Archives Month 2022-Historic Places of Worship in New Orleans: First African Baptist Church, St. Augustine Catholic Church, and Touro Synagogue

The French and Spanish influences throughout the history of New Orleans cause many to associate New Orleans cultural practices with Catholicism, as many of the cultural celebrations that occur in the city are deeply rooted in Catholic religious practices. One only has to look as far as the city’s world-renowned Mardi Gras celebrations prior to the Catholic observance of Lent to make the connection. Despite the strong connection to the Catholicism, New Orleans is the home of many religious traditions. Each group has their own unique history and connections with New Orleans and hold an important place in the history of the city.

In our first blog celebrating National Archives Month, the Office of the Clerk of Civil District Court explores three of historic places of worship in New Orleans. We will detail their history as well as several notarial acts that highlight their presence in our historical records.

First African Baptist Church
First African Baptist Church at 2216 Third Street. Photo Credit: Google Images, March 2022

The First African Baptist Church, located at 2216 Third Street, founded in 1817 by Reverend James Rondolson. The congregation, which consisted of sixteen white parishioners and thirty-two people of color, came together in a time where public meetings of people of color were illegal. 1 It was also formed at a time when enslaved people were prevented from practicing any religion other than Catholicism. 2 During the period from 1837 to 1842, church services for the First African Baptist Church were held in a small house on Gentilly Road. Due to the laws against people of color holding public meetings, their services were often broken up and on occasion everyone present was jailed. Eventually, permission was granted by the city allowing people of color to meet on Sundays between the hours of 3:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m. These meetings were allowed on the condition that a paid police officer was present. If the meetings extended beyond 5:00 p.m., even for one minute, the attendees were subject to arrest and legal punishment. 3

On October 11, 1842, before the notary Jules Mossy, Reverend Nelson D. Saunders, the pastor of the First African Baptist Church and Stephen Brown purchased two lots of ground at the corner of Howard and Cypress. This property was to be used by the church. According to the First African Baptist website, “This [sale] was a particularly notable event, since it was the first property owned by Negro Baptists in the State of Louisiana.”4

Act of Sale from John Burn to Nelson D. Saunders and Stephen Brown. Mossy, Jules, Vol 23, Act 136, 1842 October 11.

The Robinson Atlas from 1883, seen below, indicated this location as “Colored Baptist Church.”

Plate 4, Robinson Atlas, 1883.

The church continued to grow and prosper until 1857 when the mayor of New Orleans, Charles M. Waterman, ordered all churches within the city limits that were specifically for people of color to close. Following this order, the First African Baptist Church formed a plan with the Coliseum Place Baptist Church, a primarily white congregation. In this plan, the First African Baptist Church was placed under the supervision of the Coliseum Place Baptist Church and was considered to be a branch church. At this time the property at Howard and Cypress was transferred to the Coliseum Place Baptist Church.5

Following the end of the Civil War in April of 1865, groups, organizations, and churches for people of color were legally allowed to incorporate within the state of Louisiana. On August 23, 1865, members from the First African Baptist Church, including Reverend Nelson Saunders, came before the notary Andrew Hero Jr. to formally incorporate their church.

Act of Incorporation for the First African Baptist Church. Hero Jr., Andrew, Vol 1, Act 10, 1865 August 23.

This four page charter details the intent of First African Baptist church “to gather as a religious corporation and shall be domiciled in the Church Building of the same in the City of New Orleans.”

Act of Incorporation for the First African Baptist Church. Hero Jr., Andrew, Vol 1, Act 10, 1865 August 23.

On August 31, 1865, The Coliseum Place Baptist Church transferred the Howard and Cypress property back to the First African Baptist Church in an Act of Transfer before the notary Andrew Hero, Jr.

Act of Transfer from the Coliseum Place Baptist Church to the First African Baptist Church. Hero Jr., Andrew, Vol 1, Act 12, 1865 August 31.

