On Sunday morning, for the third weekend in a row, the congregation of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Treme packed neat rows of spotless green plastic chairs instead of their usual wooden pews. The reason: They were forced to abandon their 163-year-old sanctuary after part of the ceiling recently collapsed.
The large choir squeezed onto an auditorium stage, but the church worshipped all the more vigorously despite their latest struggle.
“We roll with the punches,” Deacon Allen Stevens said after the Mass. “We will give God praise no matter where we are. If we had to go outside or inside a tent, the people would still come.”
St. Peter Claver Church began in 1852 as St. Ann Church — a congregation of white people, free people of color and some slaves, with French as the primary language for its first 50 years, according to a 2012 report by the state Division of Historic Preservation. The original architect was T.E. Giraud, who built a number of other Catholic churches in the same era, including the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Baronne Street.
“In 1920, St. Ann Church, in an effort to racially segregate the congregation, moved to a new location and sold the church and school to the Josephites, who began the St. Peter Claver Church that still operates today,” the report says. “The Josephites, known for promoting Catholicism in African-American communities, purchased the property with this mission in mind.”
The new church took as its patron saint St. Peter Claver, canonized for ministering to Africans in the Spanish slave markets of Cartagena, Colombia, in the 1600s. Over the following decades, other buildings were added to the block, including the rectory and the buildings that make up St. Peter Claver School.
After Hurricane Katrina, the church was flooded with 6 feet of water, prompting extensive renovations to the interior.
“Skilled carpenters from Mississippi were hired to recondition the flood-damaged wood, construct a choir loft and fashion new furnishings from the rubble,” according to Charles Nolan’s book “Splendors of Faith, New Orleans Catholic Churches.”
“The recovery process provided the parish with an opportunity to express its African-American roots in the new pieces of art and incorporate them into a sacred space that dates back to 1852.”
Earlier this year, the church embarked upon a number of renovations to the sanctuary’s roof. A $250,000 project restored the steeple, another $100,000 was spent repairing the gutters, and they planned to move next to the ceiling inside to address termite damage and water intrusion.
Early one weekday morning three weeks ago, however, church officials arrived to find that the ceiling had partially collapsed, with roof beams lying on the floor.
“Thank God it was not during a time when people were in the church,” Deacon Lawrence Houston said.
Officials have not yet pinpointed what caused the ceiling collapse, but they suspect it was some combination of the pre-existing damage and the stress of the exterior renovations, Stevens said.
Church officials hope that the building’s insurance will cover the damage, though they have not confirmed that.
Thus far there is no timeline for when the church will return to its sanctuary. After the collapsed portions of the ceiling are replaced, church officials want a thorough examination of the remainder of the ceiling to ensure there are no other urgent structural problems.
“We don’t want to have this disturbance again,” Stevens said.
While they wait, the church has moved its Mass to the school’s cafeteria, a space that they feel fortunate to have the use of.
“For the time being, we’re doing what we did after Katrina — coming into the Fellowship Hall and worshipping as a church community,” Houston said.
When the ceiling first collapsed, the church’s summer Bible camp for children was still in session, so parishioners had to rearrange the cafeteria to accommodate Mass every weekend and then convert it back to a cafeteria after the last Mass on Sunday afternoons.
“The community did not hesitate to come forward, every week without fail,” Stevens said.
The Bible camp has ended, but school starts back up in two weeks, Stevens said, so they hope to have some progress by then.
The displacement has had the greatest impact on funerals, Stevens said, estimating that there have been at least eight services for parishioners since the sanctuary has been closed. Churches such as St. Augustine, Corpus Christi, Guadalupe, St. Leo, St. Raymond and St. Maria Goretti have allowed them to hold the funerals at those churches instead, Stevens said.
The ceiling collapse has not hurt attendance, Stevens said. “If anything, it’s picked up.”
Roughly 300 people attended the 11:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday; 400 had been on hand at the 9 a.m. Mass, and counting the other two weekend services, the church hosts more than 1,000 parishioners every weekend, Stevens said.
“God has been good to us, in spite of our struggles within our church. We have a place where we can give Him glory and honor and praise,” Stevens said. “I do believe it’s just a test of our faith, and the people have come through with flying colors.”
Ayanna C. Fultz, a member of Blessed Trinity Parish who regularly worships at St. Peter Claver because the Rev. John Asare-Dankwah was her priest growing up, was among the standing-room-only crowd Sunday morning. The change in location did not trouble her.
“The church is just a building,” Fultz said. “It’s my church family that makes me feel like I’m in church, receiving God’s word.”
The temporary exodus from the sanctuary was not even mentioned in the homily by the Rev. Maurice Nutt, a guest speaker visiting from Xavier University.
But the St. Peter Claver congregation — whose story spans historic catastrophes from the Civil War to Katrina — already knows how to deal with the relatively minor inconvenience of a roof collapse.
“When you have a need,” Nutt said during his homily, “you take it to the one who made you.”