Protesters still occupying historic New Orleans church rectory

CC Campbell-Rock
Date Published: 
March 29, 2006



'Whose house? LeDoux's house And no other shall enter ... Ya' heard me?' - protest sign on rectory door


Supporters of the beloved black Catholic priest, Rev. Jerome LeDoux SVJ, vow to go to jail before allowin£
the Rev. Michael Jacques, a white priest, to replace Rev. LeDoux as the pastor of the oldest African American Catholic church in America.
The historic St. Augustine Catholic Church was and continued to be, under ev. LeDoux's leadership, a sanctuary for civil rights and safe harbor for free people of color and slaves. It was they who built the church and dedicated it in 1842, and up through the present, it has always been their church - until Archbishop
Alfred S. Hughes gave Rev. LeDoux his walking papers on March 15.
Rev. Jacques, pastor of neighboring St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Parish, whose church sustained serious damage during Hurricane Katrina, attempted to conduct his first mass at the church this past Sunday.
Halfway through the service, St. Augustine's parishioners and supports began walking up the aisles bearing protest signs. "Billions for Child Molestation, None for St. Augustine," one sign opined. "If You're Looking for a Home, Call FEMA," another said in reference to Rev. Jacques taking over LeDoux's rectory, his home for the past 15 years.
Others began shouting for the return of LeDoux, who was sent packing on March 15. The protesters are comprised of both parishioners and college students who volunteered to forego the decadence of Spring Break to help rebuild New Orleans' flood ravaged neighborhoods.
Students who had already been housed in the church hall and the sanctuary carried signs that questioned the contention of the Archdiocese of New Orleans that S1. Augustine parish needed to be closed because the church's 300 families had not contributed enough to keep the doors open.
According to news reports, St. Augustine was slated to close in 1999 for this very reason.
One parishioner believes it's about more than just money. "I think it is because the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan spoke at the church," said AI Harris, a parishioner and community organizer. "What else could it be when Michael Valentine, a local businessman and philanthropist, has pUblicly announced that he would raise $1 million for St. Augustine Catholic Church?" Harris asked.
"We want to hit them in the pocket and have them tried in the court of public opinion," he said of the church's hierarchy. "This is my church, my parish. You're not putting me under no white devil," Harris added.
Nonetheless, money must be the highest priority for a financially strapped Archdiocese.
"He (Jacques) came and took the money out the safe. He didn't say a word to anyone," Suncere Ali Shakur recalls. "Then, on Sunday, he showed up with 10 armed guards and he was with 'Pastry," he said of Rev. Maestri, the archdiocese's spokesperson.
"The young people are willing to go the distance ... go to jail. They're doing it for us (elders) because we can't," said Harris of college students who responded to the call for spending their spring break in the Katrina on the Ground initiative.
Depending on which news report you choose to believe, St. Peter Claver has between 3,000 and 8,000 members who keep the dollars rolling in.
LeDoux's supporters are occupying the hallowed halls of the spiritual home of 19th century civil rights advocate Homer Plessy, Blessed Mother Henriette DeLille, co-founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family religious order and benefactress of St. Mary's Academy, all all-girls school that was formed 165 years ago to educate free women of color, famed civil rights attorney, Alexander P. Tureaud, and Mardi Indian Chief Tootie Montana, among many others.
Visitors to LeDoux's services were treated to a soul-stirring mass and renditions of "Reach Out and Touch," "When the Saints Go Marching In," "We Shall Overcome" and "This Little Light of Mine."
There was always a family-in-the-spirit atmosphere as parishioners were encouraged to "Greet your brothers and sisters" with a hand shake or a hug. It was LeDoux, with faith guiding his every step, who kept the culture intact. It was LeDoux who erected a monument in honor of "The Unknown Slave" outside of the church to honor the memory of slaves buried on church grounds or elsewhere in the Treme neighborhood, which was once a plantation.
Suncere Ali Shakur remembers being awakened at 7:30 in the morning by a close friend, who rarely got up before noon. "He was crying. At 10:35 a.m. Bush said he was going to bring in soldiers from Iraq to take control of New Orleans, because all the people there understood was violence," Shakur explained. "I was like, 'Oh, hell no!'"
Following on the heels of the closure of his business, Cafe Mawonaj, Shakur, a Washington, D.C., native, felt compelled to go New Orleans to help. Before occupying the church rectory, Shakur did volunteer work with Common Group Collective. He began traveling across Louisiana and setting up distribution centers for food, cleaning supplies and household goods.
"We're not walking out of here under our own accord," he said of the occupation.
Parishioner John Powell said, "My only statement is that if Hughes spends over $1 billion a year, he could surely give some of that money to St. Augustine Catholic Church. n
Powell, a parishioner at S1. Augustine for the past 59 years, added, "The only thing I want to push is the deed. They (archdiocesan hierarchy) are saying they bought the church for $10,000 but that the purchase was based on a verbal agreement. Show me the deed; show me the act of sale."
Harris' mid-city home sustained damage from 10 feet high flood waters. He said he was "heartbroken" when he heard the news about the closure of St. Augustine. "If you had seen the last two Sunday services, you would know. There were Black Power signs, people jumping up and down, women and men crying" over the ouster of their beloved priest.
"It's one thing to get off a horse and another to be knocked off," Shakur added.
"This white man sitting up in Kente cloth and serving mass wouldn't even let the little altar girls serve in their usual capacity."
Momentarily throwing in the towel, Jacques left the service with Maestri.
"As soon as he left, the drummer, pianist and acoustic guitar player began playing. "We had a real church service. We had a good time," worshiping the Almighty, Shakur concluded.
Harris said the protesters want LeDoux back. "He should be allowed to stay until his death or until he decides to retire."
"Today is just another day in the civil rights struggle," Harris concluded.
CC Campbell-Rock, a native New Orleanian, veteran joumaNst and Katrina evacuee, is now the editor of the Bay View. Email her at campbellrock [at] sfbayview [dot] com.