Whether it was a wise choice, geographically speaking, for explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, to establish a capital for France’s newest colonial endeavor on this particular crescent bend in the Mississippi River in 1718 remains a matter of debate. (For example, he thought the location would be safe from hurricanes.)
But one thing we do know is that once made, his choice stuck. As the area right in the middle of the bend that became New Orleans was cleared, fortune-seeking colonists of all professions arrived. Back then, being French meant being Catholic, and the Catholic Mass was first celebrated outdoors or in tents and then in a warehouse on Toulouse Street near the river. In 1720, the parish of St. Louis was established, and in 1724, construction began on the first church building erected where the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, now stands as the jewel of the French Quarter.
A Famous Face
Nearly three centuries after Bienville, Mass is still being said in St. Louis Cathedral, now one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. “It is the only cathedral in the world that is a symbol of a city. Almost everything you see, even in abstract, relating to the city of New Orleans, has the triple spires,” says Monsignor Crosby Kern of the church’s familiar silhouette. Kern is the Cathedral’s rector; he jokingly wishes its image would generate licensing revenue. “I wish I had a penny for every time they use it in advertisements. Just a penny!”
Although he can speak with a light-hearted air, Kern takes his job very seriously and conveys the sense that he is very aware of the weight of the church’s history and of his responsibilities. “When you’re rector here, you’re not only pastor of a parish, but you’re sort of a curator of a living museum,” observes Kern. “The old Ursuline Convent a few blocks away, part of the complex of this parish, is the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. You have to take care of these things; you live and work with the history.”
There are probably only a few, if any, people who have a deeper connection to the Cathedral than Kern. “My own ancestors have been here since the beginning of the city. In the marriage records from the 1720s, my 10-times-great-grandparents were married here in 1728. Later on, other ancestors were married by Père Antoine in the Cathedral. Here I am, the rector looking at that, and it’s really humbling,” Kern says, as he launches into a brief history of the church.
“The present building is the third rendition on the site, but it incorporates parts of all the other buildings. Remember, the city was founded in 1718. St. Louis was made a parish in 1720. We know there was Mass going on before that, but in 1720, it was firmly established as a parish.”
Kern notes that the first church was completed by 1727. He says it was “a rather substantial building that lasted until the great fire of 1788, when it burned to the ground. Rebuilding took until 1793, when it reopened as a cathedral, and it was a larger building.” Don Andres Almonester y Roxas, who financed the building of the Cabildo, also donated the funds to rebuild the Cathedral and the Presbytere.
The monsignor explains that the church was designated a cathedral upon reopening because it had become the seat of the newly created Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas, and its first bishop, named Peñelvar, was installed. (That it is home of the bishop’s chair, the cathedra in Latin, makes a church a cathedral, not its size).
“The foundations of part of the first building were part of the foundation of the new Cathedral, which [later]went through some variations,” Kern continues. “There were originally two steeples, then a third was added and they were rounded, more in the Spanish style.”
The iconic face of the Cathedral today is a design that has lasted since 1851. Kern says that by the 1840s, the 1793 building was in disrepair and was too small to hold a still-growing congregation. Another consideration for remodeling the Cathedral was aesthetic; the Cabildo and Presbytere had been increased in height with the additions of their third floors and mansard roofs, and the Cathedral appeared shorter and no longer to scale in comparison.
French architect J.N.B. de Pouilly designed the new building with its three spires, a lengthened nave and a taller façade that incorporates the lower part of the 1793 building. The new Cathedral was consecrated in December 1851.
Kern says that de Pouilly’s first plan called for a radical departure that would have changed the city forever. “What they were going to do was tear the whole thing down and build back at the other end of Orleans Street where the Municipal Auditorium is. Orleans was the street in those days, so the Cathedral would have been there with a grand avenue leading to the river. But the people wanted their church and wanted to add on and rebuild where we are now.”
Luckily, the city planners prevailed and nixed de Pouilly’s plan. The iconic view from the river toward the Cathedral, flanked by the Presbytere, Cabildo and Pontalba buildings, has been unchanged ever since the addition of Andrew Jackson’s statue to the public square in 1855.
A Neighborhood Church
“This is a wonderful neighborhood,” notes Kern. “Besides the tourist attractions, people live here in the French Quarter, people who contribute greatly to the community.” Although he likens himself to a curator of a museum, Kern is leader of a parish populated by what may be one of the most eclectic flocks anywhere in the world.
“It’s a living house of prayer,” he says. “We celebrate the sacraments here. I say we are a living museum, in the sense that it’s a witness to history, but primarily it’s a house of prayer. People of all faiths come here. People are here at Mass; they’re here to worship. That’s always been part of this place. Since 1718, when the city was founded, Mass has been said on this site. People were coming here as men and women of faith. It humbles a person to sit there and understand that.”
As a working church in the middle of what seems, at times, a Disney-esque setting, St. Louis Cathedral has seen a regular procession of weddings over the centuries. As mother church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which covers the entire state, Kern says every Catholic in Louisiana has the right to be married in the Cathedral. How many people have exercised that right? He doesn’t care to guess. “We have two or three weddings a weekend, every week. That’s been going on for ever and ever and ever, which is important,” he says.
Baptisms are another rite of passage in the life of Catholics. The baptismal font at the Cathedral, one of its oldest artifacts, is believed to date back to Almonester’s cathedral, which was dedicated in 1793. Thousands of babies have been christened in it, from slaves and mayors to saints and voodoo queens.
