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  HISTORY

OF

ST. MARY OF THE ANGELS

 

     In the spring of 1925 the Most Rev. John W. Shaw, to provide for the needs of the catholic families, invited the Franciscans from Cincinnati to assume the care of a proposed parish behind Claiborne Street in downtown New Orleans and Our Lady of Good Harbor at Buras. The Friars accepted the invitation on July 21, 1925.

          Fr. Linus, staying temporally at the seminary, wasted little time in taking up residence in the newly erected parish. He found a four-room half house at 2113 Desire Street and moved in on August 1st. He also located a three-room house at 1734 Congress Street available for a temporary church. There he celebrated the first Mass in the parish on August 2nd, 1925, the feast of Our Lady of the Angels, the patroness of the parish. There were some 60 people present for that first Mass.

     Once on the site, the new pastor and his assistant, Fr. Hubert Lorenz worked hard to organize the new parish. In the beginning of the New Year, 1926, the two friars began to focus their attention to the physical plant of the new parish. On March 3rd, 1926 they moved into the rectory at 2301 Gallier Street and added an annex to it in May. On June 16th work began on a new school and on August 30th work began on St. Mary of the Angels Church.

     Two Sisters of St. Francis from Lafayette, Indiana arrived in late August of 1926. They took up residence at 2219 Gallier. Early September saw two more Sisters come to the Parish, and by September 19th the new school was dedicated. The building embraced five large classrooms and provided for a temporary church. Under the direction of the Franciscan Sisters, the school opened its doors to 109 children that first year.

     Work on the new Church building at the corner of Congress and North Miro progressed steadily. Finally, the dream was realized on Sunday, February 20th, 1927, when Archbishop Shaw solemnly dedicated the new structure. The following Good Friday was the most unusual in short history of the parish. Torrential rains (a record 14 inches) flooded the area and no service could be held in the flooded church. Nonetheless, the parish continued to grow.

     The next pastor was Fr. Alcuin Krammer. During the early years of his pastorate, Fr. Alcuin had to deal with an ever increasing school enrollment. First he added a school annex and then in 1931 he enlarged the school by raising it and added new classroom under the older structure. Along with the other accomplishments, the new community was able to pay off its indebtedness by 1938 despite the depression. During the depression year, the parish was able to help those in need of food. According to the 1942 census, the Parish had grown to 2750.

     St. Mary of the Angels Parish and its school made an invaluable service to the country during the WWII war effort. The parish was host to group of soldiers. One by one, then by threes and by scores, young men and women left to join the services. In all, more than 450 men and women served during the war.

     The school continued to grow but, at the same time, the Franciscan Sisters had to withdraw. Fortunately, an arrangement was able to be made with the Marianites of Holy Cross and they gradually took over the school with its growing population. Because of the war, no building could be done; however, Fr. Alcuin acquired property and money toward a new school.

     After 18 years, Fr. Alcuin was succeeded by Fr. Justin who had to leave because of health reasons. Fr. Dominic came to carry on energetically where his predecessor left off. His thoughts were directed toward the fulfillment of that decade-old dream of a spacious, adequate, and modern school building, worthy of the importance of the parish, and the task it must fulfill. The fall of 1951 saw the culminating joy and a dream’s fulfillment. Some 800 students enrolled in the school that fall to enjoy and learn in this modern environment. Another substantial building was added to the parish plan. The old school was converted into the parish convent and dedicated on September 13, l953.

     Preparations were now being made for a new Church. The little wooden structure was no longer large enough for the needs of St. Mary of the Angels. Finally, in the summer of 1958 the school auditorium became the worship space for the community. Air conditioning was added for comfort. The friars moved into a house on the corner of Congress and Miro.

     We read in the February 6, 1960 bulletin: For 31 years, the much-loved Church served this parish... By the summer of l959 there was standing room only at five out of the nine Sunday Masses in our Church which accommodated 350....A temporary Church was arranged in the School Hall, with seating for 860. Thus the community began an extensive campaign for a new Church and new Rectory.

     The growth for the St. Mary of the Angels in the 60s and thereafter was of a more radical nature. In January of 1960, the archdiocese began the process of preparing to integrate its schools. In September of 1962, integration for the school finally occurred. Under the leadership of Fr. Fabian Gerstle, pastor, and Frs. Silas Oleksinski and Fridolin Voegle, associates, the school opened its doors to ALL. Reaction to integration of the school was less than Christian. Violent reactions included economic, physical, and bomb threats directed at those who supported integration. Within fourteen (14) days 400 students had been withdrawn from St. Mary of the Angels School. A school that previously had 1000 students found its population to be only 850 in December of 1962.

