If you’ve been to New Orleans, you’ve probably indulged in frivolity along Bourbon Street, sipped cafe au lait and nibbled beignets at Cafe Du Monde and even danced the night away to jazz and blues at bars and pubs along Frenchman Street.
All those things are part of the New Orleans experience, of course, but Sunday morning mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church takes any visit to the Big Easy to another level. As my friends Katie, Christopher and I stepped inside the 19th-century church in the Treme neighborhood, we found a warm, welcoming congregation made up of all walks of life, illustrative of the city itself.
We discovered St. Augustine during a bicycle tour a few days before. The church, built in 1842, is located in the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the United States. Before the Civil War, its parishioners were mix of whites, free blacks and slaves, perhaps the most integrated congregation in the country. Outside the church stands the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, honoring the nameless buried in Treme and elsewhere. A cross made of chains and shackles marks the spot.
Mass follows traditional Catholic rituals but with more passion and zeal, thanks to the Soulful Voices Choir, musicians (expect to hear plenty of saxophone), and the Rev. Quentin Moody. You’ll shake hands with parishioners and visitors as the choir sings the old Diana Ross song, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” Here, people stray far from their pews to greet one another.
The Sunday we showed up happened to be Christopher’s birthday. He was asked to stand and the congregation erupted in a lively version of “Happy Birthday,” with lots of clapping, tambourine shaking and blessings. He turned a thousand shades of red but thoroughly enjoyed the moment. We all did.
The Rev. Moody preached about inclusivity, maintaining a welcoming church, open to everyone, and the healing abilities of the Bible. As mass ended, he strolled down the aisle to a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” sharing his – and much of the flock’s — dreams of the Super Bowl.
Nearly two hours after mass began, we left St. Augustine uplifted and grateful, feeling like we had truly experienced a slice of the real New Orleans, away from the tourist spots, and close to the people.