Tag Archives: New Orleans

Mary at the Rock’N’Bowl

John Blancher Sr. knew more about brokering crawfish than bowling when he took over New Orleans’ Mid-City Bowling Lanes in 1988, but he had a real pro for a partner in the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The father-and-son team of John and Johnny Blancher, members of Legatus’ New Orleans Chapter, pose for a photo at the Rock’n’Bowl.

On a pilgrimage earlier that year to Medjugorje, site of reported Marian apparitions, Blancher had petitioned Mary for help in finding a business that would enable him to better provide for his family. A week after his return to New Orleans, a friend asked if he wanted to buy a bowling alley.

“I said, ‘A bowling alley!?’ I had bowled, but never in a league. I didn’t know anything about bowling.”

Nor did he know that soon he would be transforming the struggling business into the Rock’n’Bowl, now one of New Orleans’ most popular night spots.

Help from above

Blancher, a member of Legatus’ New Orleans Chapter with his wife Deborah, took over the bowling alley on All Saints Day in 1988, thinking it might make a good party venue or a sports bar. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I really just went on faith and said, ‘If this is it, let me know.’”

He hung a picture of Our Lady of Medjugorje over the staircase and painted the place what he calls “Blessed Mother Blue.” Only Deborah knew that Mary had inspired the acquisition. Everyone else, he said, thought he was crazy.

“If I had told them the Blessed Mother wants me to do this, they really would have thought I was nuts.”

rocknbowl-maryDeborah believed otherwise. “I knew that Mary was very powerful, and if he thought that Mary told him to buy this bowling alley, I was all behind it.”

More than a month later on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Blancher’s application for a business loan was rejected. He went straight to Mary. “Blessed Mother,” he said, “this was not my idea. I only did it because I thought it was what you wanted me to do.”

Blancher says he somehow managed to keep things going. Deborah taught school during the day and helped at the bowling alley a few nights per week and on Sundays. A newspaper story generated more customers, and then the theater crowd discovered Mid-City as a place to dance to juke box music and bowl on Saturday nights.

“That was the first influx of fun-loving, celebrating people,” Blancher recalled. More stories appeared about people hanging out at a retro bowling alley. After adding live music on Friday nights, Blancher renamed Mid-City the Rock‘n’Bowl. “It was suddenly a sensation — almost the hottest music club in town.”

Divine Providence

The club’s growth didn’t stop, and neither did Blancher. With his prayers for his family answered, he was now thinking about the family’s future. His son Johnny and son-in-law Jimmy Hankins were working with him, but he knew the Rock‘n’Bowl wasn’t enough to sustain everyone long-term. When he heard that the owners of Ye Olde College Inn down the street wanted to sell, Blancher offered to buy the restaurant with plans to have his son and son-in-law run and eventually own it.

After the sale, in keeping with his devotion to Mary, Blancher searched for an image of her to hang in the restaurant, but could only find a depiction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When one of the former owners saw it, he told Blancher that he and his wife had made a novena to the Sacred Heart, asking for a buyer for their property. “On the ninth day of the novena is when you called,” he said.

Both businesses have since been consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary with the help of Legatus chaplain Fr. Jim Wehner and the seminarians at Notre Dame Seminary. Father Wehner is rector of the seminary, which is across South Carrollton Avenue from the College Inn and Rock‘n’Bowl.

Although the College Inn has always been on South Carrollton, it wasn’t until four years after Hurricane Katrina that Rock‘n’Bowl moved there. The business had survived Katrina and was the first in its neighborhood to reopen at the original location after the storm. But as property became available near the College Inn in the wake of the hurricane, the Blanchers decided to relocate Rock‘n’Bowl to a site behind the restaurant. The College Inn, meanwhile, moved to another building on the property after the storm destroyed its original building.

“Now, we’re all on the same footprint across from the seminary, the archbishop’s home and archdiocesan headquarters,” said son Johnny Blancher, also a member of Legatus’ New Orleans Chapter. “It’s sort of a Catholic corridor down here. We couldn’t have planned it if we’d tried.”

“It may be coincidental,” added his father, “but when the Lord has a plan, you don’t always see the plan while it’s happening. When it’s all over, you recognize all the things that went into it.”

National phenomenon

"If I had told them the Blessed Mother wants me to do this, they really would have thought I was nuts ‘‘ John Blancher Sr.

“If I had told them the Blessed Mother wants me to do this, they really would have thought I was nuts ‘‘ John Blancher, Sr.

John Blancher said his faith in God’s providence extends to promoting the business. “In some kind of way, the magazines, the articles, they just come. I’m just a tool that the Blessed Mother uses occasionally to get her message out.”

