by Linda Webster
On September 27, the Holy Trinity Catholic Church building will celebrate its 120th anniversary. The cornerstone of the current church building was installed on that date in 1896 and the stunning red-brick Romanesque Revival structure has been the centerpiece of a Catholic presence in downtown Shreveport ever since. In addition, the parish will celebrate 160 years since Fr. John Pierre was directed by the Bishop of Natchitoches, Bishop Augustus M. Martin, to establish a church. That first church was a wooden structure at the corner of Milam and McNeil streets. Three years later, in 1859, a new church was built of brick on two lots near the northeast corner of Marshall and Fannin Streets.
Fr. Joseph Gentille, a native of Dongas, France, found this second structure in poor condition when he arrived in 1873 as pastor. The church had structural problems and the furnishings were in need of replacement. In 1879, the bell cracked.
By 1886, it was clear that the church needed to be replaced. Fundraising began and Fr. Gentille met with an architect during a visit home to France in 1887. With his death in October of 1895, Fr. Sebastian Scharl moved forward with construction when he was appointed pastor that same year. Fr. Scharl was limited to $18,000 for construction of the church building by Bishop Anthony Durier.
The completed church was dedicated on Sunday, October 1, 1899, but with minimal interior finishing until 1904 when funds were raised to create a space in keeping with the Romanesque exterior.
“It just looks like a church,” said Joe Littlejohn, a member of the pastoral council and a parishioner for over 20 years. And his observation is echoed by many who come through the doors for Mass or for a tour. The ornate Romanesque altar, carved from Italian Carrara marble, soars toward the encircling stained glass windows and gilded dome of the apse. The matching altar rail and the side altars were moved to the church from the St. Vincent Academy chapel in 1972.
“The Holy Name Society would send someone from the parish to pick us up at school to serve daily Mass,” said life-long parishioner Louis Cordaro, a 1964 graduate of Jesuit (now Loyola College Prep). “Afterwards we’d go to the rectory for donuts before going back to school.”
“One of the things I’ve most enjoyed over the years is having priests with different nationalities – the way they talked about where they were from and how they spoke,” added Cordaro.
Over the years, renovation and additional decoration enhanced the church without changing the ambiance which is important to those who have spent much of their lives with the parish. The present rectory was constructed next to the church in 1928 with funds raised from bridge parties, musical reviews, plays and magazine sales. With the arrival of Msgr. Plauche in 1944, the church was renovated with a new roof, new pews and doors, a lighting system, more stained glass windows, and paintings of the five priests who died in 1873 during the Yellow Fever epidemic.
By the 1970s, though, the building was showing its age. According to a report in the Shreveport Times, the church was in danger of being demolished when Fr. William O’Hanlon arrived as pastor in 1976. The roof above the altar was in poor shape and water was leaking into the sanctuary causing damage. Rotted wood framed the stained glass windows. Determined to save the church, O’Hanlon began a building fund that eventually raised over $1 million.
Renovations began in 1978 and included a ramp for the mobility impaired, “cry” rooms glassed in at the back of the sanctuary and a restroom. The roof was replaced in 1980 and a concrete parking area added to the exterior. The interior was refurbished in 1984, including new carpeting, Plexiglas sheathing for all of the stained glass windows, and new sound system which maintained the original look of the structure. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and the renovation was completed in 1986.
Part of that renovation included painting the interior of the church, which meant that all of the ornate stenciling and portraiture needed to be reproduced after repairs to the plaster. Some new portraits were added in keeping with the existing decoration. And all 216 light bulbs that arch above the altar were replaced since the scaffolding was already in place.
“You can see that some of the bulbs are out again,” pointed out organist and parish historian Madeline Elford whose perch in the choir loft gives her a clear view of the ceiling architecture. “The last time we had the bulbs replaced, we found a man who used a ladder and members of the fire department helped steady it. Because the dome is curved and the altar in the center, the fire department couldn’t use their equipment to get up there.”
Joining Elford each Sunday in the choir loft is cantor Pete Terracina who attended Holy Trinity as a child in the late 1930s.
“Very little has changed,” he said of his return to Holy Trinity in 2006. “It has the same physical look.”
Terracina attended St. Mary’s school run by the Daughters of the Cross right next to Holy Trinity through seventh grade. The school was demolished in 1954. About the same time that Terracina began school across the playground from the church, Msgr. Earl Provenza was baptized at the lovely marble font still in use at Holy Trinity.
“That was Christmas Day, 78 years ago,” Provenza said. “Then I made my First Communion here and said my first Mass on May 31 in 1964, the day after I was ordained.”
Assigned in 2006 to pastor the parish he considers his spiritual home, he notes that there are many challenges with the urban setting. “We have no parish hall. I turned two of the bedrooms on the second floor of the rectory into classrooms so that we can offer First Communion and RCIA classes on Sunday mornings. We sometimes have 25 people coming to RCIA at 9:00 a.m. before Mass.”
The rectory no longer houses priests. Built in 1928, the small rooms, the cramped stairway, and the many windows provide an architectural glimpse of the past when a parish might have three or four resident priests who sat down formally to meals in the dining room.
“We have a special mission to the poor and needy since we are right downtown. We have a strong St. Vincent de Paul organization that provides 65 grocery baskets and turkeys to families in need at Thanksgiving. They go two-by-two into homes to help with electric bills, clothing, and even furniture, but also to observe and to pray with the residents.”
Joe Littlejohn explained that there is a real sense of community even without the usual parish buildings.
“We have a church festival every year. We cancel the noon Mass and start around 11:30 on the first floor of the Beaird Tower parking garage.”
Documenting the history of Holy Trinity has been an ongoing project. The pastoral council commissioned the late local historian, Eric Brock, in 2006 to document the backgrounds of all inscribed objects in the church, primarily the 85 stained glass windows. These stunning windows were installed in four phases with the initial installation from 1896-1899 during construction of the present church, to the three very large round windows that were installed in 1952. Fr. Pierre is memorialized in one of the windows installed in 1949, as are four other priests who also died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1873.
Curiously, six small windows below the large round window over the church entrance have been covered up since 1930 by the enclosed pipes of the organ in the choir loft. They can be viewed from the street outside, however.
Holy Trinity is an integral part of both the Diocese of Shreveport and downtown Shreveport. There will be a Mass celebrated in honor of their 160th anniversary on Saturday, October 1, at 4:15 p.m. The Mass will be a perfect opportunity for parishioners and the community to come together, admire the church and celebrate its unique place in local history.