Tricentennial Thursday: Trustees tried to rule the church

| By Dr. Charles Nolan |
Contributing writer, Clarion Herald

The trustee controversy that broke out at St. Louis Cathedral in 1842 was not uncommon in the U.S. Such conflicts between a bishop and parish lay trustees concerning church ownership and administration took place as early as the 1790s.

The trustee system, often amiable, sometimes hostile, was familiar in the rapidly expanding Catholic parishes and reflected, in part, the growing influence of the young country’s democratic way of life.

Where conflict existed, the central point often was the trustees’ authority to hire and fire a pastor. The 1829 Provincial Council of Baltimore, which Father Antoine Blanc attended, decreed that lay trustees did not have the right to nominate, accept or reject a pastor.

The New Orleans controversy, however, had a unique Louisiana flavor, since the St. Louis trustees – marguilliers, as they were called – claimed to have inherited the Spanish king’s right to appoint a rector.

Tensions were common

Tension between the New Orleans bishops or their appointees and the cathedral wardens, usually dealing with finances, arose periodically after the Louisiana Purchase. Catholic historian Roger Baudier wrote the trustees were “a source of untold trouble and scandal in the cathedral for some 40 years.”

Soon after French-born Antoine Blanc became the bishop of New Orleans in 1835, he asked Archbishop Samuel Eccleston of Baltimore to solicit U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s opinion on the bishop’s rights regarding the cathedral’s temporal administration. Taney responded that this right was governed by state law.

In 1837, the trustees, on their own, mortgaged the cathedral for $200,000. Bishop Blanc, in turn, wrote to Rome, requesting permission to transfer the cathedral to another New Orleans church. Rome agreed, if this was financially feasible, which it was not. At the same time, the trustees were withholding the usual annual financial subsidy to the bishop.

The public confrontation began with the death of  Father Louis Moni on Aug. 3, 1842. Moni had been the cathedral rector since 1829 and was favored by the trustees. On Aug. 8, Bishop Blanc appointed Father Étienne Rousselon, his vicar general, as the cathedral rector.

Trustees vote to overrule

On Aug. 20, the trustees voted to declare the appointment null and void. On the 23rd, Bishop Blanc and the clergy issued a letter condemning the trustees’ action as schismatic. The situation was further complicated because Father Mathieu-Bernard Anduze was quietly politicking with the trustees to name him rector.

On Aug. 30, the trustees passed a set of resolutions that were published in local newspapers. They argued that, with the Louisiana Purchase, the Spanish king’s right of presentation (including the appointment to clerical benefices such as the cathedral) passed to the sovereign people of the U.S. and thus to them as the cathedral’s elected representatives.

In church law, no such right existed in the U.S. The trustees then appealed, unsuccessfully, to the pope via the U.S. Secretary of State. On Sept. 4, four trustees (one third of the total) were elected; all were hostile to the bishop. Amid the escalating controversy, the trustees approved a report stating that Bishop Blanc was not the legitimate bishop.

Father Rousselon resigned on Sept. 15, and the following day, Father Constantine Maenhaut was appointed. Although the trustees initially accepted him, the situation soon deteriorated as the trustees verbally abused Father Maenhaut and imposed petty regulations concerning his use of the rectory and grounds.

The trustees not only refused to respond to Bishop Blanc’s and Father Maenhaut’s conditions for the continued presence of a priest at the cathedral but also successfully approached the First Municipality Council to enact, on Oct. 31, the “Dead Corpse Ordinance,” requiring all Catholics to be buried from the mortuary chapel on Rampart Street, rather than the cathedral or other city parishes; the ordinance applied only to Catholics.

On Nov. 18, the remaining clergy withdrew from the cathedral. One priest remained at the mortuary chapel to perform funerals. On Dec. 2, the ordinance was declared null; on Dec. 10, it was declared unconstitutional.

The withdrawal of the clergy continued as a war of words raged in the local as well as the newly established diocesan paper, Le Propagateur Catholique, edited by Father Napoléon Joseph Perché. Father Perché’s masterful refutation of the trustees’ position later formed part of the final legal decision. 

An interim peace that was reached included Father Dominic Bach’s brief tenure as rector; he died on Sept. 19, 1843. Bishop Blanc then wrote the trustees, outlining his conditions for the appointment of a new rector. On Oct. 27, the trustee sympathizers held a public meeting, denouncing Bishop Blanc as a usurper. Four days later, the trustees refused the bishop’s conditions and claimed they alone had the right of presentation.

Bishop Blanc charged the trustees with schism and said no priest would be subject to the trustees’ orders. On Nov. 7,1843, the trustees charged the bishop with schism and further stated that no papal bull could be published without the permission of the sovereign, whose office the people themselves held in Louisiana.

Bishop Blanc again explored the possibility of moving the cathedral to another parish. The trustees also filed an unsuccessful $20,000 lawsuit against the bishop for damages to the cathedral resulting from the failure to appoint a rector. 

Early in 1844, the trustees filed their case against Bishop Blanc in parish court. On Feb. 25, the local court decided against them. On March 20, the trustees appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Three months later, the Supreme Court also decided against the trustees, noting that all parallels regarding church-state relations in European countries or colonies and the United States were irrelevant; the trustees’ claim to the Spanish king’s authority was without merit. The court also asserted it could not authorize the wardens to intervene in Catholic internal doctrinal and disciplinary matters.

The controversy also had a democratic conclusion. At the trustee elections later in 1844, a complete slate of new trustees, favorable to the bishop, was elected. Father Constantine Maenhaut was reinstated as rector, a position he held until his death in 1866; St. Louis remained New Orleans’ cathedral parish.

Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”

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