In 1995, for example, a 19-page National Geographic article on New Orleans included an entire page about Blancher, his trip to Medjugorje and Mary’s influence on his business, spawning stories by other national media, including USA Today, Rolling Stone and the Today Show.

“All of a sudden, [Rock’n’Bowl] wasn’t a local phenomenon, but a national phenomenon and tourists started coming,” he said.

Even better, Blancher said, “Every story mentions the Blessed Mother. There’s no way it’s a coincidence. I’m trying to make this be a testament to her love and her power. I really don’t go out pursuing it. It just comes.”

Blancher, 63, also believes Mary and her Son saw him through a health crisis earlier this year. Despite what he called “almost legendary” endurance that was regularly demonstrated on the Rock‘n’Bowl dance floor, he began noticing a change in his heartbeat during exertion.

Knowing his father had had a heart attack and bypass surgery, he requested a cardiac evaluation, which revealed three major blockages. On June 1, the start of the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Blancher had triple-bypass surgery.

Johnny Blancher, who shares his father’s devotion to Mary and Jesus, said, “The Blessed Mother’s been good to our whole family. She’s kept us safe and healthy and, in some kind of way, we always end up through our trials and tribulations better than we were before. I attribute that to her and her Son.”

The Blanchers’ faith is evident in the way their business gives back to the Church. They often make Rock‘n’Bowl available for Catholic fundraisers, and on designated nights, give 20% of net College Inn sales to Catholic schools and other groups.

Father Wehner said Rock‘n’Bowl also is host for an evening of bowling and food for the incoming class of Notre Dame seminarians each year as well as for Legatus events. In addition, the Blanchers sponsor a nativity scene on the seminary campus each Christmas and have turned a piece of adjoining property owned by the Archdiocese of New Orleans into a spiritual greenspace where they maintain a vegetable garden for the restaurant and have placed Divine Mercy and Marian images, as well as the stations of the cross.

“I think what’s most important,” Fr. Wehner said, “is that as business leaders, they’re successful, but their faith is an inspiration for their success.”

JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Learn more: RockNBowl.com

Of Mind and Music

Jazz, art, and the French Quarter — some of the elements that make New Orleans one of America’s most beloved and unique cites — work together to provide a rich backdrop for Dr. Nicholas Bazan to explore the human impact on Alzheimer’s disease.

Legate Dr. Nicolas Bazan (left) and director Richie Adams on the set of Of Mind and Music

Legate Dr. Nicolas Bazan (left) and director Richie Adams on the set of Of Mind and Music

“I wanted to give a message of hope about this disease. Awareness yes, but hope at the same time,” said Bazan, a member of New Orleans’ Legatus chapter who is a renowned Neuroscience and published author.

Building awareness

Bazan, professor and director of the Neuroscience Center of Excellence at Louisiana State University Health New Orleans School of Medicine, in 2012 published his first novel, “Una Vida: A Fable of Music,” which has since been adapted into a feature film, Of Mind and Music.

Bazan co-wrote the screenplay with Richie Adams, the film’s director. The independent film has drawn praise from moviegoers and critics at various festivals and screenings since the movie was produced in 2014. The film was in limited release nationwide this spring and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

“The story is a tough subject matter, but we wanted to leave people inspired,” said Adams, who has worked on films like Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Hunger Games.

“We knew that if the story was told against the backdrop of a city, rich and beautiful in history, and human beings helping human beings in times of need — regardless of race and socioeconomic status — that it would be a good thing for the film,” he said.

Bazan said his novel and the film are meant to spread awareness of Alzheimer’s disease to a wider audience than scientific journals can typically reach.

“To write the novel took me two years,” Bazan explained. “It took a lot of thinking to come up with the characters that could connect with people.”

One of the main characters in Of Mind and Music is Dr. Alvaro Cruz (played by Portuguese actor Joaquim De Almeida), who is a renowned neuroscientist studying Alzheimer’s disease. In the story, Cruz is heartbroken and disillusioned because his elderly mother has died of Alzheimer’s while he was away at a lecture in Paris.

ofmind-1Bazan said Cruz’s experience is based in part on his own life. Bazan’s mother died at age 86 while he was at a conference in Japan. She did not die from Alzheimer’s disease, but Bazan said he felt guilt not being at his mother’s side when she died.

In the story, Cruz takes time off work to gather himself and reconnect with the love of music that he and his mother shared. In New Orleans’ French Quarter, Cruz hears the spellbinding voice of an elderly female street musician named Una Vida, played by actress Aunjanue L. Ellis.

