- Before the 20th Century
- Our story begins about 5000 years ago. The area that we call Marrero today was formed when glaciers melted, flooded the Gulf of Mexico, spilled northward, and then receded leaving sediment deposits of soft sand and mud. Over thousands of years, these low wet areas evolved into lakes, bayous, grasslands, and forests that rested between the Gulf of Mexico and what we now know as Lake Pontchartrain.
Thick plant life thrived because of the wet soil and the hot, humid semi-tropical climate. This area grew thick with grasses, shrubs, palms and cypress birds, mammals, marine life, and insects. Native Americans were drawn to the vicinity to hunt fish and use the land to support their way of life. Later they traded with French and Spanish adventurers who passed through the area in-route to New Orleans settlement to the northeast.
After 1699, some drylands were cleared and French settlers with the help of Negro and native American slaves filled wet areas. They built small plantations to graze their livestock, grow crops and then ship them up and down the Mississippi River. In 1762, France turned the region over to Spain. In 1803, however, Spain returned the area under French control, which lasted for only 20 days. The historic “Louisiana Purchase” put the area under the control of the United States, but it kept its French – Spanish – Creole culture.
In years that followed, immigrants who were mostly Germans controlled the land. Through the 1800’s and the early 1900s, the people here incurred the effects of storms, floods, the growth of New Orleans, diseases and the Civil War. Negro slaves and Chinese cheap-laborers were brought in to farm the land for sugar cane and rice, and to work in the prosperous fishing and shipping industries. In the 1890s Italians came looking for a better life. They made their living by grazing livestock and doing various crafts.
By 1863, Belgian and German missionaries established mission stations at various locations along the Westbank. These priests would celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments to the people who were mostly Catholic. In 1917 Fr. Peter Wynhoven became the pastor of St. Joseph in Gretna. He had set up various mission stations along the Westbank.
- The Mission Years
- On May 1, 1923, the resolution was adopted by the Board of trustees of St. Joseph’s Church in Gretna, and the new chapel was born at Ames Farms. Many French-speaking and black families from the country were moving into the area looking for employment in the factories that were springing up all along the river. They too became part of this community which at this time changed its name to Amesville. The original frame building with some additions remained the church for St. Joseph until 1978. In 1924 the Amesville Mission was officially included in the Parish of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Westwego. At the same time, the Mission of Immaculate Conception in Marrero became a separate parish. More People moved into the area, the factories flourished up and down the river but the area held on to its strong rural and small-town character. Jefferson highway (which is now called Fourth Street) was the main street in town. There was no Westbank Expressway at that time. Since the area was, and still is unincorporated, physical improvements were slow in coming.
After 1936, five lots of property were purchased on Pine Street to build a new school building. Previously, two rooms at the back of the church had been used for the school. The new school building was dedicated in August of 1939. It was built at a cost of seven-thousand-dollars with money donated by Johns-Manville and Celotex Corporations.
Blacks Catholics who had moved from Vacherie, Edgard and other areas of St. James Parish continued to invest themselves in the community. Because of segregation (that means the separation of races), they were accustomed to sitting in only the last three pews of the church. They had separate religion classes and they were not allowed to participate in the mission school or any other church organization or activities. Blacks were only allowed to receive a Catholic education across the river in New Orleans or at All Saints School in Algiers. Ironically, the first religious vocation from St. Joseph in Amesville came among the black community. In September of 1942, a young woman named Helen Cullier entered the Sisters of the Holy Family.
The Black community in Amesville felt that they needed a place to gather and celebrate as Catholics as was the case with some of their Baptist neighbors and in many communities in New Orleans. They also had the dream that one day they would build their own church. In 1948 they began collecting nickels, dimes and quarters through door-to-door donations, and through suppers and dances to raise funds to make their dreams come true.
In June of 1951 the Pastor, Monsignor Koenig purchased a lot at Ames Boulevard and Field Street for eleven-thousand-dollars. This is where McDonald’s stands today. The down payment of five-thousand-dollars came from money raised by black Catholics since 1948. The first note of three-thousand-dollars was paid in 1952.
- Early Parish YearsIn 1955 the tiny mission was officially named St. Joseph the Carpenter, and in 1957 the final note was paid for the new land. In August of that very same year, the name of the parish was changed from “St. Joseph the Carpenter” to “St. Joseph the Worker”. This new name was given because the pope had established a new feast day of the same name. At this time, Mount Carmel Sisters moved into the parish to teach in the school. A “Parish Club” was established to raise funds for the school. Permission was granted for the first Sunday evening mass as a special convenience to shift workers. By April of 1958, the new one-story classroom building was completed and the sisters moved into their new convent on Pine Street. An “Altar Society” sponsored spaghetti dinners and other fund-raising activities. Many other new parish organizations also came into being at this time. The “Catholic Colored Good Will Club” continued to raise money for their new property. The Parish Fair and the Procession of the St. Joseph Altar were major traditions sponsored by the Italian Catholic community. Fr. Anthony Rousso was the Pastor at this time.
