By Dennis Persica and Originally Published by the National Catholic Reporter
(This story appeared in the Oct. 7-20, 2016 print issue under the headline: Black history runs deep at St. Augustine .) (Re-posted with permission)
St. Augustine Church in New Orleans is showing its age.Stained-glass windows depict saints whose names are probably unfamiliar to modern American Catholics: Radegunde, Clothilde, Hilaire, Rémi. Windows picturing better-known saints use the French versions of their names: “Saint Michel” for St. Michael, “Sainte Jeanne d’Arc” for St. Joan.But more modern features also are evident. There are a piano and a drum set behind the altar rail, microphones and a sound system. There’s likely to be a short saxophone break when churchgoers sing “The Lord’s Prayer.”On Oct. 2, this small church in the city’s Tremé neighborhood will celebrate its 175th birthday. But St. Augustine is not just an old church; it’s the oldest Catholic parish created by and for African-Americans.St. Augustine has been a lot of things in its life span, due to the complicated ethnic history of this city, founded and ruled by the French until it was ceded to Spain, then given back to France in time for Napoleon to sell the massive Louisiana Territory to the United States.
After the parish was formed in 1841, attendance was roughly one-third white, one-third free people of color, and one-third slaves. By the early 20th century, the church was the spiritual home of Italian immigrants who came to New Orleans in huge numbers at the end of the 1800s.
In the 1950s, St. Augustine was considered a white parish, not one of the designated black parishes in segregated New Orleans. Black Catholics could attend white churches, but they faced restrictions.
At that time, African-Americans were confined to three pews at the back of St. Augustine, said Lucille Benjamin, the church’s oldest living member. She’s lived in the same Tremé house, within walking distance of St. Augustine, her entire life — 95 years.
“You had to go early to get them,” Benjamin said of the designated pews. “If you didn’t get them, you had to stand up.”
When it was time to receive the Eucharist, she said, “You had to wait until white people got Communion, and then the black folks got Communion.”
That seating practice contrasts with the earliest days of St. Augustine, when free people of color competed with white parishioners to see who could reserve the most pews, while slaves sat in side-facing seats along the walls. The church still has sections of side-facing pews, a remembrance of that time.
Though France had sold Louisiana nearly four decades before St. Augustine came into existence, the parish probably would never have been born had it not been for the earlier presence of the French.
While there were free blacks all over the slaveholding South before the Civil War, the free people of color in New Orleans were unique. Many were the offspring of French and black parents; some came from French colonial holdings in the Caribbean. They had French names, and some had been educated in Europe. Most importantly, they were Catholic.