Hahnville grad led monks to victory in coffin lawsuit

Funeral directors sought to stop monks from crafting less expensive caskets

April 18, 2014 at 1:33 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Father Carles Benoit (rear left) helps carry a cypress casket crafted by monks at St. Joseph Abbey out of a federal courtroom.
Father Carles Benoit (rear left) helps carry a cypress casket crafted by monks at St. Joseph Abbey out of a federal courtroom.
When the monks at St. Joseph Abbey began crafting cypress coffins in 2007, they did not know that the practice would cause a state association to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against their ability to engage in the craft.

In the background of the fight to be allowed to handcraft the coffins was a Luling native, Father Charles Benoit. 

 When Benoit graduated from Hahnville High School in 1992, he never had any idea that he might some day help lead his order in a historic lawsuit over the production of caskets.

After graduating from St. Joseph Seminary College, Benoit got a graduate degree at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. He then went on to get his licentiate in canon law from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., making him well positioned to help out his order.

He and other administrators at the college and abbey jumped into action after the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors tried to stop them from selling caskets, citing that only those with a funeral director’s license could engage in the practice.

In 2010, St. Joseph’s Abbey sued the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors in federal court.

“I was one of the coordinators for the abbey side working with the Institutes for Justice and our attorneys. I didn’t give testimony, but I helped coordinate within the monastery,” Benoit said.

Although St. Joseph’s Abbey is a Catholic organization, Benoit said they do not receive direct funding from the church. By selling caskets, the order was better able to sustain itself.

“This is a needed source of funding so we can run our ministries, such as the seminary college,” he said. “It helps sustain our other ministries. At first we were only making 10 to 12 caskets a month, but the case got a lot of free publicity. The months after the case we were averaging 30 caskets per month.”

Benoit said the case really hinged on one fact.

“One of their early arguments was that this was a case for health, wellness and protection,” he said. “But in Louisiana you don’t have to be buried in a casket. You can be buried in a sheet.”

Subsequently, the federal district court ruled in favor of Benoit’s order and an appeals court upheld their ruling, which opened up casket sales to any organization within the state.

Although coming out on top in the coffin lawsuit was a highlight of Benoit’s career, his mission within the church began more than 20 years ago after he graduated from Hahnville High School in 1992.

The then 18-year-old only knew he wanted to become a priest and join the Benedictine order of monks.

“I started off with a great love for the liturgy. I intended to study liturgy as an academic study,” Benoit said.

In 2001, after he was ordained as a priest, Benoit was asked to return to St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College as an academic administrator.

“Immediately after ordination, I became the assistant dean of students at St. Joseph Seminary College and then I became the dean of students and vice-rector,” he said.

In 2006, Benoit helped the college and abbey recover from the devastation Hurricane Katrina wreaked on a pine forest. He also helped work out issues with insurance claims surrounding the damage.

“We have 1,200 acres and 1,000 acres was a pine plantation. The trees were actually topped off or snapped in half. Over a 30-year period it would be $30 million – that was the value of trees when you harvest them,” he said.

After helping the order recover from the hurricane, including hosting Archbishop Hannan High School on their grounds for five years, Benoit went on to get his licentiate in canon law, which is akin to a Juris Doctorate degree required for attorneys but is specific to church law.

With the degree, Benoit occasionally helps sort out disputes within the church and is a consultant on religious matters and marriage annulments.

However, since 2012 Benoit has served a very important role at the abbey as subprior, and in 2013 he became the dean of St. Joseph’s Seminary College.

He said the college has begun to bring in more and more young seminarians.

“We are celebrating 125 years this year. We’ve been around a while.” he said.  “We project enrollment of 130 next fall. When I was in seminary we only had 50 students, so it is a drastic increase.”

Benoit said although training a priest is a long process, taking eight years, the work is very rewarding.

“Higher education in the church has always been a large component within the church and I enjoy being part of that,” he said. “At the same time it is preparing future priests. To see a young man grow in academic life and to be able to see him go on to serve in a parish is very rewarding.”

After 22 years as a man of the cloth, Benoit said he is very happy with how his path as a monk and priest has gone.

“It is really being able to serve the people of God spiritually as well as intellectually, helping others in the church and at the same time helping the institutional side of the church and bridging the two together,” he said.

In the end, Benoit said he never expected that he would end up being in the position he is today.

“I haven’t asked for these positions, I’ve just been asked to do them. Sometimes we go by the seat our pants and trust that it is all part of God’s plan and he brings good out of all things,” he said. 

View other articles written Kyle Barnett

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