The announcement this week of the sale of the Sts. Peter and Paul church and school complex in Faubourg Marigny evoked memories of an earlier time and a different era in this city’s history.
The parish was created in 1848 when an Irish priest, the Rev. Cornelius Moynihan, was given the task of organizing English-speaking Catholics in the Marigny and Bywater area.
This was at a time when Catholic parishes were created for specific ethnic groups. Germans in the same area went to Holy Trinity on St. Ferdinand Street. Annunciation, on Mandeville Street, was for French-speaking Catholics.
The same pattern was repeated in the Lower Garden District and Irish Channel area, where St. Alphonsus Church was mainly for Irish Catholics and St. Mary’s Assumption Church, right across the street, for Germans.
St. Mary’s Church in the French Quarter is better known by many New Orleanians under its unofficial name, “St. Mary’s Italian Church.” It mostly served Italian immigrants, who didn’t arrive in large numbers here until after the Civil War and were concentrated in the Quarter.
At the same time, racial segregation kept black Catholics in a few parishes of their own or in the back pews of the white churches.
You might be tempted to use Gov. Bobby Jindal’s phrase and refer to these parishes as “non-assimilationist enclaves.” Although they drew from the same geographic area, the parishes were like the parallel universes of science fiction stories. They occupied the same space, but the churches — even though just blocks or even yards apart — were in their own worlds.
Sts. Peter and Paul was designed by the Irish-born architect, Henry Howard, whose creations can be seen all across New Orleans and southeast Louisiana.
Father Moynihan was the first of a long line of Irish pastors and assistant pastors at the church. He was succeeded by his nephew, the Rev. Jeremiah Moynihan, and later the Rev. Bartholomew Kenny. All three were buried under the church’s floor.
In its early years, many of the church’s male parishioners worked in the hard and gritty world of the wharves, factories and warehouses lining the riverfront. There are tales of priests going to the river to pick up the workers’ pay to make sure the money got to their families before the men squandered it on less-practical purposes.
The ethnic identities of neighborhoods and churches would slowly wear away, and intermarriage between Irish, German, French and Italians became more common. Meanwhile, suburban flight meant the death of many of these parishes.
According to New Orleans CityBusiness, a group of investors bought the church and school complex at 2317 Burgundy St. for $2.4 million. Their plans call for turning the school and rectory into a small “boutique hotel.” The church itself will be used for such things as neighborhood meetings, art installations and yoga classes.
The plan for Sts. Peter and Paul is similar to what happened to other old church buildings in New Orleans. Holy Trinity is now owned by a nonprofit organization that calls itself “a non-denominational, neighborhood church of the arts,” hosting concerts, dance recitals and live theater.
These changes mean the magnificent church buildings are preserved — the exteriors, that is. On the inside, the altars and statuary have for the most part been removed, and in at least one case, at Holy Trinity, most of the stained glass windows were taken out.
The church buildings live on, but only as shells of their former selves.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.