By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
NEW ORLEANS – The priest did a kind of Saint Claude strut down the aisle to the front of St. Augustine Church as the Treme Brass Band played a jazzy version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Already the standing-room-only crowd had been warmed up with swinging renditions of familiar church songs that sounded more Bourbon Street than Broadman hymnal.
Then the Rev. Quentin Moody asked what every soul packed into the 1842 edifice was thinking: “Why can’t it be like this every Sunday?”
Some wore tank tops and flip-flops, and shirts proclaiming they were at the Satchmo SummerFest. Others wore Sunday finery, big hats and high heels. A little girl with a taffeta sash sat next to a biker chick with so many tattoos she looked like a walking Etch-A-Sketch.
There were a lot of little lights, all of them shining.
In the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the U.S., the mass this Sunday was dedicated to music and, in particular, the music of Louis Armstrong. Those of us lucky enough to get a seat sat on the pews that free blacks bought for themselves and for slaves. When the “people of color” began purchasing pews in 1842, white parishioners in the area stepped up their own pew purchases.
The so-called War of the Pews was won by the blacks, but the end result was the most integrated congregation in the country.
This was no ordinary mass, mind you. The priest himself sang a passable “What a Wonderful World” after warning those of us who sing only in the shower that there are no longer any private performances. Certainly his wasn’t, as every other congregant held a camera up to preserve the moment.
The AC and ceiling fans couldn’t compete with packed pews and New Orleans humidity. More than the music was hot. Ushers offered old-fashioned funeral fans, which fanned in time to a rollicking “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Until you’ve sat and sweated and heard 10 minutes of “(Gimme That) Old Time Religion” done with flash and brass in a building with perfect acoustics, you’ve not heard good music. It’s enough to make you get religion.
The historic St. Augustine has been church home for many famous people. Everyone from civil-rights activist Homer Plessy to Big Chief Tootie Montana of the Mardi Gras Indians has prayed here.
Yet in 2005, because of declining membership, the Catholic powers of New Orleans scheduled St. Augustine’s closing. But, New Orleans being New Orleans, the decree didn’t wash. People stepped up and spoke out, and noisily asked the diocese to reconsider. It did.
And if the laundry basket full of offerings at the memorial jazz mass was any indication, St. Augustine now has healthy vitals.
After “Amazing Grace” rocked the rafters, a white hearse led the way from the church to the Satchmo SummerFest site, the Old U.S. Mint, second liners following. Several floats, bands, dancing tourists and bead-throwing revelers snaked their way through crowded New Orleans streets that have seen it all.
The colors of the rainbow were also in the faces of people passing by. And I thought to myself, what a strange and wonderful world.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.