After repeat visits to hear her sing, Cruz realizes that Una Vida is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and he knows her street-musician companions are not equipped to meet her needs. As he goes about trying to help her, taking her into his own home and helping her search for a long-lost son, Cruz is amazed to learn that music triggers Una Vida’s memory. When a song comes on from her past, or when she sings a tune, Una Vida’s Alzheimer’s seemingly fades away — at least until the song ends.

Bazan said scientific research has shown that music, for many Alzheimer’s patients, stimulates their cognitive ability.

“Some patients are without connection to the world, but by being connected with music, they can be reconnected with reality,” Bazan said.

The magic of music

Dr. Vincent Fortanasce

The reason why music stimulates a patient with Alzheimer’s disease is because music is stored in the brain’s cingulate gyrus, the least injured part of the brain in someone with Alzheimer’s, said Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a renowned neurologist and bioethicist who is a member of Legatus’ San Juan Capistrano Chapter.

“Music is magical in saving and restoring memory,” said Fortanasce, who added that even patients with severe Alzheimer’s can remember and sing songs from their past because the neurons in the part of the brain that stores music are the last to be affected by the disease.

Actress Sharon Lawrence, who plays Cruz’s wife Angela in the film, said she had watched a documentary about music therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s shortly before she was offered the role.

“The idea of doing a narrative story about how music connects us back to ourselves, I was very open to the idea,” Lawrence said. “I thought, ‘What a great way to help continue the understanding of this.’”

Like many other members of the cast and crew, Lawrence has a personal connection to Alzheimer’s. Her grandmother died from the disease, as did the film’s lead actor Joaquim de Almeida’s mother. Adams, the director, said the film’s casting director was a caregiver for her father for 10 years until he died of the disease last year, and one of his wife’s grandparents has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“It’s a subject that I have had compassion for because I have seen not only the people who have the disease and their challenges, but also the families and caregivers who suffer,” said Lawrence, who for several years has been involved in fundraisers for Alzheimer’s research.

ofmind-2A message of hope

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.4 million Americans are currently diagnosed with the disease, which is listed as the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and the fifth-leading cause of death for people over age 65.

Bazan said there is no cure or any proven steps to prevent neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“With Alzheimer’s, there are a lot of black boxes in our understanding of what’s going on,” Bazan said. “That’s why we can’t be in denial and we need the resources to do the research.”

In the absence of a cure, Bazan said he wanted to give a message of hope to people who may be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or have a loved one with the illness. Bazan said his Catholic faith informed him as he went about writing the novel and screenplay.

“I’m one of those people who don’t believe in luck and I don’t believe in serendipity,” Bazan said. “I’m one of those who believe that God gave us scientists the opportunity to do what we do. I try to follow God’s guidance in a way to bring hope to things and situations that we cannot yet sort out through scientific approaches.”

Though subtle, faith is a consistent theme throughout the film. In one scene, Cruz lights a candle in a church for his mother. In a climactic moment, a cross is seen on a wall, which leaves the viewer with the impression that a character relied on faith to cope through a dark time in life.

“I think God has kind of had his hand upon this project from the very beginning,” said Adams, a Baton Rouge-based director who attends a Methodist Church. “I think God has his hand on all our lives, which gives me a huge amount of comfort.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Learn more: OfMindAndMusic.com

Caring for Catholic education in New Orleans

Legatus’ New Orleans chaplain gives his all for children and the Catholic faith . . .

Very Rev. Neal McDermott

Very Rev. Neal McDermott

Very Rev. Neal McDermott, OP
New Orleans Chapter

After retiring last year as executive director of New Orleans’ archdiocesan Department of Christian Formation, Fr. Neal McDermott, 80, humorously referenced his ancestry: “Irishmen cry at the opening of a Kmart, so if I shed a tear it’s because I’m Irish,” he told colleagues at his going-away party. Fifty-two years a priest and in love with his vocation, Fr. McDermott did not truly retire. He now serves as president of Legate Joseph C. Canizaro’s Donum Dei Foundation, which makes grants to support Catholic education.

Tell us about your call to the priesthood.

The call came early. I was taught by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I loved everything to do with the Church, to be around the sisters. I’d come by the school on Saturday to clean boards and sweep. By the time I was 14, I was very sure. I wanted to join a teaching order. One day my dentist handed me a brochure he got in the mail from Dominicans, and the rest is history.

How did you become acquainted with Legatus?

I became spiritual director to Joseph Canizaro, who built the library at Ave Maria University. He was the man whom Tom Monaghan turned to in New Orleans to start a Legatus chapter in 1999. Joe asked me to be one of the chaplains.

“One” of the chaplains?

