Churches of Stone

Early Saturday afternoon, I more or less coerced my 12-year-old grandson to go downtown with me. “I want to see the church that burned and that they’ve knocked down.” Grant was intrigued, but neither of us was prepared to see the walls of Coliseum Place Baptist Church standing in place just as the fire had left them Thursday morning. The newspaper had indicated the walls were gone.

Yellow “crime scene” tape stretched in every direction, a block away from the church in some places but then at times veering uncomfortably close to the front. A large crane held a wrecking ball on a cable, swinging it threateningly toward the huge brick bell tower, occasionally crumbling loose a section. Kenner deacon Ed Waller stood under a nearby shade tree, along with Sherrie and their son Graham, and our mutual friends Clyde and Vickie Etheridge. At least 25 people were milling around in the park, all eyes on the remains of the building as it was gradually coming down. A few cameramen were on duty, one or two from local television stations. “That guy is from Fox-8,” Ed said. “I used to work with him.”

Ed Waller loved this church. “My mother used to be the church secretary. In fact, this was my home church from my conception until I was 19. Even then–in the early 70’s–it had become a non-resident church. People had moved away from the neighborhood and were driving in on Sundays.” Ed used to climb into the bell tower while Mrs. Waller toiled in the church office. I asked, “How high would you say that tower is?” The one the swinging ball was now in the process of demolishing. We agreed it was 50 or 60 feet high. “But that’s only the base of the tower,” Ed said. “In 1965, Hurricane Betsy toppled the 75 foot extension that sat on this base.” He told how someone had parked his automobile up against the tower as the storm approached, thinking it would be sheltered there. “When the tower fell, it pancaked his car. From the roof to the pavement was maybe 12 inches.”

The daughters of Rev. John Curtis came by the burned church yesterday, Ed said, and carried away the cornerstone, the one that said “1854,” the year the sanctuary was built.

“Some of the people out here are angry,” he said. “They wanted the church walls to be saved and are mad they’re being demolished.” I said, “Where were these people when the church was looking to raise 2 million dollars to save the building?” I remember a conversation with Pastor Mike Melon on foundations he was pursuing to find the money. The only thing I could tell him was that there is no denominational money for such causes. It appeared to me a hopeless endeavor and evidently Mike finally decided the same. Now an arsonist has made the demolish-or-renovate decision for the little congregation.

Mike Moskau came by to watch the tearing down of these last walls. He’s the general contractor for the rebuilding of our Baptist seminary. “We’re on schedule,” he said. “Everything on campus is looking great.” He told how he had 600 Mexican workers laboring to restore the seminary buildings. He pulled together several of our Hispanic pastors and called President Kelley and said, “I know the answer to this, but I want your permission to use a chapel for Sunday worship services.” He received the permission. “The work went so well soon they were holding Wednesday night services there.” A number of the Mexicans have come to Christ in these months.

Ed Waller said, “See that old couple there on the bench? They were married here. They are really hurting today.” I said, “How do you feel?” “Mixed emotions. I know that a church is not brick and mortar, it’s people. But still, you love the building and have wonderful memories there.” Precisely how we felt after Katrina when we found some of our churches devastated beyond belief. I told in these pages how we had wept. Someone took me to task on our website, reminding me that the church is not a building but people, as though this was a new thought to me. Still, we learn to love the building where we worship. That line from our Lord about “where your treasure is, your heart will be also,” seems to apply here, too.

Grant was intrigued by what he saw, although when the crane operator took a break and the dust settled, he was ready to head home. Ed Waller laughed, “When you see one brick fall, you’ve seen them all.” On the way back to Metairie, Grant and I bought soft drinks to cool down. The thermometer on my car showed an outside temperature of 102 degrees. At home, Margaret said New Orleans was the nation’s hot-spot today. I did not need convincing.

Sunday morning, I worshiped with two of our Ninth Ward churches, at 10:30 with Warren Jones at New Salem Baptist Church on North Claiborne and Alvar Streets, and at 11:00 with Grace Baptist Church a half-mile toward the river where Bill Rogers is the long-time pastor. So many similarities, so many differences.

