When the Rev. Ronald Calkins took over as pastor of Mary Queen of Peace
in 1995, the Catholic Church parish consisted solely of an unadorned rented building in Turtle Creek Plaza, a strip shopping center on Louisiana 22 near Mandeville. The church's staff was made up of Calkins, a secretary and a janitor.
As Calkins steps down as pastor
and accepts a reassignment to St. Catherine of Siena parish in Metairie, he will leave behind a flourishing community of faith, an appreciative flock of parishioners, a gleaming church, a highly regarded Catholic school and a legacy of helping others in need.
During his 19-year-tenure, Calkins has overseen the establishment of dozens of faith ministries and various outreach efforts to help others from as far away as Haiti. He guided the construction of a campus on 15 acre along West Causeway Approach that consists of several school buildings, a recently completed recreation center and MQP's crown jewel: a $6.6 million church building.
Ever humble, Calkins lays much of the credit for the church's successes at the feet of its parishioners, saying it is they who have made parish what it is today.
"The people of Mary Queen of Peace have responded with great generosity to everything that has been done here," said Calkins, known as Father Ronnie among parishioners. "We have an awesome building committee. That (church) building and all we've done is a reflection of input from a lot of people."
The property on which the campus sits was actually acquired by Calkins' predecessor, the Rev. William O'Donnell, the founding pastor who served from 1988-1995. O'Donnell initially said Mass at the Rouquette Lodge, a retirement complex in Mandeville. But he soon found a more spacious location to hold services at Turtle Creek. At that time, the church was affectionately known as "Our Lady of the Shopping Center."
A few years later, O'Donnell found a tract of land on West Causeway Approach that would become the parish's permanent home. Plans were drawn for a multipurpose building that would include a sanctuary and classrooms, the seeds of what would become a vibrant Catholic parish in a fast-growing section of western Mandeville.
Calkins became pastor of Our Lady of the Shopping Center on July 3, 1995 -- his first assignment as pastor -- and picked up where O'Donnell left off. He held community meetings to solicit input from parishioners on what they wanted their parish to become. He hired a music director and formed a new pastoral council to provide input on the direction of the parish. Many other ministries were to follow.
The multipurpose building opened in late 1995, allowing the parish to shake off the amusing moniker and move into an on-campus place of worship. Mary Queen of Peace Catholic School welcomed its first students – 33 of them -- in August 1996.
The parish campus and the school would continue to grow with the addition of a new classroom building in 1998, the new church in 2008, a second classroom building in 2012 and the recreation center earlier this year.
But parishioners are quick to point out that Calkins' contributions have involved more than just bricks and mortar.
The parish added dozens of ministries that serve a variety of needs, both spiritual and physical. Mary Queen of Peace was among the region's most active participants in Operation Help Hands, which helped flood-stricken homeowners gut and rebuild their homes after Katrina. MQP volunteers worked at various locations for over a year, earning accolades from Catholic Charities for its dedication to the operation.
In 2011, MQP partnered with a Catholic parish about 60 miles from Port-au-Prince, Haiti,
which had been ravaged by a 2010 earthquake and a couple of hurricanes. After the earthquake, Archbishop Gregory Aymond
invited parishes in the Archdiocese of New Orleans to partner with a parish in Haiti through Catholic Relief Services.
Mary Queen of Peace was connected with St. Benoit, an impoverished mountain-top Catholic community that lost nearly everything in the earthquake. From a socio-economic perspective, St. Benoit is as far from Calkins' parish as it is in physical distance. MQP includes Beau Chene, The Sanctuary and other affluent communities; St. Benoit has no running water or electricity.
Under Calkins' leadership, the Mandeville parish raised money to build a water well in the community so that villagers can fill water containers a short distance from the church rather than walking an hour down the mountain to the next nearest water distribution point. Mary Queen of Peace also purchased backpacks for 200 students that attend school in the village.
Money from MQP helped build classrooms, pay teacher salaries and provide scholarships for top students.
While Calkins and his congregation have helped St. Benoit educate its students, the outgoing pastor is credited with helping Mary Queen of Peace's school grow from its infancy to what it is now, with about 520 students in grades pre-K through seven.
The school was quick to open its doors to Katrina refugees, causing its enrollment to swell. Observers say it was Calkins' compassion and willingness to help others that led to the school's population boom.
Jan Daniel Lancaster, the archdiocese's superintendent of education,
served as principal of Mary Queen of Peace from 2003-2010 and oversaw the expansion of the school after Katrina. She praised Calkins' leadership and personal skills.
