A BRIEF HISTORY
ST. MARY OF THE ANGELS
On July 21, 1925, after an absence of more than a century, the Franciscans returned to Louisiana. The first Franciscan Friar had come to lower Louisiana in 1685 with Sieur De LaSalle and officiated at the historical ceremonies at the mouth of the Mississippi, taking possession of the great valley of the Father of Waters in the name of Louis, King of France. In 1699, Father Anastase Douay, a Franciscan, came with Iberville and Bienville and offered the first Mass on Louisiana soil. In 1722 the Capuchin Franciscans came to the city and established a mission here. They built the first permanent church in New Orleans, the St. Louis Parish Church – now the present day Cathedral.
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.
Four days after his arrival, Fr. Linus Braun, the first pastor of St. Mary of the Angels, received the decree of erecting the parish, appointing him pastor and six lots of ground which the Archbishop had purchased. These lots were located in Square No. 1152, bounded by North Miro, Congress, North Tonti and Elmira (now Gallier) Streets, an open space, a “ballroom of the winds from the lake.”
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. After being formally incorporated as the “Roman Catholic Congregation of St. Mary of the Angels in New Orleans,” Fr. Linus went about acquiring additional property adjoining to what had already been given them. 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.
In August of 1927, Fr. Linus, who had accomplished so much in such a short time, was succeeded by his brother, Fr. Osmond Braun. His stay was brief, just a year.
Then began the extended pastorate of 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. (This tradition continues on.) 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 transferred to Kansas in July, 1948 and was succeed 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. Approval of the Archbishop was given and an architect was hired in February of 1949. June 11th, 1950 ground was broken to begin construction. Work proceed steadily until October 1st, 1950, when all gathered to witness the laying of the cornerstone. This date is rich in memory of the parishioners for, besides the laying of the cornerstone, they celebrated the silver jubilee of the parish.
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 with the permission of the Archbishop, 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. The shower room in the back of the school was turned into additional living space for two of the friars.
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. (Note: very little has been recorded about this aspect of the history of the parish.)
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. These plans received archdiocesan approval and were let for bid in June. All bids were due on August 6th and a contract was given to Cox-Hardie Construction Company by the end of the month. Construction began immediately. 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? (We know the answer!!!!)
In the decades of the 70s and 80s the face of the parish changed. In 1979, the school graduated its last white student and now the school had become totally African-American. White families continued to move out during this period. The city began to experience and economic depression. Unemployment continued to rise. In August of 1980, the parish opened it own Office of Social Ministry to meet the needs of people. Tuition in the school began to rise and, as it did, enrollment dropped. The struggle became even worse with the arrival of drugs into the neighborhood. People, who at one time enjoyed the openness of the neighborhood, were now beginning to live in fear. The parish none the less continued to work against these obstacles.
In this past decade, the Parish Community has come to claim its identity and has made a difference in the community. First of all, the parish began to call itself an African-American Parish. This recognition has allowed the community to take ownership, especially as observed in its place of worship. One can tell immediately by the environment that this is an African-American parish. The principal Mass of the community reflects the change by its Gospel music and celebration. Being a founding member of ACT (All Congregations Together), the parish community took steps to make a difference in its environment. In just a few years time, the neighborhood has become much safer and dealing with blighted properties is well under way. Finally, having experienced an enrollment of less than 200, the parish renewed its educational endeavors to keep the school open. And has done so!!
The future of St. Mary of the Angels Parish looks bright as we celebrate our 75th Anniversary. We are growing! We are blessed! We have much to be thankful for.
THANK YOU, LORD