New Salem’s building was brand new when Katrina did her dirty work. Last time I was in the sanctuary, it had been rebuilt, but 25 folding chairs were placed on the concrete floor for a worship service. But not today. It is an all-new church. Sparklingly new. New pews, red cushions, bright red carpet, new pulpit furniture, red choir chairs, modern sound system, everything so impressive. At 10:30 Warren started the service with 8 or 10 of us present. They continued to drift in, and by the time I left, his audience was 30 or so. Because of the heat, I had left my sport coat in the closet and ended up being the only man in the place not wearing a jacket.

“Vacation Bible School begins tomorrow morning,” Warren Jones said. He invited everyone to bring a salad or some dish on the first Sunday of July. “After worship, we’ll have a business meeting and fellowship together over lunch.” Next week, they’re getting back to a full schedule of events, with Sunday School and Wednesday night prayer meeting.

When Warren walked into the sanctuary and spotted me, as we shook hands, he pulled out an envelope containing his church’s contribution to the work of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. I said, “Were you expecting me?” “No. I just had that with me.” I was impressed. This church has struggled to survive, is running a fifth of their former attendance, yet they are contributing to the association.

We don’t keep count of these things, but my impression is that no church in New Orleans has been the recipient of more help from church teams around the country than New Salem. I hope some of those church groups will read this, because I firmly believe their efforts and their contributions were well placed. Three blocks up on Alvar Street, forty new homes are going up, part of our Baptist Crossroads Project being built under the guidance of Habitat for Humanity. Forty families will soon be moving into this neighborhood, an area that is still pretty dreary, with most of the businesses still shut down and many homes still vacant. New Salem is helping residents of their community gut out homes and is distributing a free DVD which tells people what to do to make their home livable again.

A half mile away is Grace Baptist Church, officially in the Bywater section of town. Grace made the front page of the Times-Picayune this year because of their ethnic mixture, a blend of every culture and color. Pastor Bill Rogers has a lot in common with New Salem’s Warren Jones in that they both are strong, friendly personalities. Talk with either for two minutes and you feel you’ve known him for years and want to know him better. Assistant Pastor Charlie Dale was away on a well-needed vacation and summer missionary Jenny Savely led the worship, accompanied by an organist and a pianist. Grace’s attendance was around sixty and the mood was, as at New Salem, warm and joyful. They had just finished Bible school this week, averaging 17 each day, with 25 children the last day. “Almost no children are in the neighborhood,” said Pastor Bill, “so we were glad to find this many.”

Grace Church had no flooding inside after Katrina, but typical hurricane damage to the roofs which caused rainwater to pour in and create problems. Church groups have been generous in helping Grace, and in turn the church has turned over its facilities to groups working in the area. Just a mile beyond the church is the Lower 9th Ward which was totally devastated and where more deaths occurred than anywhere else in the city.

As he stood to preach, Bill Rogers said, “We are sad today because Coliseum Place Baptist Church is no more. One hundred and two years ago, when Coliseum Place was fifty years old, they came to this section of the city and started this church. They began the 20th century as a strong mission-minded church and they begin the 21th century with this tragedy.” He told of getting a phone call Friday from someone wanting him to interfere with the demolition, to contact the Southern Baptist Convention or some authority.

Inspired by the history of the Coliseum Place Church, Bill preached from Matthew 16 a sermon he called “A Church Built On a Rock.” That rock is Jesus, he said, not Simon Peter as some have misinterpreted that passage. Churches built on Jesus are strong and solid and able to help their neighbors.

Grace and New Salem are poised for exciting ministries to a neighborhood on its way back. The members of Coliseum Place will more than likely be relocating to some section of Jefferson Parish where most of their members live, would be my guess.

The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ goes forward.

On my way home, I drove down Camp Street just to see. The wrecking ball had finished its work. The church building is now a pile comprised of two million bricks and some charred timbers. The yellow tape was still in place, the site being a dangerous place.

“Thank you, Father, for the Church.”

