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NOLA History: The St. Louis Cathedral

Learn the history of the iconic cathedral – one of the most visited landmarks in New Orleans.

St. Louis Cathedral
St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square are alive with springtime blooms. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

Located in the center of the Vieux Carre, St. Louis Cathedral is one of the most well-known landmarks in the city of New Orleans. Its history reflects the ups and downs of the city. Since New Orleans was established by French explorers, Catholicism has been part of the city’s fabric since the very beginning. The presence of clergy with the explorers and early trappers who camped along Bayou St. Jean as early as 1699 would have been spotty, but priests from the gulf coast colony of Biloxi certainly came over to New Orleans when Sieur d’Bienville formally established the city in 1718. Indeed, one of those who accompanied Bienville was the Jesuit, Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix. Charlevoix was a traveller and writer; he didn’t stay long in New Orleans. Still, his reports no doubt encouraged the Jesuits and other clergy in New France to tend to the faithful.

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St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square, as seen from Jax Brewery (Photo courtesy of Eric Pancer)

When Adrien de Pauger drew up his plan for the city’s streets in 1720, he used the location of a small wooden chapel as the center of the street grid. He placed that church right behind the Place d’Arms, the military parade ground. One of the final plans drawn up by de Pauger, before his death in 1726, was for the first church to occupy that site. The wooden chapel became a proper parish church in 1727, when de Pauger’s design became reality. That church served the city until the Great Fire of 1788, when such a large portion of the city burned to the ground.

Since the Spanish were in control of the city by the time of the fire of 1788, the French style architecture of the original church gave way to a much grander, Spanish design. Don Andres Almonaster y Rojas, a wealthy Spanish civil servant, funded the reconstruction project. It took five years to complete the new church, but it was in use by the time the first Bishop of the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas arrived to the city in 1795. Don Luis Ignacio Maria de Pefialver y Cardenas, a native of Havana, immediately declared the Church of St. Louis to be his formal seat, and it was elevated to the status of cathedral. As New Orleans grew, the city took an interest in the expansion of the cathedral. The church’s pastor at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, Antonio de Sedella (Pere Antoine), wanted to add a central tower with a clock and bell. The city council agreed to finance the clock, and a local watch and clockmaker, Jean Delachaux, was contracted to travel to Paris to acquire a clock and bell. He returned to New Orleans and installed them in 1819. The bell was christened “Victorie,” and its inscription commemorates the Battle of New Orleans:

Braves Louisianais, cette cloche dont le nom est Victoire a ete fondue en memoire de Ia glorieuse joumee du 8 Janvier 1815.

This translates to:

Brave men of Louisiana, this bell whose name is Victoire was molten in glorious memory of the event of January 8, 1815.

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The Church of St. Louis in 1794. Illustration from the publication “New Orleans as it was. Episodes of Louisiana life,” in the public domain.

By the late 1830s, the cathedral chapter and civic leaders wanted to expand and enlarge their primary church. The buildings on either side of the church, the Cabildo and Presbytere, crowded in the cathedral. The property surrounding the cathedral and the Place d’Armes was owned by Don Andres’ daughter, the Baronness Micaela Pontalba. Micaela planned to re-develop the property on either side of the public square, so she was more than willing to invest in making the cathedral an architectural gem. The cathedral chapter contracted a French architect, J. N. B. de Pouilly, in 1839 to plan this expansion. By 1849, an Irish builder, John Patrick Kirwan, was contracted to make de Pouilly’s plans a reality. Both de Pouilly and Kirwan grossly underestimated the structural integrity of the side walls of the 1794 church. Those walls collapsed, taking down the central tower with it. The architect and builder were dismissed, and the church was essentially constructed from scratch. The clock had to be replaced, but the bell, Victorie, was salvaged and re-installed. The project was completed in 1854, resulting in the building we see today.

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Looking up at the cathedral. (Photo courtesy of Eric Pancer)

St. Louis Cathedral suffered minor damage in 1909, when a bomb exploded inside the church. Nobody was injured; the building was almost empty. One of the side altars was damaged in the incident, believed to be an attack by Italian immigrants on construction workers of Italian descent who were doing repair work inside the church. The cathedral sustained some damage in the hurricane of 1915, forcing it to be closed for most of 1916. While the structure of the building was largely unaffected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, roof damage near the organ loft severely damaged the massive organ. It was removed, repaired, and re-installed in 2008.

The cathedral was declared a “minor basilica” by Pope Paul VI in 1964, as part of the ceremonies surrounding the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral in 1987. St. Louis Cathedral, along with the Cabildo, Presbytere, and Jackson Square, are the most photographed landmarks in New Orleans. Baroness Pontalba’s investment came true—the cathedral and surrounding property are some of the most interesting and popular attractions in the city.

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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