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New Orleans black parish faces uncertain future

Storm leaves Roman Catholic parish in  financial difficulty.
A packed St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church celebrates mass in New Orleans.
A packed St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church celebrates mass in New Orleans.Bill Haber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mass at one of the nation's oldest black Roman Catholic parishes was filled with jazzy renditions of gospel songs and prayers that church officials would reverse their decision to merge it with another parish, a move prompted by the financial strain of Hurricane Katrina.

"A parish is family. A parish is generations. A parish is your history," said Sandra Gordon, who began attending St. Augustine Church as a child, after Hurricane Betsy wiped out her family's previous parish in 1965.

St. Augustine, founded in 1841 by slaves and free people of color, is among the parishes the archdiocese plans to consolidate as it seeks to deal with $84 million in uninsured losses.

The archdiocese is careful to point out that St. Augustine's will only close as a parish but will still be open for Mass on Sundays and some other functions like funerals and weddings.

Heavy cross to carry
Its building suffered only wind damage from Katrina and will remain open. "Show up on Sunday, and you won't miss a beat," said the Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

But members of the parish, though, say it's not enough. They officially appealed the decision to the Archdiocese of New Orleans on Thursday and expect a response Monday.

St. Augustine sits in a low- to middle-income racially diverse neighborhood near the French Quarter; the music, this Sunday played by Ellis and Branford Marsalis, is jazz. About half of the 350 pre-Katrina families that belonged to the parish have returned, and many have suffered heavy damage to their homes, including Gordon.

"This is a very, very heavy cross for us to carry right now," said Gordon, likening the parish's struggle to the Friday before Jesus' resurrection. "The church will be resurrected. We will have the victory."

Hundreds of structures in the archdiocese, including schools, churches and administrative buildings, were damaged when the storm blew in Aug. 29 and four-fifths of the city was covered in water.

Many at the church note how important the church is historically.

It was founded by slaves and free blacks with the blessing of the archdiocese and birthed the second order of black nuns in the United States in 1842. It was largely a parish of Italian immigrants in the early 1900s but morphed back into a predominantly black church in the 1960s as white residents left the Treme neighborhood.

Its long history in New Orleans means many of the city's black residents have some tie to St. Augustine, which was standing room only on Sunday.

Troi Bechet, a 44-year-old who belongs to another parish, went on Sunday to St. Augustine to show support.

"It's incredibly important in the African-American community historically," said Bechet, who's had several family members baptized at St. Augustine. "It also brings together the community."