In the Summer of 1976, Bishop Fernand J. Cheri, III, O.F.M., served as a chaplain at California State Prison in Vacaville, Calif. The experience changed his life.
“I was the smallest person there,” Cheri was quoted as saying in a 2023 obituary in the Clarion Herald. “It was a moment where I had to be myself, but I also had to show a sense of self-assurance, otherwise it would have been damaging. In those 10 weeks, my ministry at Vacaville gave me the courage to go on to be a priest.”
Cheri went on to serve in the priesthood for more than 40 years. At the time of his death in March of this year, Cheri was one of only seven active Black bishops in the U.S. His unique life as a Black Catholic priest is documented in a new collection at Xavier University of Louisiana.
“The way Bishop Cheri lived shows us his faith,” Xavier University interim library director Nancy Hampton wrote in an email. “… that his family would share these items in a public space for others to gain knowledge about Black Catholics is a generous contribution.”
The Bishop Cheri collection is located on the third floor of Xavier University’s library in the school’s Archives and Special Collections. The collection features many personal items — from Cheri’s massive catalog of gospel music to the vestments he wore during religious services.
The collection also includes photos of Cheri at various times during his priesthood, along with a number of his belongings such as his pectoral cross, rings, pastoral staff, mitre, 7,000 gospel CDs, Black and African artwork and all six of his vestments.
The items were donated by Cheri’s family. His brother, Richard, explained why the family chose to donate Cheri’s items to Xavier.
“As the only Catholic HBCU in the nation, that meant a great deal to him,” Richard said. “With his connections to Xavier, it made sense to display his prized possessions there and to further the mission at that great institute of learning.
Xavier University archivist Vincent Barraza said the pectoral cross in the collection was worn by Cheri during his ordination as a bishop and is one of only five made for Black bishops. Cheri’s vestments, Barraza said, are, “an amazing addition to our collections and this is the very first time that we’ve received vestments as part of a collection here in the archives.”
“When we were approached by the Cheri family, we knew we had to take in this collection,” Barraza said. “We knew its relevance to the Black Catholic community, the local New Orleans area, and we wanted to make sure that it was preserved for future generations.”
A New Orleans native, Cheri attended St. John Vianney Preparatory Seminary for high school. Afterwards, he studied at St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, Louisiana, which he described as “KKK country,” and at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.
Archbishop Phillip Hannan, who died in 2011, ordained Cheri as a minister on May 20, 1978 at St. Louis Cathedral. Cheri took on a number of assignments including serving congregations at Our Lady of the Lourdes Parish, St. Joseph the Worker Parish and a six-year stint as pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in New Orleans. In 1992, Cheri joined the Franciscan Order.
“I chose the Friars because of St. Francis and his idea of service to the poor, the marginalized, the variety of possibilities of working with the homeless people or in prison ministry,” Cheri told the Clarion Herald.
In 1994, Cheri received his master’s degree in theology from Xavier’s Institute of Black Catholic Studies.
“I know for a fact that his experience in the Institute for Black Catholic Studies fine tuned his knowledge, appreciation and love for Black spirituality, and how it is a pure gift for the church at large,” Cheri’s brother, Richard, said.
Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, Cheri would serve as a chaplain, pastor, guidance counselor and choir director in Tennessee and Illinois before returning to New Orleans to serve as Xavier University’s associate director of campus ministry.
In 2015, Pope Francis named Cheri as the Titular Bishop of Membressa and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, a position he held until his death on March 21, 2023. The items he wore when he met the Pope and at his consecration are part of the collection donated to Xavier.
“He became a voice for the Black Catholic church and never shied away from his role as a bishop,” Richard said of his older brother. “He found a way to demonstrate that the church is viable in the Black community.”
To view the Bishop Fernand Cheri Collection, visit Xavier’s Archives & Special Collections room on the third floor of Xavier University’s library.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Xavier University of Louisiana’s archivist. His name is Vincent Barraza, not Vincent Barazza. The article has been updated.
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