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NOLA History: The Irish Cemeteries

Plate from the Robinson Atlas of 1883, showing Mid City. St. Patrick’s No. 1 is to the left of Canal Street (center, with track symbol). No. 2 is in between Canal and City Park Avenue, and No. 3 to the right of City Park Avenue. (Image: New Orleans Notarial Archives)

The history of New Orleans is full of tales of ghosts, graves and haunted places. One of the best places in the city to “feel” the presence of ghosts is the corner of Canal Street and City Park Avenue. When you take the Canal Street streetcar line to the “Cemeteries” terminal, you find yourself surrounded by some of the oldest graveyards in the city. Standing next to the streetcar, facing towards the lake, you’ve got Greenwood in front of you, Cypress Grove to your left, Odd Fellows to your right, and several other cemeteries just down the street. Which ones are best for ghost hunting? As an author of both fiction and nonfiction, take my word for it — the best are the Irish cemeteries, St. Patrick’s Number 1, 2 and 3.

The Irish began to come to New Orleans in numbers in the late 1820s and 1830s. Life in Ireland was hard, even before the Great Famine, so when given the opportunity, thousands made their way to Liverpool, England, to be “human ballast” for merchant ships. The ships wanted to be empty when the arrived in the U.S., but an empty ship on the ocean is dangerous. Originally, the ships would load up with huge chunks of granite and slate, but they found human cargo to be easier to load and unload.

Headstone from an in-ground grave in St. Patick’s No. 1. Many of the original graves have been paved over. (Photo: Edward Branley)
Most of the graves in St. Patrick’s Number 1 are in-ground copings (above) rather than French-style tombs (courtesy Edward Branley)

By 1833, the Irish community in New Orleans was large enough to organize its own Catholic church parish, St. Patrick’s, located on Camp Street. By 1841, the parish needed a place to properly bury their loved ones. The vestry decided to acquire a parcel of land owned by a free man of color, Gabriel Jason, located at the end of Canal Street, near City Park Avenue. From the air, it looks like one large parcel of land, but it is divided into three sections by the two streets.

The parish decided to start with the westernmost parcel, constructing St. Patrick’s Cemetery Number 1. At this time, the Irish weren’t a wealthy community; they’d spent the last few years doing dirty jobs in the city that slave owners wouldn’t permit slaves to do, lest they die and their owners lose their investments. The biggest of these dirty jobs was digging the New Basin Canal, from S. Rampart Street out to West End. These young, strong, healthy men went out into the swamps that are now Mid City and Lakeview, contracted malaria or yellow fever, and died. They were buried in “copings,” which are in-ground graves raised a bit above the ground by a brick frame. The cemetery was not very notable in terms of the ornate tombs found in the Creole cemeteries closer to the city.

As the vestry of St. Patrick’s began to work on improving the design and layout of what would be their second cemetery, between Canal Street and City Park Avenue, they got hit hard by nature. The city suffered a major blow in the early 1850s when a massive yellow fever epidemic enveloped New Orleans. The Irish, because they did so many outdoor day labor jobs, were hit hardest. Construction of individual family copings had to be abandoned, as the victims of the epidemic were buried in long trenches. According to New Orleans historian Leonard Huber, more than 1,100 people were buried in St. Patrick’s in August 1853, alone. The families would mark the graves with headstones, but the graves themselves were not designed to be permanent. A number of the stones and markers from the 1853 epidemic were preserved, and were set into the ground in the general vicinity of the original graves. St. Patrick Number 1 gives off a feeling of sadness, of lives cut short unexpectedly, of unfulfilled dreams and ambitions. It’s no wonder people report feeling presences wandering through the graveyard.

As the Irish acquired wealth and assimilated more into New Orleans’ society, they began to build above-ground tombs, like the Creoles. (Photo: Infrogmation)

When the Irish — and the city as a whole — recovered from the epidemic, the vestry of St. Patrick’s worked to properly plan out rows for tombs and copings in St. Patrick’s Number 2. As the Irish climbed the social ladder of the city, moving from day labor jobs to become businessmen, policemen, and other “respectable” positions, their mobility is reflected in their burial ground. Families move from using copings to the above-ground tombs you find in other cemeteries in town. In addition, statuary and other ornamental sculptures are placed near the graves and tombs. The overall “feel” of Number 2 is different — now the ghosts are unrequited lovers, grief-stricken wives and mothers who lost their men in the Civil War, along with countless other stories.

Main entrance, St. Patrick’s Number 3, as seen from across City Park Avenue (Photo: Infrogmation)

As the community continued to grow the demand for plot space in the Irish cemeteries grew as well. The St. Patrick’s vestry passed ownership and management of the cemeteries to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, so all the Catholic cemeteries are owned and operated by a single entity. St. Patrick Number 3 has a lot of room for future growth (a coping runs approximately $12,000; a single-width, two-high tomb approximately $24,000). The archdiocese constructed mausoleums in both St. Patrick’s Numbers 1 and 3. These offer a similar service to the community as the old walls of “ovens” — namely, a less expensive alternative to a family tomb or coping.

The “feel” in St. Patrick Number 3 is much more modern, and, in some ways, less “Irish.” Both of these vibes are a reflection of the evolution of the Irish community. As you walk down the aisles of tombs in Number 3, you’ll notice a lot of non-Irish names — LoCasios, Rizzutos, Laroccas, along with German, Croation, and Greek names. That’s typical of New Orleans, where an Irish gal named Ryan marries an Italian guy. They buy a tomb for the family. She insists it be in the Irish cemetery, because she’s going to bury her mother there, when the time comes. It makes things challenging for the genealogists, but the rest of us get to enjoy the wonderful stories of how things come to pass.

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, is now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and on Twitter (@NOLAHistoryGuy).

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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