9 thoughts on “Churches of Stone

  1. My heart goes out to Mike Melon and his congregation. When we were in Seminary togeather Mike made me a reversable desk name sign. One side had Bob Gosey printed on it and the other was engraved with Boob Goosey. I still use that plackard and ocassionally reverse it and am reminded of Mike’s humor and our good times at seminary. I pray that Mike maintains his good nature as he leads God’s church to recover and continue to build His kingdom.

    My tears and prayers go out for Mike and his precious family and their church family. Keep up the good work!

  2. Bro. Joe –

    I was just shocked and made ill to my stomach when I read that Coliseum Church is gone. It just seems impossible. The church was known as the “Light House of Downtown New Orleans.”

    My mother took me to Coliseum Church when I was nursery age and I was married to Bill in August 18th 1950. Dr. J.T. Delaughter did the ceremony.

    Ed Waller’s father was my Sunday School teacher when he was just an unmarried, young man. And, of course, I remember when the Wallers were married and I remember the wonderful work they did for Coliseum.

    My heart aches at this moment to know that wonderful buidling is gone. Yes, the people are the church but the building, itself, was a testimony to anyone who passed by it.

    Do you know that I have a nail that is mounted on a small piece of wood and it is my prize possession because it came from the Coliseum Church? Allen Stephens who was one of Coliseum’s pastors gave it to me many, many years ago.

    I wonder what happened to Mr. Turner’s marimba???

    Louis Turner played that marimba for years. The church, after his death, had it mounted on the

    wall above the choir.

    Oh, my. My, my, many testimonies of people will live on because of Colisum Place Baptist Church.

    Wanda Murfin

  3. My heart, too, is filled with sadness when learning of the destruction of Coliseum Place Baptist Church’s building. My brothers and I were “raised” in Coliseum by wonderful, Godly parents, Eddie and Ann Waller. That is where I went to work with my mother who was the church secretary from the time I was about 2 years old, helping her bring messages to the pastor, Robert Richardson, whom I affectionately call “Buddy Boy”. As soon as I could read and hold a hymnal, I went upstairs to the beautiful sanctuary with the wrap-around balcony and would stand in the pulpit singing my heart out. Twenty-seven years ago, “Buddy Boy”, together with my husband’s father, performed my marriage ceremony to my husband, Jay.

    I came to know the Lord through my parents and the members of Coliseum Place Baptist Church and Allen Stephens baptized me. My father always had a dream of writing a book on the history of Coliseum and Southern Baptists in New Orleans. I typed many a page on a manual typewriter of the history he had researched and written. Now I understand why it was so important to him. God used the establishment of the Coliseum Place Baptist Church to bring people into His kingdom. May we continue that work as we serve Him through His church. I am very grateful to have the memories of Coliseum Place Baptist Church.

  4. Bro. Joe – Thank you so much for writing about daily life in New Orleans for those of us that no longer live there. It is a much needed connection and keeps us posted about the progress and needs of the churches and area.

    Reading your account yesterday brought back many sweet memories of Ann and Eddie Waller. I knew them after they had joined Gentilly church and she worked as assistant for Joe Cothen at the seminary. I have a beautiful porcelain Christmas ornament that she made and gave me as a fellow employee. Everything about them reflected service and commitment.

    I’ve read Mr. Waller’s writings about Coliseum Place church and hope that others can read about the history of that church and Baptist work in New Orleans – it is fascinating. While at BAGNO, I was there at Coliseum Place many times through the years when Tony Bellows was pastor of the mission Coliseum Place sponsored.

    The building was beautiful and, although had been altered by people breaking in through the years, was very stately and spoke of the people that had gone before. It was also a living lesson in the “aging” process of a church.

    If I remember correctly, the Southern Baptist Convention met in the building in 1917 and voted to establish the seminary. There was an old plaque downstairs underneath the sanctuary commemorating the meeting and vote. Coliseum Place was near the original seminary campus and was the seminary church to hundreds of seminary graduates.

    Thank you again for the important work of writing – but most of all we thank God for your leadership and service, and the service of Freddie, BAGNO staff, and church pastors, staffs and lay leaders. While many of us have been moved from there through the years, we must admit some emotions at not being there at this time – as New Orleans is always in our hearts. But in you guys, we know that God has chosen very special people for such a special time in the city that we love.

