- Elisa Cool

Saint Augustine Catholic Church wasn't meant to stand the test of time, but she has. 175 years ago the church opened its doors, embracing all who chose to worship. White, black, slave, Free People of Color; all were welcome. Almost two centuries later, her congregation is as diverse as the population of the city where she stands. Her foundation of believers is as strong as ever, but the cracks in her physical foundation are beginning to take their toll.

I was recently lucky enough to receive a tour of Saint Augustine, including its forgotten hallways, schoolrooms, and turrets; now tucked away from public view. Along the way, I learned many stories about Saint Augustine. How it was founded, who attended, and why its so important that it stays a part of the Tremé's future, and not just its past.

The following is a story in two parts: Saint Augustine's past and Saint Augustine's present. To understand why this landmark is so important, it helps to understand what's been as well as what's possible.

Saint Augustine, March 2017

Part 1: The History of Saint Augustine's Congregation

Many authors, researchers, and documentarians from around the world have portrayed Saint Augustine as an important contributor to New Orleans history. But what makes that possible, and what makes Saint Augustine truly unique, is her integrated congregation. This is the story of that community.

From Plantation to Congregation: A brief history

Steps from Congo Square, sits one of America's longest standing testaments to integration, on the grounds of one of America's oldest plantations on the grounds of The Tremé .

Resting at the corners of Governor Nicholls and Henriette DeLille streets, in the heart of the Tremé, Saint Augustine (pronounced ah-gust-in) was founded in 1841 on the grounds of the old Moreau family plantation.

Originally, it was the brickyard and tilery headquarters built in 1720 of the Province of New Orleans’ Supervisor of the Company of the Indies and was an economic stimulus for the province. In 1731 the Company of the Indies left and the plantation was sold to the Moreau family and eventually came into the possession of Julie Moreau in 1775, a manumitted (freed) slave.

In the early 1700’s a wealthy hat maker and Frenchman, Claude Tremé, married Julie Moreau and took title to the property. The couple subdivided the estate and sold off many lots to Free People of Color, people from the Old Quarter and Haitian immigrants fleeing the 1791 revolution. After selling 35 lots the Tremé family left their plantation home in 1810.

Originally the plantation turned neighborhood was simply known as “Back of Town,” as it sat directly behind the French Quarter in relation to the Mississippi River. It was later renamed Tremé by savvy real estate developers after its last owner, Claude Tremé, and the name stuck.

In the 1830’s Tremé’s Free People of Color petitioned Bishop Antoine Blanc for permission to build a church. A lot at the corner of Bayou Road (now Gov Nicholls) and Saint Claude, (now Henriette Delille) was donated by the Ursuline Nuns on the condition the church would be named Saint Augustine, after one of their patron saints. St. Augustine Church began construction in 1839, where fourteen Free People of Color placed the church’s capstone, it was dedicated in 1841.

The War of the Pews: the start of Saint Augustine’s uniquely diverse congregation

By the time the church opened its doors in 1841 the Tremé neighborhood was the bustling home to many of the city’s Free People of Color. Saint Augustine opened its doors to its immediate neighbors as well as all who wished to congregate there. This made worshiping at Saint Augustine appealing to the Tremé residents as well as their neighbors in The French Quarter. Thus began the war of the pews.

At the time it was common to purchase pews for your family to worship at each Sunday, not unlike season passes for a sporting event today. A bidding war began as the white and Free People of Color each purchased the center pews. In an unprecedented political and religious move, the Free People of Color members bought all the side aisle pews. They then gave those pews to the slaves as their exclusive place of worship. This mix of pews resulted in the most integrated congregation in the country.

Paul Poincy’s “St. Claude and Dumaine Streets, Faubourg Tremé,” 1895 (Louisiana State Museum). Saint Augustine in the background.

Saint Augustine is the oldest church in the United States that has had a continuous integrated congregation throughout its entire history; many ethnicities found spiritual comfort at Saint Augustine Church. White children and black and every shade in between knelt side by side. Black and whites sang side by side in the choir of Saint Augustine as early as the 1860s, and knelt together at the altar rail for communion.

It’s this unique history that is why Saint Augustine is a permanent part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Modern day Saint Augustine Catholic Church

You can see the influence of the "war of the pews" on the church’s layout today. Notice the pews perpendicular to the altar that line the sides of the church? These would likely have been where the slaves worshiped in the early days of Saint Augustine.

