The St. Louis Cathedral is one of New Orleans' most
notable landmarks. This venerable
building, its triple steeples towering above its historic neighbors,
the Cabildo and the
Presbytere - looks down benignly on the green of the Square and General
Andrew Jackson on
his bronze horse and on the block-long Pontalba Buildings with their
galleries. Truly, this is the heart of old New Orleans.
Since 1727 New Orleanians have worshipped in churches on this
site. Half a dozen
years earlier, the French engineer, Adrien De Pauger, who arrived in
the newly founded
city on March 29, 1721, designated this site for a church in conformity
with the plan of
the Engineer-in-Chief of Louisiana, LeBlond de la Tour, who was at the
The new parish church, dedicated to Louis IX, sainted
King of France, was thus perhaps
the first building in New Orleans of "brick between posts" (bnquete
poteaux) construction, an effective method of building that
continued to be used in
Louisiana until at least the middle of the nineteenth century. De
died on June 21, 1726, before his church was completed. In his will he
requested that he
be buried within the unfinished building, a request presumably granted.
During the six decades that the church stood, there
worshipped within its walls French
Governors Perier, Bienville, Vaudreuil and Kerlerec and Spanish
Governors Unzaga, Galvez
and Miro. In this first little church were baptized the children of the
colonists and the
children of the slaves. Here were married the lowly and the highborn,
and through its
doors were borne the mortal remains of the faithful for the burial
rites of Holy Mother
Church on the last journey to the little cemetery on St. Peter Street.
The following are the names of persons buried under the
church, before it was built and
1721.- M. Alias (Helias), Director of the Law concessions.
1723.- M. Sauvoy, Royal Commissary.
1726.- M. Pauger, Knight of St. Louis, Chief Engineer,
(the same who made the plan of the city.)
1730.- M. de Ia Chaise, Commissary Royal and Director of
1734.- Rev. F. Raphael, Superior of the Capuchins.
1737.- Rev. F. Phillippe, his successor.
1745.- Madame Noyant, and 1751, her husband, Lieutenant
of the King.
1750.- Rev. F. Charles, Superior of the Capuchins.
1751.- Rev. F. Matthias, parish priest.
1752.- M. Chauvin, Trustee in active service.
1752.- M. Michel, Commissary of the Navy and acting
The Year of Calamity
A fire on March 21, 1788, started when a
ignited the lace draperies of an altar in the home of the
military treasurer of the colony, Vincente Jose Nunez, on
Chartres Street. Among the buildings burned to the ground were
the Church of St. Louis, the priests' residence, and the Casa
Principal, which housed the Cabildo.
In a letter written on March 28, 1788,
Antonio de Sedella (Pere Antoine), who was pastor of the church,
described the rapidity with which the fire made headway. He wrote
that he had sent some of the church records to the home of the
tobacco director, "distant from the Presbytere about two
rifle shots," but they were lost when that house caught
Nearly a year elapsed before the charred
remains of the church were cleared away and construction of a new
church began in early 1789. More than five years were to pass
before the new church was completed in December, 1794.
Church of St. Louis was the gift of the wealthy Don Andres
Almonester y Roxas, a native of Andalusia who had acquired
numerous properties since his arrival in New Orleans in the wake
of Governor Alejandro O'Reilly.
As Louisiana and the Floridas had been
a diocese in 1793, and Luis Pefialver y Cardenas appointed first
bishop with New Orleans as his See city, the new church was
dedicated as a Cathedral and put into service on Christmas Eve,
Shortly before the completion of the
Cathedral, on April 25, 1793, the
diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas was created by Pope Pius VI. Don
Luis Ignacio Maria
de Pefialver y Cardenas of Havana was appointed the first bishop.
arrived in state in New Orleans in July, 1795 to take formal possession
of his See and
begin his episcopal duties.
In 1819 a New Orleans clockmaker, Jean
Delachaux, was authorized by the
trustees to obtain a suitable clock to be placed in the facade of the
As this was a project of general civic
interest, the City Council agreed
to the expense of buying the clock and its bell and also to share in
the cost of erecting
a central tower to house them. Delachaux brought the clock and bell
with him from Paris
and Latrobe records in his journal an incident which occurred when he
was about to place
the clock's bell in the tower:
When the new bell was ready to be
put into the tower, I wrote him (Pere Antoine) a letter in Latin to
apprise him of the circumstance, in order that, if the rites of the
Church required any notice of it, he might avail himself of the
occasion and do what he thought necessary. He thanked me, and I had the
bell brought within the Church. After High Mass, he arranged a
procession to the bell and regularly baptized her by the name of
Victoire, the name embossed upon her by the founder.
