The War of the Pews—the Other Battle of New Orleans

In its 175-year history, St. Augustine parish in New Orleans has survived slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, Hurricane Katrina—and the War of the Pews.

Source: ‘Infrogmation’, CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: ‘Infrogmation’, CC BY-SA 3.0 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I know. If an event from American Catholic history is known as “the War of the Pews” it probably won’t be edifying. But that is a misperception. There is a happy ending to this “war.”

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the consecration of the Church of St. Augustine in New Orleans, and the squabble it set off among the congregation of the new parish. Before we get to the unseemly details, here’s a little backstory.

St. Augustine stands in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. It is named after Claude and Julie Tremé, whose plantation covered this area in the late 1700s. For reasons best known to the Tremés, at some point they began to divide up their land into a few dozens lots and put them up for sale. Among the buyers were the Ursuline nuns, who opened a small school here for free girls of color.

New Orleans was, and in many ways still is, a city unlike any other in America. In the 18th and 19th centuries there was little or no stigma attached to being of mixed race, and many of the city’s wealthiest and most distinguished families were a combination of French, Spanish, and African descent. There was even an entire class of free women of mixed race who received fine educations and were tutored in all the social graces. The goal for these young ladies was to attract the attention of a wealthy white man, become his mistress, and live in comfort as a fine gentlewoman of New Orleans. One of these women was Marie-Josephe “Pouponne” Dias, the mother of the candidate for sainthood, Venerable Henriette Delille. In fact, Marie-Joseph trained her daughter to follow in her footsteps, but Henriette defied her mother and chose the life of a nun.

Until the end of the Civil War and the final abolition of slavery in the United States, in New Orleans there were enslaved Africans and free Africans, slaves of mixed race—usually known as people of color—and free people of mixed race. And almost all of them were Catholic.

In the early 1800s, a considerable number of working class free people of color made their homes on the site of the old Tremé plantation. It is said that the community they established there is the oldest black neighborhood in America. One of Tremé’s landmarks is Congo Square, where slaves gathered after church on Sunday to socialize and dance to the rhythms of African drummers. Another Tremé landmark is the Church of St. Augustine.

For all of its racial intermixture, New Orleans was not an entirely color blind society. Sad to say, there were instances of predominantly white Catholic congregations consigning people of color—slave and free—to the pews at the rear of the church or up in the gallery where they would be out of sight. The free inhabitants of Tremé petitioned Bishop Antoine Blanc for their own parish where they would not have to endure discrimination at Mass. Bishop Blanc approved of the project. The Ursulines offered to donate a piece of property at what is now the corner of Governor Nicholls and St. Claude streets, with the understanding that the new church would be dedicated to one of their patrons, St. Augustine of Hippo. The founders of the parish agreed—after all, St. Augustine was an African.

As the church neared completion, the residents of Tremé began to purchase pews that would be reserved for themselves and their families when they came to Mass. That custom has died out in our time, but in the 19th century purchasing a pew was common among virtually all Christian denominations.

Trouble arose when some of the Tremé area’s white residents began to buy pews in the best locations in the new church, and so reduced the seats available to people of color. The contest for the prime pews flanking the center aisle of the church became fierce, but the pews in the sides aisles had not been taken. The mixed race parishioners of St. Augustine’s snapped up all of them. Then they announced that they were donating, in perpetuity, these side aisle pews to slaves who lived in the parish. Overnight, St. Augustine became the most racially integrated, racially complex Catholic congregation in the United States. For 175 years, black, white, and mixed race Catholics have knelt side-by-side in the pews and side-by-side at the communion rail.

By the way, 2017 also marks the 175th anniversary of the day Venerable Henriette Delille and her friend and coworker, Juliette Guadin, knelt before the altar of St. Augustine, pronounced the vows of poverty, chastity, and organized themselves as the Sisters of the Holy Family, dedicating their lives to the education of children and the care of the elderly, either slave or free.

Although the parish was founded by free people, many of the laborers who built the church were slaves. It is believed that an unknown number of slaves lie buried in unmarked graves in the old churchyard. To recall these unknown but not forgotten souls, in 2004 the parish erected a monument known as the Tomb of the Unknown Slave. It is a large cross, forged from the heavy links of a marine chain. Dangling from the cross are shackles. Archbishop Alfred Schulte blessed the cross, and the bronze tablet beside it that explains the significance of this monument.

Of even greater significance for St. Augustine is that in its 175-year history, this parish has survived slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and Hurricane Katrina. Compared to these awful challenges, the War of the Pews comes off as a memorable but petty skirmish.