Protesters Lock Themselves in Historic New Orleans Church

Ten people locked themselves into the rectory of one of the nation's oldest black Roman Catholic churches Monday to protest a decision to merge it with another parish.

St. Augustine Church, founded in 1841 by slaves and free people of color, is among the parishes the New Orleans Archdiocese plans to consolidate as it deals with money worries and smaller congregations since Hurricane Katrina. St. Augustine was merged last week.

Church officials have stressed that the building itself will still be used for Sunday Mass. But members say that's not enough.

"It's heritage," said John Powell, a church member locked into the rectory along with nine community workers. "This is our roots, where free blacks and slaves worshipped together with owners."

Powell said they planned to stay until the archdiocese followed church law for closing down a parish. However, neither he nor protesters sitting in front of the rectory knew what that process should be.

The Rev. William Maestri, spokesman for the archdiocese, said that all proper procedures were followed: "We made sure of that from the beginning."

He said St. Peter Claver, the church that will run the merged parish, has about 3,000 registered families, compared to 250 registered members at St. Augustine. It also provides services that St. Augustine doesn't, including religious education for children and adults.

About 25 protesters sat or stood on the sidewalk alongside the church in the Treme neighborhood near the French Quarter. About half were members and the rest were community workers, said Sandra Gordon, president of St. Augustine's pastoral council.

Many at the church have noted the church's history.

It was founded by slaves and free blacks with the blessing of the archdiocese and produced the second order of black nuns in the United States in 1842. It was largely a parish of Italian immigrants in the early 1900s but reverted to a predominantly black church in the 1960s as white residents left the Treme neighborhood.