- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The ancient cypress doors were propped wide in the bright sunshine, palm fronds stacked high, pews filled and joyous music poured from St. Augustine as the historically black Roman Catholic church celebrated Palm Sunday.

The service was held two weeks after the church was closed amid protests over post-Hurricane Katrina budget cutbacks that would have merged it with a larger neighboring parish.

“What a historic morning for us to gather,” said Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes, who originally ordered the church shut down, but returned to celebrate Mass yesterday.

The church was full for the first service, but unless the support continues, the relief for the church will not last.

When Archbishop Hughes reconsecrated St. Augustine on Saturday, he said he would examine the parish’s progress after 18 months to determine whether it could avoid consolidation with a neighboring parish.

Archbishop Hughes agreed to reopen St. Augustine after negotiating with parishioners who had protested the church’s closing. St. Augustine, founded in 1841, is one of the nation’s oldest historically black parishes. The archdiocese sought to consolidate St. Augustine as it tries to deal with $84 million in uninsured losses from Hurricane Katrina.

“I intend to be a regular now and support the church here,” said Gordon Cagnolitti, a New Orleans firefighter who described his faith as multidenominational. “I go to several churches, but my son and grandchildren go here and I will, too, from now on.”

St. Augustine had failed to attract many new members or carry on other pastoral functions required of a functioning parish, Archbishop Hughes said when closing it. Under the plans announced earlier this year, the church building still would be used for services, but parish functions would be consolidated with neighboring St. Peter Claver.

But the church had not reckoned with the deep feeling of the parishioners. Protests arose, and a small group of protesters shuttered themselves in the church rectory three weeks ago.

Demonstrators interrupted Mass on March 26 — a desecration, Archbishop Hughes said the next day, when he announced that the church building would be closed.

The parishioners have set 12 goals to meet during the next 18 months, Archbishop Hughes said. Among others, the goals require the addition of 300 to 400 families, the institution of religious education and a balanced budget by Oct. 1.

If the parish does not meet the goals, it will be closed, the archbishop said.

But the potential problems seemed far from anyone’s mind yesterday. When a lay reader opened the service by welcoming those in attendance to St. Augustine Church, the crowd cheered and clapped. Then people waved palm fronds and clapped to the hymn “Oh, Happy Day.”

“It’s a joyous day, a great celebration,” said Leola Brown, 77. “It shows the Lord answers prayers. This is my church. I want to attend it while I’m living and be buried from it when I die.”

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