Venerable New Orleans Parish Merged in Katrina's Wake
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand. Today is Ash Wednesday, and in New Orleans, Mardi Gras parties have been replaced by somber, religious services, as the Catholic calendar heads into Easter.
CHADWICK: The tone may be particularly subdued at St. Augustine's. That's one of the city's oldest churches. It has a unique history, and faces an uncertain future. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates brings us this report.
(Soundbite of church service)
Father JEROME LEDOUX (Priest, St. Augustine's Catholic Church, New Orleans): Now that you know it, sing it as if you mean it, folks. You know it now.
(Soundbite of congregation singing)
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:
Father Jerome LeDoux, St. Augustine's Catholic Church in New Orleans, spent last Sunday at a sister church, St. Augustine's in the Bronx. He was there in a last-minute attempt to save his home church. It's the oldest black Catholic church in the country. Before he left for New York, Father LeDoux sat with me in St. Augustine's. He's an imposing presence, tall and lean with piercing eyes and a shock of white hair. Father LeDoux explained that more than 150 years ago, the city's free people of color raised money to buy their own church.
After tense negotiations with the Archdiocese, they were allowed to make the purchase. At first, the church community was racially mixed: white, free people of color, and slaves.
Father LEDOUX: So, we had the one whole aisle of free people of color. They had bought those pews for their families to worship in on Sundays. They had also bought the short pews; they had bought those. They didn't need those, so they gave those to the slaves, and for the first time in their existence, the slaves had their own place of worship.
GRIGSBY BATES: St. Augustine's is a beautiful church. The sanctuary is lined with French paintings, depicting the stations of the cross. It's alter is Italian marble, and in sharp contrast, the Father's pulpit is made from tree trunks, fished out of the nearby Mississippi River. When he arrived at St. Augustine's, Father LeDoux had the pews moved in a circle, so that worshipers surrounded the pulpit. He wanted to be closer to his congregation. Masses had been steeped in the culture of New Orleans' ethnic hybrid history, with special attention paid to the church's African roots.
Father LeDoux explains that, since the beginning, the members of the church were entwining the Christian spirituality of the new world with blood memories of their almost-lost African culture.
Father LEDOUX: And they simply combined the Old Testament and the New Testament with their African ceremonies and chants, so the Old Testament came out with a new ring, unheard of in the entire world.
Father LEDOUX: (Singing) When Israel was an Egypt land; let my people go. O, pressed so hard, they could not stand; let my people go. Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell Old Pharaoh, let my people go.
GRIGSBY BATES: St. Augustine's parishioners are fiercely attached to both their church and their priest, but they might not have much more time with Father LeDoux, which means it will no longer be the church they've known. A dwindling population of parishioners in a neighborhood that is now less Catholic than it once was, has placed St. Augustine's on the New Orleans Archdiocese's list of parishes to be closed.
Sandra Gordon is the St. Augustine's Trustee.
Ms. SANDRA GORDON (Trustee of St. Augustine's): The history of our church started where the free people of color went to the bishop to appeal to him for this church, so they could have a place of worship, and he granted that. Now, we back at the same position again. We are appealing to the Archbishop to keep our parish and our church, just like for the first one.
GRIGSBY BATES: The church suffered over $400,000.00 worth of wind damage from the hurricane, and William Maestri, spokesman for Archbishop Alfred Hughes, says the Archdiocese could no longer subsidize several parishes, including St. Augustine's, so it's scheduled to be merged with a nearby black Catholic church, St. Peter Claver. The St. Augustine's parishioners are not looking forward to the change, something Maestri understands.
Mr. WILLIAM MAESTRI (Spokesman for Archbishop Alfred Hughes): Initially, there's always a certain resistance and a certain shock to change, but we think that over the long haul, this will be a better thing for both places, and we have to take a look at the common good. We have to take a look at the thing overall, rather than focus on just one priest, one pastor, one parish. We have to look and see, how does this fit in to the overall Archdiocese?
GRIGSBY BATES: Barring a miracle, after mid-March, there will be no more services under Father LeDoux's pastorate. St. Augustine's will remain open for mass on Sunday with a rotating roster of priests, but there'll be no more baptisms, weddings, or funerals that the church's Treme neighborhood is so accustomed to. In the interim, parishioners continue to resist the scheduled merger of their parish, and each service is treasured as if it's the last.
On Sunday, while Father LeDoux preached in the Bronx, Father Frederick from St. Frances deSales tended the St. Augustine's flock.
(Soundbite of church service at St. Augustine's)
GRIGSBY BATES: The familiar hymns were sung, collection was taken up, and the Eucharist was celebrated. Sandra Gordon was there, and said her church has already been granted one blessing.
Ms. GORDON: You know, it's like a miracle how the belltower is damaged so badly, but, you know, God is still letting the bells ring, and I think that's a sign from God. I really do. We have a lot of our same citizens, who have passed, you know, last year and from the hurricane, and we all say, we know they are up in Heaven, having a big pow-wow with Jesus about their church, and I know he's listening.
GRIGSBY BATES: When the service ended, an old-school brass band led the recessional in a jazzy rendition of I'll Fly Away. It's an old gospel hymn that hints of a better, more free future. St. Augustine's congregants and supporters are hoping it's not the first of many dirges for the death of their greatly love religious community.
(Soundbite of congregation singing "I'll Fly Away")
GRIGSBY BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, New Orleans.
CHADWICK: And Karen joins us now from New Orleans. Karen, there were a lot of concerns before Mardi Gras that maybe, they should just call it off this year. Having gotten through the last few days, what do you think, and what do people there think?
GRIGSBY BATES: I think people feel better about the experience, Alex. There were folks who felt very strongly in the beginning that this was a lot of expense and a lot of energy that was going in the wrong direction when so much else needed to be fixed, but one lady I interviewed on the street said, you know what? We've had nothing but misery for the last six months. It's time to have a laugh.
It's time to do something that is not Katrina-related, unless it's to poke fun at it, and I think people sort of felt as if it was a good time to put on a mask and not have to worry about (unintelligible). They were putting on masks because they were carnival masks, and it's made a difference. I think there's been a lift in the city's spirit.
CHADWICK: Karen Grigsby Bates from New Orleans. Thank you, Karen.