St. Louis Cathedral highlighted by Tricentennial exhibit

By Peter Finney Jr.

To commemorate the tricentennial of the City of New Orleans, the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center will sponsor an exhibit, “The Church in the Crescent: Three Hundred Years of Catholicism in New Orleans,” beginning Oct. 14 and running through September 2019 at the Old Ursuline Convent, 1100 Chartres St., New Orleans.

The exhibit will focus on the history of St. Louis Cathedral, the spiritual and civic icon of New Orleans, where Mass has been celebrated on the same spot since the city’s founding in 1718, said archdiocesan archivist Dr. Emilie Leumas, curator of the exhibit.

“You will see the cathedral grow from a very small parish church into this cathedral-basilica, which is an extraordinary building considering everything it has gone through, from fire and flood and bombs going off in the back of church,” Leumas said. “People will be able to see the architectural drawings every time the cathedral was enlarged.”

Perhaps the most unforgettable story in the cathedral’s rich history occurred on Good Friday (March 17) 1788, when a fire broke out in a small chapel on Chartres Street. Residents who detected the blaze ran to Père Antoine (Father Antonio de Sedella) and asked the pastor to ring the church bells as an alert to the bucket brigade and the colonists.

Good Friday 1788: No bells

Because it was Good Friday and a solemn day of penance, Père Antoine refused to ring the bells. The fire eventually consumed 80 percent of the city, including the cathedral, where Père Antoine tried to save sacramental records by transferring most of them to a nearby house and throwing the rest out of the window.

As it turned out, that house burned, and the only records saved were the ones Père Antoine threw out of the window. The church was rebuilt in 1789 and was raised to the rank of cathedral in 1793, when the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas was established.

The cathedral’s history also has been marked by major ecclesiastical battles over its leadership, Leumas said.

“No matter what kind of infighting there was going on in the church between the bishops, priests, laypeople and trustees, the church is still there,” she said. “It is the icon of the city. It has been there for 300 years. Nothing says ‘New Orleans’ as much as looking at the cathedral.”

While Mass has been celebrated on the same spot since 1718, the cathedral as it exists today dates to 1852, two years after New Orleans became an archdiocese, when the church was largely rebuilt, Leumas said.

The central tower of the cathedral was added in 1820 by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

There are still parts of the cathedral building itself that date to the 1700s, Leumas said, but that would mostly be in the building’s foundation.

Historic, sacred spot

Father Philip Landry, rector of St. Louis Cathedral and chairman of the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center, said the exhibit will focus on the unbroken, 300-year chain of the celebration of Mass on that spot.

“When the city was founded, that spot was designated to be the spot for the church, and since then people have worshiped at St. Louis Cathedral for the whole 300 years,” Father Landry said. “The exhibit tells the story of the importance of the cathedral to the city as a gathering point.”

Archdiocesan communications director Sarah McDonald said the exhibit also will include a “Tree of Catholicism,” a visual look at the 85 parishes, some of which have been suppressed or changed names, that have been established in Orleans Parish over the 300 years.

An architectural dig in 2008 in St. Anthony’s Garden behind the cathedral uncovered traces of a narrow-walled, rectangular hut that is believed to have predated the layout of New Orleans in 1726 and could have been “a pioneer-era temporary structure” that was built by colonists with help from Native Americans, Leumas said.

Beginning Oct. 14, the exhibit will be open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the final tour beginning at 3 p.m. each day. The exhibit will have a field trip packet for students. General admission is $8 a person, with discounted rates for seniors and students.

The exhibit will open with a gala hosted by Archbishop Gregory Aymond Oct. 13 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $150 a person, and valet parking is available. For more information, call 525-9585.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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