Yes. We have three: a diocesan priest, a member of the Josephite order, and me. We have a big chapter to serve, nearly 50 member couples. And since we three priests have so many other obligations, we needed more than one chaplain. But we’re all usually present at meetings and we take turns dividing duties.

What impact has Legatus had on the archdiocese?

A number of Legates have committed themselves to Catholic education, like providing needy children with scholarships. We also have a seminary in the process of being renovated, and many Legates generously support that. In fact, we’re planning a special meeting in which we’ll invite some 100 seminarians to have dinner with us to introduce them to Legatus.

How would you like to see the chapter progress?

I’d like to see every member choose one student to sponsor at Ave Maria University. I’d like them to continue in their affirmation of the priesthood and religious life, supporting schools and teachers. And among all the different Catholic charities in New Orleans — like feeding the poor — I think every one of the members has helped in each area. And I’d like to see each of them pick up the concept of ambassador and concretize it in their own way.

How do you approach your role as chaplain?

I’m available for spiritual direction. I also help them in their various charitable activities, doing the footwork in ways like securing grants.

You have a vocation, of course. Any avocations?

I’m a dog lover. I’m in love with animals. I work with some of the women in the chapter in their efforts to save animals, like running a sanctuary for abused pitbulls.

Can you recommend any devotions?

Dominicans are very committed to the rosary. Legates need quiet time for reflection, and Eucharistic adoration is just perfect for that.

Are there any lessons you’ve learned that are apt for business leaders?

Having been an administrator of some 105 schools in the archdiocese, I learned that you need to take the time to meet your people. They need to know they’re loved. People remember that. When you say you’re an ambassador, an ambassador needs a diplomatic touch — and let your faith shine through!

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Education key for chaplain in the big easy

Fr. Joseph Doyle, SSJ

New Orleans Chapter

Although he brings a diverse background to Legatus, Fr. Joseph Doyle is a teacher at heart. As one of three chaplains for the New Orleans Chapter since it was founded in 2000, he serves as the principal of St. Augustine High School and volunteers at a crisis pregnancy center. Father Doyle is a member of the Josephites, an order of Catholic priests and brothers serving the African American community in the United States.

Tell me how you first got involved with Legatus.

It actually started with a 30-day retreat I was on with Fr. John Hardon in Detroit about 10 years ago. The topic of Legatus came up when we talked about apostolate. I met Legatus’ executive director, which set the wheels in motion. The next thing I knew, the prospect of a chapter was being presented to Archbishop [Francis] Schulte, who approved the foundation of a chapter in New Orleans. He appointed three chaplains: Along with myself, there’s Fr. Neil McDermott and Monsignor Andrew Taormina. I don’t think there’s another chapter with three chaplains. Maybe it’s because we’re known as Sin City! [Laughs.] Really, New Orleans is a very spiritual city. We have lots of adoration chapels. The faith is strong, and Legatus makes it even stronger.

What do you try to bring to the members every month?

The sacraments more than anything else. All three chaplains are available for confession, and we are usually all concelebrating the Mass. It’s come to the point where we’re not just chaplains, but spiritual directors. We see the same people every month, so they begin to open up. We’re there when they need us — whether it’s the death of a family member, sickness or whatever. Our work is very pastoral.

How is your chapter unique?

Diversity. At one time, we had more African Americans in our chapter than they had in all the other chapters combined. We lost a few after Katarina. People don’t realize how devastating Katrina was, especially for businesses and families. Some moved away, and some were severely affected in their business. Construction and banking have done well.

How has your involvement with Legatus affected your ministry?

I have the greatest admiration for the members of Legatus. I try to bring them to our school to speak to our business and entrepreneurship classes. We draw on the talents and gifts our members are willing to share with high school students. We get a lot of support from the members without asking. They see the value of a Catholic education. We’ve had a number of Legatus members graduate from St. Augustine.

Legatus has flourished in Louisiana since your chapter began.

Right. The first one to break away and form its own chapter was Northshore, then Baton Rouge, then Houma-Thibodaux. They’re working on Lafayette right now.

Tell me about your work at St. Augustine.

We have almost 700 students, all African American — about 60% Catholic. We work to ensure that when these young men graduate, they maintain their Catholic identity in college — and after college as professional businessmen. About 90% of our students go on to college after they graduate. We look upon our Catholic education as an opportunity for evangelization and for dealing with the culture. We do that through our Catholic identity … and strong discipline.

What else are you involved in?

I work with the Women’s New Life center here in New Orleans. It’s a crisis pregnancy center located next to an abortion facility. I say Mass there five days a week. I’m involved in post-abortion counseling and supporting right-to-life causes in the city and state. That’s probably more important than anything else.