At one time, the future of Fifth African Baptist Church looked bleak. It was 2006, and although the church was among the first to reopen its doors after Hurricane Katrina, the storm’s aftermath had threatened to wipe out its nearly 140-year history.
Membership dwindled from roughly 1,500 to fewer than 200, as two locations were cut down to one and services were cut by two-thirds.
Those days all seemed to be in the distant past on Sunday, however, as elected officials, the city’s police chief, community leaders and hundreds of church members gathered to break ground on a $1.5 million building project that City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell called a “catalyst” for changes in Central City.
“We’ve been working on this for a while, for many years now,” Cantrell said to the congregation about the new church building near other recent developments, including the Magnolia Marketplace retail center and the mixed-income Harmony Oaks Apartments. “Fifth African is going to be the catalyst for change as we focus on Louisiana Avenue.”
The project will bring a new 800-seat sanctuary, classrooms, a choir room, a dance room and a welcome center, while the existing building will be converted into a youth facility, banquet hall and meeting rooms.
Cantrell praised the plans, which call for the main entrance of the new church to open onto Louisiana Avenue, in an area she referred to as the “new Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard” of Central City.
“Fifth African Baptist Church is a worthy investment to the spiritual and physical well-being of the community,” Cantrell said. “Its new and expanded sanctuary will further spur redevelopment and façade improvements along Louisiana Avenue.”
State 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Terry Love also praised the church, which she said has long been committed to the elderly and to youth, “the lifeblood” of the church.
“Today, we are part of an historical cultural shift,” Love said about the million-dollar-plus investment in the neighborhood.
Cantrell and Love spoke during a jovial and emotional service that featured other prominent guests, including NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison and Civil District Court Judge Nakisha Ervin-Knott.
The church was packed, and as a choir of more than two dozen sang to the accompaniment of electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drums, members sang, clapped, shouted out and listened to a robust program focusing on the future of the congregation and Central City.
After a service of more than two hours, members of the congregation and guests filed out through pouring rain to huddle under a tent, where officials symbolically broke ground for the new sanctuary during a short ceremony.
“This allows the continuance of 146 years of our existence here and allows us to do what we’ve been doing in a more magnanimous way,” the Rev. Dale J. Sanders, pastor of Fifth African for the past 20 years, said about the upcoming work. “And it continues to give our members more of a sense of pride.”
The church was organized in 1869, just four years after the end of the Civil War. It was originally on Howard Avenue. By the time it moved to the present location of 3419 S. Robertson St. in 1939, it had a membership of about 400, one of the largest African-American congregations in the city at that time.
Over the years, the church grew further and began adding services that included a Baptist Young People’s Union, a Youth Department, a Junior Women’s Ministry, a community preschool and a church homecoming tradition. Various pastors oversaw the addition of amenities such as a parking lot and a memorial hall.
Although Katrina critically damaged the sanctuary and other church properties, it ultimately didn’t affect membership. The church had another “renaissance,” bringing back much of the old programming and rebuilding the congregation, Sanders said, adding that 700 to 800 people now attend on any given Sunday.
Now, he said, the new building can’t come soon enough, as the congregation has “grown out” of its space over the past decade.
“There was no better time to embark upon this expansion than the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” Sanders said. “We have been blessed to consistently exceed our building capacity each Sunday. It confirms our importance to this community and uncovers how much work is left to do.”