St. Anna’s History
Our Genesis Story
Under the direction of The Rev. Francis Lister Hawks, Christ Church Rector, the Rev. Mr. Charles W. Whitall was made chaplain to the seamen of New Orleans and established St. Peter’s Seaman’s Bethel. Starting in a rented room on Levee Street on April 19, 1846, they moved to a rented facility on Esplanade Street in October. Mr. Whitall was ordained to the priesthood on November 2, 1846. It was, by definition and use, the first “free church” (not charging pew fees) in New Orleans with open seating for all.
Because there was no other church in the area for English-speaking people and because the church school was very popular, there was pressure to organize St. Peter’s into a parish. A site was purchased in 1849 and a chapel and rooming house, believed to be located at #5 Esplanade Avenue, was completed. It remained a mission church until closed and St. Anna’s, a newly formed congregation including the St. Peter’s community, was granted parish status in 1869.
In 1857 after a series of rectors, The Rev. Amos D. McCoy became St. Peter’s Rector. McCoy and Deacon John Francis Girault established an orphanage during the yellow fever epidemic of 1860 which remained in operation until 1940. During the Civil War, when New Orleans was occupied by Federal Troops under the direction of General Butler, McCoy refused to say prayers for the President of the United States. Under Federal mandate in 1862, the congregation was disbanded, and McCoy was arrested. In 1863 he was banished by military order from New Orleans. A lay reader took his place, being appointed by a Union-vestry. When Gen. Leonidas Polk (first Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana) was killed in battle in 1864, Deacon Anthony Vallas agreed to say the prayer for the U. S. President and St. Peter’s resumed services in the summer of 1864.
In 1867, Deacon Girault became Rector of St. Peter’s. The last service of St. Peter’s on Esplanade and the riverfront was October 1869. The chapel and property were sold and two lots further down Esplanade Avenue were purchased. Dr. Newton Mercer gave $10,000 for the building of a frame church on that site. The new church was named St. Anna’s after the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the deceased daughter of Dr. Mercer.
In 1876 the frame church burned and on September 2, 1877, a brick church was completed. At about that same time, The Rev. Dr. E. W. Hunter was called as Rector. Fr. Hunter was an avid Anglo-Catholic representing what is called “The Second Wave of Anglo-Catholicism or The Liturgical Movement.” Fr. Hunter introduced the Chasuble, Candles on the Altar, Benediction, and daily Mass, and was something of a media sensation. He was said to have been handsome and a gifted preacher. Since that time St. Anna’s has been identified as an Anglo-Catholic parish in its liturgical expression.
St. Anna’s endured many difficult years after the 1890’s. The church was ravaged by a tornado in 1915. A disaffected Rector sued the congregation for $18,000 in 1923 forcing it back into mission status. The Rev. Arthur Price nursed the mission back to health and in 1947 St. Anna’s once again attained parish status.
In 1948 city engineers ordered the old church dismantled due to termite damage, water damage, and disrepair. In 1951 the new Rector, The Rev. Louis Parker, set up temporary quarters nearby and by 1952 the current church was completed. The current church was dedicated by The Rt. Rev. Girault Jones, a nephew of St. Anna’s long time Deacon and Rector Francis Girault (1860’s). The church retains antebellum pews along with many of the memorial plaques of earlier churches. She boasts fine stained-glass windows and other original works of sacred art.
Fr. Henry Crisler followed Fr. Parker as Rector and stayed for about ten years. He was known to be a handsome man who was kind and invited people of color into St. Anna’s. With his departure, Fr. Robert John Dodwell was called as Rector.
