Churches are often the anchor of a neighborhood, providing stability and a number of services, official and unofficial, to those who live nearby. This accurately describes the role St. Augustine Catholic Church has played in the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans since its dedication in 1841.
The Historic Faubourg Tremé Association (HFTA) is hosting the Tremé Festival to help kick off St. Augustine Catholic Church’s fundraising efforts to make needed repairs and improvements to this important historical site. Donations will be accepted prior to and during the celebration, which takes place Oct. 2-4, 2015.
A Place to Fit In
Claude Tremé purchased the Morand Plantation in the early 1790s. When the Carondelet Canal was constructed in 1794, it split the neighborhood in two. Because of the canal and its large “turning basin,” Tremé decided to subdivide the property into residential lots. By the time the Americans took over in 1803, New Orleans had grown beyond the French Quarter. The French-Spanish “Creole” families moved downriver (it’s hard to describe directions and locations in New Orleans using compass directions, so we usually refer to “upriver” and “downriver” for reference), to Faubourg Marigny, but chose not to move in numbers to the area just north of the French Quarter.
The land of the former Morand Plantation became the site of the city’s first permanent cemetery, placed there because it was far enough away from the residential areas to accommodate the burials of victims of yellow fever and other contagious diseases. As the Carondelet Canal’s use grew, however, it served as a dividing line between the cemetery and its occupants on the downriver side.
The diverse population of workers attracted to the area around Basin Street and the canal included a number of “gens de couleur libres,” or “free people of color.” Not totally welcome in either the world of the Creole families, or that of the Anglo-Irish Americans, who were expanding upriver on the other side of Canal Street, free blacks began to buy property in Faubourg Tremé. Their numbers grew over the first few decades of American control of the city.
A former religious postulant, Marthe Fortiere, founded a school for girls of free black families, on the corner of Esplanade and North Rampart. Moved by personal experiences to help the gens de couleur community, Jeanne Marie Aliquot purchased the property on Governor Nicholls Street in 1841, and invited/encouraged Marthe Fortiere to move her school to that location.
Church Construction Begins
Construction began on a church building to accompany the school, and the capstone of St. Augustine Church was laid on November 14, 1841. On October 9 of the following year, Bishop Antoine consecrated the church, and it was open for business. A little over a month later, on November 21, 1842, two free women of color, Henriette DeLille and Juliette Gaudin, professed their vows to serve God in community at St. Augustine, founding the Sisters of the Holy Family.
Tremé and St. Augustine continued to grow throughout the 19th century, nurturing a number of leaders in the free black community from all walks of life.
One of the interesting stories of the construction of St. Augustine is the “war of the pews.” To raise funds for the church, the parish began selling pews to families in the neighborhood. White families began to purchase pews, but the free black community responded, not only out-purchasing white families but also buying both side aisles of the church. The community then allowed slaves to sit in the pews on those side aisles, making them welcome at Sunday Mass.
Tremé and St. Augustine continued to grow throughout the 19th century, nurturing a number of leaders in the free black community from all walks of life. Homer Plessy is one such example. The civil rights activist purchased a train ticket to Covington in a white train car, thus triggering the Plessy v. Ferguson case, decided by the Supreme Court in favor of the concept of “separate but equal” in 1896. This created a huge shift in the population of Tremé, as black families left the neighborhood to flee Jim Crow discrimination. Over the turn of the century, Italian families moved in, changing the character of the neighborhood and the St. Augustine church.
An Ongoing Legacy
In 1920, a fire severely damaged the wooden front wall of the church. The Italian community that now dominated the parish rebuilt the sanctuary, using imported Italian marble. The look and feel of the sanctuary dates from this reconstruction. The neighborhood continued to skew Italian throughout the beginning of the 20th century. When Jim Crow was abolished with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black families began to return to Tremé and to St. Augustine church. The Sisters of the Holy Family tried to re-open the parish elementary school, but financial difficulties forced its closure in 1967. Still, the parish continued to be a spiritual focal point for the city’s black Catholics throughout the second half of the century.
In 2004, the parish dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, a stark memorial to all who lived oppressed.
In 2004, the parish dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, a shrine recognizing the suffering of those who were enslaved in the Americas. The shrine is a monument consisting of two heavy anchor chains, welded into a cross. Wrist and ankle shackles hang from the stiff main chains, creating a stark memorial to all who lived oppressed.
St. Augustine church continues to be an important part of the Catholic community in New Orleans, revered by descendants of its black founders, as well as the Italian families who played an integral part in the church’s continued life.