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Historic black church preserved in New Orleans

The historically black St. Augustine Catholic church celebrated Palm Sunday with news of a reprieve. The archbishop agreed to reopen the church founded by slaves in 1841 after negotiating with parishioners who protested the church’s closing for budget reasons.
Jerome LeDoux
Father Jerome LeDoux holds a palm frond on Palm Sunday as he celebrates Mass at St. Augustine Church in New Orleans. Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The ancient cypress doors were propped wide in the bright sunshine, palm fronds stacked high, pews filled and joyous music poured from St. Augustine as the historically black Catholic church celebrated Palm Sunday.

The service came two weeks after the church was closed amid protests over post-Hurricane Katrina budget cutbacks that would have merged it with a larger neighboring parish.

“What a historic morning for us to gather,” said Archbishop Alfred Hughes, who originally ordered the church shut down, but returned to celebrate Mass on Sunday.

The church was full for the first service, but unless the support continues, the reprieve for the church will not last.

When Hughes re-consecrated St. Augustine on Saturday he said he would examine the parish’s progress after 18 months to determine if it could avoid consolidation with a neighboring parish.

Hughes agreed to reopen St. Augustine after negotiating with parishioners who had protested the church’s closing. St. Augustine, founded in 1841 by slaves and free people of color, is one of the nation’s oldest black parishes. The archdiocese sought to consolidate St. Augustine as it tries to deal with $84 million in uninsured losses from Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

“I intend to be a regular now and support the church here,” said Gordon Cagnolitti, a New Orleans firefighter who described himself as multi-denominational. “I go to several churches, but my son and grandchildren go here and I will, too, from now on.”

St. Augustine had failed to add many new members or carry on other pastoral functions required of a functioning parish, Hughes said when closing it. Under the plans announced earlier this year, the church building would still be used for services, but parish functions were to be consolidated with neighboring St. Peter Claver.

Churchgoers' emotions run deep
But the church had not reckoned with the deep feeling of the parishioners. Protest sprang up, and a small group of protesters shuttered themselves in the church rectory three weeks ago.

Demonstrators interrupted Mass on March 26 — a desecration, Hughes said the next day, when he announced that the church building would be closed.

The parishioners have set 12 goals to meet during the next 18 months, Hughes said. Among other things, they require the addition of from 300 to 400 families, the institution of religious education and a balanced budget by Oct. 1.

If the parish does not meet the goals, it will be closed, Hughes said.

But on Sunday the possible problems seemed far from anyone’s mind. When a lay reader opened the service by welcoming those in attendance to St. Augustine Church, the crowd cheered and clapped. then people waved palm fronds and clapped to the hymn “Oh, Happy Day.”

“It’s a joyous day, a great celebration,” said Leola Brown, 77. “It shows the Lord answers prayers. This is my church. I want to attend it while I’m living and be buried from it when I die.”