Editor’s Note: Rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina – a top priority as New Orleans’ Christ Church Cathedral marks its bicentennial – will be featured in a Thanksgiving Day television special, “Gulf Coast Thanksgivings,” produced by the Episcopal Church and set to air nationally November 24 on Time Warner Cable. For local listings, visit http://www.http://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/videos/all.
In a spare sunlit room above New Orleans’ Jackson Square on a cold November 17 morning, the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Louisiana turned towards its third century of ministry.
The diocese’s bishop declared that the Episcopal Church was changing with the city, for the better.
“Our new normal is a church engaged, a church that is a servant church and a church that lives not for itself alone but for all for whom Christ died,” Bishop Charles Jenkins gently declared during a short homily ending a Morning Prayer service.
“That old normal of being the Episcopal Church with our doors locked, being a church that existed for we who were in it will be no more. That washed away with your refrigerator,” he said.
Jenkins spoke to about 40 people gathered to mark the bicentennial anniversary of the day when the Rev. Philander Chase -- later the rector of Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans and the first bishop of both Ohio and Illinois -- conducted the first non-Roman Catholic Church service in the Louisiana Purchase on November 17, 1805. The service was conducted in a room at the Cabildo, the former seat of Spanish rule in the Louisiana Territory, and that’s where the day of celebration began.
Protestants living in the Louisiana Territory held a vote to decide which denomination would be the first invited in to serve them, Jenkins said. Taking such a vote was unique for a time in history when religious freedom was the exception, not the rule. Jenkins reminded the congregation that the Spanish and French governments had established state religions at the time, just as the British government had.
The vote came months after the United States had purchased the territory, about 2 million acres spreading from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains to the Canadian border, from France in late 1803 for $15 million.
“The Episcopal Church won with more votes then there were people registered,” he said. “I don’t know how that happened but this is Louisiana. And so we were the first on the scene.”
Before the service of Morning Prayer from the 1789 Book of Common Prayer, Jenkins described the church’s unique role in the rebuilding of New Orleans.
“It is the faith communities and the faith communities alone who care for those who fall through the crack and it is the faith communities who care for those issues of human dignity, of the rights of every human being and who can recognize, even in the poorest among us, that presence of God,” he said.
The day ended with more than 1,000 people who packed Christ Church Cathedral and spilled out onto St. Charles Avenue to sway to the premiere of “All The Saints.”
Composer Irvin Mayfield, founder of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, was commissioned by Christ Church Cathedral to write a piece of music that would “offer the world a glimpse of resurrection,” according to the Very Rev. Dave Allard duPlantier, dean of the cathedral.
The “All The Saints” concert, duPlantier said, was meant to mark the cathedral’s third century of ministry by “lifting up the musical soul of this great city.” He said it was appropriate to that what he called the cathedral’s gift to the city come in the form of jazz, reminding the audience that jazz in a true American art form that was born on the blood-stained, water-soaked, wind-swept soil of New Orleans.
Mayfield said he was pleased that “the Episcopal Church has really put their arms around jazz” and wanted to use it as “a tool for healing.”
During the day between the two events, the church was trying to live out a vision of resurrection. At the cathedral, clothing hung on racks set up on the front lawn and the Reverend Canon Steven Roberts sorted our donated shoes by sizes. Then he jumped up to help broker an exchange between a couple wanting to donate a mattress and a family who decided they needed a bed. Roberts helped rope the mattress to the family’s car.
Christ Church Cathedral has been running what it calls a distribution center since the early days after Hurricane Katrina, according to duPlantier. They began offering the basics such as water and bleach. Soon they assembled five-gallon buckets filled with cleaning supplies. At first, duPlantier said, they had to convince people that the material weren’t for sale but, instead, were free for the taking.
Now the halls of the cathedral are lined with supplies of everything from soap and toilet paper to energy shakes and crutches. Anyone who comes to the center fills out a form and workers gather their needed supplies while the people look through the clothing on the front lawn.
While the church was helping out with people’s everyday needs, it was also looking at the bigger picture. Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) announced a $3.2 million grant to the diocese to help with the rebuilding. Part of that money will go towards buying the Glimmer Inn, a bed and breakfast behind the cathedral. It will become an urban ministry center, with a credit union, day care, and job-training center. The diocesan Office of Disaster Response will also be housed at the Glimmer Inn.
ERD, the diocese, the cathedral, and others, are also considering how it might be able to build affordable housing in the area, duPlantier said.
The day of celebration was not without its moments of remembered grief. During Morning Prayer at the Cabildo, Jenkins said “I know that for me I am still in a stage of mourning about things that are gone. I find myself grieving about people, traditions, customs, places, even things, that are lost and, except for the people who live in Christ, are no more.”
Towards the end of the “All The Saints” concert, Mayfield played his version of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” He told the audience that it was the first song his father taught him to play and he played it first in a church. Mayfield has yet to find his father. The elder Mayfield rode out Hurricane Katrina at his home in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, then disappeared during the subsequent evacuation.
The audience was pensive during Mayfield’s trumpet version of the song, nodding their heads and touching their hands to their eyes.
In the midst of those memories, however, people declared their intention to rebuild New Orleans.
Louisiana Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu stood in the cathedral’s pulpit before the jazz concert to declare that New Orleans “lives today and will continue to live.” He said the city and all of its traditions and culture is worth preserving.
“Tonight’s a beginning,” he said.
“If we don’t believe in our city, then nobody else will,” Mayfield said after leading his orchestra, made up off musicians who lost their homes during the storms, in an extended version of “Ninth Ward Blues”
The blues are important, Mayfield said. “The blues always remind us it’s going to get better.”