by the Very Rev. Stephen Crawford, rector of St. Mary’s, Franklin, and member of the Gaudet Fund Committee.
Frances Joseph Gaudet is a Saint. It really is a marvelous thing that we would recognize this. It was a hundred years ago (1921) that the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana received from St. Frances the ownership and responsibility of the Gaudet Normal and Industrial School for Black Youth, drawing together the life of our diocese with the life of this remarkable woman. Many are astounded by the great things St. Frances did in her lifetime. She was a poor Black woman living in New Orleans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and yet she successfully advocated for the formation of a juvenile court, so children wouldn’t be tried and imprisoned alongside grownups. She raised money and purchased what would eventually be a 105-acre plot of land, on which she founded her home and school. As a Black woman there were restaurants she could not enter to buy food, and yet she achieved such standing in the community that she seemingly could walk into the mayor’s office whenever she needed and have a meeting with him. She authored a beautifully written autobiography, titled He Leadeth Me (G.K. Hall & Co., New York). Many impressive qualities shine through in her accomplishments: resilience, courage, compassion, savvy. I hope this essay will help those unfamiliar with St. Frances become better acquainted with her and her many wonderful qualities. But I particularly hope her most wonderful quality will come through. She was holy.
In some ways, it almost looks like an accident we would know this, though the truth is that it was a matter of the Lord’s gracious providence. St. Frances was not herself Episcopalian, at least not at the time she wrote her story. She worshiped at historic St. James AME Church in New Orleans. Whether true or not, the story is told that she first offered the facility to the Methodists. They declined, but our diocese accepted the offer. Immediately, the rector of St. Luke’s Church started serving as chaplain to the school, and after St. Frances fully retired, the diocese continued her work running that orphanage and school for roughly forty years. As St. Frances herself eventually was unable to continue the work, so our diocese eventually found itself unable to continue. The land was sold, but fortunately, the proceeds were placed in an endowment fund, which carries forward something of the life and legacy of this remarkable person. The fund is overseen by what is casually referred to as “the Gaudet Committee,” and grants and scholarships are awarded from it annually for the support of impoverished Black children. And so our paths crossed in the way they did, and now the Episcopal Church honors her with a feast day on December 31—a sign of the Lord’s grace towards us.
“Educator and Social Reformer.” This is the epithet given to St. Frances in Lesser Feasts and Fasts. It certainly summarizes much of her work. But we have to remember that before she ever reformed any prisons, she visited them. Before she ever enrolled a child in her school, she sat next to one while he died in a prison hospital. Her heart was filled to the brim with Jesus’s love, and she laid down her life in order to bring that love to people who desperately needed it. She was a mother to the motherless and a friend to the forgotten. And even this was an expression of her deeper vocation: an evangelist, who revealed the Risen Lord in her words and in her deeds. Her efforts at education and prison reform sprang from that. Having proved herself faithful in small things, the Lord entrusted her with big things. She brought people to open their lives to the Light of Christ. Many of those people even began to recognize that Light as he shone gently among the least of these. That is what spurred the City of New Orleans to do some things differently. She reformed institutions because she converted hearts.
Her ministry started on a Saturday in March 1894, after she passed an elderly woman sobbing by a train station that morning. The woman’s only son was being loaded onto a train bound for the state prison. St. Frances took the time to walk this elderly woman home, doing her best to console this mother racked with grief. That same night the Lord called her. She was kneeling by her bed praying for the woman she had met that morning, asking the Lord to comfort her, when it seemed like Someone whispered to her:
You must go to the prison and ask the prisoners to pray that God will help them to resist temptation; and tell them to pledge themselves never to do anything to bring them back to the prison when they get out of their present trouble. (He Leadeth Me, 13-14.)
St. Frances was not particularly sure how to go about this. Starting Monday she reached out to city officials and received permission to enter the jails, but still, she wasn’t settled about the best way forward. That Wednesday there was a knock on her door. A minister was in town from Mississippi, trying to help his son who had been wrongly arrested. Local pastors had given him some help, but he needed more. She told the man to meet her at the prison that afternoon. She met with the man’s son, but while visiting she asked the prison for permission to come back and lead prayer meetings. A couple of days later the minister returned with her to that same prison to pray with men incarcerated in that place, and St. Frances’s ministry was underway.