In the 1900s, the First African Baptist church acquired the property at 2216 Third Street, its current home. On April 12, 1906, members of the congregation came before the notary Edward Parsons to file a building contract. In this contract, the congregation as represented by Joseph H. Meade engaged the builder Thomas Linn to construct a church building at 2216 Third Street for the total cost of $5,800.

Building Contract between the First African Baptist Church and Thomas Linn. Parsons, Edward, Act 446, 1906 April 12

This act includes specifications regarding building materials that were to be used for the new church, including a green slate roof, pressed brick, and gutters. It also included a small sketch showing the general shape of the building, which can be seen below.

Sketch from the building contract between the First African Baptist Church and Thomas Linn. Parsons, Edward, Act 446, 1906 April 12

The Sanborn Fire Insurance map from 1909, shown below, shows the First African Baptist Church in its new location on Third Street with the note that it was still under construction.

1909 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Vol. 4, pg 399, Image 84. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4014nm.g03376190904/?sp=84#

The First African Baptist Church or “Old Baptist” as it is often called, is still a thriving congregation. Unfortunately, the church building sustained significant damage during Hurricane Ida, in August 2021, rendering the building inoperable. The congregation is currently raising funds to repair their building and will resume services once the repairs are complete.6

St. Augustine Catholic Church
St. Augustine Catholic Church at 1210 Governor Nicholls Street. Photo Credit: Google Images, May 2021

St. Augustine Catholic Church, situated in Tremé, is the oldest Catholic Parish in the United States created by and for people of color.7 Beginning in the 1830s, a group of free people of color began organizing to create a Catholic church parish in the neighborhood of Tremé.8 In 1841, the parish received the blessing of Antonie Blanc, the Archbishop of New Orleans and began working on building the church. The property was donated to the congregation by the Ursuline Sisters under the condition that the parish was named St. Augustine, who was a patron saint of the Ursuline religious order. 9 Despite the parish being aimed at attracting people of color, at the time of its formation, the congregation was roughly made up of one-third white parishioners, one-third free people of color, and one-third enslaved people. It continues to be a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic congregation.10

On December 22, 1841 the congregation of St. Augustine contracted the builders Depouilly, Godchaux, and Vidal to build the church for the new parish of St. Augustine. They registered this contract on August 6, 1842 before the notary Joseph Cuvillier.

Registration of St. Augustine Building Contract. Cuvillier, Joseph Vol 34, Act 156, 1842 August 6

Attached to this registration was a record of the original contract dated December 22, 1841 and signed by the builders.

Building Contract for St. Augustine. Cuvillier, Joseph, Vol 34, Act 156, 1842 August 6

The church was completed and dedicated on October 9, 1842. The Robinson Atlas from 1883 shows St. Augustine at the corner of Hospital (now Governor Nicholls) and St. Claude (now Henriette Delille Street) in Square 140.

Plate 7, Robinson Atlas, 1883

The congregation has had many notable members throughout the years including Jazz musician Sidney Bechet, Homer Plessy, the plaintiff of the civil rights case Plessy v. Ferguson, and A.P. Tureaud, an African-American civil rights lawyer. St. Augustine gained national attention in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, when Archbishop Alfred Hughes decided to close St. Augustine and merge it with the nearby parish of St. Peter Claver. St. Augustine was relatively unharmed by Hurricane Katrina, but the rest of the archdiocese was significantly damaged both physically and financially. Archbishop Hughes decided that due to St. Augustine’s dwindling numbers prior to the storm, it was more cost-effective to close the church. This decision did not sit well with the congregation or members of the community. Activists barricaded themselves in St. Augustine to protest the closure. The twenty day sit-in gained national and global press attention which convinced the archbishop to reverse his decision. He placed St. Augustine on probation on the condition that the parish improve its finances, education, and attendance in eighteen months, which the congregation accomplished. St. Augustine continues hold church services and host community events to this day.11

Touro Synagogue
Touro Synagogue at 4238 St. Charles Ave. Photo Credit: Google Images, February 2021

