Pictured above are the “old timers” who were present at the opening of Saint Katherine’s Church on May 19, 1895, fifty years prior to when this photograph was taken on Sunday, October 7, 1945. They are:
Bottom Row: (left to right) Rev. W. F. Darling, C.M. (present pastor), Mesdames Mabel Sayles, Regina Bozonier, Wilhelmina G. Coelho, Theresa Ashford, Marie Dede, Rose Ketchens, Ernestine Brown, Theodine Robinson, Emily Questy.
Middle Row: Miss Honorine Ledet (ceremonially opened the church in 1895), Mrs. Ida Sharpe, Mr. Lawrence Sayles, Mrs. Annie Shepherd, Mr. William Newman, Mrs. Adele Perriott, Mr. Uncas Tureaud.
Top Row: Messrs. Paul Thomas, John Verdun, James Carter, Neville Jarreau and John Foster.
In the month of October 1945, Saint Katherine Parish in New Orleans celebrated its Golden Jubilee Anniversary. For fifty years, this parish had been meeting the religious needs of black Catholics throughout the community. On Sunday, October 7, 1945, the Rev. Clarence Howard, S.V.D, himself a black priest, preached an eloquent sermon in which he explained that the founding of this church for the special use of black Catholics in this city came as a result of racial conditions between the white and colored people directly after the Civil War. He said:
“The white people during the course of years carried their personal prejudices into the church. The colored were segregated to the rear of the church. The colored began to stay away. Archbishop Janssens of New Orleans sought some way of making the situation better. He had as his example similar churches in Pittsburgh, Florida, Texas, and Baltimore, Maryland. However, he made it quite clear that he did not wish that people get the impression there was a religion for whites and a religion for colored. The colored people did not have to attend this church if they did not wish to do so. Very soon the colored saw it as a place where they might see their own boys serving on the altar, hear their own girls singing in the choir, and their husbands serving as ushers and leaders of religious organizations.”
Many people today will tell you that Saint Augustine was the first church in New Orleans dedicated exclusively for people of color. This is not true since Saint Augustine was an integrated congregation of whites, free people of color and slaves. Saint Katherine was the city’s first separate – and at first voluntary – Catholic Church for blacks, founded in 1895.
Before this time, there were no separate Catholic Churches for the races. People of both races attended the same churches, though blacks usually had to sit in special pews or in galleries. This was not always the case. At Saint Louis Cathedral, up to the mid-1850s, blacks and whites worshipped together, sang in the same choir, and received communion at the same altar rails. By the mid-1870s people of color had managed to integrate the opera house, all streetcars, some railroads, and a number of soda fountains, saloons and theatres, while hotels and fine restaurants remained segregated.
Problems began in 1875 when the racist White League and several priests introduced segregated seating in Saint Louis Cathedral, When black parishioners staged a boycott, the cathedral quietly resumed the practice of integrated pews. Separate parishes for blacks were even urged but colored Creoles in New Orleans preferred to remain in mixed churches where their French language was spoken.
The man responsible for the establishment of Saint Katharine’s Parish was the Most Reverend Francis Janssens, the fifth Archbishop of New Orleans from 1888 to 1897. He felt that blacks must control their own religious affairs and their own parishes, therefore a separate parish for blacks should exist. He truly believed that many would leave the church due to white prejudice and would be attracted to the Protestant faith which ran three colleges for blacks in New Orleans which many Catholics were now attending.
Archbishop Janssens preferred to have established this new parish in the heart of the city’s downtown Creole Catholic quarter, but he realized it was a bad idea due to the disdain it received from this community. Creoles of Color here deeply cherished their traditional place in society. They were eager for social equality which they had been fighting for so long, proud of their French ancestry, and wanted to keep their baptisms and marriages registered on the same books. They were very similar to white Creoles in manners, language, and ways of thinking. To them this “Jim Crow Church” was a very racist idea.
So in 1895 when Saint Joseph’s Church and Rectory on Tulane Avenue between Villere and Marais Streets became available, the Archbishop seized the opportunity to create his desired separate parish. Saint Joseph’s was housed in a new church and rectory, while leaving behind an old, dilapidated structure on Tulane Avenue.
Renovations, totaling $5,675 were badly needed. Extensive work had to be done. Through a generous gift of $5,000 from Mother Katharine Drexel, Archbishop Janssens dedicated the new Saint Katharine’s Church on May 19, 1895, so named in honor of Mother Katharine Drexel herself. At the dedication, Archbishop Janssens stressed that Saint Katharine would be a place where the colored people would be at home. No one, however, would be compelled to attend. All were free to remain in their own parishes. Whites could have their confessions heard and receive Communion here, but nothing else.
The interior of the church was striking with white walls bordered by pale gold fresco design work and pews were enlarged and refurbished. Work around the altar was elaborate and everything was done tastefully and elegantly. Slowly the Creole community began to come around, especially in 1896 after Plessy vs. Ferguson resulted in “separate but equal” which opened the way to blanket segregation
A parish school was housed in the old rectory and its enrollment rose from 145 in 1903 to 450 in 1906. The next year, the Sisters of the Holy Family, a black religious order, replaced the lay faculty.
Saint Dominic’s Parish (now Saint Joan of Arc), in uptown New Orleans became a separate parish in a manner similar to Saint Katharine’s. The white people of Mater Dolorosa Parish, in uptown New Orleans, built a new church and voted to exclude the black parishioners. The Josephites purchased the old church for use by the deserted black parishioners. Rechristened as Saint Dominic’s in 1909, it became the second black parish in the city and the first one conducted by the Josephites. Others soon followed: Blessed Sacrament in 1915, Holy Ghost in 1915, Corpus Christi in 1916, and Holy Redeemer in 1919 followed by All Saints and Saint Peter Claver in 1920.
As St. Katharine grew, various activities such as music, festivals, plays, motion picture shows, and dances were provided since all the places which were open to white people were closed to them. Between 1900 and 1919, the spelling of its name had changed, altering the second “a” to an “e”…Katherine.
By its second quarter-century, the parish was in a satisfying financial state. As the parish’s fiftieth anniversary booklet remarked, those next twenty-five years were much the same as those of any other colored parish in the city. Segregation had become an accomplished fact of life in New Orleans both in the Church and in the community at large.
Saint Katherine Church, built originally in 1846, was torn down 120 years later in 1966.. The reason for its destruction was mainly due to serious damage caused by Hurricane Betsy the previous year, but the history of how it came to be and the great services it provided to a community so much in need should never be forgotten.
Sources: Slawson, Douglas. “Segregated Catholicism: The Origins of Saint Katharine’s Parish, New Orleans” Vincentian Heritage Journal Vol.17 Issue 3 Article 2). The Louisiana Weekly, 06 October, 1945, pages 9 &12 section 2 and 13 October, 1945 page 1.