STREETCAR: Midnight for St. Augustine

STREETCAR: Midnight for St. AugustineEven on Good Friday, St. Augustine Church rocked. On what is the most solemn day of the Christian year, the interior of the old church maintained the atmosphere appropriate for the day, but at some point, usually around noon, the buzz of a procession could be heard approaching the Treme church. In the foreground was a crucifix; behind it were followers.
There is a barely surviving tradition in New Orleans of “making the nine churches” on Good Friday. Back when the city was more compact and most neighborhoods had their own churches, it was not impossible – with a little energy and a lot of spirit – to walk to that many churches. A few groups still do it, and St. Augustine was a regular stop. One nearby Evangelical church actually stages a procession led by a sound truck from which prayers are recited. Behind it is a Christ figure carrying a cross and a group of disciples dressed in biblical costumes – except maybe for their Reeboks and sunglasses. The truck parks in front of the church. They say prayers and sing a song, then the group moves on to another church.
Another group, based in Algiers, uses a bus to get Downtown and then hikes the route which includes stops at Jesuit Church on Baronne Street, Our Lady of Guadalupe and the St. Louis Cathedral in addition to St. Augustine. The worshipers are motivated by their devoutness and perhaps encouraged by the crawfish boil that awaits them on the other side of the river.
St. Augustine is a cross-cultural epicenter. This Catholic church was founded in 1841 in a French-speaking neighborhood by free people of color, and it now serves a predominantly black population. The church is located down the block from the Backstreet Museum, itself a shrine to the Mardi Gras Indians whose culture also fermented on those streets. The saints depicted in the faded stained glass are sacred to the French church, and the inscriptions describing them are in French. Through time and changes, the church still reflects the culture of its neighborhood, although now that culture has African roots.
Presiding over the congregation is its pastor, Rev. Jerome LeDoux. He is an imposing man with dark skin stretched over a gaunt frame, topped with a striking crown of gray hair. His deep, resonating voice moves easily from preaching to singing, English to French.
While visiting New Orleans in 1987, Pope John Paul II made a statement of monumental importance by urging multicultural expression within the worldwide church. In Treme, the past pope’s will is done.
Typical of LeDoux, his is no ordinary altar. It was made from the trunk of an African mahogany tree. The wood is smooth and varnished, but the spots from which roots and branches once spread are still apparent.
I was once there for a Christmas service at which LeDoux was in full form, speaking in the loud, emphatic tones associated with a Baptist preacher, moving the congregation into a joyous, hand-waving frenzy. Moments later, people applauded as LeDoux danced down an aisle.
At most Masses, the sign of peace is a perfunctory gesture as members of the congregation nod at those seated near them. Here it was a communal event. For several minutes, people milled about, shaking hands and visiting.
Later, hands were linked throughout the church as everyone sang the “Our Father.” Those hands got busy clapping once the band launched into “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Surrounding the church is an often troubled neighborhood in an often troubled town, now devastated by Hurricane Katrina. When the Archdiocese of New Orleans announced the churches that would be closed, St. Augustine was among them. Its congregation was to be combined with the nearby St. Peter Claver Parish.
As a matter of post-Katrina dollars, the decision is probably justifiable. Since the flooding, the church has lost much of its parish, which had been dwindling anyway. But as a matter of the soul, the choice is a disaster – a tug against the expression of many cultures demanded by John Paul II.
As churches close, the “nine churches” custom is probably endangered, too. There just will not be so many within walking distance of each other. Katrina has changed much in New Orleans, but not the desire to preserve what was special. Light a candle to St. Jude – the patron of hopeless cases. Maybe somehow, some way, St. Augustine Church still has a prayer.

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