New Orleans is one of the most staunchly Catholic cities in America because it was forged by French and Spanish people who were devoted to the Catholic Church. When the first explorers and colonists arrived in this swampy land, they knew that they had to worship somewhere. They placed their main church in the heart of their city, and they’ve been fervently worshipping there ever since.
Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville officially established the city of New Orleans in 1718. He colonized the land that is now the French Quarter because it was located on higher ground next to the Mississippi River, and it was relatively close to the Lake Pontchartrain, which was also a trade route. A few years later, leaders of the Catholic Church and faithful laypersons arrived and began to establish a holy place where devotees could properly worship.
French engineer Adrien De Pauger arrived in the fledgling city on March 29, 1721, and he hoped to start construction on a permanent church at the top of the town square, called Place d’Armes (current-day Jackson Square), right away. However, he was asked by the city officials to focus on making housing and infrastructure first.
The citizens of the city built makeshift churches or worshiped in other buildings in the early 1720s, much to the chagrin of the clergy. A priest visiting from France was thoroughly upset with the circumstances in which people were practicing their faith as well as the state of the city itself. Leonard V. Huber and Samuel Wilson, Jr. wrote in their book The Basilica on Jackson Square, “Father Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, a Jesuit historian who visited the struggling town, found ‘half of a wretched warehouse’ serving as the church.”
In 1724, construction of what would be the first permanent St. Louis Cathedral began, and Catholics began to hold ceremonies on the site in temporary buildings. This church was quite small compared to the size of the church today. Parishioners could only get a seat in one of the 18 pews if they bought it at auction.
Sadly, the church’s biggest champion De Pauger perished on June 21, 1726, before the church was completed. He requested that he be buried within his beloved church. He was the third person to be interred there.
The first St. Louis Cathedral was used for decades before being closed for renovations. It was reopened in the 1760s, but it was completely destroyed two decades later. A single candle was the culprit behind a massive fire that burned much of New Orleans on Good Friday, March 21, 1788.
Military treasurer Vincente Jose Nunez left a candle burning near his window, and it lit his lace curtains on fire. The fire rapidly spread through the city, burning the wooden homes and buildings. Among the destruction, the St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, and the home of the local priests were devastated.
The pastor of the church during the time of the fire was Father Antonio de Sedella, more commonly referred to as Pere Antoine. Pere Antoine was known to cause trouble with his superiors in the church, yet his parishioners were enthralled with him. Benjamin Latrobe wrote of Pere Antoine: “Father Anthony wears a coarse monks dark brown habit, tied around his waist with a thick cotton cord, and a very large broad black hat. He is the only priest who wears monastic dress in the city. His benevolence is always active.”
Pere Antoine seemed to be a close confidant of Marie Laveau, the infamous voodoo priestess. He baptized her in the early 1800s and then presided over her first wedding in 1819 to a man named Jacques Paris, who mysteriously disappeared not long after. "Probably she knew Father Antoine better than any living in those days, for he the priest and she the nurse met at the dying bedside of hundreds of people," her obituary in The Daily Picayune stated.
Pere Antoine passed away on January 19, 1829, and was laid out in the church for people to visit. Thousands of people came to mourn the popular priest, and he was buried under the floor of the church three days later. Some regular parishioners and tourists have claimed to see the ghost of Pere Antoine near the altar during Christmas midnight mass, holding a candle or walking in the church’s alleyway that is named after him.
The citizens worshiped in government buildings and hospitals while a new church was built. Finally, the cathedral was completed in 1794, thanks to funds donated by Don Andres Almonester y Roxas, one of the wealthiest men in the city. He also built a chapel at the Ursuline Convent and rebuilt Charity Hospital after a hurricane destroyed it. Almonester didn’t lavish these charitable works for the people of New Orleans out of the goodness of his heart, though—he was trying to gain the regal title of “Castile” from the King of Spain.
Two years later, in 1796, Almonester received the title he vied for; then he passed away in 1798. He was also buried under the floor of the cathedral, which he requested.
Don Andres Almonester y Roxas’s daughter, Micaela Almonester, eventually came to have many dealings with the church, too. Micaela’s father died before she was three years old, and he left her a large inheritance. Fifteen-year-old Micaela was arranged to marry her 20-year-old cousin Joseph-Xavier Celestin Delfau de Pontalba in 1811. They married at the St. Louis Cathedral and moved to France where they lived a rich life. Micaela’s father-in-law, Baron Joseph Delfau de Pontalba, despised her and attempted to get his hands on the fortune her father left her. Micaela left France in 1803 and returned to New Orleans to ensure the safety of her properties there. When she went back, she attempted to divorce Celestin, to no avail. The Baron de Pontalba was so angered by her behavior that he shot her four times in the chest. She survived, but the Baron committed suicide the same day. Because of the Baron’s death, Celestin took the rank, and Micaela was awarded the title of Baroness de Pontalba. She finally won a legal separation from Celestin and regained all of her inheritance.
In 1848, the Baroness de Pontalba and her children returned to New Orleans. She invested much of her fortune in revitalizing the city. In particular, she commissioned the building of two large red-brick buildings that border the Place d’Armes, and it is still standing today. She helped to rename Place d’Armes as Jackson Square and partly paid for the iconic statue of Andrew Jackson.
Perhaps because of Baroness Pontalba’s beautiful new buildings, a contract was taken out in 1849 to upgrade the St. Louis Cathedral again. The construction was well underway when tragedy struck a few years later.
On April 25, 1909, just before 3 p.m., the church was rocked by an explosive that was set off near the entrance of the church. There were just a few parishioners gathered near the church’s altar for a christening after the morning mass, and none of them were injured in the blast. It seemed to the police that the culprit either didn’t want to hurt anyone or was inept, because people could have died had it been set it off deeper inside the church or a few hours earlier.
Sicilian immigrant Ferdinand Palma was arrested because of rising beliefs that Italian immigrants were committing heinous crimes. He was later cleared of the charges. Some people claimed that the laborers renovating the church were to blame, but there have been no suspects charged with the crime.
While citizens and government officials tried to raise money to fix the church, the Category 4 Hurricane of 1915 caused extensive damage. The church was closed for repair and renovation, reopening in 1917.
The church stood proudly throughout the 20th century. However, it did not escape the ravages of Hurricane Katrina at the beginning of the 21st. Two huge oak trees were uprooted in the church yard, and a hole was torn in the roof. Rainwater damaged the Holtkamp pipe organ that was installed just before the storm hit. The organ was restored to the church in 2008.
Set in the backdrop of Jackson Square, the iconic St. Louis Cathedral has become a symbol of the city itself. Both have survived fire and flood and even terrorist attack, to be rebuilt by the faithful of New Orleans. And, without doubt, the St. Louis Cathedral, like her city, will surely be standing for another 300 years—providing refuge for local devotees, tourists, and spirits alike!