On November 16, 1852, a small group of concerned and committed young men met at the 2nd Presbyterian Church on the corner of Prytania and Calliope Streets in New Orleans. They were concerned that because of the many temptations in the city, young men would “make shipwreck of their faith” and were determined to do something to help direct them to a more virtuous path. And so, “with a desire to promote the mental, moral and spiritual welfare of the young men of New Orleans, and to bring professors of religion of the various denominations together”, the YMCA of Greater New Orleans was born, the sixth YMCA founded in the United States.
R. G. Latting was elected the first President of the board and a group of volunteers offered Bible study classes and other programs along with rented rooms at Camp and Common Streets. Indeed, it was not until 1873 that the YMCA hired its first fulltime employee, John T. Sawyer, as the association’s General Secretary.
The New Orleans YMCA quickly became engaged in the national YMCA movement when George Helme, Board President in 1854 was elected the first President of the International Committee meeting in Buffalo, New York. Then in 1860, the International Committee of YMCA’s held its annual meeting in New Orleans and, among other items of business, recommended physical education for all YMCA’s.
Like most YMCA’s in the South, the New Orleans YMCA suffered during the Civil War. With the outbreak of hostilities in April of 1861, the YMCA suspended operations “for the duration”, a period of time that extended through the occupation of the city in May, 1862, to the end of the reconstruction period in 1871 when the YMCA resumed operations.
Soon after, the YMCA was tasked to respond to one of the worst disease outbreaks in the city’s history – the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. Marshalling its staff and volunteers, the YMCA coordinated the entire city’s response to the crisis; raising more than $81,000 locally and from across the country and providing food, clothing and medical care to more than 35,000 affected citizens – fully 56% of the total population.
Over the next 50 years, the YMCA continued to grow and evolve, responding to the emerging needs of the changing metropolis. Then in 1929, the YMCA completed its first major building campaign, raised $423,500 and constructed its first modern building, the Lee Circle YMCA. This inaugurated an expansion of services and new facilities that paralleled the growth of the city and the greater metropolitan area. By the early1980’s, the YMCA of Greater New Orleans was one of the largest and most successful YMCA’s in the country.
But, in a continuing parallel of the city’s trajectory, the YMCA experienced a period of contraction and consolidation beginning in the mid-1980’s as corporations began to leave New Orleans and the population and philanthropic base declined. This downturn reached its nadir in 2003 with the sale of the Lee Circle property, an event that signaled the resurgence of the association.
In 2004, the West St. Tammany YMCA branch began a capital campaign to build its first permanent home since its founding in 1980. Even Hurricane Katrina could not impede progress and this new facility opens in October. A West Bank non-facility branch will begin operations in 2007 with a full facility scheduled soon thereafter. Other new branches, programs and facilities are planned in the city and the suburbs for the next 3-5 years as the YMCA of Greater New Orleans continues to fulfill its mission to translate its Christian heritage into programs that build strong kids, strong families and strong communities.