Paying Tribute to a Dark Past: The Tomb of the Unknown Slave

As a tribute to those slaves who worked the Tremé, who built New Orleans, and indeed much of the country, a memorial was raised in 2004. On Saturday, October 30, 2004, in the midst of a Gospel Extravaganza unfolding in the St. Augustine parking lot, Archbishop Alfred Schulte, standing near the church garden area and accompanied by a large crowd from around the city and parts of the nation, blessed and dedicated “The Tomb of the Unknown Slave”, a shrine consisting of outsize marine chains welded together with shackles and iron balls to form a huge, fallen cross.

The grim, rusting monument standing outside the church honors those countless slaves who perished uncounted and unnamed. As the bronze plaque affixed to the wall behind the shrine explains, the monument was primarily inspired by the number of unmarked graves that have been unearthed in the city over the years, but is also dedicated to all of those who died ignominious fates during the American slave trade. The plaque even points out that it is likely that there are such graves even in the earth beneath it since much of the parish was created by slave labor.

Part 2: Hidden Hallways. A closed-to-the -public tour of Saint Augustine

- Elisa Cool

Unfortunately the monument is not the only grim or rusty site on the grounds of Saint Augustine. 175 years of service have taken their toll on a once far more versatile heart of the community.

I walked the halls, both open and closed to the public, at Saint Augustine with long-time, fellow parishioner and friend Allen Powell. The following depicts Saint Augustine's current condition. Some images are inspirational, others are harder to accept as truth.

The Church & Altar

Allen and I started our tour at the heart of the church, her altar and sacristy. Home to Saint Augustine’s famous, choir and Jazz Mass, the altar has been revised and repainted many times. Unfortunately the craftsmanship that was available locally before - and always donated - isn’t within reach today. This results in less sightly patchwork over beautiful plasterwork. It also leaves room for issues that lie beneath, and often too close for comfort to the churches beautiful and historic artworks.

When your feet rest at the foot of the Saint Augustine altar, you'll find a very important plaque. Dedicated in 2001, the plaque reminds us modern parishioners that the roots of the church, and indeed the parish itself, run deep.

A glance around the room reminds us that these roots have inspired its congregation for almost two centuries, and this manifests itself in a truly diverse array of artistic contributions. Unfortunately too many of them rest too closely to Mother Nature's contributions.

Saint Joseph's altar. While it is popular to have an altar to Mary, and Saint Augustine has one of those too, Saint Joseph is less common. This reflects, among many things, the Sicilian immigrant population that once surrounded the area.
The Stations of the Cross as surround the church in rich oil paintings as does stain glass window depicting various saints. Unfortunately so too do signs of living in a humid climate.
A painted portrait of Mother Mary alongside walls in need of new paint.
The stained glass work extends to the church's round windows sheltered by a roof in need of replacement.
The soon-to-be-sainted, Venerable Henriette DeLille, attended Saint Augustine. Today she watches over her congregation alongside the altar. She is included each Sunday in the parish's family prayer against murder, violence, and racism.

Relying On The Kindness Of Others

Saint Augustine has kept up as best she can from the kindness of others donating both money and time.

“There was a time when Saint Augustine could and did provide temporary homes for artists who worked on the church.”

According to Allen, one such local artist refreshed much of the paint around the altar’s ancient banners and molding. Another brilliant muralist was set to paint the entire ceiling, much like the Sistine Chapel, but got delayed.

“Have you seen the ceiling lately? It doesn’t much make sense to dress up something that has to be torn down.”

Tremé's-own Michelangelo will have to wait for a firmer canvas. The artist provided a smaller-scale portrait in its place.

Saint Augustine's ceiling is "primed" for a painting but, wanting for some TLC first.
The artist's modern depiction of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus now hangs in Saint Augustine instead.

A Need for Continued Generosity

Indeed the roof of Saint Augustine needs replacing. A recent estimate by globally renowned architecture firm, SDJSD, estimates the cost to do so at just over $1 million.

This might be a mixed blessing. Every Sunday in the summer, ceiling fans spin and paper fans flap. Saint Augustine has never had a HVAC system. In New Orleans it can take a lot of faith to sit through an hour or more of worship in triple degree heat. The new restoration and renovation projects would also adjust for some modern creature comforts like climate control.

“At least we don’t have to destroy anything that isn’t falling apart already to install that.”

The Bell Tower

“I don’t really think we’re supposed to come up here, but it’s beautiful. Watch your step,” cautions Allen.

What I witness is not quite the stuff of Victor Hugo, but close. Dusty, dilapidated stairs coil up to a hinged wooden trap door. We push up and forward and find ourselves in a hipster’s dream land of brick, iron, and wood.