During Fr. Dodwell’s twenty-year pastorate the church grew substantially. He was a devoted High Churchman while introducing contemporary vestments. He was nationally known and held many positions in the National Church. He was eccentric and garnered a reputation for being outgoing and dynamic. His legacy is/was well remembered at St. Anna’s and for years this church was known as “Bob Dodwell’s church” and can still be gleaned at St. Anna’s. Fr. Dodwell married Mary King of Lake Charles, who established a Diocesan outreach to clergy spouses and retired clergy. During Fr. Dodwell’s tenure the first Black vestry member of Saint Anna’s was elected, Cirillo Balderamos. Additionally, it is believed that the first female vestry member was elected in the Diocese of Louisiana, Bessie Jones. The congregation was characterized as progressive in culture but traditional in worship. The Dodwell House is named in honor of Mary and Robert Dodwell.
During the pastorate of Fr. Dodwell a significant figure in the Episcopal Church was raised up, Dr Ormond Plater, who would become Archdeacon of The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. Deacon Plater wrote several texts on the Deaconate and would shape an entire generation in that ministry. For his story, his obituary, written by Ormond himself, go to this link:
Following Fr. Dodwell came Fr. David McSwain, a High Churchman who introduced the praying of the
Angelus and Regina Coeli to the church as well as other typically Anglo-Catholic rituals. During his pastorate the church underwent a sort of schism with almost half of the church leaving. His focus was on starting a school for inner city kids called Anna’s Academy, but the traditional congregation felt marginalized and not a part of the discussion. Many of the members went to Grace Episcopal Church on Canal Street, including the widow Mary K Dodwell and other leaders of the congregation. Fr. McSwain served for about three years.
By the time Fr. McSwain left St. Anna’s was almost a mission church due to reduced numbers. After a lengthy period, Fr. Glenn Harper became Rector. Fr. Harper was a graduate of Annapolis Naval Academy, came to the Diocese of Louisiana via Texas, his home state, and was an openly gay priest who remained celibate as the church required at that time. His legacy is one of bringing old members back to St. Anna’s and allowing wounds to heal. The church remained very small, retaining some of the student families of Anna’s Academy as part of the congregation. Due to medical reasons, Fr. Harper took early retirement in 2003.
Fr. William Terry became the Rector of St. Anna’s in 2003. Fr. Terry was married with children and was aged 52 when he took this, his first cure. Trained at Nashotah House, his liturgy reflected an Anglo-Catholic form. Fr. Terry started a youth group based on the Anna’s Academy legacy, building it up to 25 inner city teenagers. The church began to grow again. attracting new members by creating a more diverse community and encouraging ornate and disciplined liturgy. Then Hurricane Katrina arrived.
In December 2007, Joyce Eskamire-Jackson, a long-standing member of St. Anna’s, was ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons. She was the first African-American female Deacon in the Diocese of Louisiana and on the Gulf Coast. A spiritual force and prayer warrior, she worked with women in the neighborhood confronting violence, drug abuse, and spousal abuse and at local half-way houses. Deacon Joyce retired in 2016.
Also during Fr. Terry’s pastorate Deacon Luigi Mandile and The Rev. Canon Allison Reid were raised up and both ordained in 2021. They are both currently serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. Deacon Luigi is at St. Anna’s and Canon Reid is Canon for Congregational Development with the Diocese and Priest in Charge of St. Mark’s in Harvey Louisiana. Both faithful servants.
Social Justice as an Expression of Spirituality
“I was hungry and you fed me.” In the 1970’s through the 1980’s a group of women called “The Night Owls” would gather and make sandwiches to distribute to the unhoused and hungry. Over the next 30 years, this outreach changed forms, several encountering unanticipated challenges. By 2010, Br. Don Dubay, an Episcopal Franciscan friar, in collaboration with Deacon Jackson who lived in the community, decided to identify families truly in need and to provide a two-week supply of groceries in order to fill the gap in food access, thus creating the Food Pantry. Families on our Food Pantry list remain on the list for as long as they have need to provide food security at least in some measure. The Food Pantry has distributed literally tons of groceries and continues to this day.
