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New Orleans' St. Augustine Catholic Church nets part of $4M preservation grants

The 183-year-old Catholic parish, home to major figures of Black history, is one of 31 Black churches awarded funding in the new round of grants.

New Orleans' St. Augustine Catholic Church in 2008. (Wikimedia Commons)

St. Augustine Catholic Church in New Orleans, one of the nation’s oldest Black parishes, will receive part of a $4M grant disbursement from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), according to an announcement from the organization earlier this month.

The awards are from the NTHP’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which works to preserve Black institutions across the United States. St. Augustine is one of 31 included in the new round of funding announced on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“We created the Preserving Black Churches program to ensure the historic Black church’s legacy is told and secured. That these cultural assets can continue to foster community resilience and drive meaningful change in our society,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the Action Fund. 

“We couldn’t be more excited to honor our second round of grantees and ensure that African Americans—and our entire nation—can enjoy an empowered future built on the inspiring foundations of our past.”

St. Augustine, which will receive between $50,000 and $200,000 from the NTHP, was founded in 1841 by “free people of color”—Black people in the French colonies, usually of mixed ancestry, who had never been enslaved. They petitioned Bishop Antoine Blanc of New Orleans to establish the parish on land owned by members of their community in Tremé, the first Black neighborhood in the United States.

The church quickly attracted an interracial crop of parishioners, and the free people of color ensured that enslaved Black people would have a place there to worship. In the nearly two centuries since, the parish has been home to various Black luminaries, including Homer Plessy (of Plessy v. Ferguson fame), Venerable Henriette DeLille and her nascent Sisters of the Holy Family, and the famed civil rights attorney A. P. Tureaud Sr.

Following the Second Vatican Council and the Black Catholic Movement, St. Augustine has become known for its weekly Gospel Jazz Mass, as well as its historic architecture—retaining even its original early 19th-century pews.

Despite this, the church has faced various financial difficulties related to preservation efforts, including an attempt by Archbishop Alfred Hughes to close the church following Hurricane Katrina. That was halted in part by a $75,000 grant from the NTHP to St. Augustine in 2008, part of an ongoing multimillion-dollar fundraising effort.

The church was damaged again in 2021 by Hurricane Ida, which nearly destroyed its steeple cross, leaving it dangling, as seen in several widely publicized photographs following the storm. The need for repairs forced the parish to relocate its Masses to the parish hall, where they have remained now for nearly two and a half years.

The new NTHP grant will add to the church’s restoration coffers, which were recently boosted to the tune of $10,000 by the Friends of Treme Culture nonprofit on Jan. 14.  

“Funding will support the rehabilitation of exterior masonry and interior plaster repairs,” reads the announcement from the Action Fund.

(Micaela I. Gonzalzles

As the parish works to rebuild and restore, it will experience another transition, as its pastor of nearly a decade leaves for a new assignment. Fr Emmanuel Malenga, OMI, who has served the historic church for nine years, was elected to the provincial council of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in October. Just days after the announcement of their new grant, the St. Augustine community celebrated his ministry with a special Mass and reception.

While Malenga’s departure brought a tinge of sadness to an otherwise transformational week, it is hoped that their legacy in the world of Black Catholicism will continue without interruption. 

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., who advises the Action Fund and has been a leading figure in the modern understanding of Black Church history, applauded the new round of NTHP funding with an ode to its lasting impact.

“Black churches have been at the forefront of meaningful democratic reform since this nation’s founding. They’re a living testament to the resilience of our ancestors in the face of unimaginably daunting challenges,” he said. 

“The heart of our spiritual world is the Black church. These places of worship, these sacred cultural centers, must exist for future generations to understand who we were as a people.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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