  5. Bro. Joe encouraged me to post a correction: Grace Baptist Church was flooded by Katrina. It’s easy to forget that because we were not flooded to the height of many others in our area and it didn’t stay up. Most of the city had standing water for 2 weeks. I had evacuated, and I was not there, however, from what I saw when I returned, I believe that our church was probably flooded for one day with about 18 inches of water. We now have new flooring in our sanctuary, and our pastor’s basement was gutted and rewalled.

    Signing in from the Beach,

    Bro. Charlie

  6. I was out of town when Coliseum Baptist Church burned and my husband forgot to tell me until Tuesday night as we were riding around the uptown area. I was deeply sadened. In 1965 we came to New Orleans because my daddy was going to the seminary. During that time he served as Assoicate pastor/minister of music of Coliseum. I remember the damage it sustained from Hurricane Betsy and having to meet in the bottom floor for months for worship. When I read the article from Dr. McKeevor, he mentioned Ed Waller which triggered a memory, since I had heard that name recently from my parents. If course they were talking about his father with great fondness and the radio ministry he was doing at that church. My daddy is almost 73 years old and is still pastoring a church in South Georgia. I told him about Coliseum last night and it was with great sadness that he recieved the news. That was a great historic building, but of course the people served and saved from the many ministries that were started from that building because of the people in that building will never burn or be destroyed.

  7. Hi Bro. Joe,

    I was reading over this post and I can not express enough how deeply saddened I feel for the impact of the loss of this Coliseum Place Baptist Church for New Orleans. At the same time I am excited for potential new beginnings and a fresh start for this congregation. My prayers are continuing with this town. On another note, I saw you mentioned Pastor Mike Melon. I hope this does not seem too out of place, but Mike use to serve at a small southern baptist church about 12 or 15 years up in New Jersey. I was just a small youth then, but I remember him well and the impact he had on my life. I don’t know if you or anyone might have an email address for him that I could possibly just say hello. If not, no problem at all. Thanks so much!

  8. My heart grieves about the loss of our precious Coliseum Church buildings. I, like Martha Waller Richardson, grew up at Colisuem. Her parents were my “PawPaw Eddie” and “MawMaw Ann”. Not really grandparents, but they, like all members of the church, were “family”. I was raised, baptised and married in this wonderful church. I remember going to Vacation Bible School in the “new building” and playing in the yard. I remember PawPaw Eddie running the radio box for Sunday morning services and MawMaw Ann playng the organ. I recently made vacation trip from Texas just after July 4th with my children and grandchildren to stop at the sight of the church. As I stood there I was filled with such emotion I could not contain myself. My husband had died the previous year and memories of our lives together, having started as husband and wife on this very spot, also flooded back. I now live in Texas, but every visit “home” included a drive by to see the church. I have old newspaper clippings of myself of 3, holding the silver Lord’s Supper Serving set. I could go on for days with fond childhood memories of growing up at Coliseum, running and playing all through it’s many nooks and crannies. I can still see in my mind’s eye Mrs. Turner’s blue Nash parked out front and Mrs. Montalbano’s smiling face and twinkling eye at the nursery door; of singing in Christmas Cantatas and helping my mom and “Miss Katie” and Susan clean the pews on Saturday nights and of Eddie Kenner. And oh, the old rotary phone sitting on the counter in the office that still had the “Ja5-4809” on it’s dial. My life was and is filled with blessed memories of having been raised and brought to our Lord in this wonderful place. The building may be gone, but the “Church” remains.

  9. We were BSU summer missionaries from New Mexico, in the summer of 1965, and had just married 6 months previous to our trip to New Orleans. We were assigned to Coliseum Place Baptist Church and have very fond memories of our summer ministry there. We distinctly remember the VBS that summer when area kids attended for what we understood was the first time. We gave many presentations after that summer about the need for prayer for New Orleans, and after Katrina the prayers began again in earnest. Our hearts were heavy when we read the web sites this morning about the razing of the church building. How many lives this church has touched over the decades of time, and we give glory to God that we were called to be a part of that ministry.

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