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Protest reopens church

NEW ORLEANS -- The ancient cypress doors were propped wide in the bright sunshine, palm fronds stacked high, pews filled, and joyous music poured from St. Augustine yesterday as the historic black Catholic church celebrated Palm Sunday.

The service was held two weeks after the church was closed amid protests over post-Hurricane Katrina budget cutbacks that would have merged it with a larger neighboring parish.

''What a historic morning for us to gather," said Archbishop Alfred Hughes, who originally ordered the church shut down, but returned to celebrate Mass yesterday.

The church was full for the first service, but unless the support continues, the reprieve will not last.

When Hughes reconsecrated St. Augustine on Saturday he said he would examine the parish's progress after 18 months to determine if it could avoid consolidation with a neighboring parish.

Hughes agreed to reopen St. Augustine after negotiating with parishioners who had protested the closing. St. Augustine, founded in 1841 by slaves and free people of color, is one of the nation's oldest black parishes. The archdiocese sought to consolidate St. Augustine as it tries to deal with $84 million in uninsured losses from Hurricane Katrina.

St. Augustine had failed to add many new members or carry on other pastoral functions required of a functioning parish, Hughes said. Under plans announced earlier this year, the church building would be used for services, but parish functions were to be consolidated with neighboring St. Peter Claver.

But protests sprang up, and a small group shuttered themselves in the church rectory three weeks ago.

The parishioners have set 12 goals to meet during the next 18 months, Hughes said. Among other things, they require the addition of 300 to 400 families. If the parish does not meet the goals, it will be closed, Hughes said.

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