     Hurricane Betsy of 1965 (September) had a tremendous impact on the parish. Many lost their lives in the sudden flood. Property loss was devastating. Thanks to St. Mary of the Angels School, many found a safe refuge from the flood waters. Because of the flood, many found additional reasons to move from the parish. In that same storm, Holy Redeemer Church, the parish church for “people of color,” was destroyed. Rather than rebuild this church, the Archbishop mandated that all of its parishioners join the territorial parishes in which they lived. Now, anyone could become a member of St. Mary of the Angel Parish. (Note: Yes, prior to this declaration, people of color could not be registered members of the parish.)

     In January of 1965, permission was given to have plans made for the new church and rectory and for construction to begin. It was delayed some because of Betsy, but nevertheless the cornerstone was laid October 4th, l966. We read in the October 2nd bulletin of that year: Sealed into the sanctuary wall along with the cornerstone this Tuesday will be a small piece of stone from the original church of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi, Italy...The Bishop will also place in a receptacle in the wall his own signature, the signatures of the priests and religious who attend the ceremonies and the names of parishioners and friends of the Parish... The first Mass offered in the new Church was on June 11th, 1967. The Blessing of the New Church was on October 4th, 1967. Archbishop Hannan was the celebrant.

     The building of the new parish facilities, church and rectory helped to integrate the parish. It helped them through a difficult time because of the common focus. However, not all participated. We read numerous notes in the bulletins of that time that a number of “prominent families” of the parish gave nothing towards the parish and the new construction. The pastor exhorted them that even if they were moving from the parish they should at least give a sizable donation for all the “service the Franciscans had given them in the past.” Seemingly, these words fell on deaf ears because the parish now found itself in debt for the first time in many years.

     In June of 1969, the pastor and delegation of parishioners met with the Archdiocesan School Board. They sought to find out whether the school would remain open or not. They were received with upmost kindness and were reassured that the school would remain open. Thus we see a pattern that was a constant concern of the community for the next thirty years. Would the school remain open?

     In the 70’s and 80’s, the cultural, racial and economic changes continued, and the parish and school kept faithful to these changes and the people who were coming to the parish and school. The parish and school continued to be a beacon of hope and stability to the neighborhood; church was not for those who came but going out to the community. As a result of the parish reaching out to the neighborhood, the parish opened its own Office of Social Ministry to meet the needs of people in August of 1980.    

     Beginning in the 80’s, the parish community continued the transformation of the parish and claim its identity and making a difference in the community. The parish began to call itself an African-American Parish, but with Fr. Bart, arriving in 1993, he expanded the understanding of the parish community as being “cross-cultural;” yet, being predominantly African-American. The transformation, which continues to develop today and into the future, calls forth the parishioners to take an active ownership of the parish.

     Gathering for Mass, gospel music and celebration was and continues to be a community and personal spiritual.

Good gospel music and good preaching makes Mass more alive, which people are being spiritually fed in our community. But, since Hurricane Katrina, the choir has moved from a few people to approximately 20 people today, and the parish has moved from 90 families, post-Katrina to 260 families today. It is more than music and preaching, but parishioners claim this as their home. People displaced by Hurricane Katrina have returned to the parish for their funeral Mass; what an expression of evangelization.

     In 1993, Fr. Bart Pax, O.F.M. became pastor of St. Mary of the Angels. What he brought to the parish was a sense of love and community in his ministry. This spiritual approach by Fr. Bart was exemplified when Hurricane Katrina came in late August of 2005. Instead of evacuating, he stayed to provide safe-haven in the school for those who did not leave, and in the aftermath, he came back to oversee the rebuilding of the parish and neighborhood. For Fr. Bart, overseeing was not watching others to do the work, but he threw himself into the physical work and asking for donations from “far-and-wide” to rebuild the parish and school.

     Fr. Bart’s hope was to rebuild and re-open the school for the parish and neighborhood children. St. Mary of the Angels always gave a quality education in a safe-environment, but re-opening of the school would not take place. Yes, he and the parishioners were upset with decision of the archdiocese concerning the school, but Fr. Bart was not deterred. He began working on a plan to make the school a community center for the neighborhood and parish.       

     Upon his death in 2005, Fr. Joe Rigali, O.F.M. was appointed pastor and continued the school project begun by

Fr. Bart. The architectural plans were finished and the actual renovation of the school building began in

September of 2011. The first floor would primarily be used by “Catholic Charities ‘head-start’ program.” The gym, cafeteria and kitchen will be used for other parish and neighborhood functions, and the opening of the first floor will take place in July of 2012. Towards the end of this phase, the second phase will begin with the renovation of the second floor, street in front of the school, parking lot and building of an exterior elevator. This school project has been life-giving for the parish and neighborhood.

     The parish will continue to grow; maybe, not as fast as one would hope it would grow. Like the waters of the Mississippi River runs slowly and deep, the same is true with the parish. Even though this history focuses upon past and present friars, the parishioners are the “true backbone” of St. Mary of the Angels. Friars will come and go but the parishioners will always be there.

     

 


 
St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Community
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