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NOLA History: Exploring St. Louis Cemetery No. 3

St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 located on Esplanade Avenue near Bayou St. John is one of New Orleans’ largest and most fascinating cemeteries to visit.

New Orleans is well-known for the above-ground tombs in its cemeteries, and one of the best cemeteries in New Orleans for visitors to explore is St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, located on Esplanade Avenue, near Bayou St. John. St. Louis No. 3 was constructed in 1854, after having been approved by the city and the archdiocese in 1849.

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Cresson family tomb, St. Louis Cemetery Number Three (Photo by Ed Branley)

New Orleans’ first cemetery was located on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. Concerns over disease caused the city leaders to move the burial ground outside the confines of the city. It was replaced by the first of the St. Louis cemeteries. St. Louis No. 1 opened in 1789, on Basin and Conti Streets. Local families immediately began purchasing plots and building French-style above-ground tombs. The yellow fever epidemics of the first half of the 19th century increased the demand for burial space, and St. Louis #2 was constructed at Conti St. and Claiborne Avenue, three blocks up from #1. By the 1840s, the city had grown to the point where the archdiocese needed to acquire more land for burials. They purchased a tract at the end of Esplanade Avenue, by Bayou St. John. At the time, this site was way in the “back-of-town” – the distance helped ongoing concerns about burying yellow fever victims to be put at ease.

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Initial plan for St. Louis #3, 1849 (courtesy NOPL)

St. Louis No. 3 is a much larger cemetery than its two predecessors. It is laid out as three main “aisles,” running from Esplanade Avenue, going north, towards Lake Pontchartrain. Responding to demand after the Civil War, the archdiocese purchased the land behind the initial tract, until they hit the back of the Fair Grounds racetrack. There are smaller alleyways in between the main aisles, with aisles crossing these periodically as they extend towards the rear.

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The “priests’ tomb” (author’s photo)

St. Louis No. 3 has an interesting mix of personal tombs and “society” vaults. Additionally, the archdiocese made plots available to a number of orders of priests, nuns, and brothers who lived and worked in the city. Two of the notable larger vaults are the archdiocese’s “priests’ tomb,” where priests whose families do not make other arrangements are laid to rest, and the vaults of Dante Lodge, a Masonic lodge comprised primarily of men of Italian descent.

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Hellenic Society tomb (courtesy Edward Branley)

As the Greek Orthodox community grew, they developed a desire to build a “society” tomb for members of that faith. They acquired a large plot in St. Louis No. 3 and built a lovely vault for their community. Additionally, many of the families in the Greek and Croatian communities purchased the plots around the society vault, so that it’s become a “Greek Orthodox section” of the cemetery.

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Typical family and individual tombs (Photo by Edward Branley)

A number of personalities are buried in St. Louis No. 3, including numerous Civil War officers and veterans, and photographer E. J. Bellocq. The architect James Gallier, Jr., erected a cenotaph in memory of his father, who was lost at sea in the Atlantic with his wife. Many families took advantage of the opportunity to buy an affordable tomb in St. Louis Number Three.

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Tomb of the “Two Sisters,” whose family originally owned the “Court of Two Sisters” restaurant in the French Quarter (Photo by Edward Branley)

Along with the society tombs, there are a number of magnificent tombs built by families with significant financial means, as well as the classsic “single” and “double” tombs purchased by more-typical middle class families. Since the 1980s, the cemetery has also constructed a number of mausoleums on the cemetery grounds, offering folks a more modest-priced alternative to purchasing a tomb.

Touring St. Louis No. 3 is easy: take the NORTA’s #91 bus line (Jackson-Esplanade) from N. Rampart Street and Esplanade Avenue, to the front gate of the cemetery by the bayou. You can also take the Canal Streetcar’s “City Park” branch line from downtown to the end of the line at Beauregard Square. Hop off the streetcar, cross the bridge at Esplanade Avenue over the bayou, and the cemetery is two blocks down Esplanade. Exploring the cemetery is a great way to spend a late summer morning!

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. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.

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