This bell, which still rings out the
hours from above the church's
clock, is inscribed in French:
Braves Louisianais, cette
cloche dont le nom est Victoire a ete fondue en memoire de Ia glorieuse
joumee du 8 Janvier 1815.
Surmounting both inscriptions are
American eagles and at the bottom of
the bell an inscription reads:
Fondue a Paris pour M. Jn.
Delachaux de Nouvelle Orleans. [Cast in Paris for Mr. John Delachaux of
The central tower, which added grace and
dignity to the Cathedral, was
one of Latrobe's last projects, for he died in New Orleans of yellow
fever on September
3,1820, before it was completed.
In 1829 an organ was imported and in 1825
Francisco Zapari, an Italian
painter, was employed at a fee of $1,855 to decorate the interior of
the church and its
On January 22, 1829, the well-beloved
Pere Antoine was laid to rest in
the church after a funeral service which was one of the largest ever
seen in the city. For
more than 40 years, this remarkable Capuchin priest had labored in New
Orleans; he had
been pastor of the Cathedral from 1785 to 1790 and again from 1795 to
the time of his
death at the age of 81. For three days after his passing, the body of
Pere Antoine was
laid out in the Cathedral rectory and thousands came to pay homage. On
the day of the
funeral, the firing of a cannon announced the beginning of the
ceremonies. The coffin was
carried on the shoulders of four young men who were surrounded by eight
pallbearers, all friends of the deceased.
On January 8, 1840, Andrew Jackson
returned to the scene of his triumph
against the British twenty-five years earlier. He went to the St. Louis
Cathedral where an
oration was given in his honor. After this ceremony, he conducted a
military review in the
After a week
of continual entertainment, Jackson returned to the Plac d'Armes on
January 14 to lay the
cornerstone of the monument which the square today. There was the usual
parade and a large
crowd to watch the proceedings.
Bishop Antoine Blanc,in full pontifical,
received the General.
Another joyful occasion in which the
Cathedral played a part was the
visit in December, 1847, of a hero of the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor,
whose victory at
Monterey would send him to the White House. After the service, the
crowds cheered with joy
as the old General rode his battle horse Old Whitey, through the city
to the St. Charles
Rebuilding The Cathedral
De Poulily's drawing of the facade
of the new St. Louis Cathedral. This elevation was designed In July
1847 and became part of the contract with the trustees, March 1849.
Design was later slightly modified. (N.O. Notarial Archives)
In 1844, the Baroness Pontalba, to he New Orleans agents
present to the Council for the First Municipality a project to
construct a two-story arcaded facade in front of the old
buildings bordering both sides of the Place d'Armes, buildings
she had inherited from her father, Don Andres Almonester. Two
years later, this remarkable woman again submitted and had
approved by the Council elaborate plans, prepared under her
personal supervision, which called for remodeling her buildings
with arcades similar to those of the Cabildo and Presbytere, and
also for extensive improvements to the
square itself, to create a bit of Paris for her native city.
These additions so increased the size of
two flanking buildings that something had to be done to the
Cathedral to bring it to proper scale. Besides, the church was
old, its walls were cracking, and it was too small for the
congregation of the growing city.
As far back as 1834 the trustees had
with J. N. B. de Pouilly, the French architect. De Pouilly had
suggested lengthening the church and adding galleries but he was
not very optimistic that even these changes would enlarge the
church sufficiently to fit the needs of the growing congregation.
A contract was made on March 12,1849,
Irish builder, John Patrick Kirwan, "for the restoration of
the Cathedral of St. Louis." De Pouilly's original
specifications, which became part of the contract, called for a
reconstruction that left intact only the lateral walls and the
lower part of the front and the flanking hexagonal towers of the
old church. But as construction proceeded, it became evident that
the side walls, too, would have to be demolished.
This calamitous incident caused damage
estimated as high as $20,000. In the months that followed,
inspections by experts sought to determine the cause of the
collapse, and proposals and counter-proposals between trustees
and builder culminated in the trustees ordering Kirwan to quit
the job. De Pouilly, the architect, was also dismissed and the
trustees employed another architect.