Howard Hall was born on March 10, 1936 to Earl and Alethia B. Hall. Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he first served the Church as a devout altar boy in his home parish. In the 10th grade, he entered the minor seminary of St. Joseph, operated by Benedictine monks near Covington, Louisiana. He completed his seminary studies at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and was awarded a Master’s Degree in Religious Education. The Diocese of Baton Rouge was established in 1961, and Fr. Howard was in the first group of priests ordained for service to that diocese, on March 17, 1962.
Coming into the priesthood during the tumultuous decade of the 1960’s, Fr. Howard eagerly embraced the historic changes in church and society ushered in by the Southern Civil Rights Movement and Vatican Council II. Despite some opposition from the pews, the Baton Rouge Diocese was successful in bringing integration to parishes and classrooms, along with major changes in liturgy and theological outlook. Through the transformative events of that era, Fr. Howard would retain a life-long commitment to social justice and reconciliation as being central to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
While the confines of seminary life delayed self-awareness of his sexual orientation, rectory living was less confining, and Fr. Howard soon came to terms with this aspect of himself. He worked to integrate his sexuality with his spirituality so it could be authentically expressed within his priestly vocation. He also recognized there were gays and lesbians among his parishioners, but they often lived closeted lives of fear and self-loathing. In the spirit of compassion he began to reach out to them in the confessional and in private conversation.
In 1973, a gay parishioner shared how he had attended a meeting of a new organization for gay and lesbian Catholics, called Dignity, during a visit to San Diego, California. They met to discuss the conundrum of their being both gay and Catholic. Fr. Howard was intrigued and agreed to assist in forming a chapter of Dignity in Baton Rouge. It was among the first Dignity chapters established outside of California. Later that summer, the first National Convention of Dignity was held in West Hollywood. Fr. Howard was sent by the nascent Baton Rouge chapter as a delegate. Uncertain about what he would encounter, he found himself among a handful of clergy and religious, and a lively group of faithful gay and lesbian Catholics. While in Los Angeles, he was invited to participate on a panel discussing “Religion and the Homosexual” that also included the Rev. Troy Perry. That event was sponsored by ONE, Inc., an early West Coast homophile organization.
In the mid-70’s, Howard was assigned to the Catholic Student Center at Louisiana State University, and the Dignity chapter began meeting there. Thereafter, L.S.U. students formed a prominent role in the life of the small chapter. By the 1980’s Fr. Howard had moved from being an Assistant Pastor to Pastor. In 1981, he led a weekend Dignity Retreat, at his parish. That summer he served as a delegate to the Dignity Convention held in Seattle. It was evident that Dignity had grown in numbers and confidence. After nearly a decade of serving as “chaplain” for the Baton Rouge chapter, he concluded it was time to take a back-seat role and allow the capable lay leadership of Dignity/BR to chart their own course. He hoped to widen his ministry to effect change in the larger Church and civil community.
There were several times in the 1980’s, when Fr. Howard made arrangements to have Fr. Bob Nugent and/or Sr. Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry in Maryland bring their ground-breaking “Bridge-Building” workshops to Baton Rouge. In 1984, Fr. Howard became a co-founder of the Baton Rouge chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG). This group soon became a successful support group where young gays and lesbians and parents could dialogue and receive assistance with the process of “coming-out”. Howard formed enduring friendships with the parents he met through P-FLAG. Although the chapter became dormant after a number of years, it experienced later revival.
In the mid-80’s, the AIDS epidemic hit Baton Rouge like a bombshell. Fr. Howard was invited to join the Board of the newly-formed Baton Rouge AIDS Task Force, and he marshaled support from the inter-faith community. He headed up planning for the first several AIDS Candlelight Memorial Services. He goaded the Catholic hospital system to take a major role in service-provision, and assisted in the founding and on-going support of St. Anthony’s House, an AIDS hospice. Later he helped bring the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN) to the area, a project in which care teams were formed by parishes and congregations to provide social support to persons living with AIDS. These projects have continued to the present-day.
Fr. Howard offered the use of his parish hall when Dignity/Baton Rouge hosted a Regional Dignity Conference at a nearby Holiday Inn in the Spring of 1986. However, in late 1986, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) issued his edict which banned Church support for gay and lesbian ministries unless they upheld traditional teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual acts. This effectively banned involvement of diocesan clergy with Dignity, and the local chapter soon became defunct. A couple gay men approached Fr. Howard about forming a group for spiritual direction. Bishop Stanley Ott suggested they become a chapter of Courage, a pontifically-approved organization. While Fr. Howard was willing to provide spirital direction, he was not in agreement with the rigidly doctrinaire stance of Courage and it’s endorsement of reparative therapy. Thus, he was relieved when lack of interest and closeted leadership soon led to the demise of the Courage chapter.