There are many stories that reveal her sanctity. These are a few that I found particularly striking. I mentioned above a child that St. Frances sat beside. She met the twelve-year-old boy in a prison yard, Achille Roberts, and she was exasperated that this impressionable child would be in prison alongside these hardened men. She successfully pleaded with an area judge to hasten the boy’s trial, and the boy was released. Only a month later she was dismayed to find him again in the jail yard. When he was released he didn’t have anywhere else to go, and some men took him into their company, promising him food. The men then used the boy to sneak into a store, and they were caught. Achille was tried alongside the men and sentenced with them to five years at Angola. St. Frances made the trip to see the boy and encourage prison officials to recommend him for pardon. When she arrived she learned that he had taken sick with pneumonia and was in the prison hospital. She sat at the boy’s side and held his hand. At Achille’s request, she sang hymns to comfort him. The boy died within a few days and, having no relatives to claim his body, was buried in an unmarked grave. (He Leadeth Me, 33-35)
St. Frances once met a very elderly man sobbing in the prison area reserved for Black men. He asked her for help, and she asked him about his troubles. He was from Bayou Boeuf, and his old master’s son had sent him to the hospital in New Orleans. When he recovered he didn’t have any way back home, so he “gits on der track” to walk (as St. Frances reproduces his dialect). A policeman stops him and arrests him, supposedly to protect the old man from trains. The judge later told him he was too old to walk to Bayou Boeuf and ordered him to the parish prison for thirty days, where St. Frances encountered him. St. Frances began walking here and there, trying to get the man into the almshouse (which was only open to whites), and after going through the mayor and the president of the house’s board, she succeeded in getting the necessary permission. During this time he had grown sicker and was moved to a hospital. In all of her walking, she came across someone that offered to get the man to Bayou Boeuf. St. Frances gave what she had to pay at least part of the fare. She successfully had the man discharged from the hospital, and the man praised the Lord, asked God’s blessing on St. Frances, and assured the holy woman that God would reward her. After watching his train depart, bringing him home, she tells how she felt:
I was far from home, weary and penniless. I had not carfare, and there stood a car that would take me within one square of my home for five cents; but I was content to walk. Though penniless I was rich and happy, with a heart singing for joy. Why? Because I had made that poor old soul happy. I had done the Master’s will. I could hear His voice whispering, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto Me.’
Yes, my heart was light and free. I had done something for Christ. I walked the distance of two miles feeling I was treading on air. (He Leadeth Me, 27)
An older white woman once wrote St. Frances asking her to help her son, who had been arrested as an accessory to two men with him caught pickpocketing. The woman pleaded in her letter for St. Frances to help the man as though he were Frances’s own. After meeting with the man, she was persuaded that he had nothing to do with the other two men’s actions, saying to herself, “I believe my boy not guilty.” After she failed to find a lawyer who would help with the $10 the mother had mailed her, St. Frances started gathering evidence herself. She testified at his trial on his behalf, and the man was acquitted. As she tells the story:
“The case was given to the jury, they were out about an hour when they filed into court, rendered a verdict of guilty for two; but my boy was liberated,” (He Leadeth Me, 30).
At an unknown woman’s request, St. Frances looked on a stranger in trouble as though he were her very own child.
In ways like this, she often helped people in desperate need. The prisons usually did not provide clothing. One man had been jailed for four months, and by that time his clothes had fallen to such rags that he had to stay in bed for days. As she did for many whose clothes weren’t adequate, St. Frances went out and begged. She begged for shoes and for clothing. She reduced herself to a beggar, but found what the man needed. Apart from her humiliation, the man wouldn’t have been able to appear in court for his trial. (He Leadeth Me, 18)
“The Old Workhouse” was used by New Orleans as the prison for people with mental illness. People were made to sleep on shelves lining long halls. The conditions were abysmal. There was no heating in the building, and the prisoners were given no blankets or clothes. St. Frances wrote that, after seeing a woman locked up naked, she must have looked like Santa Claus, carrying bags of clothes into the jail every day until everyone there had what they needed. There was tremendous suffering in that place, but possibly the worst—which St. Frances had heard rumors about, and one woman suggested but wouldn’t bring her story forward—was that the men who ran the facility would visit the women unsupervised at night.
One time St. Frances received a request to take charge of a baby from a woman with mental illness that had been arrested earlier in the day. She arrived with a friend at the old workhouse at 8:30 pm, and the drunk superintendent begrudgingly led them by lantern to the woman. When they found her, another woman was lying with her to help warm the child. As the mother clung to her baby, St. Frances recognized her. She realized she had seen her in this very prison sixteen months ago and that the baby must have been conceived in this facility. The “woman” was only fifteen years old. After her pleas to let her help the baby were again and again refused, St. Frances left her cloak to help the young woman and child stay warm and afterward sent out for warm milk. While St. Frances and her friend were leaving the facility, the superintendent stopped beside another woman lying on a shelf and told her (with vulgarity that St. Frances wouldn’t repeat) that he would be back to see her soon.
The next morning St. Frances was sitting with the Mayor, telling him what she had seen and heard. This led to a trial for the superintendent, involving the president of the City Council and the Commissioner of Police and Public Buildings. There were several meetings, and, because of political connections, the superintendent was only fined $75 and given a warning. Thanks be to God, the press brought negative coverage to these events. The pressure on the administration finally led to the superintendent’s complete removal. Matrons were hired to be in the prison at night. And eventually, a Councilmember led the charge to build a new prison—well built from bricks—to replace the old workhouse, which was then used for holding stray animals caught around the city.
