Saint Augustine Catholic Church, New Orleans
In 1800s New Orleans, Creole parishioners of Saint Augustine Catholic Church challenged racial barriers both inside and outside the church sanctuary.
Race and Sacred Space
A cultural landmark in the historically Black neighborhood of Tremé, Saint Augustine Catholic Church embodies the complex racial and religious heritage of New Orleans. When it opened in 1842, Saint Augustine—like other Catholic churches in the city—served a racially diverse parish that included Creoles of color (free people of African and European ancestry), enslaved people, and white people. This was in part a legacy of Louisiana’s founding as a French colony, in which Catholicism was the official religion that all residents, whether Black or white, free or enslaved, were required to practice. It also reflected the unique status of Creoles of color in New Orleans society—as a group that enjoyed certain privileges and freedoms yet were still denied the full rights of citizenship granted to white people. Through their membership in Saint Augustine, free people of color challenged these barriers and asserted their equality before God and as United States citizens.
We have always been like one and the same family, going to the same church, sitting in the same pews . . . .
Sister Mary Bernard Diggs, 1894
The War of the Pews
Saint Augustine Church was created through the efforts of Catholic free people of color who petitioned the Bishop of New Orleans to establish a parish in Faubourg Tremé. As the church neared completion in 1842, free people of color, who had contributed funds toward Saint Augustine's construction, competed with white parishioners to purchase pews for their families, in what became known as “The War of the Pews.” Free people of color succeeded in acquiring half of the pews in the center of the sanctuary. They also bought all the seats along the side aisles and reserved them for enslaved people. The result was one of the most racially integrated congregations of its time.
Sisters of the Holy Family
Founded at Saint Augustine Church in 1842 by Henriette Delille (1812–1862), a Catholic nun and Creole of color, the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family is the second oldest congregation of African American nuns in the United States. The Sisters ran a school for children of color and ministered to the poor, sick, and elderly in the Tremé community in New Orleans. They also served in other cities across the South and abroad in Central America and Nigeria. Today the Sisters of the Holy Family continue their mission of caring for the community through education and religious instruction, health care services, prison ministry, and promoting social justice. The Sisters uphold the legacy of their founder, Henriette Delille, who in 1988 became the first African American officially considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.
During the 1890s, the rise of Jim Crow in the American South posed a challenge to Louisiana Creoles of color, who opposed racial segregation in any form. In 1895, when the archbishop of New Orleans established a separate parish for Black Catholics, Saint Augustine parishioners asserted their right to worship in an integrated sanctuary. They also joined with other Creole residents of Tremé to form the Citizens’ Committee (Comité des Citoyens) to protest new state and local laws that mandated racial segregation in schools, transportation, and other public accommodations. In 1892, as part of a protest organized by the Citizens’ Committee, Homer Plessy—a Creole of color from New Orleans, and a member of Saint Augustine Church—was arrested for sitting in the white section of a segregated railroad car. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which established the “separate but equal” justification for segregation.
Both my children were christened in this church. So I wasn’t about ready to give it up. And my mother was buried through this church, so I wasn’t giving it up.
Unidentified participant in protest to save Saint Augustine Catholic Church, 2006
On Holy Ground
Although Saint Augustine Catholic Church sustained only minimal damage during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, in early 2006 the Archdiocese of New Orleans announced plans to close the church permanently due to declining membership. A group of activists launched a sit-in protest to challenge the decision, citing the church’s deep roots in the history and traditions of the Tremé community. After occupying the church building for 19 days, the protesters succeeded in convincing the archbishop to reopen Saint Augustine. Since then the church has continued to serve as an iconic landmark and touchstone for the spiritual, cultural, and political life of New Orleans. A place of worship and remembrance, it is also the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, a shrine dedicated in 2004 to the memory of enslaved people who were buried in unmarked graves in Tremé and throughout the United States.