Since its earliest days, there has been a church in New Orleans’ Jackson square. But St. Louis Cathedral has had its share of difficulties over the past three centuries.
Since 1727, only a few years after the founding of New Orleans, there has been a church on this spot in the center of the French Quarter. But the earliest structure was destroyed by fire on Good Friday, 1788.
“And one story is that the people who saw the fire came to Pere Antoine, the priest in charge of the Cathedral, and asked him to please ring the bells so everyone would know there was a fire,” said Brandon Briscoe, President of the St. Louis Cathedral Pastoral Council. “The bucket brigade needed to come help put the fire out, and Pere Antoine said, ‘No, today is Good Friday. That's a day of penance and solemnity. Bells are a sign of joy and happiness. We can't ring the bells on Good Friday.’”
If true, that refusal by the priest may have doomed most of the French Quarter. A new church was built in 1793.
But in the 1850s, an effort to raise the height of the bell tower ended with the collapse of the church walls. Today, the foundation and the lower front wall are all that remain of the 1793 building. The baptismal fount dates from the mid-1700s.
“We are the oldest continuously operating Cathedral in the United States,” Briscoe said.
The cathedral is a tribute to St. Louis, the King of France, who is depicted in the building’s stained glass windows.
“And he's a great model and patron for our Cathedral and for our Archdiocese because he was a king who really looked after the lowest and least of his kingdom.
Just after Hurricane Katrina, they made a fascinating discovery in this garden behind the Cathedral. It was the remains of structures that were likely part of the very first settlement here in New Orleans.
“And the archeologists found the remnants of buildings that are not on the earliest maps and plans for the City of New Orleans,” Briscoe said. “And so the archeologists concluded, this is, this is ground zero where the settlers had pitched camp and started the city.”
And there may be a few more little-known stories here.
“There are more than a hundred different people buried beneath the pews in the main part of the church,” Briscoe said. “They range from Pere Antoine, for whom the alleys are named, to governors, to just ordinary lay folks who in the early days of the city passed away.”
For nearly three centuries, St. Louis Cathedral has been an icon of New Orleans. It not only identifies a place, but also a faith that has been part of the city since its earlier days.