Touro Synagogue, located at 4238 St. Charles Avenue, is the result of the union between two of the original Jewish congregations in the City of New Orleans: Shangarai-Chasset (Gates of Mercy) and Nefutzoth Yehudah (Congregation Dispersed of Judah). According to the 1724 Code Noire, Jewish people should have been excluded from the French territory of Louisiana, but business-minded Jewish merchants proved more important to New Orleans and its financial success than upholding the rules set out by the Code Noire. Due to this, there was a strong Jewish presence in the New Orleans. The first formal Jewish congregation, Shangarai-Chasset (Gates of Mercy), was formed in 1828.12 At this time, the Gates of Mercy congregation did not have its own synagogue but rented various spaces to hold their services. The original members of Gates of Mercy were of Spanish and Portuguese descent and followed the Sephardic Ritual. The 1840s brought increasing numbers of German Jews to New Orleans and their influence brought Ashkenazi customs and rituals into the practices of the Gates of Mercy congregation. This new influence led the members who preferred the Sephardic practices to separate from Gates of Mercy and form their own congregation, Nefutzoth Yehudah (Congregation Dispersed of Judah).13

On July 5, 1850, representatives of Gates of Mercy came before the notary Hilary B. Cenas to file a building contract to construct a synagogue. In this twelve page contract, the congregation of Gates of Mercy hired Francis D. Gott to build a synagogue on a property fronting on Rampart Street between St. Louis and Conti Streets for $16,000.

Building contract between Francis Gott and Gates of Mercy. Cenas, Hilary B., 1850 July 5, Vol 47 pg. 17

A list of specifications on the building materials and methods was also included in this building contract. A sample of these specifications can be seen below.

Building contract between Francis Gott and Gates of Mercy. Cenas, Hilary B., 1850 July 5 Vol 47 pg. 19

The construction of the building was completed the following year and became the first Jewish Synagogue in the United States located outside the original thirteen colonies.14 The Gates of Mercy Synagogue on Rampart Street can be seen situated in Square 98 on the 1883 Robinson Atlas.

Plate 7, Robinson Atlas, 1883

The same year that the Gates of Mercy congregation began construction on the synagogue Judah Touro, a prominent New Orleans businessman and philanthropist, gifted the former Christ Church building at the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets to the Congregation Dispersed of Judah. This location became their place of worship until the Congregation Dispersed of Judah built their own synagogue six years later on Carondelet in Square 217.15 This synagogue appears in the 1883 Robinson Atlas seen below.

Plate 3, Robinson Atlas, 1883.

In 1881, the Gates of Mercy congregation and the Congregation Dispersed of Judah reunited and formed the new congregation of Gates of Mercy of the Dispersed of Judah. This union was official recorded in the form of a charter executed on September 2, 1881 before the notary Joseph Cohn.

Charter of the Gates of Mercy of the Dispersed of Judah. Cohn, Joseph, Vol 44, Act 108, 1881 September 2
Page 3 of the charter of the Gates of Mercy of the Dispersed of Judah showing the combination of the two congregations and the new name. Cohn, Joseph, Vol 44, Act 108, 1881 September 2

After the union of these two congregations, the Gates of Mercy Synagogue on Rampart Street was sold and moved in to the Dispersed of Judah’s synagogue on Carondelet.16 On November 30, 1888, before the notary Abel Dreyfous, the congregation of the Gates of Mercy of Dispersed of Judah filed a building contract to make repairs and alterations to the synagogue. Temple leaders hired Thomas O’Neill to make the alterations to what was then being called Touro Synagogue after Judah Touro, who had been a benefactor of both congregations throughout the years.

