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St. Louis Cathedral, witness to New Orleans history, is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States.
BY Caitlin Forst
New Orleans has an iconic quality for many Americans. Mention the name of this city, and images instantly come to mind of Mardi Gras festivities in the French Quarter, the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, and the joy of those celebrating the Saints’ triumph at last year’s Super Bowl.
The rich history, the meshing of cultures, the flavorful cuisine and the undeniable spirit of her people is immediately evident upon entering the city. Taking the streetcar into town, with its open views of elegant houses with Spanish wrought-iron fences, and its friendly operators with their distinctive accents, you can’t help but feel that you’ve entered a place quite different from most of America.
After stepping off the streetcar and walking into the French Quarter, the recognizable landmark of the Cathedral of St. Louis is easily visible.
The cathedral is often the backdrop for television interviews in New Orleans, because it sits facing the Mississippi River and is in the midst of the historic and most famous part of the city. The cathedral, due to its strategic positioning and its Spanish-Colonial architecture, has come to witness, and even to represent, a great deal of the city’s history. After all, it’s the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States.
Center of the City
The French established the city of New Orleans in 1718, recognizing it as a strategic spot for trading, and Catholics began worshipping as a parish community in 1720. The first church building opened its doors in 1727 and was dedicated to King Louis IX, who was not only a monarch, but also a much revered saint. The original church, built of “brick between posts,” stood for six decades. During this time, the settlement grew, but also changed hands after the Seven Years’ War, resulting in the Spanish takeover of the city. The parish church welcomed parishioners until a fire destroyed it in 1788.
When a new structure was dedicated in 1794, the church was elevated to the status of a cathedral due to the residence of New Orleans’ first bishop. Since that time, a number of additions, such as an organ, a bell tower and massive renovations, have added to the impressive design of St. Louis. A monument of Andrew Jackson was placed in the center of the square in front of the church, with the war hero himself laying the cornerstone. The cathedral stood as the Civil War raged.
The historic cathedral has suffered structural collapses, survived a bomb and, of course, triumphantly stood through Hurricane Katrina.
The hardships the cathedral has seen somehow manage to make the celebrations it has witnessed all the more vibrant. Jackson Square in front of the cathedral is central to Mardi Gras, for which New Orleans is so famous.
The surrounding neighborhood of the French Quarter shows the diverse history of the city. Walking through the stone streets alongside brightly painted houses, often with window boxes of flowers, it would be easy to confuse this Southern city with France. The ironwork of so many of the houses’ railings recalls the Spanish influence in the city.
Walking inside the cathedral, however, one can take a break from the hustle and bustle of the world outside. Two lines of pillars divide the rows of wooden pews. Stained glass portrays scenes from the life of Louis, king and saint. Columns, along with statues of saints, also grace the high altar, which is adorned by gold detailing. Whether the faithful come to attend Mass or simply to spend a moment in silence, the serenity of the cathedral makes for a peaceful center in a colorful city.
In 1987, Pope John II came to visit New Orleans, and he spoke to the people of the city at the cathedral. He said, “This temple of God, this house of prayer and gate of heaven stands as the central point of the city of New Orleans, and from this place all distances are measured. Here, Christ dwells in your midst, present in word and sacrament, making this a place of grace and blessing for all the people of God.” The Holy Father’s words reminded those present that the cathedral derived its importance not only from its central location, but more importantly, from the presence of God in the tabernacle.
Caitlin Forst writes from Arlington, Virginia.
St. Louis Cathedral
Cathedral-Basilica of Saint
Louis King of France
615 Pere Antoine Alley
New Orleans, LA 70116
Planning Your Visit
Tours of the cathedral are available. See the website for more information.
Ash Wednesday Masses: 7:30am, noon and 5pm.
Lenten Mass schedule: Monday through Saturday, 7:30am and 5pm; Sunday at 9 and 11 am. Stations of the Cross are prayed following Friday 5pm Masses. The sacrament of penance is available at 4pm on Saturdays.