January of 1959 marked the beginning of a time that would be painful and confusing to the people of St. Joseph the Worker. The Archbishop of New Orleans had issued a statement officially ending the sanction of discrimination in Catholic churches. Two weeks later, two black teenagers sat up front in the “white section” of the church at one of the masses. The ushers ordered them to move, but they refused. Angry and harsh words were exchanged between many who were gathered on that day and on the following Sundays as more and more blacks began to move up to the front. On Sunday, March 1st, as two black teenagers, who had been sitting up front left the church, violence erupted inside and outside of the church. The teenagers were beaten with fists, tools and a blackjack. Arrests were made on both sides of the conflict and the black youth and older man who tried to assist them were treated at Charity Hospital for lacerations of the head and eyes.
- The Waiting YearsIn June of 1964 Fr. Maurice Gubler became the second Pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Church. At that time, everyone in the community experienced pain because of changes in the community and death to old ways of thinking. All parish organizations and ministries had periods of growth and decline. The same loyal faithful parishioners kept life going at the church. School enrollment increased slightly, however, as Fr. Gubler reminded families of their responsibility to support their own Catholic school. The Catholic Goodwill Club decided to disband in the summer of 1966. Their treasury of thirty-three hundred dollars was turned over to the parish, and the property which had long since been paid for became a gift to St. Joseph the Worker from its black parishioners. It was given for the benefit of the whole parish, and the dream of a separate black church passed away into history just like many other dreams and ideas had as well.
The 1960s was a period when parishioners were adjusting to the shock of racial and social change, a war in Vietnam and change in the Catholic Church brought on by Vatican II. The mass and songs, which used to be in Latin, were now being said and sung in English. The priest who had once celebrated mass while facing the altar was now to face the people. New lay ministries began that would forever change the way church occurred. School enrollment dropped to an all-time low. One-year confirmation was almost canceled because of a lack of enough children properly prepared to receive the sacrament. In August of 1965 Fr. Bill Reed became the Pastor. In that same year, Hurricane Betsy struck and severely damaged many homes in the New Orleans Metropolitan area. Fortunately, there was only slight damage to the roofs of both the school and the church. One year later another tragedy struck. On April 10th, as the Easter Vigil was about to begin the rectory (where the priests lived) caught fire and was completely destroyed. This was a blessing in a sense, because the building was inadequate both in terms of office and living space, so construction began to replace the old rectory.
By 1965, the St. Joseph Procession had been revived and the school was sponsoring a mini-bazaar which later became the Parish Fair. Fr. Ignatius Roppolo became the third Pastor of St. Joseph the Worker.
- A Time of RenewalThrough the leadership of Fr. Doussan, the life that had been reborn in recent years blossomed even more. Rapidly changing times were calling the people of St. Joseph the Worker into a deeper awareness of who they were to God, and who God was to them. There were new developments in the liturgy, sacramental development, education, youth programs, programs for the poor and for seniors, and ministries to the poor. School enrollment increased from 230 students in 1970 to 250 students in 1972. More attention was paid to music and the arts, educational basics, cultural understanding, and diversity. The school PTA came into its own sponsoring many fund-raises. Food drives; toy drive and the St. Vincent DePaul Society made major contributions to organizations that worked with the poor. They also committed themselves to extensive direct service.
1973 was a significant year. The Vietnam War ended, the Watergate Crisis in Washington started, and it was also the 50th Anniversary of St. Joseph the Worker Church. That same year the parish council voted to tithe 4% of the weekly parish income to support a poor Catholic mission in Guatemala. The Liturgy Committee held a workshop to help parishioners understand the incorporation of Black Culture into the Catholic liturgy. And…A decision was made to commence the construction of a brand new church that could better meet the needs of this prosperous church. In August, the property that had been purchased in1951 for $11,000 was sold to McDonald’s for $200,000. Some of the money was used to build two new classrooms and the rest was to finance a new church. In 1975, St. Joseph the Worker welcomed into its family several Vietnamese families who had come to the United States after the end of the war in Vietnam. They were welcomed and introduced to the congregation at a mass in late May. In broken English, one of the new parishioners told of their journey from Asia to America. In the following years the Vietnamese community grew, and several were educated at St. Joseph the Worker School. Later, a special C.C.D. program was established for them, and a Sunday evening mass was said in their native language every week.
In 1977 a contract was signed for construction to begin on the brand new church. Groundbreaking was on January 15th of 1978. An estimated 700 people gathered for the great event. The old church was sold for $2000 to Heavenly Star Missionary Baptist Church in Marrero. The old church was placed on rollers and moved intact to its new location where it still sits today. You can see it today on Cohen Street, just across the Westbank Expressway. The first mass was celebrated in the new church in March of 1979. This was a joyous day for all the people of St. Joseph the Worker.
1980 to the present marked many significant events to the life of the parish. Fr. Ferdinand Cheri established the Youth Gospel Choir and later the Adult Gospel Choir came into being. The Knights of Peter Claver, the Knights of Columbus, their Ladies` Auxiliaries and Children’s Groups made major contributions to the community. The Parish Fair and other fundraising events supported family life. Over forty-five lay ministries made their mark on the community.
In 1990, Fr. Doussan searched for some assistance with saying mass in the mushrooming church community. Fr. Paul McQuillen answered the call, at first just to say mass. In 1991, Fr. Paul accepted a position as the Associate Pastor.
Later that year, Fr. Doussan suffered a sudden heart attack and went on leave at which time Fr. Paul took on the duties of the Parish Administrator. In March of that year Fr. Doussan decided to move on and the position as the fifth Pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Church. Today, he still serves in that capacity.