These were wonderful outcomes, but they didn’t stem from St. Frances’s ability to network, or build a coalition, or even negotiate complicated deals. She told the truth, and she told it in the face of danger. When the process of trying the superintendent began, the man’s friends started sending St. Frances death threats. Given these threatening messages, her own friends begged her to drop the charges. She later reflected:
If the enemy killed me for exposing the filthiest place in the state I would glorify God for allowing me to die a martyr to a righteous cause. I hoped and was undismayed. I knew that God knew my sorrows, and counted my tears. He would lift up my head. (He Leadeth Me, 41-42)
Stories like these about St. Frances show the depth of her faith and the abundance of her love. She worked as a seamstress to support herself, but when she spent a whole day carrying messages for prisoners or going around town looking for evidence she thought would help free someone unjustly locked up, she would have to sew late into the night to make up for that lost time. She sacrificed her time for them, her money, her comfort, her dignity, even her safety.
She could be so because she loved Jesus and she saw Jesus reflected in people, even when others struggled to do that. They weren’t problems to be solved, but people to be cherished. Again, the Light of Christ shone through her into the lives of people in terrible situations. As this happened, the humanity of those people was illuminated for others to see as well. In fact, when she first started pleading with judges to be as lenient towards Back men as they were being toward white men, the judges had trouble believing that she was not a close relative or being paid money:
“They were greatly amazed when I told them I did not expect any reward here on earth but was simply doing what I thought would please my Maker.” (He Leadeth Me, 18)
It is not easy to train our eyes on holiness. There will doubtlessly be things that make it difficult for us to see St. Frances clearly. The mere fact of racial division tends to cloud our vision, making it difficult to recognize God’s handiwork in people of color (may God deliver us from this spiritual sickness!). Relatedly, the division between Christians hides from our view the work of the Spirit in our estranged brothers and sisters—for example, St. Frances’s evangelical faith is likely to be a stumbling block for many Episcopalians. One of the biggest obstacles (which is of a piece with the others I mentioned) is the way that our society relates to institutions. We are excessively interested in the institutions that give shape to our communities. Organizational life has a stranglehold on our imaginations. Following from this, there is a particular kind of person we most value: a competent, self-sufficient institution-builder. The energies of today’s Church too often gather around such people, while those who don’t stand out as competent institution-builders often get less attention. If we hope for progress, then we are drawn to institutional solutions to problems, we hope our institutions can be more humane, and we want to share the life of our institutions more widely. In all this, we prize someone who has organizational intelligence and a knack for administration, who can spearhead a program and sustain the operation.
The danger is that we will be drawn to St. Frances too much for her ability to build and reform institutions. We rightly rejoice that such a competent person would succeed at putting her talents to good use, especially given society’s refusal to acknowledge such gifts in a Black woman. However, if we are too dazzled by institutional savvy, we risk being blinded to the very people for whom St. Frances had such regard. Consider the prayer for her feast day, which was slightly improved in the 2018 edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Celebrating St. Frances as “a champion of the oppressed,” we ask this of the Lord: “Grant that we, encouraged by her example, may advocate for all who are denied the fullness of life to which thou hast called all thy children,” (Lesser Feast and Fasts 2018, p. 650). How wonderful it would be if the Lord gives us a special grace to advocate for people who are robbed of life! But it’s worth wondering why we don’t ask for the grace to actually spend time with those people.
Her accomplishments are astounding, but we have to be careful to understand them. St. Frances had a clear sense of just what was wrong with government procedures, largely because she spent so much time with the people being crushed by them. She advocated for a separate children’s court, spurred to do this because her heart was knit to the boys being locked up alongside grown men. She could spearhead the overhaul of the old workhouse asylum because she sat with the troubled people being brutally contained in that warehouse. Eventually, when the “Colored Industrial Home” was up and running and children with nowhere else to go were being placed in her care, St. Frances described herself as actually adopting these children (He Leadeth Me, 134). There was something relentlessly personal about her ministry.
This was true even in her fundraising. When a vision for a home and school for Black children was still taking shape in St. Frances, she agreed to serve as a delegate to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s international convention in Edinburgh in 1900. She hoped that by lecturing she would possibly make friends and raise money to help with this substantial undertaking. Everywhere she traveled, visiting several European countries, organizations and churches clamored for St. Frances as a speaker, asking her to come and address their groups. A powerful movement of the Holy Spirit frequently accompanied her gatherings. The trip was a success and helped lay the foundation for her future work buying land and building a school. Part of why it was so successful, though, is that she would tell groups stories about her own experiences visiting people in the prisons. Audiences were often moved to tears (cf. He Leadeth Me, 64). Of course, in her travels, she often found opportunities to offer some tormented person the Good News of forgiveness and mercy in Jesus Christ.
