Immediately after Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans in late August, residents of Tremé looked at the top of St. Augustine Catholic Church and saw that the 180-year-old building had been hit. High on the copper dome, Ida had pushed a heavy iron cross askew, so much that it toppled towards the ground.
Inside, the damage was worse. Water had entered the church, flowing along its pink painted walls. Pieces of plaster had fallen from the high ceiling of the structure. Ornamental plaster had also fallen from the tops of the columns that line the sides of the church.
The church will remain closed for several more months, possibly longer.
After power was restored to the city in September, crews quickly moved to protect the ceiling with a massive rectangular metal plate, held in place by two towering rows of metal scaffolding that fill the two side aisles. Under the scaffolding, transparent plastic sheets cover the multi-storey benches of Saint-Augustin.
For some, closed doors have revived old fears.
Fifteen years ago, following Hurricane Katrina, the Archdiocese announced its intention to close St. Augustine, a financially fragile city, and merge it with St. Peter Claver, a neighboring parish on the other. off North Claiborne Avenue. The plans were canceled after opposition from a small group of parishioners, including gray-haired ladies who fed a group of young activists who at one point “occupied” the rectory.
But the experience left scars. And the church’s financial situation had deteriorated during the pandemic.
Typically, the church, considered the oldest black parish in the country, attracts a flow of visitors from out of town who make crucial contributions to complement the offerings of the congregation, which is largely made up of working class people and seniors on fixed incomes.
Visitors had just started returning over the summer when the hurricane hit and made matters worse.
“We went six Sundays in September and October without our congregation here,” said Rev. Emmanuel Mulenga, pastor of the church for seven years. “We were limping financially. Then Ida arrived. It hurt us. This significantly affected our operating budget.
Despite this, Mulenga was not afraid of a stop. Archbishop Gregory Aymond has supported the Church of Tremé since taking office in 2009.
“From what I understand, the Archbishop is determined to keep Saint Augustine open. So I feel reassured, ”said Parish Council President Sandra Gordon, 67, who first set foot on“ the sacred lands of St. Augustine ”as a teenager in 1968, after the Saint -Rédempteur, his native church in Faubourg Marigny, suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Betsy and was closed.
Ida wreaked havoc in a few other churches in the Catholic Archdiocese, including St. Rita de Cascia in Harahan, which resumed hosting services in early December.
St. Gertrude the Great, in the hard-hit German fishing village, was inundated with water after its metal roof exploded and had to be gutted. At LaPlace, the roof of the Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church also suffered catastrophic damage to its roof and interior. Most are still waiting for news from insurance companies.
St. Augustine was recently told that insurance would cover its repairs and that work would begin in January, Archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah MacDonald said. This is a relief for the parishioners of Tremé.
But still, at the end of September, Gordon and others felt at sea. Masses in other churches just didn’t feel the same.
Mulenga felt it too. He no longer wanted his flock to be separated. One afternoon, as he walked from his office in the presbytery to the hall erected in 1869 behind the church, he had an idea. He had spent several months at the post-Katrina New Orleans seminary. He clearly remembered how people with a FEMA trailer in their driveways felt a certain comfort right next to their damaged homes.
“It just occurred to me. Let’s try the room, he said. He and a group of volunteers hung white curtains in front of the kitchen, to create a backdrop for a temporary shrine near the wall that runs along Gov Street. Nicholls.
Organist Carol Dolliole and her famous choir obtained microphones and instruments, installed on the side closest to rue des Ursulines. At the edge of the white curtain, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands on the counter of the hall, where thousands of plates of fish have been served at countless Lenten dinners. A dozen rows of pink-clad chairs frame a small central aisle.
Services began in the newly decorated space on November 14. “It brought the hall back to life,” Mulenga said. “We call it the Basilica of Saint Augustine in Tremé.”
In some ways, the hurricane’s wrath was a gift from God, said bailiff Joseph Jeanjacques, 72, as he greeted fellow parishioners on Christmas Day. “We have always known that the church needed to be maintained. It took a storm like Ida to force these repairs.
On Sunday, the dynamics of the congregation remain the same, Gordon said. The three sisters everyone calls “the triplets” sit along Governor Nicholls’ wall of the hall, just as they did in the church. Gordon is seated in the second row, next to the same people she was sitting in the church.
At the end of Christmas mass, Mulenga admitted that the hall was not perfect. “But we think our basilica is working well,” he said.
The assembly applauded.
Then someone in the choir summed it up, in a response she recalled to Mulenga. “It’s home,” she said.