Tricentennial lecture: Churches as works of art

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

After Hurricane Katrina, many Catholics whose churches were flooded and never reopened had to wrestle with questions both emotional and spiritual: Yes, they realized that their devastated “church building” was not “the church,” because “the church,” as the documents of Vatican II insisted, was defined as “the people of God.”

And yet, church buildings – those sacred spaces where many foundational life events took place – were far more than bricks and mortar, steel and stained glass.

“It has been said we shape our buildings, but our buildings shape us,” said Dominican Father David Caron, the archdiocesan vicar of evangelization. “From very early on, church buildings have been integral to the Christian story. In Matthew 18:20 we hear, ‘Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.’

“Churches are not mere backdrops to faith. They are places where the divine and the human encounter one another,” Father Caron added.

Covering the waterfront 

At a Tricentennial Lecture on Feb. 28 at Notre Dame Seminary’s Schulte Hall – entitled  “Stones Made Sacred” – architect and church history buff Robert Cangelosi, a parishioner of St. Patrick Church, examined the oldest existing churches in the city of New Orleans and highlighted what makes them distinctive.

“Trying to put 300 years of religious architecture into 45 minutes is like giving you a tapas sampling,” Cangelosi said.

Cangelosi said the first St. Louis Church – in the spot where St. Louis Cathedral now stands – was not built  until 1727, nine years after the founding of the city.

“When New Orleans is founded in 1718, there is no formal plan, and buildings are laid out in a very haphazard manner,” Cangelosi said.

The gridiron plan of the French Quarter was first laid out in 1721, he said, following a French urban design: “A walled, fortified city with a central plaza. At the head of the plaza was a Roman Catholic church; on the right side is a priests’ home (the Presbytere); on the left is the police force for the city.”

The first priests in the colony had been pleading with French officials for a church to be built, Cangelosi said, but it wasn’t designed until 1724 and needed three more years for construction. He noted that the priests requested the tabernacle be made of stone to prevent rats from eating the Eucharist.

Many early Mass locations

There were many early places of worship in New Orleans, Cangelosi said, including a building on St. Ann Street and a tavern on the Mississippi River.

Mass also was celebrated in military barracks in 1721, and, much later, in chapels connected to the Ursuline Sisters, the Presbytere, a government building and the corps de guarde.

The original St. Louis Church burned in the Good Friday fire of 1788, and a new church was opened in 1794, but that church was completely rebuilt in 1851. Only a few stones exist from the original foundation of the 1794 church.

Cangelosi researched the dedication dates of churches in the city of New Orleans. The oldest existing church structures in New Orleans date to the 19th century.

In chronological order, they are the Mortuary Chapel/Our Lady of Guadalupe (1826); St. Patrick (1840); St. Augustine (1842);  St. Mary’s Italian (1845); St. Theresa of Avila (1849); St. Louis Cathedral (1851); St. Anne/St. Peter Claver (1852); St. Mary’s Assumption (1860); St. Vincent de Paul/Blessed Francis X. Seelos (1867); St. John the Baptist (1872); St. Roch Cemetery Chapel (1876); St. Stephen’s (1887); St. Joseph (1892); Our Lady of Good Counsel (1894); St. Michael’s Chapel (1895).

Flurry of building in 1900s

Churches and chapels built in the early part of the early 20th century were Cabrini Chapel (1905); the Academy of the Sacred Heart Chapel (1906); Mater Dolorosa (1908); St. Clare’s Monastery (1914); Holy Name of Jesus (1918); Our Lady of Prompt Succor National Shrine (1922); St. Francis of Assisi (1922); St. Joan of Arc (1923); Notre Dame Seminary Chapel (1923); St. Anthony of Padua (1923); Our Lady of the Rosary (1925); St. Henry (1925); Holy Ghost/St. Katharine Drexel (1926); Holy Name of Mary (1929); St. Leo the Great (1930); Corpus Christi (1930); Immaculate Conception (1930); Our Lady Star of the Sea (1931); All Saints (1931); St. David (1937) and St. Matthias (1941).

Cangelosi said there are several former churches whose structures still exist but are now being used for different purposes: Holy Trinity (1853), now the Marigny Opera House; St. Alphonsus (1857), now a cultural center; St. Maurice (1857); Sts. Peter and Paul (1860); St. Francis de Sales (1871); St. Joseph Academy Chapel (1887), now a library; St. Theresa’s (1891), now a reception center; St. Rose of Lima (1914), now an arts center; Incarnate Word (1919); Annunciation (1922); St. Cecilia (1923), now a PACE Center for the elderly; Sacred Heart (1923), now vacant; St. Monica (1924), now an urban ministries center; St. Anne’s (1924), now senior housing; Our Lady of Lourdes (1925), now vacant.

Epiphany, St. Raymond and St. Julian Eymard also are church buildings that have closed, he said.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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