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Arts & Culture

NOLA History: The Night the Inquisition Came to Town

New Orleans historian and GoNOLA featured writer, Nicole Biguenet Pedersen, illuminates Pere Antoine’s role as the Spanish Inquisition enforcer in New Orleans.

A little alley, too narrow for cars, stretches between the gardens of Jackson Square and the boutiques of Royal Street.  Pedestrians will find on one side the austere beige stone of the Presbytère and on the other the white stucco and stained glass of St. Louis Cathedral.  The passageway is named for one of the most beloved priests in New Orleans’ history, Fray Antonio de Sedella, colloquially called “Père Antoine.” Though he was a favorite officiate of marriages and baptisms, he was also the Louisiana Commissary of the Inquisition.

The Tribunal of the Inquisition was established in Spain and for centuries persecuted those who did not adhere to the beliefs of orthodox Catholicism. Although it stretched into the Spanish colonies, prudence directed only a subtle and secretive approach in New Orleans, whose French population would have objected to the strict practices of the Inquisition.  Spain owned Louisiana, but much of its population identified themselves as French.  The Inquisition’s officers would cunningly wait until a Louisiana inhabitant who had spoken heresy traveled, and then arrest and try that person away from the colony.  Père Antoine, a Spanish Capuchin monk who had come to Louisiana in 1781, conducted heresy investigations throughout the 1780s, using the title “Vicar and Ecclesiastical Judge of New Orleans.”  The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Cartagena officially named him its commissary in Louisiana in 1786.

Pere Antoine in New Orleans by Edmund Brewster
Pere Antoine at age 74, by Edmund Brewster commissioned in 1822 for the St. Louis Cathedral (lsm.crt.state.la.us)

The Auxilliary Bishop Cyril de Barcelona did not support Père Antoine, and questioned his leadership.  The bishop initiated a personal investigation of Père Antoine that culminated in a request to Governor Esteban Miró to have the monk deported to Spain.  Both the auxiliary bishop and the governor knew that Père Antoine had a large following and sending him back to Spain would not be easy.

Père Antoine was not the type to follow orders submissively and fought the bishop’s demand with what could have been powerful ammunition.  At nine o’clock at night, on the evening of April 28, 1790, he delivered a letter to Governor Miró.  Upon reading it, the governor learned that on December 5th of the preceding year, the Spanish Tribunal had sent the priest an order to search for and seize all subversive materials.  Père Antoine’s letter to the governor stated that he would require the use of the corps de garde to assist in his mission.  At six o’clock the next night, the persistent priest, having received no response, pushed the governor further, inquiring what steps the governor planned to take in aiding him.

Miró saw an opportunity to rid Louisiana of the trouble-making priest.  He later wrote that when he read the Capuchin’s communication, he “shuddered.” He had been charged with growing the population of the colony, which was encouraged by a pledge that no immigrant would be molested for religious matters.  The capable governor knew that formal implementation of the practices of the Inquisition in Louisiana would certainly slow, if not halt, immigration to the colony.

When night darkened the skies over the Plaza de Armas (now Jackson Square), Père Antoine was beckoned to his door by heavy knocking.  On the other side, he found an officer and a file of grenadiers.  Thinking Miró had honored his demand, he said to the men, “My friends, I thank you and his Excellency for the readiness of this compliance with my request.  But I have now no use for your services, and you shall be warned in time when you are wanted.  Retire then, with the blessing of God.”  Instead, the soldiers arrested the friar, who cried out, “What!  Will you dare lay your hands on a Commissary of the Holy Inquisition?”  The officer replied, “I dare obey orders” and promptly deposited Père Antoine on a vessel bound for Cadiz.

That could have been the end of Père Antoine’s role in the history of New Orleans, but he returned a few years later.  He continued his work as an agent of the Inquisition, sending reports about heretical literature as late as 1806, three years after the Americans purchased Louisiana.   Historians have disputed whether Père Antoine truly meant to install the Inquisition in Louisiana or simply sought the legal immunity such a position could afford him.  Regardless of his motivations, he was the vessel by which the Spanish Inquisition came to New Orleans.  But he was also a very complex character who could not be summarized by one facet of his duties in New Orleans.  How he became a hero of the city — and the namesake of the cathedral’s alley — is another story.

For a more detailed account of this episode, see the sources upon which this article is based: Richard E. Greenleaf, “The Inquisition in Spanish Louisiana, 1762-1800,” New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 50 (1975); Charles Gayarré, History of Louisiana: The Spanish Domination (New York: William J. Widdleton, 1866).

New Orleans historian, Nicole Biguenet PedersenNicole Biguenet Pedersen, a native New Orleanian, studied history at Brandeis University and went on to obtain a law degree at the University of Chicago.  Her current research projects focus on historical perceptions of New Orleans. GoNOLA is proud to welcome her as a special contributing writer. 

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