By Gayle Nolan
For 18th-century French and later Creole New Orleanians, Lent was a special time of fast and abstinence, meditation, prayer and good works. Social life closed down entirely during the entire 40-day period: the Old Opera House was shuttered, and music was not heard even in private parlors during Lent.
Almost from the time of its founding, the New Orleans Catholic community looked forward to having special preachers or guest priests for Lenten missions, a custom that remains even today in many New Orleans churches.
Roger Baudier, the premiere mid-20th-century chronicler of Catholic history and customs in New Orleans, portrayed New Orleans Catholic Lenten customs through vignettes based on his own family and his observations and interviews with colorful characters.
Orphaned at the age of 6, Baudier was raised with the help of elderly aunts who filled his life with Creole stories and traditions, which later found their way into his weekly column “Historic Old New Orleans” (Catholic Action of the South: 1933-1960).
A popular series entitled “Creole Lenten Customs” appeared in the New Orleans Item newspaper in 1952, causing not a few locals to claim that he had been writing about their own families. Baudier’s unpublished notes and published articles provide for us today a glimpse of New Orleans Lenten customs as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries.
When the Spanish clergy arrived in New Orleans in 1772, they were horrified by practices the French considered “ancient” and “venerable” – such as taking boiled milk in the potent black coffee for which New Orleans is famous. Milk was considered a “food,” and the French cafe au lait was considered a laxity by the Spanish.
What could be done, however, when the friars preached in Spanish and the people confessed their sins in French?
One practice introduced by the Spanish, however, still prevails today in New Orleans – the custom of walking to church on Good Friday. The Spanish soldiers would not allow the French to ride in their carriages to St. Louis Cathedral on that day: On Good Friday, no wheels turn! On that day, el Señor Jesus Cristo walked to Calvary, and on that day also the French would walk!
Eventually, the custom of “making the nine churches on Good Friday” evolved, and it only “counts” if one walks.
With the influx of Americans after 1803, the French and Creoles held even more strongly to their Catholic Lenten traditions, especially during Holy Week, referring to those who ignored the customs as “des Visigoths” and “des gens du Nord” (Northern people).
Holy Week began with selecting “good” palms, those without withered or brown fronds, to bring to St. Louis Cathedral – nothing was valid unless it happened at the cathedral. Arriving at church early was important also, in order to catch drops of the holy water to ensure the palms were properly blessed. Those who were not sure that their palms had actually been blessed during the ceremony would dip them in the holy water font on the way out of church. The palms from the previous year were burned and buried under the house or in the garden.
On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Holy Week, the office of Tenebrae was chanted at the cathedral. During the chanting of the psalms and Scriptures, lighted candles on the altar were successively extinguished, until one was left, symbolizing Christ. When that last one was removed, the congregation clapped their book and made noise to represent the confusion that reigned on earth when Christ expired on the cross.
On Holy Thursday, the bells were silenced and wooded clappers summoned the faithful to church; holy water was removed from the fonts and the altar was stripped. The Blessing of the Holy Oils in the morning and the washing of the feet in the afternoon were both well attended.
In the evening, the Creoles made visits to Le Reposoir, the specially decorated and illumined side altar, where the Blessed Sacrament was kept for prayer and adoration. The more affluent families rented carriages to take them from church to church to make amends for the negligence of the apostles who slept while Jesus agonized in the garden.
Always, on Good Friday, the Way of the Cross was observed at the traditional time of the Savior’s death. Many who “make the nine churches” on this day will time their walk to conclude with the outdoor Way of the Cross at St. Roch Cemetery and the prayer at the crucifix in the center of the Campo Santo.
On Holy Saturday, Catholics attended the blessing of the new fire, the lighting of the Paschal candle, the blessing of Easter water, the chanting of the prophecies and the Mass of the Resurrection. Each household obtained its supply of the Easter water after the services. The children eagerly awaited the return of the bells, which had “flown to Rome to see the Pope” after the chanted Gloria on Holy Thursday.
From all of the widespread observance of the Lenten period, it is not hard to understand how Mardi Gras became so popular, as one last fling at gaiety and social brilliance before the rigorous Lenten period.
Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”
Author and teacher Gayle Nolan lives in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.