St. Augustine Church and the 1842 ‘War of the Pews’
The French Quarter had its church, in the grand St. Louis Cathedral. Faubourg St. Mary had its, too, in the then-new St. Patrick’s Church. So, naturally, the residents of New Orleans’ fledgling Treme neighborhood — many of them free people of color — wanted a place of their own in which to worship, petitioning Bishop Antoine Blanc to let them build a new Treme church. In 1841, he gave them his blessing to do so. Shortly before the church was completed, and with “pew fees” a common practice at the time, many of the neighborhoods’ free people of color began “buying” pews for their families. Not to be outdone, white worshipers began purchasing pews for their families, too. The free people of color — who also bought pews on side aisles for slaves — eventually won what became known as “the War of the Pews” by a three-to-one margin. The result: When St. Augustine Church was dedicated on Oct. 9, 1842, it became the country’s most integrated congregation, according to the church’s website.
Pew fees are a thing of the past, but St. Augustine Church, at 1210 Gov. Nicholls St., still stands as a spiritual hub of the Treme neighborhood. The site of vibrant, music-filled Masses, it is recognized as the oldest black Catholic parish in the nation. It celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2016.
- Pay no attention to its spelling when you try to pronounce it. The church, like the local high school, is pronounced as if it were “Augustin.” Anybody who pronounces it like the city in Florida is instantly branded an outsider.
- The church site was once part of Claude Treme’s plantation. Ursuline nuns, who had bought the property, donated it to the people who wanted to build the church on the condition that it be named for one of the nuns’ patron saints, Augustine of Hippo.
- Next to the church is the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, which is marked by an outsize cross made of chains and hung with shackles and chains.
- The church is on the Louisiana African-American Heritage Trail, which was created to showcase African Americans’ contributions to the state.
- The Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, the country’s second-oldest congregation of black women, was founded in the church in November 1842, when Henriette Delille, a free woman of color, and Juliette Gaudin, a Cuban, pledged to live in the community and work for orphan girls, the uneducated, the poor, the sick and the elderly among free people of color. Delille, who died in 1862, is a candidate for sainthood; a miracle has been attributed to her intervention.
- The bell tower of St. Augustine Church in Treme houses three bells, each a different size, that were made in 1883 in Baltimore, Md., and which were used to call citizens to the first World Cotton Exposition in New Orleans in 1884. The church bought the bells in 1894 at an auction.
The importance of St. Augustine Church to its community was clearly evident after Hurricane Katrina, when its parishioners rallied to protest the Archdiocese’s plan to close the church because of the heavy damage it sustained and the number of worshipers who had moved away. As part of the protest, a number of people barricaded themselves in the church rectory. In a compromise, a plan of action was proposed to rebuild the congregation and raise money. The church, which had been given 18 months to show improvement, received a $75,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express. In March 2009, St. Augustine was taken off the list of churches to be closed.