Of course, thousands of funerals have been performed in the Cathedral as well, with many of the city’s earliest leaders buried beneath the church, including Almonester and Pierre Marigny, the father of Mandeville’s Bernard Marigny. (Bernard is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.) Twelve bishops and archbishops have their resting place in the Cathedral around the altar. Most recently, the very beloved Archbishop Phillip Hannan, who retired to the northshore and died in 2011, was laid to rest at the side of the altar. Marble tablets installed along the walls of the church memorialize the bishops who have served and are interred there.
The port city of New Orleans’ phenomenal growth in the early 1800s is reflected in the Cathedral’s baptismal and funeral registries from 1820. In addition to natives of New Orleans, the registries list persons from 35 different countries, 12 states and Washington, D.C., who came to New Orleans and either died or gave birth there.
While the Cathedral’s image was worked into the New Orleans Saints championship ring design, real saints—not the NFL variety, but those who have been venerated or beatified by the Roman Catholic Church—have worshiped here, Kern says. “St. Francis Cabrini, Blessed Seelos, St. Catherine Drexel, Mother Henriette DeLille (whose cause is up before the Church) and Blessed John Paul II have been here. So it’s been a place of saints.”
Saints have worshiped in the Cathedral, but sinners, too, seek out the church, two blocks from infamous Bourbon Street. “We come here as sinners to seek God’s love and forgiveness and to live his forgiveness as part of our faith. It’s a marvelous and wonderful paradox, almost,” says Kern.
The Cathedral’s Symbolism
St. Louis Cathedral is an important symbol of an entire city. As the center of faith for a neighborhood and mother church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, it has its own symbols that signify various tenets of the Catholic faith.
Immediately noticeable are the double-barred crosses on the steeples’ roofs, which indicate that the Cathedral is a metropolitan church. “Well, yes, it’s a big city,” one might think. However, the term “metropolitan” has a specific meaning in the Church; it is the home of an archdiocese. The double-barred cross is found inside the Cathedral as well, over the bishop’s chair, and, as Kern points out, “The processional cross on the left side of the altar as you are looking at it is a double-barred cross. It belonged to the first archbishop, Antoine Blanc, and has been used by every archbishop here since 1850.”
Inside, the Cathedral’s display of flags catches the eye, as do the stained-glass windows and the murals covering the ceiling and walls above the choir loft and altar. All carry their own religious messages. The large mural above the altar, painted by Erasme Humbrecht in 1872, shows King Louis IX announcing the Seventh Crusade.
While the murals draw the eye skyward, the stained-glass windows in the outer walls dominate the Cathedral during the day. The panels depict scenes from the life of St. Louis, King of France, the only French monarch beatified by the Church. Louis IX reigned from 1226 to 1270 and was canonized in 1297. St. Louis is the patron saint of architects; one of the windows depicts him working on plans for La Sainte-Chapelle, a major Parisian landmark that he built to house his collection of relics. One of those relics is a portion of the crown of thorns, and his statue standing in the rear of St. Louis Cathedral, like many statues of St. Louis, depicts him bearing a crown of thorns atop a pillow.
Other window panels show his coronation; his role as crusader (he led two crusades); his work as a healer, administering to lepers; his death; and, in the final panel, the pope discussing his canonization.
In 1964, Pope Paul VI elevated St. Louis Cathedral to the status of Minor Basilica. An honorary title, it comes with its own symbolism. The designation recognizes a church’s importance in history and to the region where it’s located. Kern explains, “It becomes, in a sense, a papal church attached to one of the major basilicas in Rome. Ours is attached to St. Mary Major. Certain privileges that are attached to the major basilica are attached to this as well. You might notice there are symbols on either side of the Cathedral, two glass display cases, one with an umbrella and one with a bell on the end of a pole. Those go back to antiquity as well, symbolizing the pope when he comes.”
Of the papal visit by John Paul II in 1987, Kern says, “He’s been by far the most important visitor ever to the Cathedral—and we’ve had kings and emperors, prime ministers and presidents. You name it, the high and the low.”
New Orleans’ Center
Physically and spiritually, the Cathedral has always been at the center of New Orleans. As Kern says, “In triumph and in tragedy, people from the beginning have come to the Cathedral. It is a point of faith. After the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson brought everyone here to sing a praise of thanksgiving. Zachary Taylor, after the Battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War, came to the Cathedral in New Orleans.
After hurricanes, this was a rallying point. After Katrina, the city was devastated. One of the first things that happened was a public Mass about a month after Katrina, as soon as we could get everything together.”
Citizens of all faiths come to the Cathedral during the Christmas holidays with caroling in the church and in Jackson Square. Each year the Cathedral also serves as the venue for a free concert held by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Kern reflects further on his tenure as rector at the jewel in the center of New Orleans. “It’s been the neatest thing to be part of it all during my time here,” he says. “I’ve hosted a president, a prime minister, Prince Charles, the inauguration of mayors, the installation of new archbishops, the death of an old archbishop—all of these things happened—so it’s been a privilege to be able to be here to witness these expressions of faith and realize that you are looking at history as it happens.”
The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, has stood for generations—a tourist attraction, a neighborhood church, a gathering place, a living museum and a burial ground; a place of joy and sadness, a place to give thanks, seek solace and above all, to find redemption.
As to its future, Monsignor Kern says, “So we stay here, despite all of the problems, despite some of the seedier things. We are going to stay, as we always have been, as an anchor of faith, the anchor of hope, life and the fulfillment of life. It’s much more than what you get from Bourbon Street, and we hope we’re the symbol of that.”
To learn more about the Cathedral, visit stlouiscathedral.org. The books Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, by Charles E. Nolan (available in the Cathedral gift shop) and The Basilica on Jackson Square: the history of the St. Louis Cathedral by Leonard V. Huber and Samuel Wilson, Jr. (available at online booksellers) were invaluable resources in producing this article.