Tangentially, Br. Don developed a Ministry to the Unhoused, distributing thousands of “Blessing Bags” containing snacks, water, socks, t-shirts, and hygiene kits, and over 2,000 MREs. His mission was one of presence, offering a kind word, a listening ear, and prayer. This ministry continues in a slightly different form, collaborating with Crescent Care Health Clinic.
Since 2005 St Anna’s has increased its LGBTQ+ Engagement, becoming a home for the LGBTQ+ community and recognized by the local community as a safe space. St. Anna’s was the first Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Louisiana to perform same sex marriage, and it has collaborated with several historic “Gay” social organizations to provide space for their meetings. As a testimony to the inclusive nature of St Anna’s and her clergy, the Forum for Equality awarded St. Anna’s their 2014 Acclaim Award, and in June 2015 at a rally on Jackson Square to celebrate Obergefell v. Hodges, The Rev. William Terry, Rector, was invited to offer prayers of thanksgiving to the crowd. Deacon Luigi Mandile has done much work in this community and opened the doors of St. Anna’s to those seeking spiritual comfort and a home. “All are welcomed. None are shunned” was coined as an anthem in 2015.
While wrestling with our past role in oppressive systems, we take guidance from the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church, in short, “…strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” To this end, amid national conversation around systemic racism, we chose to remove a memorial plaque dedicated to Bishop Polk, a slaveholder, from the walls of our church, then to acknowledge and to tell the stories of our past.
Hurricane Katrina: The Birth of Mission Driven Ministry
Immediately following Katrina, Fr. Terry. in his house in Abita Springs, LA. (north of New Orleans), began searching for members of the church that were disbursed. St. Anna’s hosted mass in a carport for several weeks as some members found their way to his home. These masses and early gathering became a foundation of a community that would later do the work in the city.
During the dramatic weeks following Katrina, St. Anna’s found itself as one of the un-flooded bastions of hope. Clothing, water, and immediate medical aid were dispensed with great regularity. The city, and indeed this church, were trying to find their compass in the midst of chaos. In our own Genesis story, a new creation was birthed — not in a vacuum but in collaboration with a dozen churches from around the U.S.A., and beyond that, a legion of volunteers. That collaboration and emphasis on attending to the needs of others was the cornerstone of St. Anna’s as a missionary outpost in the midst of disaster crafted by the hands and prayers of many.
From this new sense of service was birthed in early 2006 the first of what would become five principal missions of St. Anna’s Church, identifying us as one of the most active outreach churches in the United States. St. Anna’s Mobile Medical Mission (SAMM) was the result of a vision of collaborators and supporters and the selfless act of a dedicated nurse whose own home was flooded, Mrs. Diana Haase Meyers, RN. Offering free medical care, health screenings, health education, and medical navigation, it empowered underserved populations for more than a decade. This ministry was written up in several journals and news reports. It involved unprecedented collaboration with Ascension DePaul Health Centers, Tulane University School of Medicine, local acupuncturists, and dozens of schools and church groups volunteering in the recovery. St. Anna’s was recognized as a 2007 CityBusiness Nonprofit Innovator of the Year for St. Anna’s Mobile Medical Mission.
The next mission was in response to the need for people to hear the music of New Orleans and to gain some sense that our very culture was not lost. In collaboration with the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and Assistance Foundation (NOMAF), St. Anna’s responded to the spiritual and social needs of our community and the financial needs of New Orleans musicians, as NOMC director Ms. Bethany Bultman quipped, “to keep the music playing.” Thus, the Mission to Musicians (M2M) was born in the spring of 2006, which provided a forum for some of New Orleans finest musicians to offer our unique art form to residents of the city and visiting volunteer mission groups alike. In the early days of M2M, St. Anna’s was one of the only venues to offer live music together with a good meal (free), and both spiritual and medical support. During this time Loyola University offerd a legal clinic and massage therapists, acupuncturists, and a Psychiatrist all offered their talents. We even hosted a volunteer who repaired damaged instruments. Among some of the musical greats that played at this venue are the entire Boutte family, Germaine Bazzle, Kermit Ruffins, Sunpie Barns, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Tremé Brass Band with Uncle Lionel, and Zydepunks. Over 300 checks were issued to local musicians and over 6,000 plates of food were served. Our legacy remains alive today in the “Down in Tremé” music series as well as our response during the COVID-19 pandemic in support of our music community.
