As the bells pealed forth from the stately church on St. Philip Street, hundreds of people crowded inside to witness the dedication of a church they could now call their own. It was Sunday, October 24, 1920 and everyone was anxious to learn the name chosen for their new church and its new pastor. During the 10a.m. Mass they were informed by Archbishop Shaw that no more appropriate name could be given to the newly consecrated church than that of St. Peter Claver since this was the great saint who spent 50 years laboring for the colored race.
It was not a new church building they were dedicating, but one that had been erected in 1852 and had stood for the past 78 years as St. Ann’s Catholic Church. Originally, the Catholic congregation of St. Anne was both black and white, with segregation being practiced within the church. And only white students attending its school. The white members of the congregation reorganized in 1920 and decided to move to a location on Ursuline Avenue and North Galvez, just a few blocks away as a white parish.
Leaving behind a church, rectory and school consisting of ten lots of land, Father Badeaux, pastor of St. Anne’s wrote a letter to Father Samuel Kelly, S.S.J. suggesting that the Josephites purchase his parish plant for the Catholic colored population.
The Josephites knew there was a great need for another Catholic parish in the downtown area for people of color. Therefore, on April 7, 1920, the property was sold and purchased by the Josephite Society for $32,500. The boundaries of the new parish were set to embrace a portion of Corpus Christi Parish and also a portion of St. Katherine Parish.
St. Peter Claver School
By the next year of 1921, the old St. Anne’s school was completely remodeled by the parishioners and a newly refurbished one opened in the fall. It consisted of two lay teachers, two nuns from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and 150 students in four grades. Each year one grade and one lay teacher would be added until there were eight grades. The children themselves raised enough money to purchase playground equipment and to install a play area on the school grounds. The first graduating class would receive their diplomas after the 8:30 Mass on Thursday, June 9, 1927.
The Apparition (1927)
An unusual event occurred at St. Peter Claver’s School on Saturday, October 1, 1927 when Mrs. Jennie Lombard claimed to have seen an apparition of St. Therese of the Little Flower in one of the windows. As word spread throughout the community, thousands gathered to witness the phenomenon. Such chaos was created until Father Joseph A. St. Laurent, S.S.J. (Pastor) had the window removed, but many said they soon found the same image on two other windows. One witness declared in a daily local paper: “I am a lawyer and I am careful of any public statement I make; but you can use my name, I saw St. Theresa on that window.” Years later, older members recalled seeing the apparition. A statue of the young St. Therese would later be donated to the church by Miss Rose Cheche.
Father St. Laurent (1920-1929)
Father St. Laurent would remain as pastor for nine years (1920-1929). Parishioners remember him as a very effective priest who spoke so simply and directly that all of those listening could understand. Two of his quotes were:
“It is a strange kind of Catholic that parades a new suit for Easter, with all the same old sins under it. Don’t polish the outside only, but cleanse the inside as well.
“Show yourselves intelligent through generosity. Put your right hand into your own pocket before holding out your left for assistance.”
Priest and Parishioners in May Crowning Procession
Under Father St. Laurent’s guidance, parishioners labored endlessly. They established four religious organizations: Society of St. Ann (for women), Holy Name Society (for men), St. Vincent de Paul, and the Parents’ Club. A statue of St. Anthony was donated by Mr. George Blanchard. Stained-glass windows were donated by individuals and groups of parishioners. The altar to St. Ann was donated by the St. Anne Society and a beautiful statue erected and blessed in 1925.
Mrs. Daniska DuConge Cager – First Organist
The first organist was Miss Daniska DuCongé who was followed by Miss Valerie Bowie, Mrs. Frank Boutté, Miss Irene Bowie, and Mr. George Davis.
By 1934, the school now had enlarged to all 8 classrooms and 550 pupils. A new school was needed but the country was deep in the throes of a major depression. The church was filled at every Mass and 6,000 parishioners were in attendance.
In 1938, a house on St. Philip Street was remodeled, raised, and another floor added. This became the new convent for the 8 nuns now assigned to the school. All labor was done by the tradesmen of the parish.
In 1941, grounds were purchased for a new recreation hall and school. By 1944 the new three-story brick school building was completed and sports became an integral part of students’ activities.
1945 Basketball Team & Fr. Francis Cassidy, S.S.J.
By 1953, the parish boast of 11 societies and organizations led by dedicated members who donated untold hours of their time. The Claver Federal Credit Union was founded in 1954. When the parish rectory was damaged by fire in 1953, the parishioners brought gifts of linens, food, house wares, etc. to the priests who were then housed in the old convent.
A large Mardi Gras Parade in 1955 became a tremendous success. There were skating and penny parties, a children’s carnival and a parade with various theme floats. A School for Exceptional Children for the mentally challenged was established and run by Sister M. Claire Francis and later Sister Mary Eustelle.
By 1964, the Claver Federal Credit Union had passed the $100,000 mark in savings and had established a school savings program for students. One year later, 250 pupils contributed and enrolled as junior members of the NAACP. By 1969, Father John H. Ricard, S.S.J., introduced an Afro-American History course into the curriculum. This was also the year that St. Anne Parish (due to decreased enrollment brought on by white flight) closed and was consolidated with St. Peter Claver.
Throughout the 1970s to mid 1980s, the parish began to see the impact of economic hard times as many of the youth that had been educated in the parish school moved to other New Orleans neighborhoods and cities. This change left the parish with few parishioners and struggling financially.
In August, 1984 the Josephite Society decided to turn over the administration of the parish to the Edmundite Fathers. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament left in May of 1986.
Under the leadership of Father Michael P. Jacques (a vocal and influential pastor) and many dedicated parishioners, St. Peter Claver Parish became a beacon of hope in an inner-city community that many had written off as lost to crime and poverty. Many of the young people have returned and the parish has more than 2400 registered families making it one of the largest African- American Catholic Churches in the state of Louisiana.
Sources: Anniversary Booklets for St. Peter Claver, Archdiocese of New Orleans Archives; The Colored Harvest, Josephite Society, Aug/Sept. 1936 Issue p.13 and Jan. 1921 Issue p.4-5; New Orleans Architecture, Vol. 6 p. 191; A History of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Charles E. Nolan p. 76; The Josephites & the African-American Community State of Louisiana (1897-1997); www.stpeterclaverneworleans.org/history.html
Lolita V. Cherrie