St. Louis Cathedral: A sacred icon for an exotic city

By Robert Cangelosi
Contributing writer
Clarion Herald

St. Louis Cathedral is the third church to stand at the head of Jackson Square. When New Orleans was laid out in 1721 according to a plan prepared by Royal Engineer Le Bland de la Tour, the site of the future cathedral was designated for a Catholic church, which under the Code Noir was the only faith legally allowed in the colony.

The plan for the city followed the principles of French urban planner Sebastien Vauban. It was to be a walled city with a Catholic church overlooking a public square, initially known as the Place de Arms.

Despite the clergy’s repeated request for a church, one was not begun until 1724, and it took three years to complete.

The church was designed by French engineer Adrien de Pauger. It was the first structure in New Orleans to employ brick, locally made at what is today the site of the African-American Museum in the Treme. The bricks were placed within a heavy timber frame known as colombage, and the wood and brick combined was known as brique entre bateaux.

Nomadic liturgical services 

Before the completion of the 1727 Church of St. Louis, Mass in the city was celebrated in several make-do places. The first site was likely a building in what is today the 600 block of St. Ann. It was destroyed in the hurricane of 1722.

Jesuit Father Charlevoix in 1722 recorded that a “wretched warehouse” on Toulouse Street near the river was serving as the church. The following year, Mass was being celebrated in a converted tavern on Decatur Street between St. Louis and Toulouse. Capuchin Father Luxembourg described it as cramped and dilapidated.

When the Company of the Indies built a large barracks on St. Ann Street facing the square, Mass was said in the barracks until the Church of St. Louis was dedicated on Christmas Eve 1727. De Pauger, designer of the church, died a year before the church was completed and requested to be buried in the unfinished church. At least 10 others would be buried in the church.

Even then, a pesky problem

The French priest ordered window glass, art work, a silver cross and candelabra from France and petitioned for a stone tabernacle because the numerous rats would gnaw through a wooden one. Many have claimed that city father Bienville had a small wooden church erected on the site shortly after founding the city in 1718; however, that is impossible, since the city plan had not begun to be laid out until 1721, and there is no official record of one.

With the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762, Louisiana was transferred to Spain, where Roman Catholicism also was the only official religion. The following year, the church was in such a state that it had to be abandoned. Masses were again held in a warehouse, this time in the king’s warehouse in the 500 block of Dumaine.

Once the church repairs were completed, it was again used until it was destroyed in the Good Friday fire of March 21, 1788. That was not a very good year for New Orleans: In addition to the fire, which destroyed 80 percent of the city, the river flooded the city and there was an epidemic.

Some say the city and the church were destroyed because Father Sedella, also known as Père Antoine, would not let the church bells sound a fire alarm because it was Good Friday. Historian Grace King first quoted the Gazette des Deux-Ponts in which the author said that the person who sent him the details of the fire made the accusation. But even the Gazette’s author doubted its factualness.

Winds fanned the flames

The fire started just a few blocks away, and, due to gale-force winds, it spread very fast. Father Sedella wrote that the fire spread so rapidly that he threw some church records into the square, and some he moved to a house “about two rifle shots away,” which was quickly engulfed in flames. Spanish Governor Miro’s official reports of the fire make no mention of Father Sedella’s refusal to ring the church bells. In a very small town, everyone was immediately aware of the fire. The Sedella story is simply unsubstantiated.

 

Following the fire, Mass was celebrated in various locations, including the Government House on Decatur and Toulouse streets, at Charity Hospital on Rampart Street, in the Ursuline Chapel and in the Corps de Guard, now incorporated in the Cabildo. It was not until 1789 that the charred remains of the 1727 church were cleared.

A new church would be paid for by Spaniard Don Andrés Almonester y Roxas. The cornerstone for the replacement church was laid in early 1789 and progressed slowly as Almonester expected a Spanish title in return, and it was not forthcoming. He even threatened to withdraw his offer.

