History of the

First Presbyterian Church

of New Orleans

In November of 1993, The First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans celebrated its 175th anniversary. The origin was a public meeting on February 9, 1818 when a Donation List was opened to purchase a lot and build a church. Gifts were pledged by prospective members and interested citizens, and the City Council gave a lot and later $10,000. First Presbyterian Church was the second protestant church formed in the city, after Christ Church Episcopal. The cornerstone for the original building on St. Charles Avenue between Union and Gravier was laid on January 8, 1819.

The first minister, Rev. Sylvester Larned, recruited by Rev. Elias Cornelius of the Connecticut Missionary Society, began conducting services on January 22, 1818. An outstanding orator and popular pastor citywide, Larned unfortunately died of yellow fever in August of 1820 when only 24 years old. He was succeeded by Dr. Theodore Clapp, whose unorthodox theology split the congregation into several groups. Two of them broke off and later joined together under the leadership of Dr. Joel Parker who served First Church until 1838, and in 1835 presided over the occupation of a magnificent new church on Lafayette Square. A spectacular fire destroyed this edifice in October, 1854. Rebuilding began immediately and services were held again in November of 1857. The new building, in 14th Century Gothic style, seated 1,311 persons and had a steeple 219 feet from the ground, the highest in the city.

On September 29, 1915 a disastrous hurricane destroyed this building except for rooms at the rear. Four hundred tons of debris were carted off. As before, rebuilding was swift, but it was decided to omit the upper portion of the spire.

The Church prospered from its earliest days and was served by outstanding pastors and elders, portraits of whom can be seen in Fellowship Hall. Chief among these was Dr. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, pastor for 46 years. Palmer was a leader in civic as well as religious affairs. He was an ardent southerner and was influential in bringing Louisiana to secession and the Confederacy. He also spearheaded the drive that put the infamous Louisiana State Lottery out of business.

The congregation continued to worship on Lafayette Square until Easter Sunday, April 17, 1938. The federal government had indicated that it would like the site of the church for a new federal office building and the congregation decided to sell. The present site was purchased. Part of the agreement was that furnishings and materials could be salvaged before the church was torn down. These were incorporated into the new church uptown, including the organ, bell, pews, the stained glass windows except the one behind the altar, matching tables on the altar and in the narthex, the four chairs on the altar, millwork on the rear choir loft, and two plaques, one a memorial to the first preacher and another listing all of the pastors and their years of service.

The congregation presently worships in this facility at the corner of South Claiborne and Jefferson Avenues in uptown New Orleans. The church and the Palmer Hall education building to its left were dedicated Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. An addition to connect the education building to the rear of the sanctuary was dedicated December 15, 1985. The Gothic style buildings of butt brick with limestone trim, sit on an entire square, bounded by Octavia, Jefferson, Prieur and South Claiborne.