During the early days of the disaster New Orleans invited and needed skilled labor to repair and rebuild houses and remove debris. The result was a large influx of immigrant labor largely from Central America. Yet, New Orleans offered little if any support for this new labor force that was helping us to rebuild our city. A dedicated and passionate woman named Jamie McDaniel (Pictured left) asked us to house an English as a Second Language (ESL) class at St. Anna’s. Less than a dozen students started the class in late 2006. In time the Diocese of Louisiana offered seed funding for this mission that had grown to meet the needs of several dozen Latinos. By the end of 2009 the mission, originally named Latino Apostolate, had become much more than ESL classes but a true community. The average enrollment was now 120 students per semester. The work expanded to advocated for Latinos and sought to enculturate and assist immigrants to become prosperous, self-reliant members of New Orleans. In the early days of this apostolate, St Anna’s Medical Mission provided critically needed, otherwise unavailable, health services. The students thought so much of the mission that they voted to rename it, “Oportunidades NOLA” or [Place of] Opportunity in New Orleans. In 2015 “OpNOLA” was spun off and transferred to the “Latino Farmers Co-Op”. St. Anna’s was recognized as a 2008 CityBusiness Nonprofit Innovator of the Year for the Latino Apostolate.
During the time following Hurricane Katrina poverty continued to be epidemic; ranking #1 in the USA for urban blight and with the largest displacement of a population in U.S. history including tax base and business bases — crime became a by-product. The city lacked resources to address these issues in so many ways. The infrastructure for police, medical care, schools, and city services was not only disrupted but, in some cases, destroyed. In 2007 New Orleans was ranked as the #1 city for murders in the United States. We had to do something; that response was crafted by a deacon in training, The Rev. Elaine Clemments. The response was the ‘Rose Ministry’ and ‘Murder Board’ which sought to humanize this urban holocaust by listing the names of each victim on a board in front of the church. For the first several years, a rose for each new victim would be brought to the Mayor, Chief of Police, and District Attorney weekly as a reminder of the violence but also a show of support for the work they were doing in its wake. Eventually this ministry would receive national attention and become a spokesperson for the victims of violence in New Orleans. The permanent memorial continues to this day listing over 3,000 murder victims since 2007. A massive installation called “The Tree of Life: Victims of Violence Memorial” was installed in 2021 and it remains a voice for the victims.
Anna’s Arts for Kids was founded in 2010 by a devoted and highly qualified community activist and arts professional, Mr. Darryl Durham. The basic idea was to follow the model of the Harlem School of Fine Art, of which Mr. Durham was a past CEO. Beyond reaching out to at-risk children and offering them art expressions, the program at St. Anna’s sought to offer a sense of self-worth, self-discipline, and appropriate social responses to challenges of post-Katrina life. Community partners included several local universities and arts partners such as the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra. Soon parents were asking for academic assistance for their children, leading us to expand the goals of the program. Renamed Anna’s Place NOLA, it now offers a broad curriculum emphasizing STEM, the arts, community awareness, secondary education guidance and support, tutoring for college entrance examinations, basic reading skills and a litany of other social and educational supports for children ages 5-18. In 2022 Dr. Cavin Davis, a native son, proud graduate of St. Augustine Prep, and former Tremé resident, joined the team as the chief architect for the future of Anna’s Place NOLA, bringing the skills and heart necessary to lead this program to the next level of excellence. As of this writing, it is hoped that the program will expand its community impact by increasing its current enrollment to over 100 students.