The new church was designed by Don Gilberto Guillemand, a Frenchman in the military service of Spain. The new church was of a Renaissance design with flanking, octagonal bell towers. Some of the bricks for the church were taken from the walls of an abandoned St. Peter Street cemetery.

 

The church was stuccoed and painted in imitation marble. While under construction, Louisiana and Florida were separated from the Diocese of Havana, Cuba, in 1793. Consequently, the Church of St. Louis could be called St. Louis Cathedral. As the cathedral was nearing completion, a second great fire occurred on Dec. 8, 1794. While it destroyed adjacent buildings, the church was spared.

Sixteen days later, the cathedral was dedicated on Christmas Eve, and Almonester finally received his title as a Knight of the Royal and Distinguished Order of Charles III in 1796. Almonester died two years later and was interred in a crypt in the new cathedral.

Central clock tower added 

In 1819, the trustees of the cathedral (known as the Marguilliers) and the city decided to add a clock tower to the 1794 church. Noted U.S. architect Benjamin H. Latrobe was selected as the architect, and on Aug. 28, 1819, a contract was signed. It would be one of Latrobe’s last projects, for he died of yellow fever in 1820 prior to the completion of the tower.

 

In 1842, a schism in the local church resulted in the bishop being barred from his cathedral. The fight was between the trustees and the bishop over his authority to appoint the cathedral’s rector. The Ursuline chapel was designated as the parish church. The schism was eventually settled by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1844 in favor of the bishop.

Benjamin Norman’s “New Orleans and Environs,” published in 1845, provides a lengthy description of the cathedral. He wrote: “This edifice forcibly strikes the stranger by its venerable and antique appearance. The architecture of the Cathedral is by no means pure, but is not wanting in effect on this account.” In “The Manhattaner in New Orleans” (1851), Abraham Hall wrote that one is “much disappointed” in the cathedral, noting you knew you had “seen the elephant.”

When Almonester’s daughter, Micaela Almonester Pontalba, sought to add a façade to her father’s property in Jackson Square, it included an arcade over the sidewalk and a mansard roof. To harmonize with her plans, the city added the mansard roofs to the Cabildo and Presbytere.

The Square was to resemble the Palais Royal in Paris. Consequently, the cathedral which her father had paid for no longer dominated the square. Something had to be done to the cathedral to bring it into scale of the square’s new look.

Micaela eventually scrapped her initial plans and built the present Pontalba Buildings. The wardens had consulted architect J.N.B. de Pouilly as early as 1834 to enlarge the cathedral by lengthening and adding interior galleries, but it still could not meet the needed seating capacity.

In 1839, de Pouilly proposed relocating the cathedral to the site of St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery on Basin Street. The remains of New Orleanians in the cemetery would be put in vaults in the new church. The church would have four principal entrances in order to provide cross-ventilation. Orleans Street would then be extended to Jackson Square with the relocation of the church.

De Pouilly’s third proposal was to “restore” the 1794 church by lengthening the nave and increasing the Square’s façade and adding a central steeple of cypress and wrought iron. The Concordia Intelligencer in Vidalia, Louisiana, on Sept. 14, 1850, wrote: “You will be glad to learn that the old St. Louis Cathedral is being rebuilt so as to retain, as much as possible, its antique and venerable aspect, its greatest charm.”

On March 12, 1849, John Kirwan was contracted “for the restoration of the Cathedral of St. Louis,” but, in reality, it would turn out to be a new church. De Pouilly’s original specifications called for the side walls and lower part of the front wall to remain, but as work progressed, the side walls had to be demolished and the front wall collapsed.

Cracked walls delay rebuild

The New Orleans Weekly Delta in 1849 reported that the saving of the side walls seem folly because “the walls are cracked in several places and seem completely out of line.” De Pouilly revised his plans, and on June 15, 1849, the construction contract was amended to replace the side walls. The specifications for the new side walls called for the footing to be 33 inches below the street and “the bottom covered with two thickness of sound two-inch flat boat planks crossing each other.” The new walls were outward from the 1794 walls.

