By Mike Scott
It’s empty now – boarded-up, run-down and waiting. Has been since Hurricane Katrina notoriously delivered New Orleans its watery gut-check in 2005.
But even in its abandoned state, the little temple on Live Oak Street in New Orleans’ Hollygrove neighborhood feels like something. Something special. Something important. Something that might soon be lost if people don’t take notice.
Reader Stanley Taylor noticed. He wrote recently, asking about what he accurately describes as a “fascinating” structure in Hollygrove.
A marble plaque affixed to the front of the building offers a good starting point, identifying the building at 3019 Live Oak as the St. Anthony Divine Spiritual Temple – named in honor of the patron saint of lost things, which is probably poetic on some level.
The plaque indicates the church was founded in 1946, although articles in The Times-Picayune archives indicate its founder, the Rev. Wilbert August Hawkins, had been preaching the word since at least 1942.
In those early days, he held services on the side of his house at 3201 Cherry Street, a block over from Live Oak. Hawkins clearly had bigger plans, though, and by 1950, he was preaching in his new church.
More accurately, he was preaching in his congregation’s new church.
“It was built by the congregation,” former church member Melvin Washington told Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and Rachel Breunlin for a 2012 piece they penned for SouthWritLarge.com. “People donated their time and labor. My daddy donated the steel and laid the foundation for the church to be built on. I was a little boy. I used to pick up one cement block at a time and give it to Deacon St. Cyr to help build the church.”
What emerged on the long, rectangular lot on Live Oak was a 1,682-square-foot church with a stuccoed, two-story vestibule on its end closest the street. It was on that second floor that Hawkins reportedly kept his offices.
Centered over the main entrance, between two second-story windows, was a near-life-size statue of St. Anthony, as he is traditionally depicted: wearing his brown Franciscan robes while holding three Madonna lilies in one hand and the Christ child in the other.
The overall effect – the stucco, the statue – lends the building a distinct Mission feel, like a bit of the American Southwest or Mexico plopped down in the middle of a predominantly Black New Orleans neighborhood.
The cornerstone to the church wasn’t laid until March 1952, newspaper records show – an event marked with a parade from 2910 Olive St. to the new building – suggesting work on it had continued in some fashion until then.
Once inside, Washington remembered, one would find “altars with big human-like statues of Jesus, his mother, St. Anthony, and a big old statue of Black Hawk. I was told Black Hawk was the Indian chief and he was the protector. People would pray with their hands on the statue.”
Also, as with so many Black churches, there was music – lots of music. That, combined with the charisma of Hawkins, was a big part of what kept St. Anthony Divine going.
Then, in 1976, then-Bishop Hawkins died.
Slowly, the church died, too. By the 2000s, the only mentions of St. Anthony Divine Spiritual Temple were in the obituaries, as former congregants joined Bishop Hawkins in the great hereafter.
In 2018, after years of sitting idle, the church building was sold to a private owner.
Today, 71 years after it first hosted services, it awaits its next chapter.
Photos by David Grunfeld of The Times-Picayune / The New Orleans Advocate
Sources: The Times-Picayune archives; Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office; SouthWritLarge.com.