That is ultimately what a Saint does: confront us with the Gospel. Jesus has been raised from the dead, his Father has placed all things in his hands, and he dearly loves people that the world has cast aside. That Good News rings out in St. Frances’s life. But there’s more. Through her, we can begin to see that Jesus even cares about city halls and legal structures and prison staff. The Lord might just breathe his life in those places as well. Jesus can heal communities, as well as souls. And if he does, he is liable to invite unexpected people to take part with him in that redeeming work.
I’ll close with two more stories. Both display St. Frances’s holiness, and both help us appreciate what was happening in her accomplishments.
One morning later in St. Frances’s ministry, she was visiting court to see about a case and overheard about the practice of saloons in the red-light district hiring little boys to carry drinks from the bar to “abandoned women and their male visitors in their cribs” (He Leadeth Me, 139). St. Frances and two of her friends printed tracts, which they delivered on a Saturday night to all the bartenders in that area of town. A week later they saw that children were still being employed in these unwholesome environments and brought their complaint to the mayor, as well as to the chief of police, who gave his support. The next Saturday night the three again visited the saloons, saw whiskey being sold to a child, grabbed the boy and the liquor, and went searching for a police officer. They eventually found one and demanded the officer arrest the bartender. The reluctant officer said he would only make the arrest if one of the women went with him to the station to file charges, and St. Frances volunteered, thinking it would only be a short walk for her. The police officer told her she would have to ride in the patrol wagon with him, and he clearly enjoyed the panic this brought to St. Frances. A crowd was already forming. She worried that it would be written up in the newspapers and would damage the reputation of the school she had worked so hard to build. “An unseen power urged me on,” she wrote. “It seemed to whisper, ‘Can you not do this for My sake to save the children from these dens of vice?’ I grew strong; I said to the policeman, ‘Order your patrol wagon, I will go” (He Leadeth Me, 140).
Again St. Frances suffered humiliation, this time from a jeering crowd as she was driven away in the wagon. She did this even though it would have been easy to convince herself she could do more good if only she kept quiet this one time. As it happened, the bar owners responded to the pressure of her charges by hiring grown men in place of the boys, who themselves were turned over to St. Frances and her home. She found them better work to do, and other Christians in the city took notice of the red-light district and the conditions for children in that area. These happy outcomes came about because St. Frances was willing to risk the reputation of her organization if it meant helping a jeopardized little boy.
The other story comes from St. Frances’s very first efforts at ministering to prisoners. It gives some indication of what the Lord would do throughout her ministry. It was a Friday when she led her very first prayer meeting. The minister that had knocked on her door a few days earlier, whose son became the first prisoner she visited in the course of her work, accompanied her. A sheriff deputy brought out to St. Frances’s prayer meeting James Murray (also known as “Greasy Jim”), who had been sentenced to death for murder. The deputy also opened the cells of Frank Fuller, who had murdered his wife, and James Washington, who had murdered his brother-in-law, allowing them to join the small gathering in the locked hall. The prisoners were suspicious at first, as the deputy introduced everyone. St. Frances told Mr. Murray that she had come “to cheer and help him, and recommend to him a Friend who was his only hope now” (He Leadeth Me, 15). Mr. Murray smiled:
This is new to me, I’ve never had anyone to visit me and pray with me before, and I’ve been in many prisons; but’s too late now. If some Christian had come into my cell in Mississippi, where I was arrested for the first time, and talked with me as you are talking, I might not be here to-day.
St. Frances is persistent, “It is not too late. If you are sorry for what you have done and ask God to forgive you, He will, and He will give you rest from your care and sorrow.” Mr. Murray tells her she is welcome to sing and pray, though he doubts it will help.
St. Frances tells the rest of the story:
Accordingly, I sang that good old hymn, “Come ye sinners, poor and needy,” and knelt to pray. Murray stood up a while, but when the prayer was half-finished, he knelt on the stone floor at my side and groaned, “It is too late;” then the sobs shook his frame, and tears flowed down his cheeks. When we arose, he failed to get up. Another hymn was sung, “Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole.” Tears were still falling on the floor while the minister prayed. Frank Fuller arose to his feet and said, “I feel my sins forgiven; praise God.”
What happens next is just as important. St. Frances continues, “Then the jailer, while we were singing “Jesus Lover of my Soul,” took my hand, shook it and said, “Pray for me.” His face was wet with tears.”
Before his execution, Mr. Murray accepted Jesus and discovered in his newfound Lord a hope stronger than death. The sheriff’s deputy did not live much longer either, owing to an untimely death. But the prisoners all said that, after the deputy’s meeting with the Friend to whom St. Frances introduced him, he too was a changed man.