As the work progressed the new uncompleted central tower collapsed, taking down part of the roof and newly constructed walls. The contractor blamed the architect, and the architect blamed the contractor, and the trustees fired both, undertaking the work themselves with Alexander Sampson as superintendent.

During construction, St. Patrick’s on Camp Street was made the “pro-Cathedral.”

On Nov. 9, 1850, The Daily Picayune said that the “Cathedral is now rapidly approaching completion. The spires of the two corner towers on Chartres Street have been erected and only required slating to be finished. Even in its present rough and incomplete state, the loftiness and lightness of many portions of the interior edifice are very striking to the eye of the beholder.”

But the church would not be blessed for another year, on Dec. 7, 1851.

The new cathedral was not universally liked. Visiting architect Thomas Wharton described it as an “indifferent substitute” for the Spanish-era cathedral. DeBows Review described the cathedral a “profanation,” and historian Charles Gayarre, in 1854, as an “upstart production of bad taste.”

Today the cathedral’s silhouette is synonymous with the City of New Orleans. The architectural style of the cathedral follows the architect’s “modern” French romanticism of the Neo-Grec style.

The impression that the present cathedral is the same church as the 1794 cathedral is not valid.  The only portion of the 1794 church to survive is the foundation under the front wall. The claim that St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest American cathedral also cannot be substantiated, no matter how it is phrased. The cathedrals in St. Augustine, San Juan, San Antonio and Monterey all have better claims.

The original wood and wrought-iron central spire was covered in slate in 1859 but still remains behind the slate. The cathedral’s high altar and side altars were designed by Louis Gille and fabricated in Ghert, Belgium. Belgian paintings of St. Francis of Assisi and the Blessed Virgin were hung over the side altars. Over the high altar was placed a painting of St. Louis by Alexander Boulit, who did the murals throughout the cathedral. Almonester’s remains were reinterred in the new cathedral.

The clock in the façade was originally back-lit by gas. In 1853, it caught fire, and in 1891, it was struck by lightning. By 1872, the cathedral’s ceiling and sanctuary murals were in poor condition and had to be reworked by Erasmus Humbrecht. He would have to do it again 20 years later.

By the second decade of the 20th century, the cathedral was in such poor condition that the archbishop ordered the cathedral closed to the public. Temporary “tie chains and supports” were added to hold the cathedral together.

In 1909, there was an explosion in the cathedral during a christening. The choir loft, organ, an altar and virtually every stained-glass window were damaged. The explosion was thought to be from a bomb placed by two men, but the evidence was inconclusive. It may have been a gas explosion.

In 1918, local philanthropist William Irby stepped forward to pay for the needed structural repairs and restoration of the church. The cathedral’s paintings were redone by John George Achille Peretti. The cathedral was reopened on Dec. 8, 1918.

For the 1938 Eighth National Eucharistic Congress, there was yet another renovation. Humbrecht’s sanctuary wall mural had to be completely reworked by Oidtmann Studio of New York. On Sept. 4, 1938, The Times-Picayune wrote, “Visitors to the Eucharistic Congress here will see a completely renovated St. Louis Cathedral. This week scaffolding was being removed from the historic religious center as another of a series of renovations near completion.”

The church was first air-conditioned in 1956, and two years later, the entire exterior was repaired. In 1960 and 1961, the cathedral had steel framework added to strengthen it.

In anticipation of the nation’s bicentennial, the cathedral underwent a major renovation from April 1, 1975, to April 25, 1976, under the direction of architects Kessels-Diboll-Kessels. Work included structural repairs, a new roof, fire suppression system, chandeliers, HVAC system and fresco restoration.

St. Louis Cathedral has been designated a National Historic Landmark, and its image can’t be separated from the city’s. Who doesn’t remember President Bush speaking to the nation following Hurricane Katrina with the cathedral in the background or Pope John Paul II’s address to clergy and religious in the cathedral?

Robert J. Cangelosi Jr., AIA, NCARB, is a local architect with  Koch and Wilson Architects. architects@kochandwilson.com.

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