By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Photos | COURTESY ST. AUGUSTINE CHURCH
St. Augustine Church in Tremé has raised more than half of its $2.5 million capital campaign goal for the renovation of the historic church, which was built in 1841.
Oblate Father Emmanuel Mulenga announced the progress of the capital campaign Dec. 1 after the 10 a.m. Mass. He said the initial phase will include a $2.5 million restoration of the church and rectory.
A planned second phase, also for $2.5 million, would restore the former school for parish and community use.
The money raised thus far has come from private donations, including major gifts from the Gayle and Tom Benson Charitable Foundation, parishioners Terry and Lynette DuFrene and the Historic Faubourg Tremé Association. The Archdiocese of New Orleans also is working with the church during the process.
“I’m very excited on many levels,” Father Mulenga said. “The level of support and the level of involvement have been wonderful, and this has also enlightened a lot of people in our membership. We can all see how when we come together, we can make a difference through baby steps.”
List of major improvements
With work on the air conditioning and heating system completed last year, major work in the first phase will include replacing and restoring the church roof; adding new public restrooms, lighting and paving; restoring interior and exterior masonry, plaster and painting; restoring the electrical system; restoring the church steeple and installing a new fire alarm and sprinkler system.
“Our hope is to complete this phase at least in the next two years,” Father Mulenga said. “The roof and the waterproofing are very important because the building is showing its age. There are cracks everywhere. Depending on which way the wind blows when it’s raining, that’s where the water will come through. That’s just the age of the place. The structure itself is very stable, but in some areas it is sinking a bit.”
St. Augustine Church, located at 1211 Gov. Nicholls St., is recognized by the Smithsonian’s African American Museum in Washington, D.C., as America’s oldest black Catholic church and has served a diverse congregation from its beginnings.
Always a diverse congregation
Early worshipers included free people of color, slaves, Creoles, Haitians, French, Spanish and Germans. Today it continues to welcome parishioners of every walk of life, including non-Catholics and international visitors to its Sunday Gospel Mass.
Venerable Henriette Delille, a free woman of color, founded the first African American order of nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Family, and took her vows at the altar of St. Augustine. She became a mother to the community and started the first school for slave children and adults and a home for aged people of color.
St. Augustine Church was built on the site of what was a plantation estate. In 1720, it was the brickyard and tilery headquarters of the province of New Orleans’ supervisor of the Company of the Indies.
The company left in 1731, and the Moreau family purchased the property. It eventually came into the possession of Julie Moreau, a manumitted slave, in 1775.
Claude Tremé, a Frenchman, married Julie Moreau and took title to the property. The couple subdivided the estate and sold many lots to free people of color and Haitian immigrants fleeing the 1791 revolution.
In the 1830s, Tremé’s free people of color petitioned Bishop Antoine Blanc for permission to build a church. The Ursuline Sisters donated a lot at the corner of Gov. Nicholls and St. Claude on the condition the church would be named for St. Augustine, one of their patron saints.
Construction began in 1839
Construction on the church began in 1839. Fourteen free people of color placed the church’s capstone, and the church was dedicated in 1841. Free people of color bought the side aisle pews of the church and gave those pews to slaves as their exclusive place of worship. That history of diversity has marked the parish to this day.
In 2005, Archbishop Alfred Hughes blessed and dedicated “The Tomb of the Unknown Slave” as a shrine honoring the countless slaves who died in New Orleans and were buried in unmarked graves.
St. Augustine Church also was a major home to the civil rights movement in New Orleans, the first black daily newspaper and served as a hub for music and culture in the Tremé neighborhood.
Parishioners through the years included Homer Plessy, a key figure in the 1896 Supreme Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson case; Mardi Gras Indian and “Chief of Chiefs” Allison “Tootie” Montana; Sidney Bechet, a pioneering jazz soloist; and Danny Barker, jazz musician, vocalist and author.
Phase II of the project would provide major repairs to the school building’s roof, interior floors, plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems and interior and exterior masonry, plaster and painting.
“This has brought about a certain excitement for the parishioners,” Father Mulenga said. “Some people have come to our aid, and now we have been given the work to provide for ourselves and do our part.”
Those contributions from parishioners may not be financial but service-related through volunteering in various aspects of parish life, Father Mulenga said.
“I’m seeing a lot of excitement in different programs, even beyond the restoration,” he said.