It was with a heavy heart that trumpeter Gregg Stafford entered the Norwegian Seamen’s Church on Sunday to lead his quartet during the church’s monthly jazz service.
Though the congregation is rallying to save it, the church could be facing its final days, thanks to an edict delivered in March from church headquarters in Bergen, Norway.
“I would hate to see it close,” Stafford said as he reminisced with clarinetist Michael White about their performances there, dating back 40 years.
The two said they have played concerts throughout the church’s Prytania Street compound: next to its swimming pool, in its dining room and within its narrow, high-ceilinged chapel, which seats about 200 people.
“This has been an important part of New Orleans culture that most New Orleanians don’t know about,” said White, who said he has traveled with his clarinet in Norway more than anywhere else in the world, making many Norwegian friends.
White particularly loves the acoustics of the intimate, wood-paneled chapel. “The sound is really pretty,” he said. “You don’t need a microphone, and you can hear all the tonalities.”
The church was founded 110 years ago as a ministry to Norwegian sailors visiting the port of New Orleans.
Today, a wall of mailboxes, end tables strewn with Norwegian-language magazines and a green felt-covered pool table still speak to that original purpose, from when the church was one of six such churches in the U.S. and several dozen worldwide that were created as part of a government-financed Church of Norway mission to Norse sailors traveling abroad.
In those days, some said, the seamen’s churches were known as places with three key tables: for billiards, eating and worship.
In 1968, the church moved into the newly built building in the 1700 block of Prytania Street, with a cornerstone laid by King Olav V of Norway himself.
It has long served as a de facto second home for New Orleanians of Scandinavian heritage, who are drawn to the church’s spacious backyard, a dining room that always seems to be serving strong coffee and sweet cakes, and a small store that carries imported Scandinavian foodstuffs and hand-knit local sweaters.
The place serves as a link to home for Ann Mikalsen, 60, who moved with her husband, Jan, from Norway to the north shore about 12 years ago. She often drives to the church for fellowship on Wednesdays, when it offers a midday service and $10 lunch, she said.
Others in the congregation said they like to visit on Saturdays for a late breakfast of rice porridge, pancakes or waffles.
The closure notice that came in March was triggered by dwindling numbers of people served in the church’s official counts in recent years. But there were reasons for that, said Jan Mikalsen, who runs a local maritime business.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, Mikalsen said, when port security was tightened, it became much harder for churches to send their pastors to board ships and minister to sailors. Now, however, because of new security clearances, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Frank Skofteland, has access to the Port of New Orleans.
He also travels regularly to other key places along the Gulf Coast, such as Port Fourchon, the base for many offshore Norwegian workers, who gained experience on rigs in the North Sea after oil was discovered there in the 1970s and who have been hired in increasing numbers in the U.S. in recent years.
In addition, over the past 50 years, the church became a second home for many of the city’s jazz musicians. Most say that began with letter carrier Narvin Kimball, who played banjo at Preservation Hall at night while by day he delivered mail in the Lower Garden District, where he often was invited into the church for a cup of coffee and a waffle.
By the late 1970s, the church had begun hosting jazz concerts in its dining room and conducting a jazz service on the first Sunday of every month.
Tricia Boutte-Langlo, who now lives in Norway, said her relationship with the church dates back at least 30 years, when “the whole Boutte clan” first gathered there for the marriage of her aunt, local singer Lillian Boutte.
A pastor from the church officiated at the 2007 wedding of New Orleans trumpeter Leroy Jones and Finnish trombonist Katja Toivola. And it was at the church that Stafford met a couple who introduced him to their daughter and eventually become grandparents to his two children.
It also was there that “Uncle” Lionel Batiste met people from Norway’s Molde Jazz Festival who hired him to be that event’s perennial grand marshal.
Guitarist-banjoist Seva Venet also remembered how, after Hurricane Katrina, the church partnered with the Musicians’ Clinic to offer its pool to musicians who needed therapy for stress or back pain.
Like many other musicians, Boutte-Langlo refers to the place simply by its nickname, “Jazzkirken,” which means “jazz church” in Norwegian.
Its closure would be devastating to area Norwegians and to the jazz community, she said. “It would be a terrible loss.”