Allen looks over the Tremé from the bell tower of Saint Augustine church.

My breath is stolen by the view through a wrought iron window covering that delivers a truly vivid view of the surrounding neighborhood. Sirene blue skies are contrasted with the cold black coils of the iron and the two are wed with a simple cross.

Wrought-iron window covers look down onto the shotgun houses below.

I begin to snap loads of pictures.

My foot hits something large and metallic, and only then do I notice the now defunct loud speakers and the large cord of rope snaking up into the rafters above me.

The ascent to the bell... we did not make this climb!

The old bell is massive and still suspended in place-- and perhaps time. We take note of the laddered steps that go up to its base but we don’t dare take a step further.

Heading back down to more secure ground.

Instead, I take a second to imagine what it must have been like a hundred years ago when chimes weren’t recorded and sounding them took real muscle. We then descend back down the steps and into the hallway that takes us to the choir loft.

The Choir Loft

Signs reading “Do not proceed, media only,” flank us, warning wanderers of the instability of the loft. Allen jokes about having left our press badges at home for the today, I’m shuttled back to a childhood memory of Babe’s In Toyland’s “Forest of No Return.” We trespass on. The view is inspiring, the floor leaves something to be desired. It’s clear why the public is asked to keep both feet planted on the story below us. It’s clear the roof isn’t the only structure in need of some attention.

Views from and of the Saint Augustine choir loft.

Saint Augustine's Forgotten Courtyard

“I used to love coming out here and watching the giant goldfish,” Allen remarks staring into what now resembles more aged horse trough than koi pond.

According to Allen the courtyard was peaceful, that is when it wasn’t populated by young folks looking to get some air from a dance next store or play a quick round of makeshift basketball.

Saint Augustine's former Koi Pond.

Allen's Story

I interrupt our tour to learn more about Allen's experience at Saint Augustine. Allen has a unique perspective. He began attending Saint Augustine as a preteen shortly after Hurricane Betsy blew down his childhood church, Holy Redeemer, in 1964. He also lived in the rectory for close to a year when he was pursuing seminary. It was a different place at the time.


Parishioners of Note

As we walk the grounds, from the courtyard to the rectory, Allen pauses in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Slave to share the Church’s value to the surrounding community.

“The church is a hallmark to the Tremé… a lot of the music the neighborhood has produced, a lot of the people the neighborhood has produced have come out of Saint Augustine Church... Homer Plessy [of US Supreme Court Plessy vs Ferguson], the now venerable Henriette DeLille... who’s going to become a saint in the Catholic Church, and many, many others.”

The Rectory

Rounding out the courtyard, and directly to right of the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, sits the old rectory. The rectory is beautiful, dated, and somewhat dysfunctional. Antiques dating from before the foundation of Saint Augustine are parked in upfront meeting rooms alongside slightly less ancient, humming window air-conditioning units. The HVAC system that once existed here is no longer operational.

“Four upstairs rooms surround a common area on the 2nd floor,” says Allen.

He would know he lived there one summer. We elected to give the folks up their their space. Especially considering it was a rather warm and busy day. Even here however, it was clear to see Mother Nature beginning to make her mark.

Shake The Devil Off: A campaign to keep Saint Augustine, Saint Augustine

Allen also informs me that Mother Nature isn’t the only force that has attempted to shut down or majorly alter Saint Augustine Church. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina the situation was dire. The Archdiocese of the time decided it was time for Saint Augustine’s current beloved priest to retire. That didn’t sit well with the parishioners, and so they housed a sit in to stop it. When the current priest left for the night, the parishioners boarded up the windows and doors of the rectory and occupied it until the Bishop changed his mind.

This protest attracted notables like Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. It also has a dedicated documentary titled, Shake the Devil Off. The trailer can be seen here and on Youtube with various subtitles from around the world.

The Parish Hall & School

Many tourists join us at Saint Augustine for mass and they hail from every corner of the globe. On any given Sunday 50% of those worshipping are visitors. Many who have visited and/or worshiped at Saint Augustine have enjoyed the hall of the main church. Some have congregated after mass in the parish hall for open fellowship. What they might not be aware of is the hall’s history, or what lies two and three stories above their heads.

At the ground level sets the Parish Hall. This multi-functional space used to be home to more than fellowships, memorial services and the like.

“Those rafters used to be exposed wood, the floors were stunning. We hosted beautiful weddings, dances, and other events here,” explains Allen.

The weddings may have dropped off because of the cold flooring, paint color and other aesthetics like floppy ceiling fans but they truly stopped when the kitchen died. The once full service kitchen allowed for catering, and cooking from scratch which meant it housed events like weddings and those events provided an additional source of revenue for the church and its upkeep. When the appliances died out, so did the income.

