NEW ORLEANS – A Baton Rouge parish priest became the youngest Catholic bishop in the country Wednesday in a two-hour ordination ceremony in which the Rev. Shelton Fabre was given a share of the leadership of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Fabre, carrying a crozier, or shepherd’s staff, that once belonged to Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel, walked around the packed interior of St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter absorbing applause from family, scores of New Orleans priests and about two dozen visiting bishops who participated in the ceremony.

Among them was a cousin, Bishop John Ricard of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, who helped New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes and Baton Rouge Bishop Robert Muench ordain Fabre.

Fabre assumed office Thursday, although he said in a recent interview that he, Hughes and Bishop Roger Morin have not yet decided how to divide the administrative duties of the archdiocese, which spans seven civil parishes surrounding New Orleans. Fabre will become pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish and will live there, although that parish’s administrative duties will be handled by the Rev. David Robicheaux.

At 43, Fabre is the youngest Catholic bishop in the country and one of 10 active African-American bishops. There are a total of 275 bishops nationwide. He was recommended for the office by Hughes, who was the bishop of Baton Rouge from 1993-2001.

The son of a French-speaking bricklayer and a teacher, Fabre grew up in a country parish in New Roads. He spent all of his 18-year career as a parish priest in and around Baton Rouge.

Although Fabre ran the Diocese of Baton Rouge’s Office of Black Catholics, he says he is at his best doing individual pastoral work, especially dealing with individuals in crisis in small settings.

“I’m basically shy,” he said in an interview last week. “I don’t like crowds. But I do like people. I find it’s easy to become close to people, particularly when they’re filled with joy – like at a wedding – or in times of trouble.”

Fabre said he feels most rewarded “when I can help someone individually, when I can help them lay down a sin that has held them captive for a long time or be with them at the funeral of a loved one who’s died unexpectedly.”

When elevated to office, Catholic bishops choose a personal motto they believe expresses their service. Fabre said it was his sense of priesthood that led him to choose “comfort my people,” a fragment of Isaiah 60:1.

Fabre followed an old-fashioned course to the priesthood, entering St. Joseph’s Seminary in Covington as a recent high school graduate. He earned an undergraduate degree in history there, then did his final four years of training at the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louven, Belgium.

Fabre said he asked his bishop, Stanley Ott, to send him to the small seminary in Europe not only because it had been recommended by a friend, but also because he thought its size and its prospect of greater personal attention would both fit and challenge his natural reticence.

Fabre said he sensed from boyhood he was called to the priesthood, but two tragedies helped reinforce the call. In 1973, when Fabre was 10, his older brother Luke drowned; seven years later, another brother, Clyde, died of leukemia.

Fabre said both events shaped him deeply. “They were the kinds of events that cause you to ask questions. For me, they were a reason to go deeper in faith.”

Fabre entered the seminary not only to explore those questions.

“The priests I had known were all happy men; I knew I wanted that,” he said. “And I was seeking to understand as best I could my brothers’ deaths. And I thought I had a vocation.

“All those things pointed in one direction.”

The archdiocese Fabre will serve was savaged by Hurricane Katrina, leaving physical and psychic scars that may take a generation to heal. While much of the archdiocese is operating normally, St. Bernard and Orleans parishes are severely depopulated; more than two dozen church parishes are shuttered indefinitely; and uninsured flood damage is estimated at $120 million.

In Baton Rouge, meanwhile, Fabre said he was content running a big, thriving city parish. He likened himself in Baton Rouge to the apostles who, in the Gospel story, enjoyed a miraculous catch of fish in the company of Jesus, yet left their boats to embark on new careers.

“Baton Rouge is where I had a miraculous catch of fish,” he said. “Maybe the Lord is calling me to something new. I’m willing to trust him. In the end, he’s never disappointed me.

“All I can do here is bring my own faith and trust in God. I have no more than that.”

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