Historic St. Augustine Parish in New Orleans was reopened and its church re-consecrated Saturday after weeks of protests and a rectory sit -in that lasted 19 days. St. Augustine, founded in 1841 by slaves and free people of color, is one of the nation’s oldest black parishes. [includes rush transcript]
We begin today’s Democracy Now! special from New Orleans at the St. Augustine Church–the nation’s oldest African-American parish. The church was founded in 1841 by slaves and free African-Americans. Over the past three weeks, parishioners have been struggling to keep the church open. On Sunday, Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans said mass and issued an unusual apology.
- Report from New Orleans on St. Augustine Parish
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s special from New Orleans at the St. Augustine Church, the nation’s oldest African American parish. The church was founded in 1841 by slaves and free African Americans. Over the past three weeks, parishioners have been struggling to keep the church open. On Sunday, Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans said mass and issued an unusual apology.
ARCHBISHOP ALFRED HUGHES: We have been able with humility and honesty to acknowledge deficiencies in St. Augustine’s Parish and unfortunate missteps on the part of the archdiocese.
AMY GOODMAN: The archbishop was apologizing for shutting down the parish and removing the beloved pastor, Father Jerome LeDoux, without consulting parishioners. Three weeks ago, several parishioners and a group of their supporters took over the rectory in protest. Suncere Ali Shakur of the Common Ground Collective led the sit-in.
SUNCERE ALI SHAKUR: King says when negotiations fail, direct action is automatically the next step.
AMY GOODMAN: How many of you entered the rectory?
SUNCERE ALI SHAKUR: We call ourselves the St. Aug Twelve.
AMY GOODMAN: And were there any parishioners among you?
SUNCERE ALI SHAKUR: Yes, there were. At least two.
AMY GOODMAN: And what were your intentions then? To stay until…?
SUNCERE ALI SHAKUR: To stay in and try to get enough attention to this unjust treatment that was handed down by the archdiocese to the faithful parishioners of this church.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened last Sunday, when Father Michael of Peter Claver Church came to celebrate mass here?
SUNCERE ALI SHAKUR: Well, it was funny, because Saturday Michael Jacques came here with one parishioner from his church, and they went straight to the safe, got money out, and walked right past all the parishioners here. Sunday’s mass, he shows up with ten armed guards and his lawyer, trying to deliver mass in a kinte cloth. One of the little altar girls came out crying because they wouldn’t let her perform her normal duties. Several parishioners came pouring out the door because the realization that Father LeDoux was not there giving the mass broke them down, so your mommy [speaking to daughter] was one of the first ones in the church with protest signs, and she inspired the people inside the rectory, and we came out the window and grabbed signs, and we protested.
PROTESTERS: Save our parish. We shall not be moved, just like a tree that’s planted by the water.
AMY GOODMAN: Among those who protested was Mama D. She’s a well-known activist in New Orleans and recently testified before Congress about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
MAMA D: Don’t do this! We need our parish! We need this institution as is! Why do you do this? We need to know why are you doing this! Why, Father Jacques? Obviously you have not talked to the parishioners. Obviously you have not talked to the parishioners. We’re begging you. We come peacefully. We come peacefully. Why can’t we get a conversation out of the archdiocese? We’re the parishioners.
PARISHIONER: We do not come over there and bother y’all. Y’all took our priest and asked him to leave, and then you lied about it.
AMY GOODMAN: That protest was two weeks ago. On Saturday, a deal was reached between the parishioners and the archdiocese to reopen the church. While it’s not clear what role Father LeDoux will have, what is clear is that the parish will stay open for at least the next 18 months.
And were you a part of this siege?
AALIYAH MARTIN CARR: No, because I knew my mom, she’s a strong woman like the generations that’s been going on around here with the Johnsons family, so I had to leave the pew and went into the bathroom and started crying, because I knew something was going to go on, and I knew this church was going to be saved by what my mama did.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your name, and how old are you?
AALIYAH MARTIN CARR: Aaliyah Martin Carr, nine years old.
AMY GOODMAN: I saw you wearing your photographer’s vest with a camera today. What were you filming?
AALIYAH MARTIN CARR: I was filming the mass today, because it was a special mass, because it was Father LeDoux, the archbishop, Father Michael Jacques, and two others. So I had to take pictures, because it was an exciting day today, because everybody — we have Father LeDoux back, and it’s Palm Sunday, so I had to take pictures.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you happy with the outcome?
