A quintessential Catholic city at 300

It’s a big year for New Orleans. 2018 marks its tricentennial year — the 300th anniversary of a city rich in history, culture and diversity. New Orleans is a place all to itself, famous for its architecture, cuisine and music. But akin to how the “Mighty Mississippi” forms the backbone of the city’s geography and socioeconomic importance in history, the Catholic faith serves as the city’s underlying foundation — a faith that was present even before the city’s establishment by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1718.

The Catholic identity of New Orleans comes from its rich French and Spanish background. French missionaries first brought the Gospel to the Mississippi River basin in the late 17th-century, and the first Mass was celebrated in the modern-day state of Louisiana, near the river’s mouth, on Mardi Gras of 1699.

The city benefited from the service of many saints, and served as home for some holy men and women currently on the path to canonization, as well as a number of important figures in American Catholic history. It is apropos, therefore, that many streets reference the saints — not to mention the city’s NFL team. New Orleans also is home to the oldest active cathedral in the United States, in addition to nearly 40 churches and several beloved shrines. Enjoy a deeper look at the city’s heritage in the following pages.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.

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St. Louis Cathedral

A church has sat on the site now occupied by New Orleans’ Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis since the city was founded in 1718. After earlier iterations of the church building, a most stable structure was completed in 1789. It became the diocesan cathedral in 1793 with the establishment of a diocese. It was mostly rebuilt, enlarged and restored around 1850. Pope St. Paul VI designated the cathedral a minor basilica in 1964. Pope St. John Paul II visited the church during his pastoral visit to the city in 1987. The various structures on the property, including the current cathedral, have survived an abundance of traumas over the years. Damage was sustained to the cathedral in 1909, when a dynamite bomb was detonated inside the church — destroying, among other things, the stained-glass windows. No stranger to hurricanes and storms over the centuries, the most recent severe damage was sustained during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Prompt Succor

After the Ursuline nuns arrived in New Orleans in 1727, they established a convent and girls’ school in New Orleans, the first of its kind in what is now the United States. Not long after the territory returned to French control, the Ursulines fled to Cuba for fear of repercussions associated with the anti-religious sentiment of the French Revolution. Receiving a promise of protection in the United States directly from President Thomas Jefferson, they returned to New Orleans.

When one of the Ursuline sisters in charge of the school in New Orleans was in need of help, she wrote to one of her cousins, a religious sister still in France named Mother St. Michel Gensoul. Denied permission to set out for an American mission by her bishop, she sought the only recourse available to her and wrote the pope. She prayed to Mary, saying: “O most Holy Virgin Mary, if you obtain for me a prompt and favorable answer to this letter, I promise to have you honored at New Orleans under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor.” The pope responded favorably in record time, and she had a statue commissioned of Mary holding the child Jesus, as promised. When Gensoul arrived in New Orleans in 1810, she brought the statue and installed it at the Ursuline convent in New Orleans.

Ever since, throughout the history of New Orleans, Our Lady of Prompt Succor has been invoked in a variety of circumstances, even bringing about miracles. During a great fire in New Orleans in 1812, the Ursulines gathered around the statue and sought Mary’s intercession. As they begged the intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, the Ursuline convent was one of the few buildings spared in the neighborhood.

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Statue of Andrew Jackson outside St. Louis Cathedral. Shutterstock

In 1815, it seemed that the American army under General Andrew Jackson’s leadership faced almost certain defeat at the Battle of New Orleans, the final battle of the War of 1812 against the British. The night before the battle, many of New Orleans’ citizens gathered around Mary and invoked her intercession as Our Lady of Prompt Succor.

That Jan. 8, the British lost the battle and the war, and even the future president Jackson acknowledged Mary’s role in it. In 1851, Blessed Pope Pius IX approved celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Prompt Succor on Jan. 8, and Pope Leo XIII granted canonical coronation of the statue in 1894. Many have received graces and favors by invoking Mary under this title, and her intercession is sought especially for safety during hurricane season.

