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Historic installation of Archbishop Shelton Joseph Fabre heralded as 'a new era' for the Catholic church

Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre speaks before his newfound archdiocese in Louisville.
Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre speaks before his newfound archdiocese in Louisville.

The Archdiocese of Louisville has a new archbishop.

Archbishop Shelton Joseph Fabre was installed Wednesday during a Catholic Mass held at the Kentucky International Convention Center.

Self-proclaimed “cradle Catholics” Larry and Louise Michalczyk showed up early to the service to witness what they called a historic moment in the city. 

“I think this is the start of a new beginning for the Catholic Church here in Louisville,” Larry Michalczky said. 

He pointed to Fabre’s history of elevating racial justice in his ecclesiastical work.

“And I think that's particularly pertinent here in Louisville at this time,” Larry Michalczyk, who is white, said. “So he brings a new fresh face, new leadership and new experiences.”

Louise Michalczyk, who is also white, said he’ll face some immense challenges, “undoing some of the damage that has been done, within the church, within the diocese and within the community as well.” 

“We need a fresh start here in the community,” she said.

Fabre accepted his duty to lead the Archdiocese of Louisville “with the love of God in my heart.”

Pope Francis appointed Fabre to the post earlier this year. He's the Archdiocese of Louisville’s fifth archbishop, its 10th bishop and the area’s first Black leader of the local archdiocese, which encompasses 24 Kentucky counties and more than 200,000 parishioners, in its more than 210-year history. 

Fabre, 58, came to Louisville from his home state of Louisiana, where he had been the bishop of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux since late 2013. 

According to his biography on the Archdiocese of Louisville’s website, Fabre studied at the American College of Louvain and the Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven in Belgium. He was ordained as a priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge in 1989. 

Fabre succeeded Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who had held the title since 2007 and retired in August on his 75th birthday.

A ‘message of joyful hope’

During a press conference in early February announcing Fabre’s appointment, Kurtz said the area parishes are “getting someone who is a deeply human person, a very healthy person, a holy man and, in a special way, a good pastoral bishop.”

“I’m both humbled and excited by this appointment by the Holy Father, and I pledge to serve the needs of this church to the very best of my ability,” Fabre said during that same press conference.

In March 2020, then-Archbishop Kurtz invited Fabre to give a virtual presentation of “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, of which Fabre serves as chair, penned the anti-racism letter. It states that racism continues to have significant and harmful impacts on society, and it “has no place in the Christian heart.”

“While I recognize that our community has faced, what some may say, is far too great an experience of injustice and disregard for human life and dignity, I come to you with a message of joyful hope,” Fabre said during the February press conference. “I have great faith and great hope in the work already underway within our community regarding racial equality.”

He expressed a conviction that working together will help the local Catholic community in attaining “the promotion of life, charity, justice and peace as we endeavor to build an even greater civilization of love.”

Uniting the region’s Catholic community

Fabre will have his work cut out for him. 

In the months leading up to his appointment, local Black Catholics demanded that the archdiocese and archbishop do more to address the treatment of three parishes in Louisville’s West End. 

“Repeatedly, our assigned Black priest has shown disregard for our voices in managing and leading our congregations,” several parishioners wrote in an opinion column in the Courier Journal in November. 

They said Catholic leadership in the area had failed them on a number of levels, including not addressing concerns about mismanagement of funds and pervasive mistreatment from church leadership.

“Is it too harsh to label this racism?” the parishioners wrote. “No. It is the truth. Do we Black Catholics in struggling, small parishes in marginalized neighborhoods count as much as white Catholics in parishes with corporate and professional parishioners holding country club memberships and living in East End McMansions with four-car garages?”

Upon his appointment as archbishop, Fabre said he hopes Black Catholics in the archdiocese's region, “will see in me someone who looks like them.” 

“Someone who knows them and wishes to speak with them,” he continued. “Someone who was sent here to serve all members of the archdiocese."

That gives parishioners, like lifelong Catholic Lisa Johnson of Bardstown, hope.

Johnson, who is Black, said Fabre seems like someone who will listen, “someone who's going to be available and approachable.” 

“And I think that's the first step because that opens up the dialogue and opens up that opportunity to improve,” she said.

She was excited to be in attendance Wednesday, and said, “coming from a multicultural church,” the moment felt historic. 

“I know he's well equipped,” Johnson said. “And I'm excited to see what he's going to do.”

During his sermon Wednesday, Fabre said the local Catholic community is confronted with many unknowns and challenges, encouraging the attendees to “look to Christ” for hope. 

“We together face the challenges of COVID-19, the effects of past hurts and injustices, and the disregard of human life and dignity through racism,” he said.

He continued that he believes the Archdiocese of Louisville is its people, and that’s why they should face challenges, like racism, as a community. 

“We stand on the precipice of an exciting future,” Fabre said Wednesday. “However, the future will largely be determined by us standing together and keeping our eyes focused on Him, who unites us, rather than on the things that divide us.”

Fabre also noted other challenges he sees the church facing, including “aggressive secularism, assaults on religious freedom, the reality of poverty, and the need for healing the woundedness of marriage and family life.” 

Members of Louisville’s LGBTQ Catholic community have voiced concern over Fabre’s record of speaking against same-sex marriage.

In 2015, Fabre told a Louisiana newspaper that the church believes same-sex marriage is harmful to society, and advised against Catholics attending same-sex ceremonies or providing services for them.

And in early 2021, he put his name on a statement, along with other Catholic bishops, saying they were concerned by President Joe Biden’s executive order to extend federal sex discrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity. 

“Wednesday’s executive order on ‘sex’ discrimination exceeds the Court’s decision,” the statement said. “It threatens to infringe the rights of people who recognize the truth of sexual difference or who uphold the institution of lifelong marriage between one man and one woman.”

During the February press conference, a reporter asked Fabre if he would welcome LGBTQ community members into the Catholic church. 

“I stand ready, certainly, to meet and to listen," Fabre responded. "I hope they would find in me someone who is willing to listen to them, someone who is willing to journey with them, someone who is willing to invite them to come to know the Jesus Christ that we know.”