Donate to RNS

New Orleans Episcopalians, Like Catholics, Look to Uncertain Future

c. 2005 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ With blazing morning light slanting through huge windows of the Cabildo museum, 40 Episcopalians prayed the same morning service their forbears offered in that landmark 200 years ago, celebrating both an anniversary and their community’s new beginning in a storm-ravaged city. “We are here, not simply to […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ With blazing morning light slanting through huge windows of the Cabildo museum, 40 Episcopalians prayed the same morning service their forbears offered in that landmark 200 years ago, celebrating both an anniversary and their community’s new beginning in a storm-ravaged city.

“We are here, not simply to remember, but to claim hope for the future,” Bishop Charles Jenkins told the group on Thursday (Nov. 17).

With their national church and other New Orleanians, Episcopalians in the Diocese of Louisiana face “the largest redevelopment project ever undertaken in the United States,” Jenkins said. “Our `new normal’ will be a church fully engaged, a servant church, one that serves all for whom Christ died.”

Before Hurricane Katrina hit, the gathering might have been larger.

Although most of the city’s suburbs are largely repopulated after the Aug. 29 storm, St. Bernard Parish is virtually empty and only about a quarter of New Orleans residents are back home.

Coming at the end of a yearlong commemoration, the prayer service was part of several days of ceremonies. They included a second-line jazz parade on Wednesday and the premiere on Thursday of “All the Saints,” an original jazz composition commissioned by the church to mark its bicentennial.

Thursday’s service, with its slightly antique language and Bible readings from Revelation and the Gospel of Matthew, was the same that a small band of Protestants prayed at the Cabildo on Nov. 17, 1805.

That service, Jenkins and others noted, was a landmark in the development of religious liberty in New Orleans. It was the first non-Catholic service permitted in a former European colony where Catholicism had been the official state religion for generations.

The diocese’s history records that shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, a band of non-Catholics reached out to each other in the new American city to form a church. They took a vote on what church they should be.

“The Episcopalians won,” said the Rev. William Morris, “although there were something like 53 votes from 36 people present.” Maybe there were proxies _ or maybe it was a typical Louisiana election, he mused.

In any event the national church dispatched to New Orleans the Rev. Philander Chase, who led the historic first service commemorated Thursday, spent six years in New Orleans and later became presiding bishop of the national church.

In later generations, Episcopalians were among the city’s political and commercial elite, even in a city dominated then and now by Catholicism.

Today, however, the church counts only about 20,000 members in an area encompassing most of Southeast Louisiana. It is determined to embrace new members, especially African-Americans, who are vastly under-represented in their ranks.

The Episcopal diocese survived Katrina in better shape than many other large churches: 48 of its 52 churches are operational in some form or another, Jenkins said. But some are destroyed, and in a few cases, parishioners are celebrating the Eucharist in private homes, Jenkins said.

Nonetheless, the diocese faces a massive rebuilding project in its determination to help the city, he said.

After Katrina, the national church’s Episcopal Relief and Development agency has budgeted $3.1 million to open and operate a long-term urban ministry center that hopes to help 5,000 families, he said.

Moreover, the national church will invest capital in the Hope Credit Union, a project that tries to nourish tiny businesses with start-up capital. Jenkins said he has asked every bishop in the country to buy a $100,000 certificate of deposit from the credit union.

Even rebuilt, the Episcopal Church will face future pandemics, floods, economic problems and other disasters, Jenkins said. But, he said, “It will prevail.”

KRE END NOLAN

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

Editors: To obtain a photo of Bishop Jenkins presiding at the service, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.