When legendary cultural icon Allison 'Tootie" Montana died in June 2005, his funeral service was held at the historic St. Augustine church in Treme. Tootie, chief the Yellow Pocahontas tribe, was known for his innovative costume designs, craftsmanship and his strong community presence. After the service, a jazz funeral commemorating his life and achievements departed from the church, drawing one of the largest crowds of second-liners New Orleans had ever seen. Mardi Gras Indians from nearly every tribe, dressed in fully feathered and beaded regalia, St. Augustine parishioners, Treme neighbors, and residents from every part of the city gathered in throngs to parade through the streets of the Seventh Ward to celebrate Montana's life.
It's hard to imagine a more appropriate place to commemorate such an important community figure. Throughout its history, St. Augustine church has served as a spiritual reference point culturally in its ties to jazz, the Mardi Gras Indian community and Faubourg Treme, as well as religiously as the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the United States. Two years after Montana's death, however, the church is working to prove its viability in order to stay open, while at the same time preparing to celebrate its 165th anniversary.
In March 2006, the Archdiocese of New Orleans decided to close St. Augustine parish and others deemed untenable, a move that prompted protests from parishioners and community members. After much debate, the parish was given an extension to meet certain benchmarks imposed by the Archdiocese.
It's not about whether the church is in danger of closing per se but whether it can meet certain criteria before it comes up for review, says Father Quentin Moody, the new priest at St. Augustine who replaced longtime church and community leader Father Jerome LeDoux. 'We mustn't focus on [the possibility of closure] because it hasn't happened," he says. 'We are working to see that it doesn't happen."
The parish has until March 2008 to meet these benchmarks, of which the most important are rebuilding the church itself and increasing membership and functioning ministries, before a final decision is made regarding its status.
'Supposedly, probation means you either put up or get shut down," LeDoux says. '(But) the only people who can answer that are Archbishop Alfred Hughes and the mediation committee. People like me cannot begin to answer that."
LeDoux, who was asked by Archbishop Hughes to retire from St. Augustine last year, served as priest there for almost 16 years.
'We treated each other as family," LeDoux says of the St. Augustine parish and surrounding community. 'There is no greater gift and no greater reward in life than to be allied with your family members " so that all feel wanted, needed, accepted and appreciated. That is what I experienced, and it was a very wonderful thing. I love them, I consider them part of my family still, and that will never change. Nor will my love and appreciation for them."
St. Augustine is presently progressing in a very positive spirit, Moody says. The Catholic youth organization and the social choir, among other ministries, are doing very well in terms of participation. The church also recently appointed a new chairperson for parish council and formed the Friends of St. Augustine organization to encourage both parishioners and other community members to support the parish through stewardship with their presence, prayers and financial support.
From what he has seen since he's been back to visit St. Augustine, LeDoux says he believes the community still shares a sense of cohesiveness and unity, but that work must be done to keep St. Augustine alive.
'All the church members without exception must pull together and must somehow also pull together with their administrator Father Moody, which means they must do better than they are doing now in communication," he says. 'Without communication they will fall apart and the parish will fall apart. But with strong communication among themselves and with Father Moody, they can meet all the benchmarks hands down. They can do everything they have to do. That is certainly my heartfelt message and prayer."
Several events have been planned to commemorate the 165th anniversary. See Gambit Weekly's 'Events" calendar for details.