In 2010 The Neighborhood Partnership Network awarded St. Anna’s the Best Faith-based Community Initiative Award, and in 2011 the Martin Luther King, Jr Jazz Award by Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse was given to Fr. Terry for vision, leadership, and commitment to New Orleans through St. Anna’s programs and missions.
Katrina forever altered the character and definition of Saint Anna’s. It became a mission driven church as a result of its collaborative and collective efforts following Katrina. That same culture of community service and mission exists today.
Read the personal reflection by Keith Darce, a member of the church who first entered our church within three days of Katrina:
Moving Forward in Faith with Good Work
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The Epistle of James
The Dodwell House Community Resource Center is an historic home built in 1846 by Mdm. Marsaudet and located just two blocks from the church on Esplanade Avenue. It has had several owners since then, suffering from severe neglect, until, in 2010, St. Anna’s acquired the property. This 8,000 square foot facility will open in the summer of 2023 as a Community Resource Center, a new home for Anna’s Place NOLA, and include a community café. The facility will house programs for the broader historic communities and cultures that surround the facility and church. The total investment in the property for initial operations and restoration amounts to approximately $5,200,000. It is believed that this facility will be the foundation of our Christian expression based on the teachings of St. James, “Faith without works is dead.” Formed largely by Dr. Cavin Davis, a team has been assembled of community activists, educators, and fundraisers to ensure the impact and success of this expression of the church’s piety.
More history is to be written.
Joel Dyer, a member of the church and a gifted artist architect, began a project at St. Anna’s in 2015 to install a new reredos and to refashion the sanctuary. This included creating and building significant adornments and statuary mounts which exist today. His vision was to create the sense of an old English church. Mr. Dyer is also the chief designer of The Very Rev. William H. Terry Chapel located at the Dodwell House.
Michael Pert is the designer and artist that created the “Tree of Life: Victims of Violence Memorial” at the church which will wrap around the front elevation of the Maginnis House parish building.
The historic statues located in the church and elsewhere include St. Anna and Mary (c.1900), St. Jude (c. 1900), St. Martin de Porres (20th c.), and “Black” Jesus (20th c.), and were a gift from Deacon Luigi Mandile in 2010. Some of the historic statues have been restored, others await restoration. Legend has it that these statues originally belonged to a Black Roman Catholic Church which was decommissioned and on that site the Governor’s Mansion was built.
Two modern statues, one of Mary, was a memorial gift by member Stephen Llorado in memory of his mother; the smaller new St. Anna, gifted by noted LGBTQ+ activist and member Stewart Butler, is in memory of his soul-mate Alfred Dolittle.
Stewart has bequeathed his historic home, known as The Faerie Playhouse, to St. Anna’s . The cottage was one of what was called Passebon Row and built in 1843. The home was the site of meetings for the LGBT civil rights movement during the late 20th century and early 21st century. The garden behind the home contains the cremains of many significant leaders in the struggle for equality.
Stations of the Cross by artist Earl Woodward, commissioned in memory of The Rev. Robert J. Dodwell, Betty E. McConnell, Russel and Jane Hanna and The Rt. Rev. James Winchester Montgomery by Mary K. Dodwell and The Rev. Daniel Hanna.
A small wooden Statue of St. Anna was carved in Honduras and donated to the church during the pastorate of Robert Dodwell.
Bronze Christus Rex commissioned by the Dodwell’s and created by noted New Orleans artist Jean Seidenberg (b 1930). For quite a long time the piece adorned the ‘sanctuary’ spaces and now hangs over the baptismal font.
Visit ANNA’S PLACE NOLA to learn more about where the original program has gone and how it is growing. https://annasplacenola.org/
Contributors and Editors of this History:
Diana Meyers, RN, Vestry Member (2021-2023), Clerk Dodwell House Committee
Fr. James Deshotels, SJ, NP
Lauren Anderson, Member
The Very Rev. William H. Terry, Rector (2003-2023)