A Parish to Be Mourned
It seemed for a while that Hurricane Katrina might give St. Augustine parish -- home to one of the nation’s oldest African American Catholic churches -- a reprieve. After years of seeing its attendance drop, the numbers climbed as people pulled together in churches that were spared devastation.
But last week, the city’s Roman Catholic archdiocese announced a decision that had been years in the making: It will be closing the parish that has been a historic centerpiece of the New Orleans black community and the city’s jazz culture.
Located two blocks from the French Quarter, the church built by slaves in 1841 has also been a tourist attraction, displaying the intricate weave of race, culture and history distinctive to New Orleans.
St. Augustine parish will be merged with St. Peter Claver, a larger parish several blocks east, on March 15, said Father William Maestri, spokesman for the archdiocese.
Weekly Mass will still take place at St. Augustine, but other functions will be shifted and the parish will lose its priest, Father Jerome LeDoux.
The closing of the parish comes against a broader public debate about what a rebuilt New Orleans will look like -- and whether blacks forced to evacuate will return in large numbers. St. Augustine has been an important cultural anchor in a city where many blacks are Catholic.
The closure is part of an archdiocese restructuring that will merge seven parishes and delay the opening of 23 churches as church leaders watch to see how many people return to the city, Maestri said.
Maestri said the parish had been scheduled to close for several years, as the Catholic population in the area has steadily dropped. “Katrina accelerated the process,” he said. “Money is really not the issue. It’s population; it’s demographics.”
However, the announced closure of St. Augustine outraged and saddened churchgoers and members of the black community here.
“This is where we come together,” said Michael Mansion, a writer and poet. “If they’re taking this church, then they’re breaking up the family. We’d be lost without this church.”
Closing St. Augustine “would help destroy this community,” said Joan Rhodes, who owns several funeral homes in the New Orleans area. “There are people who have roots in this church who are all over the country. You shut that down and you really are putting a knife in the heart of the culture. It’s just coming right after Katrina.”
Merging St. Augustine would also mean the departure of LeDoux, one of the city’s charismatic religious leaders, who took over the church in 1990.
A vegan, a pianist, a vegetable gardener and a former Xavier University theology professor, LeDoux strove to reflect the city’s culture and history in church services. He declined to comment on the closure.
LeDoux made jazz part of St. Augustine’s Masses. He blesses jazz bands and presides over jazz funerals. The church holds an annual Louis Armstrong jazz Mass at the end of the first week of August, commemorating the birthday of the pioneering jazz trumpeter.
The church held the city’s memorial service for rhythm and blues legend Ray Charles, and held a jazz funeral for Allison “Tootie” Montana, chief of the Yellow Pocahontas band of Mardi Gras “Indians.”
Known to work late into the night and be available for parishioners 24 hours a day, LeDoux has an ardent following.
“He funeralizes all the jazz musicians. He funeralized my husband,” said Emma Dolliole, whose husband, Milford, died in 1995 after many years as a jazz drummer.
“Father LeDoux is the core of that church,” said Drex Brumfield, volunteer director of church development. “Removing him in any kind of way would actually kill the church.”
St. Augustine has been on hard times for a while.
Katrina caused an estimated $500,000 in damage to the church’s roof and distinctive copper bell tower, part of which was torn off. But even before the storm, the church was searching for $500,000 to pay for renovations to its fellowship hall.
St. Augustine was able to stay open through Hurricane Katrina, and afterward became a refuge for those affected by the storm -- giving away food and allowing people to sleep on church premises, Brumfield said.
Before Katrina, attendance at the church’s weekly Mass was down to fewer than 150 people, Brumfield said.
Since the storm, the church has showed signs of rebounding. Attendance at its Mass has more than doubled -- to 300 every Sunday -- because several other Catholic churches haven’t reopened, Brumfield said.
“We don’t have the statistics to support that,” said Maestri, the archdiocese spokesman. “But even 300 people is not enough to sustain a full-ministry parish. It’s just not.”
The parish has been part of, and reflected, the city’s tumultuous history since it opened in 1842.
Slaves carved the wooden pews that are still in place. Italian immigrant artisans built the altar. French artisans installed the stained-glass windows.
Its congregation was originally made up of whites, slaves, and free blacks -- making it the first church in the United States where whites and blacks worshiped together. That composition changed over the years -- it became all-white in the segregated South, mixed after the civil rights movement and eventually predominantly black.
The church is in the Treme neighborhood, established on an old plantation in 1809. Free blacks were able to buy property there, and it remains among the oldest predominantly African American neighborhoods in the country.
In recent decades, however, economics and public policy decisions have shaken Treme, and many say the closing of the parish is will further hurt it.
Interstate 10 was built through the neighborhood in the 1960s, displacing many black residents and businesses. When Louis Armstrong Park was built in the area, more residents and businesses had to be relocated.
Closing St. Augustine “would be another very important part of old Treme which would be lost,” said Raphael Cassimere Jr., a professor of Louisiana and African American history at the University of New Orleans.
More recently, the wider gentrification of the 6th Ward has increased property values and brought more white parishioners as blacks have moved elsewhere. That trend has depleted the parish, though it has also returned St. Augustine to its multiracial roots.
Under LeDoux, the church attracts congregants from across southern Louisiana, and retains a distinctly African American flavor.
This week, the church was scheduled to bury three people with jazz funerals.
Among them was Melva Dolliole, mother of 16 children and a matron of the New Orleans Dolliole clan, who had attended St. Augustine for decades.
Many of her children and grandchildren returned from Texas, Florida, Tennessee and New York to attend her jazz funeral at St. Augustine on Tuesday, then the “repass” -- the post-burial party -- in the church’s fellowship hall, dancing to the raucous blasts of the Rebirth Brass Band.
“It’s overwhelming to even speak about” closing the church, said Emma Dolliole, sister-in-law to the deceased, her voice breaking as she spoke over the band and relatives and friends danced nearby.
“This church -- to see it go away would be a disaster for the community.”