"In my seven years as principal of Mary Queen of Peace, I was blessed to work for a pastor who led with compassion and kindness," Lancaster said. "It was a great honor and privilege to work alongside Father Calkins, who is a passionate supporter of the ministry of Catholic education. He embodies the very essence of what it means to be a priest."
A big Saints and LSU fan, the silver-haired Calkins seems able to relate well to his congregation on a non-spiritual level at certain times. After Sunday Masses during football season, the church choir frequently breaks into "When the Saints Go Marching In" as the priest leaves the sanctuary.
Calkins attended the Super Bowl in 2010, watching his Saints and his one-time parishioner Sean Payton win the Lombardi Trophy.
Another side of the pastor is displayed on an MQP video that features the school's cougar mascot and faculty and staff members dancing to the popular Pharrell Williams tune "Happy." In it, the mascot dances through the school hallways and is soon joined by others. In the end, the cougar costume's head is removed to reveal a smiling Calkins, although it remains unclear as to whether it was the pastor or an imposter whose dance moves are displayed on the video.
While Calkins has achieved a lot during his time at Mary Queen of Peace, parishioners say he has done so with the attitude of a humble servant, rather than a credit seeker. In a homily delivered during Mass on June 23, Deacon Butch Shartle gave a heartfelt account of Calkins' contributions to the parish, noting his core message was simple – just love one another. Shartle's homily drew an ovation from parishioners, a rarity at Catholic Masses.
THE RISE OF A PASTOR
Raised in the Jefferson community near St. Agnes Catholic Church, Calkins is the youngest of four siblings. His father was in sales and his mother was a public school teacher who provided a strong Catholic environment for their children.
Calkins, who was an altar server as a youngster, took an interest in the priesthood as a teenager and attended the former St. John Prep, a high school for those planning to attend the seminary. While his deeply religious mother never pressured him to become priest, he learned the night before his ordination in 1978 how much it meant to her.
Recounting a story that still brings out his emotions, Calkins last week described how his mother presented him a letter explaining that she had prayed for years that one of her children would become a priest. He had no idea she felt that way. His oldest brother Richard is a deacon on the north shore.
In his early years as a priest, Calkins served as an assistant pastor in parishes in Algiers, Metairie and Kenner. He also served as director of the archdiocese's youth ministry.
Archbishop Francis Schulte tapped him in 1995 to become pastor of the church in a shopping center. He took the assignment with little hesitation but had no idea it would be the beginning of a 19-year association.
"I knew it would be a great opportunity to build a community and grow with a parish," said Calkins, 63. "I never expected to be here this long. It's a long time to serve in one place."
The archdiocese has a habit of moving priests every few years, although there are exceptions and this was one of them.
Calkins said he has been contemplating moving on for some time, but wanted to stay through the church's 25th
anniversary, which was celebrated last year. He told Aymond last December that he would be open to a reassignment if the archbishop felt there was a place where his skills could be put to use. St. Catherine, a large Catholic parish in Old Metairie, is where Calkins says the Holy Spirit is guiding him.
The Rev. John-Nhan Tran, who is currently the pastor of St. Joan of Arc in LaPlace, will take over the pastoral duties at MQP.
Calkins described the change as bittersweet, noting that Mary Queen of Peace will always be his first love.
"For a number of years, I have been praying about my next step, knowing that God was leading me elsewhere," he said. "I knew it would happen one day, it was just a question of when."
Parishioners were shocked when Calkins first announced his reassignment at the April 26 vigil Mass. There were sobs from those in the pews.
Parishioner Gwen Dykes, a charter member of Mary Queen of Peace parish, said she is sorry to see Calkins move on, but understands that he is answering his call.
"He's what you want a pastor to be," Dykes said. "He was the shepherd and teacher the parish needed. We love him."
Karen Baker, a longtime parishioner and currently the archdiocese school system's director of development for marketing and administrative services, described Calkins as an approachable leader who was always keen on getting the laity involved in the church.
"He laid a good foundation for the church to grow on," Baker said.
Calkins will say his last Mass as pastor of Mary Queen of Peace on Sunday (June 29) at 11:30 a.m. He said last week he's not exactly sure what he will say during the sermon, but a letter to the parishioners on the church website provides a hint.
"It has been a blessing to know each and every one of you; I can't say that enough," he wrote. "I have watched this parish blossom, and that has been a beautiful thing to behold."