AALIYAH MARTIN CARR: The outcome, yes. Last night, I was so — I had to go get my hair fixed, came to the church, went into the hall, found out that we had saved our church. It was so applauding — everybody was clapping, because we had Father LeDoux back and we had our parish back.
AMY GOODMAN: Nearby , Father LeDoux stands in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, a 1,500-pound shrine made of heavy marine chains welded together with shackles and iron balls to form a huge fallen iron cross.
FATHER JEROME LeDOUX: The Tomb of the Unknown Slave, of course, is analogous to the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington, Virginia. It’s pretty much the same idea. And the big difference is that it’s slaves, and what we do know is that all over this country, there are many slaves buried, and nobody knows who they are or where they are, and especially in this part of the country, here in Treme, where there was a really concentration of slaves. We know a number were murdered and when people murder you, they don’t tell anybody where the body is. We see that on TV every day. They bury it secretly. So there are many secret burials.
The other problem is plague, things like malaria, yellow fever, in particular here, so that you get thousands of people dying on occasion. There’s no place to bury them. The cemeteries won’t hold them. And so, we know they’re buried around the city. And we, not knowing exactly where they are, choose someplace. What better place than on the side of a church where slaves actually worshipped, where they had their own seats on the two-side aisles, seats bought for them by the free people of color, and given them to be their own in perpetuity?
AMY GOODMAN: When you heard that Father Jacques had come in to celebrate mass with armed guards, what were your feelings?
FATHER JEROME LeDOUX: Racial profiling. You see, we here in Treme, we here in the church, know the difference between black people who are upset, even angry, and black people who are dangerous. These folks are not dangerous. They’re just upset. But if you’re not acculturated, you don’t understand that, so you come in with armed guards.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what is the agreement that has been worked out? Will you be celebrating mass here?
FATHER JEROME LeDOUX: I have no idea. I thought I did, but I have to go and find out. At the end of the mass, the archbishop muddled the waters a little bit. I don’t understand what he said. Neither do these folks. There are some inside who seem to have resolved it — Ted Quant, who is the mediator. Let’s hope he has resolved it. If so, I will be saying mass here Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Otherwise, can’t tell you. Ted, will I be saying mass here Easter Sunday?
TED QUANT: No.
FATHER JEROME LeDOUX: There you go. That’s the end of the interview.
AMY GOODMAN: Father LeDoux turns to Loyola professor, Ted Quant, the mediator between the parishioners and the New Orleans archbishop.
TED QUANT: What do you want me to say?
AMY GOODMAN: Why did the archbishop explain that Father LeDoux would not be saying mass on Easter Sunday?
TED QUANT: He said that the agreement was to bring in an S.V.D. to be the administrator for the next 18 months and that that priest would work out the schedule of masses that Father LeDoux would say, and that on next Sunday he was going to ask the bishop of his order or Father — Bishop Morin. There was an order of him to say the mass and that under no circumstances was the question of Michael Jacques in the issue. That’s it.
FATHER JEROME LeDOUX: Okay. Now, I see one kink in this.
TED QUANT: What’s the kink? Not with me. With the bishop. All I’m doing is reporting.
FATHER JEROME LeDOUX: Not with you. No. If the S.V.D. man gets here, or gets into the mix before Sunday, I may still wind up here. He may send me here.
TED QUANT: That’s another story.
FATHER JEROME LeDOUX: That could happen.
AMY GOODMAN: While clearly the details have to be worked out, Sandra Gordon, the president of the parish council, is optimistic.
SANDRA GORDON: Well, I always have said that this has been a very heavy cross for the members of St. Augustine’s to carry. And I said it was like the cross that Jesus carried on Good Friday, but what happened on Easter Sunday? Resurrection. And that’s what happened with our parish. Our parish has been resurrected. What an excellent, splendid way to start Holy Week.
AMY GOODMAN: Did the archdiocese actually bring the other priest, Father Jacques, in with armed guards last week?
SANDRA GORDON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you understand that at the time?
SANDRA GORDON: No, we didn’t know at the time. We found out during the mass.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you think?
SANDRA GORDON: I was insulted as a person. I was insulted for not only for the black culture, but I was insulted for all cultures. We have never had any violence at St. Augustine’s through our church hall, nor through our church and to think that we were such people that you needed to bring armed guards to us as part of your welcoming committee, I was appalled. But that’s over. It has happened, and St. Augustine is moving on to bigger and better things.
AMY GOODMAN: Expressing that kind of hope means a lot for someone like Sandra Gordon, who not only lost her house in Hurricane Katrina, she also lost her mother.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We’re broadcasting from New Orleans.