Saturday, August 25, 2007

New Orleans Day One

Last June, one week after returning from my pilgrimage to Assisi I was in New Orleans. I was there for training. I am a Behavioral and Social Science Volunteer (BSSV). This is a program ran by the American Psychological Association in cooperation with the Center for Disease Control. The program is designed to develop and apply interventions that reduce behaviors that place one at risk for acquiring or spreading HIV/AIDS.

Cathi and I had been in New Orleans about 25 years ago. I had responded to Hurricane Katrina but served in Alabama. Still, I was anxious to see how the Big Easy was doing. As usual I did my homework before going to New Orleans. I discovered St. Augustine Catholic Church. It is the oldest Catholic Church founded by African Americans. I contacted the church and began communicating with Sandra Gordon. We arranged for me to get a tour of this historic church.

Imagine my surprise my last night in Rome when all of us pilgrims were in a restaurant and in walks Archbishop Hughes of New Orleans! I introduced myself and let him know I would be visiting St. Augustine in one week. When I told Sandra she laughed. She was convinced the Holy Spirit brought the Archbishop and me together in Rome. This occurred soon after he met with the Pope. The archbishop had decided to close the church. Sandra believed his heart would be moved.

Now to be fair, the church had poor attendance prior to Hurricane Katrina and could not support itself. However, Katrina destroyed other churches and barely affected St. Augustine. Across the street from the church a home was destroyed, outside of the church was a statue of Mary that was untouched by the hurricane!

I arrived at our hotel early and met Stella, a BSSV from Texas. I asked her if she wanted to join me touring the church and she did. So the Latina from Texas and the blonde from Fort Wayne went to visit the oldest African American Catholic church in the nation. We walked through the French Quarter. Even in the early afternoon Bourbon Street was loud. The music was great. The French Quarter appeared to be recovering quickly from Katrina. That was the only part of the city that could say that.

We walked out of the French Quarter into the Treme District. This was a poorer but quieter neighborhood. The effects of the hurricane were everywhere to be seen. Finally we arrived at the church. Sandra Gordon was a gracious host, a welcoming sister in Christ. The church was beautiful. It was designed in the Greek Revival style with Italian marble. There is a wonderful traditional alter. The Eye of God is on the ceiling above the alter. However, there is another alter in the center of the room made of African wood and this is the one used. There are traditional Stations of the Cross made in Paris intermingled with modern African-American art. The place is vibrant and full of life.

I sat in one of the original Cyprus slave pews. Outside is the Tomb of the Unknown Slave. This place is a national treasure and I love it. We are invited to return the following evening for the membership picnic. I am sure I will.

I spend the remainder of the day doing the usual tourist things. I have coffee with chicory and beignets at Café La Monde. I visit Jackson Square and go into the St. Louis Cathedral. I walk the Moon Walk next to the Mississippi River and watch the riverboats. And I eat and eat. Seafood, rich cafes, wonderful coffees. At night I walk around the French quarter listening to the music. It is a good day and now I have to get ready for the training.

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