Black Catholics in Standoff over New Orleans Church
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, a scientific breakthrough, researchers explain why wasabi tastes like that. First...
(Soundbite of music)
CHADWICK: The choir at St. Augustine's Church Catholic in New Orleans, recorded a month ago. It's the oldest black Catholic church in the whole country, founded in 1841, but St. Augustine's parish is no more. The Archdiocese of New Orleans merged it with another parish last week, partly for financial reasons.
BRAND: St. Augustine's leader, Father Jerome LeDoux, has also been removed, and now a handful of activists have barricaded themselves inside the rectory in protest. Molly Peterson reports from New Orleans.
MOLLY PETERSON reporting:
They taped a sign to the rectory door. It's hand-lettered. It says, Whose house, Father LeDoux's house, no other shall enter, you heard me.
Behind the door are at least four protestors. They won't reveal exactly how many. They are young community workers, not parishioners of St. Augustine's, but that's just fine by Al Harris, who is.
Mr. AL HARRIS (Parishioner, St. Augustine's Catholic Church): When they saw this happening to us, somehow they did an organizing effort on their own, and said, well, we're gonna step to the plate and take care of these elders. They did it for us, and we're gonna do it for them.
PETERSON: Harris dragged a couple of bags to the curb. He says they were dropped down by protestors from the rectory, and Harris has sent food and supplies up to people inside. Since Monday, he and other parishioners like Carol Kolenchak(ph) have also been here in shifts, keeping vigil for a church they say is vibrant and diverse.
Ms. CAROL KOLENCHAK (Parishioner, St. Augustine's Catholic Church): I mean many, many times it's been said and written that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America, and that's not true here.
PETERSON: Before the storm, Kolenchak came here once in a while for a Jazz funeral. She joined the parish officially last fall, after Katrina, and is determined now to help keep it open.
Ms. KOLENCHAK: When people are trying to rebuild their families, their lives, their jobs, their communities, that one of the few things that was here and functioning would consciously be taken away at that time was shocking and disappointing.
PETERSON: Archdiocese spokesman Father William Maistre(ph) says he understands that people are emotional, especially now, but he says this decision has been a long time coming.
Father WILLIAM MAISTRE (New Orleans Archdiocese): Pre-Katrina, St. Augustine parish had 200 parishioners. St. Peter Clava(ph), which is five blocks away in an African-American parish, right now has 3,000 families. This is not about a momentary cause or a momentary event. It's about the sustained commitment of people to the ongoing life of a parish that simply has not been there.
Ms. SANDRA GORDON (Parish Council President, St. Augustine's Catholic Church): It's the people that make the church, right? We're the parish. We're the people. We make this church.
PETERSON: Parish council president Sandra Gordon's family has almost as much history here as the church itself. A relative of hers was baptized here in 1857. Gordon says the council has written letters asking for time for fundraising and they're prayed for the Archdiocese to reconsider. But Gordon says she never expected this kind of confrontation.
Ms. GORDON: I do not want anybody to go to jail. I said, Lord, this was the last thing. But I guess this hasn't changed anything. You know (unintelligible) so I guess they said, well, so what?
PETERSON: Maistre says the Archdiocese did communicate with the parish pastor, Father LeDoux, who left for Mississippi on Sunday. More importantly, he says, the church will stay open, even if it's part of another parish.
Father MAISTRE: It seems to me that that's the best of both worlds, the church open, services on Sunday continuing, all of the other services five blocks away at a full-service parish right there in the Tremay(ph) area.
PETERSON: At St. Augustine's rectory, through an open window on the second floor, a bleary-eyed young man leans out. Sincere Ali Shakur(ph) is a hurricane relief worker from Washington, D.C. He's one of many outsiders drawn to St. Augustine's by its history and by Father LeDoux. Shakur says this institution, like others here, is betraying the community.
Mr. SINCERE ALI SHAKUR (Hurricane Relief Worker): They just did what New Orleans local government has been doing to these people before Katrina. Just rifle right past them. So if they want to carry it like that, this is the reason why we lock it down, and we're not giving it up.
PETERSON: St. Augustine's is still a neighborhood hangout this week, with jazz music, a spread of food from supporters, Catholic and non-Catholic, who stop by, and community meetings. Father Maistre says Catholic officials have not yet asked those inside the rectory or those on church grounds to leave.
Father MAISTRE: The Archdiocese at this point is being patient. But I want to be clear. The patience of the Archdiocese is not infinite.
PETERSON: What the Archdiocese will do, Maistre says, will become clear today. For NPR News, I'm Molly Peterson in New Orleans.