Simple furnishings offer locals and visitors a place to commune after mass. Home to Sunday fellowship and memorial services, this room used to be a vibrant home for weddings and other events.
A full service kitchen sits empty, its appliances no longer function, cutting off a valuable service to the community and a natural source of income for the church.
Tinfoil covers work spaces, awaiting catered treats for Sunday fellowship. The parishioners are very much used to happily making do with what they've got.

Before it was a Parish Hall it was a school. And just above our heads was the skeleton of classrooms past. We bypassed another guard rope and hiked up to the second floor to see what is and learn what was and what could be.

Before it was a Parish Hall it was a school. And just above our heads was the skeleton of classrooms past. We bypassed another guard rope and hiked up to the second floor to see what is and learn what was and what could be.

As we ascended I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful and seemingly new the staircase seemed to be.

Allen ascends the steps from the Parish Hall to the now-defunct , and closed-to-the-public Saint Ferdinand School.
“We used to have groups of volunteers come out here. We’d get together on a Saturday, most of us skilled at one thing or the other, and get to work,” Allen reminisces. “One weekend we’d have seven guys out here just tackling the painting of the church, the next carpenters, and so on.”

Saturday volunteer crews stopped and started as available but were halted due to Katrina. All the builders, building supplies, etc. were naturally tied up in rebuilding homes after the storm. When I ask why it hasn’t started back up 10 years later Allen quips, “you’d need a permit for that!”

Apparently nothing is simple post Katrina, and that includes getting through the red tape to help folks help themselves. The truth of the matter is the volunteer crews thinned out when the population did. The storm presented the problem, the city seems to have prolonged it.

When we reach the 2nd floor I’m taken aback by the mix of the old structure, the halted renovations, and the remnants of what was once a place for children.

Blue, plastic tarps draped like stage curtains revealed old school hallways and classroom murals. Paper shapes and figures, rested awkwardly next to piles of sawdust. Half stained wooden beams and exposed wiring abutted cracking plaster. The ceiling, comprised of the wooden floorboards from the floor above us gave way to daylight

Allen stands in what once was a hallway with classrooms right and left.
We pass a mural about civil rights, a reminder that race has always been an open and welcome part of Saint Augustine's History.
A loose leaf from a forgotten homework assignment reminds us we're are indeed in what was once a school.


The third floor is even more “almost” finished. Catwalks where painters once walked rest discarded on high rafters. Drywall segments-off doorless, storage areas. A brand new fire extinguisher is secured by new window panes overlooking the heart of downtown New Orleans.

Allen points out The Super Dome.
“You can almost see the Super Dome from here,” I remark. “Yep, it’s just past that SKYSCraper there,” Allen points out.
View of New Orlean's skyline from the third floor of Saint Augustine.

The view is full but the space is empty, unfurnished, unfinished, and wholly depressing. Someone once loved and labored over this space until halted by a higher power.

The third floor of the Saint Augustine campus remains half finished and almost completely forgotten.
Unfinished rooms show where work was halted by the storm.

And yet, the potential of the space is not lost on me. While a school is unlikely, and perhaps not needed, the opportunity to afford the Tremé (and city) with a center for meaningful resources and community outreach is real. The positive dent those services could make is clear. Perhaps the images I was capturing on my phone should suggest hope instead of despair.

Perhaps there will be a real future for the Saint Augustine campus. Until then, the space remains in limbo and largely forgotten. Suspended quietly between completion and demolition. The decision will be made by the measure of funds that can be raised. Projections have been made for both. The restoration option dauntingly higher than its demolish and start from scratch counterpart.

So What's Next...

Fore more than 175 years, Saint Augustine has provided spiritual support to globally renowned legends of social justice, music, and art. It shows.

You can feel it in her walls. You can see it in their chips and cracks. I spent several hours walking the hollowed, hallowed halls of Saint Augustine and was left with this. While continued portions of Saint Augustine are no longer safe for visitors, Saint Augustine has never (fully) closed her doors to the public. Instead, for almost 200 years, she has given of herself piece by piece. It’s time for us to give back, and do so brick by brick if need be.

If you’d like to give back to Saint Augustine, or play a role in her continued success, you can start by sharing her story with your friends. You can then visit us here and make a donation. You may also call the church directly at (504) 525-5934. Every penny helps.

Please like her Facebook Page and stay up to date on the progress of her story of restoration. She needs you.

Thank you and God bless.

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