In 2014 the Missionary Oblates were asked to staff St. Augustine Parish in New Orleans. They are now the caretakers of one of the most historical, and colorful, Catholic churches in the entire country.
“We celebrated the 175th Anniversary of the parish in October,” said Fr. Emmanuel Mulenga, O.M.I. the church pastor. “The parish is now part of the Oblates’ mission center in New Orleans and we are very honored to be entrusted with this mission.”
The property on which St. Augustine Church stands was part of the original Claude Treme plantation estate. Treme, a Frenchman, subdivided his estate and sold off large tracts to free blacks. Two Catholic religious orders of sisters eventually owned some of the land.
In 1841, when the free people of color got permission from Bp. Antoine Blanc to build a church, the Ursuline Sisters donated property for the cause. A year later, the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, the second oldest African American congregation of women, was established at the parish. The sisters were dedicated to working with orphan girls, the uneducated, poor, sick and elderly among the free blacks.
A few months before the October 9, 1842 dedication of St. Augustine Church, the people of color began to purchase pews for their families. Upon hearing of this, white people in the area started their campaign to buy pews. Thus, the War of the Pews began and was ultimately won by the free blacks, who bought three pews to every one purchased by the whites.
In an unprecedented political and religious move, the colored members also bought all the side aisle pews. They then gave those pews to the slaves as their exclusive place of worship. This mix of pews resulted in the most integrated congregation in the country; one large row of free people of color, one large row of whites with a smattering of ethnic people and two outer aisles of slaves.
Over the past 175 years the makeup of worshipers at St. Augustine has fluctuated several times due to changes in the neighborhood. In the early 20th century, the church was popular with Italian immigrants. By the 1950s it was a primarily a white parish where blacks could attend but with restrictions. Blacks had to sit in the back three pews and had to wait until the white people had gone to Communion in order to approach the altar.
In 2005 St. Augustine faced one of its biggest challenges, Hurricane Katrina. The church received a small amount of damage, but the neighborhood was decimated. Many of the black parishioners lost everything and moved away, many never to return. The diocese looked at closing the parish. But parishioners were passionate about keeping their church open, even barricading themselves inside for a time. Eventually diocesan officials allowed the church to remain open.
The Oblates became part of the St. Augustine story three years ago when they started to create mission centers throughout the country. They chose New Orleans to be the location of one of these mission centers. The Oblates have a long history of ministering in New Orleans, especially at St. Jude Shrine, a historic church on the edge of the French Quarter with an extensive outreach ministry to the poor in the area.
To expand their missionary presence in New Orleans, the Oblates agreed to staff St. Augustine. Father Mulenga became pastor and Fr. Laudy Merilan, O.M.I. is in residence at the parish. The Oblate team at St. Augustine is an example of the growing diversity of the congregation. Father Mulenga is from Zambia, and Fr. Merilan is from Haiti.
Father Mulenga said over the past few years the Oblates have helped to reinvigorate the parish. Sunday Mass is a true melting pot, with about 50 percent of the participants black and 50 percent white. About 200 people attend the Sunday Mass. Father Mulenga is hopeful that in the near future daily Masses will be held at the church, which currently only has one weekday Mass.
Father Mulenga said worship at St. Augustine could be described as an African American Gospel Mass with a jazz flavor, with trumpets and saxophones being played while the choir sings. There is always a large number of tourists, including Europeans, who come on Sunday morning to experience the unique
style of worship.
The city of New Orleans is one of the country’s most unique places. And
St. Augustine Parish might be its most unique church. For 175 years it has provided a celebration of the Catholic faith like no other place. And with the help of the Missionary Oblates, it will continue to shine brightly for many more years to come.