/19/2013, 3 p.m.
Ward 7 resident Joel Nash-Lebeau walked among the flowers and shrubbery at a recent garden tour, hosted by the Hillcrest ...
Joel Nash-Lebeau enjoys an afternoon at home. She lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Ward 7. Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah

Ward 7 resident Joel Nash-Lebeau walked among the flowers and shrubbery at a recent garden tour, hosted by the Hillcrest Community Civic Association. Her eyes glowed as she listened to the many gardening tips provided by homeowners all too willing to share.

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” said Nash-Lebeau, 64, a Hillcrest resident since 2009. “It’s good to connect [with] neighbors and to see all these lovely gardens.” Built 1924, Nash-Lebeau’s home on 33rd Street in Southeast, wasn’t far from the tour, which occurred on a warm Saturday in mid-June.

In retrospect, Nash-Lebeau said “everything is a blessing.” She works as an administrative assistant in an office within the Executive Office of the President, makes a living wage, and enjoys a good life in the District.

It’s hard to imagine that eight years ago, she and her then-20-year-old son, Bertrand Jr., or B.J., fled from New Orleans, La., because of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane, described as the deadliest and most destructive hurricane in the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, claimed the lives of 1,833 people during the storm and in the subsequent floods after the levees broke.

“I lost everything,” said Nash-Lebeau, a commissioned artist, who moved to D.C. in September 2005, after she and B.J. survived what she described as “three days of horror with hardly any food or water,” while living at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. They counted among the tens of thousands of evacuees left homeless by the storm. The next day the mother and son headed to Baton Rouge, La., where a church assisted them. Eventually, B.J. headed to Houston, Texas, while his mother decided to come to the District.

She has no regrets.

Nash-Lebeau said what gave her the strength to keep going was the outpouring of support from St. Francis Xavier Church on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast. She spotted the church at 28th Street by chance as she rode the bus to another church. However, St. Francis was closer to her apartment.

Nash-Lebeau introduced herself to the parishioners after then-pastor, the Rev. Gregory Butta asked for first-time visitors to stand up at the church one Sunday morning during services.

“Soon, (church leaders) came up to me and asked what I needed and said [they would] help [me] in any way,” said Nash-Lebeau. “Father Butta was so generous.”

The former reverend served as pastor of the 400-family parish between 2000 and 2011. The 89-year-old church, a member of the Archdiocese of Washington, has embodied the mission of living as the “salt of the earth.”

“We’re always grateful for blessings received,” said Butta who added it’s within the “spirit of the church” to be helpful.

Since its early days as a mission, St. Francis Xavier parish has shown itself to be a community of faith, service and worship in the heart of Southeast, under its first pastor, the Rev. Monsignor Joseph Buckley. Consistent with the evangelical spirit of the growing mission, Buckley named the chapel for St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missions and one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the Catholic Church. Recently, the Catholic leader, Pope Francis I also embraced the name because it embodied that spirit of service.