Many visitors to the city head over to the corner of Constance and Josephine Streets in the Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans to see “the churches.” It’s a rare sight to see two large Catholic churches directly across the street from each other, but that’s what you find up in “da Channel.” On the river side of the intersection is St. Mary’s Assumption Church, and on the lake side is St. Alphonsus Church. For most of the history of the “Redemptorist parish,” there’s been a third church in the neighborhood as well.
The tale of the three churches goes back to the 1830s, when large numbers of German and Irish immigrants moved to New Orleans and built homes in the City of Lafayette, which was the suburb of New Orleans that consisted of what is now the Irish Channel, Lower Garden District, and Garden District. (The City of Lafayette was officially annexed into New Orleans in the late 1840s.)
Bishop Antoine Blanc (the priest after which “Pere Antoine Alley”next to St. Louis Cathedral is named) established and incorporated a parish for Lafayette in 1836, but no church was built by 1842. He approached a German priest visiting from Philadelphia, Fr. Peter Czackert, and encouraged him to stay in the city to support the German community. Fr. Czackert, a Redemptorist, accepted, and began to say Mass in a rented dance hall on Josephine and Chippewa streets. Fr. Czackert was recalled back east by the order, but Pere Antoine left the door open for the Redemptorists to return if they chose to. The parish continued to grow and by 1844 had purchased the property at Constance and Josephine, building a wood-frame church on that site. That church was dismantled in 1856 to make way for construction of the current church. The pieces of the original wood church were moved to St. Joseph’s Cemetery on Washington Avenue (where many German families buried their dead) for use as a mortuary chapel.
The Redemptorists sent Fr. Czackert back to New Orleans in 1847 as a superior of the local chapter of the order, but Czackert passed away in 1848, yet another victim of the yellow fever epidemic. The Redemptorists, recognizing the diversity of the neighborhood, reached out to the Irish and French communities there. In 1850, the Irish completed St. Alphonsus, across the street. The parish eventually bought the property between the church and St. Andrew Street (heading downtown), and built a parish school there.
The Redemptorist priests staffing the parish encouraged the French families living in the neighborhood to join one of the existing communities, but instead they chose to build their own church, Notre Dame de Bon Secour (Our Lady of Prompt Succor), on Jackson Avenue, between Prytania and Magazine Streets. Notre Dame was a much smaller church, reflecting the size of its congregation.
By the mid-1850s, the Germans realized their wooden church was not big enough to support the congregation. That, combined with the imposing Irish church across the street, motivated them to build what is arguably one of the loveliest churches in the city. The current St. Mary’s Assumption Church was begun in 1858 and completed in 1860. An encyclopedia article on “Old World Craftsmanship” could easily just say “See ‘St. Mary’s.'” the church was constructed and adorned by some of the best masons, carpenters, crafstmen, and artisans in New Orleans. Pere Antoine, assisted by Bishop W. H. Elder of Natchez, dedicated St. Mary’s on June 24, 1860. Work continued on the church after its dedication, with construction of the beautiful bell tower, as well as interior adornments. It was in this church that the parish’s most famous priest, Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, CSsR, preached and ministered to the community, until his death from yellow fever in 1867.
The ornate high altar was dedicated on Christmas Day, 1874. The statues and decorations adorning the altar were carved in Munich, Germany, and represent some of the finest woodcarving in the city. Statues of the Archangels, the four Evangelists, and other saints and priests in full color and gilded with gold leaf surround the altar.
In the Twentieth Century, the makeup of the Garden District and Irish Channel began to change. A hurricane damaged the French church in 1918. The archdiocese officially consolidated the three faith communities into one parish, and demolished Notre Dame in 1925. The Redemptorists acquired the Greek Revival mansion at 2523 Prytania Street, as a residence for older priests. Rather than going over to one of the two big churches, Catholic families in the Garden District began attending Mass at Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel in the residence. The separation between the communities was now economic rather than ethnic. Hurricane Betsy severely damaged St. Mary’s in 1965, and there was talk of demolishing the structure. The entire city rallied to the church’s aid, and the church was restored. By this time, the parish (with the exception of the Garden District) had truly merged into one community, now celebrating Mass at St. Alphonsus while re-building its sister church across the street. Families sent their children to St. Alphonsus Elementary School, on the corner of Constance and St. Andrew, and then the kids went to high school at Redemptorist High, on Constance and Josephine, across from St. Mary’s.
Citing high crime rates in the neighborhood and other concerns, the Redemptorists left St. Alphonsus Parish in 1980. Direct control of the parish was returned to the archdiocese, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame continued to staff the elementary school. The plan was to close Redemptorist High, but the high school’s faculty, alumni, and the parish fought the closure, finally convincing the archdiocese to re-locate the school in Gentilly, on the campus of St. Joseph Academy, which was also targeted for closure. With the withdrawal of the Redemptorists from the school, it re-opened on Crescent Street in Gentilly as Redeemer High School in 1980. Redeemer closed its doors after Hurricane Katrina flooded the school with twelve feet of water, and the buildings have been demolished to make way for the re-location of Holy Cross School from the Ninth Ward.
“White flight” and the changing economic climate of the Irish Channel forced the Redemptorists to close St. Alphonsus in the 1970s. The building began to deteriorate, the result of lack of use. In 1990, the community petitioned the archdiocese to “deconsecrate” the church and lease the building to their foundation, the Friends of St. Alphonsus. Hard work and financial support from the city has enabled them to open it as a cultural center and museum.
The Redemptorists sold their residence on Prytania Street to author Anne Rice in 1997. She closed the chapel there, encouraging Garden District Catholics to attend mass at St. Mary’s. This created a rift between Rice and the neighborhood, and residents resolved to continue to have their own church. They arranged to move the original St. Mary’s church from St. Joseph Cemetery to a lot on Jackson Avenue, between Prytania Street and St. Charles Avenue. Once again, the three churches continue to serve the faithful of Uptown New Orleans.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, both books in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He’s @YatPundit on Twitter.