Building Contract between the Gates of Mercy of Dispersed of Judah and Thomas O’Neill. Dreyfous, Abel Vol 40, Act 6, 1888 November 30

In 1908, Touro Synagogue began constructing a Byzantine-revival synagogue in its current home on St. Charles Avenue. The architect Emile Weil was hired to design the temple. It was completed and dedicated in 1909. This is still the building that serves the Touro Synagogue congregation today.17

On October 15, 1937, members of the Gates of Mercy of Dispersed of Judah came before the notary Herbert S. Weil to reincorporate their congregation under the name Touro Synagogue. While the congregation had been going by this name for many years prior to 1937, this was when it became official. This name change can be seen in Article I on the charter in the image below. A history of the congregation’s previous incorporations is also included in this incorporation. This can also be seen below.

Act of Incorporation of Touro Synagogue. Weil, Herbert S., Act 98, 1937 October 15.
Act of Incorporation of Touro Synagogue. Weil, Herbert S., Act 98, 1937 October 15.

Today, Touro Synagogue is a thriving congregation and continues to serve members of the Jewish community in New Orleans.

These records are just a sampling of what the Clerk’s office has to offer when researching various places of worship. If there are any particular interests that you would like to learn more about, please contact the Clerk’s Office. We are happy to assist. Be sure to check back next week for our next Archives Month Blog.

Reference:

  1. “History of Old Baptist,” About, First African Baptist Church, accessed July 10, 2022, http://www.fabcno.com/about
  2. Diana Chandler, “First African to hold 185th anniversary-It is the oldest black church in Louisiana” Times-Picayune, April 11, 2002. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AMNEWS&docref=news/0F2D6B64A4B1F58F
  3. “History of Old Baptist,” About, First African Baptist Church, accessed July 10, 2022, http://www.fabcno.com/about
  4. “History of Old Baptist,” About, First African Baptist Church, accessed July 10, 2022, http://www.fabcno.com/about
  5. “History of Old Baptist,” About, First African Baptist Church, accessed July 10, 2022, http://www.fabcno.com/about
  6. “History of Old Baptist,” About, First African Baptist Church, accessed July 10, 2022, http://www.fabcno.com/about
  7. Dennis Persica, “Oldest parish created by African-Americans celebrates 175 years,” Blogs, National Catholic Reporter, accessed August 19, 2022, https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/oldest-parish-created-african-americans-celebrates-175-years
  8. Willie Brenc, “St. Augustine Catholic Church, New Orleans, Louisiana (1841-), African-American History, BlackPast, access June 28, 2022, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/st-augustine-catholic-church-new-orleans-louisiana-1841/
  9. “History,” Our Story, St. Augustine Catholic Church, accessed June 28, 2022, https://staugchurch.org/history
  10. Dennis Persica, “Oldest parish created by African-Americans celebrates 175 years,” Blogs, National Catholic Reporter, accessed August 19, 2022, https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/oldest-parish-created-african-americans-celebrates-175-years
  11. Willie Brenc, “St. Augustine Catholic Church, New Orleans, Louisiana (1841-), African-American History, BlackPast, access June 28, 2022, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/st-augustine-catholic-church-new-orleans-louisiana-1841/
  12. “Our History,” About Us, Touro Synagogue, accessed August 15, 2022, https://tourosynagogue.com/about-us/ourhistory/
  13. “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities-Reform Congregations-New Orleans, Louisiana,” Goldring/ Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, accessed August 17, 2022, https://www.isjl.org/louisiana-new-orleans-reform-congregations-encyclopedia.html
  14. “Our History,” About Us, Touro Synagogue, accessed August 15, 2022, https://tourosynagogue.com/about-us/ourhistory/
  15. “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities-Reform Congregations-New Orleans, Louisiana,” Goldring/ Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, accessed August 17, 2022, https://www.isjl.org/louisiana-new-orleans-reform-congregations-encyclopedia.html
  16. “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities-Reform Congregations-New Orleans, Louisiana,” Goldring/ Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, accessed August 17, 2022, https://www.isjl.org/louisiana-new-orleans-reform-congregations-encyclopedia.html
  17. “Our Architectural History,” About Us, Touro Synagogue, accessed August 15, 2022, https://tourosynagogue.com/our-architectural-history/

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