Breathing new life into Epiphany Church
When the Archdiocese of New Orleans closed Epiphany Church after Hurricane Katrina, the painful decision was even more emotional than many other closures because the fathers and grandfathers of Epiphany Parish – many of them members of the proud 7th Ward community of carpenters, masons and plasterers – literally had built the church in 1948, brick by brick.
For 10 years, Epiphany Church has remained shuttered, with plywood sheets protecting more than a dozen stained-glass windows. Epiphany Elementary School next to the church was so damaged by Katrina that it was torn down.
But on Sept. 29, there were beaming smiles and soaring expectations as the archdiocese sold the former church, convent and rectory to the New Orleans Delta Foundation, a nonprofit arm of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the largest African-American sorority of college-educated women in the country.
Big community investment
The foundation plans to invest $4.5 million in renovating all three buildings for the purpose of providing meeting space for its 562 local members and also offering after-school tutoring services to students, programs for the elderly and space for other community and business events.
The church will be refurbished with new mechanical systems, and the stained-glass windows will remain in place.
At the ceremony in which the property was officially sold to the Deltas for $375,000, Archbishop Gregory Aymond expressed his gratitude for the vision the women are offering to the neighborhood, anchored by St. Augustine High School just a few blocks from the church.
Archbishop Aymond grateful
“We are indebted to you,” Archbishop Aymond told dozens of Delta sorority members who attended the signing. “The Delta Foundation can do a lot; we as church can do a lot. But together, we can do more. You’re doing this to build up this community, and we are grateful. We have great admiration for you, and this is a great blessing.”
Shelia Danzey, president of the New Orleans Delta Foundation, said the purchase culminated several years of searching for a new local headquarters for her organization, which lost its building in Gentilly Woods after the storm. The group has been meeting at Xavier and Dillard universities since then.
The Deltas first tried about three years ago to acquire the former St. Raymond Church and School, closed after the storm, but those talks did not work out. Negotiations with Corpus Christi-Epiphany Parish for the Epiphany property started in earnest in January.
“Our intent was to try to identify churches that were closed in African-American neighborhoods because we thought we could help with the healing process,” Danzey said. “This is a great deal simply because of the history of the people in the community who built the church. We want to maintain that history.”
No changes planned
Danzey said her organization would not make many changes to the current design of the church.
“We’re going to keep it as it is and try to get it designated as a historic place – in the historic 7th Ward,” she said. “It will be here when we are far gone, and we will have a place for our daughters and sisters and grandkids to say, ‘This is what we built.’ We want to be active in projects for the elderly and for youth. That’s what our mission is.”
Josephite Father Roderick Coates, who was pastor of Corpus Christi-Epiphany when the purchase talks began, said he and the pastoral council were very conscious of the emotional ties former parishioners had to Epiphany Church. He said the Deltas’ vision of community service matches the parish’s vision.
“They have great respect for the reverence of the building, not just as a church building, but because of the labor and love that the people of Epiphany put into that,” said Father Coates, who was elected vicar general of the Josephite Fathers in July and has moved to Washington, D.C. “The people of the parish are very comfortable that they’ve turned it over and put it in good hands.”
Father Coates said the sale represents just another step in the city’s recovery and healing process since Katrina.
“You see change, you see life,” he said. “Ten years is a long time. People no longer have to look at the past nine years in a bad sense but look to the future. It’s been a long wait, but it’s been worth it.”
Demetric Mercadel, Corpus Christi-Epiphany’s pastoral council president, said the cherished property has been “put in the best hands possible.”
“We know what this church means to our community,” Mercadel said. “Our parishioners built (Epiphany) parish, brick and mortar. We have families of the original builders. I am beyond elated to bring activity and commerce back to that neighborhood. It’s something that they so desperately need.”
Danzey said one of the exciting programs the Deltas will lead is the after-school tutoring program. She believes many St. Augustine students and students from other schools will take advantage of the extra homework time.
“We want to become a partner with St. Aug and do mentoring, because a lot of our membership are retired teachers and principals,” Danzey said. “This is going to be a community resource center.”
Patricia Heisser, a former Epiphany parishioner, said her late brother-in-law, Calvin Moret, would have been pleased by the new life given to the church.
“He was so worried about the church, like all of us, because that was all we knew until Katrina,” said Heisser, now a member of the Corpus Christi-Epiphany pastoral council. “I listened to the ladies and their plans, and I just had a very good feeling about what they’re doing for the neighborhood. They’re keeping the church as it is.”
Heisser said she has been harboring a personal dream for a long time. In three years, she will celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary. She asked Danzey if she could renew her vows in the church where she grew up.
“She said she’s going to bring it up before the board,” Heisser said. “I bet my tears during my wedding are still on that floor, I cried so much.”
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, founded in 1913 by 22 students at Howard University, is an organization of college-educated women committed to public service, with a primary focus on the African-American community. The sorority has 1,000 collegiate and alumnae chapters in the U.S. and worldwide. With 200,000 members, it is the largest African-American women’s organization in the country.