At new Smithsonian African-American history and culture museum, Catholic stories emerge

(NCR Online) It was 1841, and a “war of the pews” was erupting in New Orleans.

French hatmaker Claude Tremé had divided his plantation and sold vast plots to free blacks. In 1834, Jeanne Marie Aliquot, a French woman, bought part of the property from the city. Aliquot, as Mary Bernard Deggs tells the story in the 2002 book No Cross, No Crown: Black Nuns in Nineteenth-century New Orleans, had slipped and fallen off the boat into the Mississippi River upon first arriving in New Orleans. When a black man dived in and saved her, the latter pledged herself to aiding the city’s black people.

Aliquot sold the land in 1836 to the Ursuline sisters, who sold it four years later to the Carmelites. The following year, in 1841, Antoine Blanc, New Orleans’ first archbishop, granted the city’s free people of color permission to construct a church, which they did on property that the Ursuline sisters donated. The sisters asked that the church be named for one of their patron saints, and St. Augustine Church continues to operate today.

Back in 1842, the Sisters of the Holy Family community was founded, representing the nation’s second oldest congregation of African-American women. Prior to the dedication of St. Augustine in October of the same year, white congregants learned that African-American parishioners were buying pews for their families. A pew war ensued. Free people of color ultimately won and “bought three pews to every one purchased by the whites,” notes the church website. “In an unprecedented political and religious move, the colored members also bought all the side aisle pews. They then gave those pews to the slaves as their exclusive place of worship.”

That mix forged the country’s most-integrated congregation, “one large row of free people of color, one large row of whites with a smattering of ethnic folk, and two outer aisles of slaves,” adds the website of the church, which celebrated its 175th anniversary last October. [More]

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NCR Online