By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
In the nave of the former Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church on St. Bernard Avenue in New Orleans – right across Claiborne Avenue from Circle Food Store – workers are creating six new rental units, part of Providence Community Housing’s development of a multi-use, residential-commercial facility encompassing 53 total apartments, commercial space and a community center.
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish, established in 1871, worshipped in a wood-frame church until 1945, when it was destroyed by fire. A new brick and limestone church at 1720 St. Bernard Ave. was dedicated in 1954, but the parish closed in 1972, and the campus last was used by the Archdiocese of New Orleans as a distribution site for its Food For Families/Food For Seniors program.
Closed for nearly 50 years
For nearly a half century, the church remained untouched until several weeks ago, when workers began the interior construction of the six apartments inside the church. Inside a small vault behind the church cornerstone – located to the left of the altar – workers found an 8-inch copper cylinder that served as a time capsule, which was sealed at the time of the church’s dedication.
Even though the capsule was several feet above the ground, water had seeped in over the years. Alert construction workers contacted the archdiocesan Archives Office, and members of the archive’s staff pulled out the wet contents, revealing a letter, dated Oct. 29, 1954, written by Benedictine Father Maur Robira, detailing the history of the parish, along with a prayer book, prayer cards and medals.
The oldest document is an 1874 invitation to the wedding of James Farge. There is also a 1927 prayer of repose for Miss Marie Farge.
“The whole Farge family was very involved in the church and in the community,” said Dr. Emilie Leumas, archdiocesan archivist.
“The workers didn’t have any indication that the time capsule was there,” said Kimberly Johnson, processing archivist. “They were very surprised when they came across it. They could have just thrown it away, but they chose to bring it here.”
Farge family history
Also tucked inside were a medal of Pope Pius XII, a crucifix containing a relic of St. Catherine Laboure, donated by Archbishop Rummel, and a 1954-minted penny, nickel and quarter.
After the old frame church burned in 1945, Archbishop Joseph Rummel delayed the construction of a new church for three years to see if the parishioner base was strong enough to support a new church. The parish had seemed to be on the decline and might have been cared for by surrounding parishes.
The letter written by Father Maur expresses his “great pleasure” that the new church had been built because he had spent “all my life here except for the years I was at the monastery.” He also mentioned his delight for “the deBlanc family.”
Leumas said most of the paper documents were able to be salvaged by carefully removing them and placing them on paper towels for drying in low humidity.
She said the lessons learned since Hurricane Katrina about protecting wet documents came in handy.
“We had to do this on the fly after Katrina,” Leumas said. “Now our staff attends workshops yearly on what to do with wet photographs, how to salvage them and what are the newest and best ways to do things. You never know when you have to roll up your sleeves and do it one more time. It’s not a disaster, but you never know when something’s going to get wet.”
Placing the documents on paper towels in a low-humidity setting “wicks away the moisture” from the paper.
“Paper is a funny creature,” she said. “Once it absorbs all that water, it changes the makeup of the paper, and then it begins to curl up. We have to weight the paper to try to make it lie flat again.”
Leumas said most churches create and install some sort of time capsule at the time of construction. Because of New Orleans’ humid climate and propensity for flooding, she said parishes seeking to preserve their history should consider placing important historical documents with the archives “so we can tell the story about your church after everyone is gone.”
“We’re just lucky that we got this when we got it and could do the salvage work on it,” she said.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.