New Orleans Archdiocese Closes Historic Black Church Amid Protests

One of the nation's oldest black churches will be shut down indefinitely because protesters fighting a consolidation plan interrupted Mass, the archbishop of New Orleans said Monday.

The protesters, led by out-of-state activists, have occupied the rectory for a week, saying they will not leave until the Roman Catholic parish is restored as an individual parish.

Archbishop Alfred Hughes said at a news conference that he had no choice but to close the church because protesters had desecrated it by interrupting Mass on Sunday.

It cannot be reopened, he said, until it is consecrated again. Consecration, he said, would entail an expression of regret by the protesters.

During the service, protesters walked through the sanctuary holding picket signs and chanting.

The archbishop also ordered those holed up in the rectory to immediately vacate the property. He did not indicate what steps would be taken if they did not leave.

Sandra Gordon, president of the St. Augustine pastoral council, said protesters would stay put.

"We will continue to peacefully occupy the facilities because this is our parish," she said Monday.

The parish is being merged with the larger St. Peter Claver. It was not to have its own priest or membership, but the building was to remain open for Mass, weddings and funerals until Monday's announcement.

The consolidation is part of the archdiocese's effort to deal with $84 million in uninsured losses after Hurricane Katrina, but Hughes said Monday that the primary concern was not financial.

The parish, he said, has failed to add many members or carry on other required pastoral functions.

Parishioners have said they will take their case to the Vatican if Hughes refuses to reconsider.

St. Augustine is among the nation's oldest Roman Catholic parishes, founded by whites and free people of color in 1841. The free black members of the congregation bought pews so slaves could attend Mass. It has about 350 member families.