In 1990, Fr. Howard was re-assigned to St. James Parish in the lower rural reaches of the Diocese. Being at some distance from Baton Rouge inhibited involvement with gay/lesbian community activities. This was also the case with his next pastorate in Morganza, far up-river at the other end of the Diocese. Nevertheless, he turned these into fruitful assignments, and continued to make known to his parishioners his passion for a more inclusive Church. He devoted more time to deepening his own spiritual journey, and found time to shared his reflections at diocesan workshops, clergy support groups, and in several journal articles on the spiritual needs and gifts of gays and lesbians, and of gay clergy and religious.
In the mid-90’s Howard became associated with the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries, led by Fr. Jim Schexnayder of Oakland, California. The approach of this organization was much like a “Plan for Diocesan Gay/Lesbian Ministry” that Fr. Howard had floated in the mid-’80’s, but which was tabled by Bishop Stanley Ott. Such initiatives had come to fruition in a few dioceses, and NACDLGM was formed as a resource network for them. Howard was able to secure the approval of Bishop Alfred Hughes for such a ministry under the umbrella of Catholic Community Services, called DBR/HOPE. It brought together lesbians, gays, and family members, for small-group sharing, reflection, and occasional liturgies. They received a surprising boost from the 1998 letter from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled “Always Our Children”, which urged parents to love and support their children regardless of their sexual orientation. Fr. Howard began attending the yearly Conventions of NACDLGM, where he was recognized as a senior sage of Catholic lesbian/gay ministry. He was invited to serve a term on the National Board. During this time, a decision was made to change the name to The Catholic Association of Lesbian Gay Ministries (CALGM), reflecting the growth of parish and campus-based ministries.
Retreats had served a seminal role in Fr. Howard’s spiritual life. In the early ‘90’s he had arranged an intensive four-day retreat for a group of gay priests led by psychotherapist Dr. Vincent Bilotta. These priests have continued to meet twice yearly ever since that formative experience. In 2006, at the instigation of Fr. Howard, the Jesuit Spirituality Center in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, agreed to host a retreat for Gays and Lesbians. Fr. Jim Schexnayder flew in from California to serve as retreat-master, and returned for the next four years. It was so successful that spin-off retreats were organized in Houston and Tampa. Once again, an initiative of Fr. Howard’s had far-reaching spiritual and social benefits for gay and lesbian Christians.
Fr. Howard felt wounded, when in 2005 “An Instruction Concerning the Criteria for Discernment of Vocations With Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to Seminary and to Holy Orders” was issued by the Roman Curia. It implied that homosexuality led to pedophilia and declared that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or involved in “gay culture” should not be permitted in the priesthood. This impugned the integrity of his dedicated and faithful ministry and that of thousands of gay clergy. In response, Fr. Howard wrote to the directors of clergy formation and education in every diocese in the country, asking them to consider the hurtful implications of such an official stance by the Catholic Church.
Chronic health problems led to Fr. Howard’s retirement from full-time ministry for the Diocese in 2004. He moved to his “Vicarage” in rural Wakefield, but his diminished health made upkeep of the property untenable, and in a few years he returned to Baton Rouge. There he settled into a cozy apartment in the gay-friendly Spanish-Town neighborhood. He would have opportunity to carry on his sacramental ministry at life-passage events, and volunteered to celebrate Sunday Mass at the Catholic Deaf Center for two years.
In May of 2011 Fr. Howard was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. He was hospitalized and medical treatment helped stabilize growth of the tumor. He moved into the Ollie Steele Burden Manor, operated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady. There he ministered to other residents, received a stream of visitors, and redecorated the Prayer Chapel. After it was found that the cancer had spread into his liver, Fr. Howard entered hospice care in early January and died on January 30, 2012. Although in life he had often seemed a lone figure in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, in death he was given a grand farewell at his Funeral Liturgy in St. Joseph Cathedral; celebrated by two bishops and most of the priests of the Diocese. He was buried in a simple pine coffin with rope straps. The message he had inscribed on his headstone reads, “ONE WHO KEENLY FELT HIS OWN LIMITS, AND REACHED OUT TO SUPPORT THE PAIN AND GROWTH OF OTHERS, ONE BY ONE, IN MANY LITTLE WAYS, ONE DAY AT A TIME”
(This biographical statement written by Joseph McCarty, L.C.S.W. in consultation with Howard Hall.)