Though it was legendary for its extravagant decor and pageantry — including, at least once, a newborn, swaddled baby from a family in the Treme community being carried in to represent Baby Jesus — Christmas Mass will not be held this year inside St. Augustine Catholic Church.
In August 2021, Hurricane Ida catastrophically damaged the roof of the massive church, which is said to be the nation’s oldest Black Catholic parish.
Its history, dating to 1841, is venerated within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Culture, whose exhibits include a kneeler and a votive candleholder from the church.
But this year, instead of capacity crowds of nearly 500 people packed into the church, Christmas Mass will be said in front of a fire marshal-maximum of 70 parishioners, gathered inside the hall behind the church.
In the hall, church members will sing and celebrate the birth of the Christ Child in front of a makeshift altar, with a thin backdrop of white curtains separating the worshippers from the hall’s stainless-steel sinks and kitchen counter.
“We make do with what we have,” said member Debra Jackson, 65. “But nothing compares to the magnificence of the church.”
Parishioners will rise for the reading of the Gospel from run-of-the-mill metal folding chairs, instead of the historic wooden pews that were, at the church’s inception, purchased and designated for a mix of white, Black and enslaved parishioners. The church’s famed gospel-jazz choir is tucked into a nook near the parking lot where they can hear the tires of late-arriving cars crunch across the gravel driveway.
“We’re making the hall work, that’s the good thing,” said member Veneica Smith, 75. “But we don’t want it to go on forever.”
A ‘lack of transparency’
More than a year later, the church’s exterior appears shuttered and dark, its copper cupola topped by a hurricane-damaged metal cross that points downward.
Inside, like teeth fitted with metal braces, protective metal scaffolding covers the walls and ceiling, which can only be glimpsed in pieces, from behind yellow caution tape.
A few months ago, Jackson was able to walk inside to view the damage. But to see it hurt so badly that she vowed not to look again. “That was my first and last time in there. I don’t want to go back until the repairs are finished,” Smith said.
On the Sunday before Christmas, the Rev. Emmanuel Mulenga announced, to great applause, that, on Oct. 12, the city and its Historic District Landmarks Commission had granted a permit for the church’s roof to be repaired. Still ahead is approval for an environmental and historic preservation permit from FEMA, he said, noting that the process is “very complicated, with lots of moving parts.”
“It is hard, for sure,” Mulenga said. “But it’s beyond our control.”
Yet at this point, it is still nearly impossible to understand with any accuracy how long the church will remain closed. Or why, for instance, the roof-permit application wasn’t filed with the city until September of this year.
Despite repeated questions from Verite News, the Archdiocese of New Orleans has issued only anodyne statements saying “we appreciate the sense of urgency our (St. Augustine) parishioners have” while providing few specifics about the church’s repairs, including total estimated damages, insurance and FEMA settlements and timelines.
St. Augustine church members were told that, because they had an interim place to worship, other churches were higher on a list given by the archdiocese to its insurers, which ranks, by priority, the churches to be repaired. While that seems fair, members wondered what other criteria were used. To date, the archdiocese has refused to release that list or its criteria.
At St. Augustine, this paucity of information rekindles the worry, dating to 2005 and what church members refer to as “the struggle,” when the church waged, and won, a hard-fought battle against archdiocesan post-Katrina closure plans. It was a traumatic time, when information was also impossible to get.
In 2016, for the church’s 175th anniversary, Archbishop Gregory Aymond issued an olive branch of sorts, through a statement describing the post-Katrina shutdown threat as “challenging times, for most families” and noting that “we have moved beyond that, and St. Augustine is a very active parish with great life.”
But some believe that the current repair delays are merely a way for archdiocesan officials to cover for other less noble intentions.
“It’s been common for people in the Treme to say, ‘I guess they’re going to take it now for sure,’” said longtime member Doretha Augustus, who joined the church as a young bride and raised her children in the church.
Suspicions were heightened a few months ago, when Mulenga disclosed at a town hall meeting that the church had been in discussions with developers who were interested in buying the hall and the adjoining parking lot.
“Because of how little information was shared after Hurricane Katrina, we have concerns about the lack of transparency about the decisions that affect our spiritual home,” member Alison McCrary said. In the meantime, McCrary noted, the damaged roof is leaking, further ruining the church’s precious plasterwork – which had already started to fall off in chunks – and raising the moisture levels inside the sanctuary to the point where people have spotted mold growing there.
‘You’d really feel Christmas then’
Typically, on Christmas, Catholics from around the metro area with roots in St. Augustine make a special trip to attend Mass in the iconic Creole New Orleans church, its ornate pink walls, Parisian-designed stained glass and stations of the cross, with the French phrase painted across the sanctuary: “Si tu savais le don de dieu” — or, “If you knew the grace of God.”
This same allure has, for years, drawn tourists from around the world to the church’s weekly Masses.
But the Dec. 24 night Mass is the stuff of lore with the church, especially when the church was led by the Rev. Jerome LeDoux, a beloved and unconventional pastor who was moved to a Texas church after the post-Katrina struggle.
On Christmas Eve, as people arrived, everyone was given a candle.
The church was jammed full of decorated Christmas trees, on the left-hand side of the altar and by the large nativity scene, which was set up near the church’s Joseph altar. There, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, shepherds, sheep and cows were arranged on fresh straw around an empty manger.
Throughout the church, massive red poinsettias were everywhere, lining the altars and hanging in the windows and in the rear along the choir loft.
The church started dark. One candle was lit. Then parishioners lit each other’s candles, one by one, along every pew. From the back, the altar servers carrying the big cross and the altar gifts walked in, followed by the priest, waving the fragrant incense. With him was at least one teenager dressed in white, carrying a swaddled figure representing the Baby Jesus. At one point, when a neighbor brought home a newborn baby, LeDoux joyously carried the infant, to much fanfare, to the front, before handing the child off to a waiting parent and placing the traditional baby figure into the creche.
Sometimes, LeDoux would improvise.
At least once, before the priest entered, the congregation heard a loud knock on the door, representing Joseph knocking to get a room in the inn, recalls church lector and 50-year member Allen Powell, 70, who also recalled that sometimes two other teenagers carried figures of Joseph and Mary to the creche in the front of the church, as if the couple had just been refused at the inn and were heading to the manager for the birth of their child.
At the front, the Christ Child would be handed to LeDoux to place into the manger. Then the lights would come on and the church’s legendary choir would start singing a rollicking tune like “Go Tell it on the Mountain.”
“It was really beautiful. There was all sorts of rah-rah that came after the Christ child arrived,” Augustus said. “You’d really feel Christmas then.”
Of course, without the church, it will still be Christmas, she said. “But it doesn’t feel the same. It’s not our St. Augustine tradition.”
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