Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, now combined with Epiphany Roman Catholic Church, celebrates its centennial year this fall. The history of Corpus Christi Church and school, located at 2022 St. Bernard Ave., is a vital part of the history of the cultural and historic 7th Ward of New Orleans.
Out of a past of pain, the Catholic doctrine of Le Code Noir, the Black Code that dictated enslaved African descendants of colonists be baptized and raised in the church, came a faithful community of one of the largest black Catholic cities in the nation. (More enslaved Africans were sold from New Orleans than any other city in North America. See the work of historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, or visit The Historic New Orleans Collection’s exhibit “Purchased Lives.”)
Corpus Christi church was founded in 1916 by Father Samuel Kelly in this diverse neighborhood. One year later, the school was added, and was a major site of education for the neighborhood for decades.
The church, parish and school flourished in a faith-filled community of artisans, from blacksmiths and builders to carpenters, plasterers, seamstresses, and musicians and singers. For these working families, worship was serious business.
Mrs. Ruth Zeno Barnes was baptized at Corpus Christi Catholic Church at three weeks old in 1929. Like the many faithful kids learning Catholicism, when she made her first Communion, she was confident she knew how to pray and how to be good, she recalled recently.
By the time of her Confirmation, she passed into an important rite of Catholic passage, a moment celebrated with white dresses, new rosary beads and her own Mass hymnal. She also remembers devotionals to the Blessed Mother, those May pageants where girls wore veils and everyone marched a procession to honor the Mother of Jesus. Worship was strict in those days, Ms. Ruth says: kids had
to be still and pray, thereby learning the value of the sacred.
The church community grew and grew; when it reached the point that there was no standing room left along the rear or aisles, the Epiphany Church Parish was established, splitting Corpus Christi to accommodate growth. Corpus Christi’s role in the community stayed strong; by mid-century, the gymnasium was host to Friday and Saturday night skate parties, which lasted for decades.
Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed devastated much of the 7th Ward. The resulting population loss in the neighborhood caused both church parishes to reunite as one, which is now named Corpus Christi/Epiphany.
Today, church Pastor Father Henry Davis says the “theme of Corpus Christi’s centennial is celebrating 100 years of the coming together as the body of Christ,” and the parish remains inclusive of the entire community, as throughout its history.
The centennial anniversary kicked off last fall with the opening of the new parish Community Center and will conclude with a banquet luncheon on Saturday, September 24, followed by a closing Mass the next day. Such celebrations mark time to reflect on the past of the parish and launch a new and promising epoch in this community.
The 7th Ward Community Center, which is also the site of PRC’s Great Neighborhood SELLabration on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, was established in October 2008 as Corpus Christi/Epiphany worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The center, created out of the renovation of two existing school buildings, has a 4,000-square-foot cafeteria, a 6,900-square-foot auditorium and gymnasium on its second floor, a library on its third floor, a board room, exhibit spaces, a computer lab, and 10,000 square feet for various meeting spaces and community gatherings.
The exemplary renovation won an award from the Louisiana Landmarks Society, which honored those who designed, developed and built the site, including Ryan Gootee General Contractors LLC, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Corpus Christi-Epiphany Catholic Church, Mathes Brierre Architects and Hewitt-Washington & Associates. The Josephite Fathers and Brothers, parishioners, multiple partners and programs, the 7th Ward community, and Corpus Christi/Epiphany have much to celebrate, and are thankful.