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In Praise of St. Augustine 

In addition to being a house of worship, St. Augustine is a holy and historic shrine to the generations-long struggles of African Americans.

For nearly three centuries, religious leaders from all faiths have helped shape the culture, politics and spirituality of New Orleans -- a city whose abiding faith in life itself reflects a deeper celebration of faith. And regardless of one's religious affiliation, or non-affiliation, there is no denying that the historic houses of worship in New Orleans are centers of much more than individual religious congregations. For those reasons and more, when the Archdiocese of New Orleans announces the expansion, relocation, suspension or closure of a local parish, the news affects Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Many of our city's oldest and most revered churches serve not only as anchors of local Catholic life, but also as anchors of neighborhoods and their unique cultures. Perhaps no church has been more at the center of its neighborhood than has St. Augustine Church in Treme, and that's why there is so much public furor over the Archdiocese's recent announcement that St. Augustine must cease to function as a parish.

Founded by free men and women of color in 1841-42 as a place where they could worship with their African slaves, St. Augustine is considered the oldest African-American parish in the United States. Actually, white families joined the campaign to build the church and purchased pews for themselves and their slaves; St Augustine thus has been integrated throughout its rich history. Equally important, St. Augustine has been the cradle of Creole culture and politics in New Orleans. In the early 1890s, a group of St. Augustine parishioners persuaded Homer Plessy, a 30-year-old Creole shoemaker, to challenge a two-year-old state law that barred whites and blacks from riding in the same railroad car or streetcar. They gathered in 1892 on church grounds, where Plessy was married only five years earlier, to plan their historic and heroic challenge. Plessy's subsequent arrest for sitting in a whites-only railroad car began the case known as Plessy v. Ferguson, which sought to overturn Jim Crow legislation across the South. Instead, the United States Supreme Court, in one of its most shameful rulings ever rendered, used the case to cement for more than half a century America's policy of "separate but equal" segregation laws. Ironically, the Archdiocese affirmed its decision to close St. Augustine within days of Homer Plessy's March 17 birthday.

More recently, St. Augustine has been a spiritual home for Mardi Gras Indians, some of whose likenesses adorn the church's walls, as well as for jazz and rhythm-and-blues greats, many of whom continued to go there to celebrate extended Sunday services. Before and after Hurricane Katrina, the parish housed a food bank that distributed groceries to the poor. Friday afternoon fish fries raised money for parish activities. Prior to Katrina, St. Augustine's relatively small number of parishioners and limited ability to offer the usual array of parish services put it on the archdiocesan watch list for several years. Post-Katrina, however, supporters of the parish say it enjoyed a significant rebound. For 15 years, the glue that held St. Augustine together has been Fr. Jerome LeDoux, the parish's charismatic 76-year-old pastor who is a member of the Society of the Divine Word. "He serves a poor and historic neighborhood on the edge of the French Quarter and is available to his parishioners 24 hours a day," one parishioner wrote to Gambit Weekly. "I have never known a priest who is more loved, simply for being himself."

The fact that LeDoux is so loved makes the archdiocesan decision to close St. Augustine as a parish a very painful and personal one for the 300-plus currently registered parishioners. The fact that St. Augustine holds cultural, political and historic significance beyond its borders -- indeed, beyond its immediate mission as a Catholic parish -- makes the decision one that touches everyone who calls New Orleans home. At the same time, there is no denying that the Archdiocese of New Orleans must pay its bills and function in a secular society even while fulfilling its spiritual mission. St. Augustine has served a poor parish for many years, and its debts no doubt exacerbated a much larger archdiocesan debt, particularly after Katrina, which reportedly left the archdiocese with tens of millions of dollars in uninsured losses.

This newspaper has always treated matters of faith and religion with a deference that such matters deserve. For that reason, we would not presume to judge the efficacy of the archdiocesan decision to close St. Augustine as a Catholic parish. However, we trust that Church leaders recognize the broader social, cultural and political role that St. Augustine has played throughout its existence. In addition to being a house of worship, St. Augustine is a holy and historic shrine to the generations-long struggles of African Americans. The archdiocese has decided that St. Augustine can still be the site of one Mass each Sunday. We sincerely hope that the many other missions served by St. Augustine -- and by LeDoux -- can likewise continue. As New Orleans and its people struggle to rebuild and reclaim their neighborhoods in the wake of Katrina's devastation, the last thing we need is the loss of another historic and cultural touchstone.

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