St. Joan of Arc
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Orleans, France, is the hometown to the famous soldier-maiden St. Joan of Arc. In 1972, the French government gave the city of New Orleans a golden statue of her, depicted as charging into battle atop a horse. The statue also has St. Joan carrying her own custom banner into battle, on which she wrote the words “Jesus Maria.” The political nature of her heroic victories cost her much, despite being rooted in a deeply spiritual context. St. Joan of Arc was convicted falsely on a variety of charges, including heresy, and was burned at the stake in Rouen, France, in 1431.
Archdiocese of New Orleans
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The Archdiocese of New Orleans is the second-oldest see in the United States, founded originally as the Diocese of Louisiana and the Two Floridas in 1793, taken from territory once under the jurisdiction of bishops in Cuba. It remained under Spanish control until the territory transferred to the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The Diocese of New Orleans was erected in 1826 and
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became an archdiocese in 1850. Today its territory is comprised of eight parishes (or counties) in Louisiana, containing 111 parish churches that serve more than a half-million Catholics. The Metropolitan Province of New Orleans has six suffragan dioceses in its territory. Flags along the nave of the New Orleans cathedral depict the coats of arms of the seven Louisiana dioceses, in addition to the civil flags representing the various authorities controlling the territory since the 16th century.
Patron, St. Louis IX
As can be seen throughout French settled territory in the United States, the French spread devotion to the saintly King Louis IX. With the French originally settling New Orleans, what has become the oldest and longest-operating cathedral in America was placed under his patronage.

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Stained glass from the New Orleans Cathedral depicting the wedding of St. Louis IX and Princess Margaret of Provence. Shutterstock
Saints in New Orleans
St. Katharine Drexel
Saintly Streets
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New Orleans boasts having many streets named after saints, many of them in the city’s famous French Quarter:

OTHER NOTABLE FIGURES

 

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Henriette Delille

Growing up in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Henriette Delille was the illegitimate daughter of a Frenchman and a free woman of color. In her early life, she was instilled with a fondness for culture and advanced into high society, and Delille’s mother wanted her daughter to enter into a common-law marriage with an eligible man. It seems that Delille may have rejected that idea, though some records from the local parish show that she may have given birth to two boys who died soon after.

While some details of her past are unknown, it is clear that she had a conversion experience after receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. Believing she was called to religious life, she faced rejection by two orders because of her race. She persevered, though, and established the Sisters of the Holy Family — her own religious order — in 1836. The congregation served the poor and the sick, and provided religious education to both free people and slaves. Everyone who encountered her experienced her generosity and love. Delille died on Nov. 16, 1862, at age 49, and was declared Venerable in 2010.

Francis Xavier Seelos

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos arrived in New Orleans in 1866 — the last stop in a life devoted to service to others. German born in 1819, Blessed Seelos felt called to the priesthood and eventually joined the Redemptorist order. Ordained in 1844, he had a special passion for working with German immigrants, and a knack for bringing others to Christ through preaching and the sacraments. He was a popular spiritual director, known for his empathy and understanding, and he had a deep devotion to prayer and a deep dependence on the will of God. His first assignment with the Redemptorists was in Baltimore, followed by Pittsburgh, where he was so successful in his work that he was recommended to be the next diocesan bishop.

In the early 1860s, Seelos served as a traveling missionary around the country until arriving in New Orleans. Once there, he devoted himself to service of the poor and the marginalized. It was while caring for victims of yellow fever that Seelos himself contracted the disease. He died on Oct. 4, 1867, at the age of 48. A miracle was attributed to Seelos’ intercession the next day, when a sickly woman touched his hand and was instantly cured of all pain. His remains were buried that day in the New Orleans church where he lived. He was beatified in 2000.

Archbishop Rummel and desegregation

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Born in Germany and ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, Archbishop Joseph Rummel came to New Orleans as archbishop in 1935. He was an effective administrator, and was particularly interested also in establishing social services institutions for those financially struggling from the Great Depression, as well as broadening the scope and reach of Catholic schools and religious education programs. Following the Civil War, much of the American South, including Louisiana, remained segregated. Archbishop Rummel decided to desegregate institutions like schools and parishes. In 1948, he admitted Black students to the archdiocesan-operated Notre Dame seminary. And in the 1950s, he taught about the sinfulness of racism, penning pastoral letters to teach the faithful that the Church cannot support segregation because “there will be no segregation in the kingdom of heaven.” He even closed a parish whose members fought his newly implemented policy to remove “white” and “colored” signs from Catholic institutions. In 1962, he took the bold step to show desegregation’s importance when he excommunicated three laymen after they thwarted the Church’s efforts to integrate Black children into Catholic schools.

Bishop Harold Perry, SVD

A few months after the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, Bishop Harold Perry was named auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, making him the first recognized Black bishop in the Unites States. Ordained a priest during World War II, he is particularly remembered for his pastoral work and seminary administration before he became a bishop.

When Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, then serving as apostolic delegate to the United States, ordained Bishop Perry in January 1966, he said: “the consecration of Bishop Perry was not an honor bestowed upon the Negro race, so much as it was a contribution of the Negro people to the Catholic Church.” Racist and anti-Catholic protesters gathered outside New Orleans’ cathedral at the time of Bishop’s Perry’s episcopal ordination. He died in 1991, and his remains were eventually transferred to the crypt in New Orleans’ cathedral in 2001, fulfilling one of his final requests.