Crescent City Classic: St. Joseph Church an Architectural Marvel Since Its 1892 Dedication
From the liturgies to spiritual and artistic beauty, St. Joseph Church lifts hearts and minds heavenward.
“The Largest Religious Edifice in the South,” proclaimed the New Orleans Picayune in its front-page story on Dec. 19, 1892, the day after the dedication of St. Joseph Church in New Orleans. That day, 3,000 people took part in the event, but they had to wait until Christmas Day for the Masses to begin.
St. Joseph Church was built to seat 2,000 faithful in its interior, 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. Under the soaring 95-foot ceiling, the main aisle stretches 150 feet, still the longest in New Orleans. In fact, St. Joseph’s remains the largest church in New Orleans — and one with outstanding liturgical art and architecture.
It’s difficult to imagine that in 1975 the church was on the verge of closing to make way for Louisiana State University’s medical center. Once people heard of the possibility, they came to the rescue, raised funds, and began returning to St. Joseph’s — and the city declared the church a historic landmark, explained William Habeney, a member of the Save St. Joseph Committee, to the Register.
This church is the second edifice of the parish, which was established in 1844 north of the French Quarter. As the parish grew rapidly, in 1858, the Archdiocese of New Orleans assigned its care to the Vincentians, who remain to this day.
With a much larger edifice necessary, the cornerstone for a new church was laid in 1871, but foundation problems would halt construction for several years until master church architect Patrick Keely of Brooklyn wisely took over. Under Keely’s guidance, St. Joseph’s was to become another masterpiece among the nearly 700 churches and 26 cathedrals he designed over his lifetime.
Unlike many New Orleans churches built of stone, Keely paired a neo-Gothic red brick exterior with an outstanding Romanesque interior. Hundreds of volunteers, using horse carts, hauled 4,426,822 bricks for the foundation and walls. Keely added further details to the portico’s original first design. Keely’s additions for his design include eye-catching statuary — a bust of Blessed Pope Pius IX and another of popular New Orleans Archbishop Napoleon Joseph Perché. Keely also realized the tall spires originally planned for the twin towers could not go up because the land would not support this additional weight.
The most astonishing sights wait inside. They give no hint that, on that dedication day, the church was empty except for a temporary wooden altar and the classic Romanesque architecture, with its graceful arches everywhere. These plaster arches are highly decorative, with triple sculpted arcs prominently lining the nave, five to a side, and joining the massive columns fashioned of red granite from Missouri. Remarkably, not one but three levels of stained-glass windows of exquisite beauty line the nave’s side walls. And the sanctuary and side altars draw immediate attention.
The main altar and reredos have adorned the sanctuary since they were installed in 1915. Designed in Chicago and made of beautiful Italian white marble, they are a delicate work of Romanesque beauty. The reredos has a colonnade of Corinthian columns joined by graceful arches, which are then echoed in the carvings under the central tabernacle. In a unique way, a tall marble baldacchino rises over the tabernacle and crucifix and is topped by a replica of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Under the tabernacle, whose gold door carries a relief of chalice and host, carved marble arches highlight five colorful round mosaic medallions. The larger central one pictures the Lamb of God with victory flag, joined to either side by symbolic images of the Four Evangelists, an eagle, ox, lion and winged man. Above them are inscribed Agnus Dei, Qui Tolis, Peccata Mundi (Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world).
Plurality of Murals
High above the reredos, a 30-by-40-foot mural of the Crucifixion spans the apse wall. This moving scene, greatly detailed with depictions of many people from the sorrowful to onlookers, is the largest of seven murals installed the same year as the altar and painted by Joseph Hann of Chicago who was trained in Munich. “The level of quality of this artwork is extremely high,” explained international art restorer Elise Grenier in a video message.
She has worked in major churches in Europe, including the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo of Florence, and restored this mural in 2019. “This series of murals done in 1915 here in downtown New Orleans are just as significant and high quality as any murals I’ve ever seen in any European cathedral.”
Above this mural are five paintings framed by arches. The central one presents Jesus seated in triumph. To his right and left, paintings present the Evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Two other large murals are framed by the wall’s decorative arches over Corinthian pilasters. They are above the white marble side altars dedicated to Our Lady and St. Joseph. Over Mary’s altar, the Annunciation depiction captures the humility of Mary, kneeling as she hears Gabriel’s message while the Holy Spirit shines rays upon her. It’s an Old Masters-style scene, beautiful and reverent. On the altar below, with its arching reredos decorated with delicate florals and intricate designs, there stands a life-size image Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Nearby, a large statue presents St. Catherine Labouré kneeling by Mary. By this shrine, one feels as if Mary is reaching down personally to lend everyone a helping hand.
St. Joseph’s altar is identical. His image is also life size. The huge mural above the altar depicts the death of St. Joseph. A grateful Jesus is shown standing at his earthly father’s bedside, holding his hand, while also raising his right hand in a blessing for St. Joseph’s journey to meet the Father in heaven, while Mary is shown kneeling in prayer, looking lovingly at her spouse. Above, angels are shown watching the scene below.
Sacred artwork fills the sanctuary and nave, including the three-leveled stained-glass windows, all completed from 1901 to 1930.
The largest along the middle level are by the renowned Franz Mayer of Munich, fired in the traditional medieval way and rich in color and expressive details. Under each section of the side aisles’ arched ceilings, these main windows appear as arched triptychs. Each brings a scene to artistic life, such as the Nativity, Presentation, Resurrection, Ascension, Assumption, Pentecost and Coronation, all with the touch of Renaissance masters.
High above the Crucifixion mural above the altar, a major trinity of windows honors St. Joseph. The major central scene shows heaven with St. Joseph in glory, wearing royal purple and gold. The last stained-glass windows were installed on the nave’s floor level and appear as pairs within each arch sculpted in multilayered arcs. Habeney pointed out that his grandfather, Dan Collins, who as a 10-year-old served his first Mass in the new church on Christmas morning in 1892, donated one of these windows at the cost of $37.
A year later, young Dan was among those who used the 320 new pews installed for Easter 1893. These same original pews of oak and ash, with their graceful curves and curled-end design, remain, as do the original hardwood floors under them, which, incidentally, carry pipes under each pew for comfortable heating.
The full Communion rail that lines the sanctuary and curves toward the side shrines is also meticulously carved and includes biblical representations along the way. One of the Vincentians actually did much of the decorative woodwork using a lathe in a shop on the church grounds. By 1930, only the aisles and sanctuary flooring were redone in terrazzo.
Along the side aisles, parishioners and visitors can seek the intercession of saints depicted in large statues, like Sts. Anthony and Thérèse. There is a magnificent depiction of Jesus suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane as a huge angel brings him comfort. Another archway oversees a moving replica of the Pietá.
While most of the church remains a perfect-picture time capsule of its decades in New Orleans, some restoration and renovation along the years includes the freestanding altar that matches the original and carries an image of the Holy Spirit represented as a dove. In the 1960s, stained-glass windows were added over the doors at the front entrance to picture the Annunciation of the Angel to a sleeping Joseph, the Marriage of Mary and Joseph, the Flight Into Egypt, the Holy Family at work, and Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal appearing to St. Catherine. The rose window at the front of the church presents the Sacred Heart of Jesus surrounded by “petals” of apostles.
Up 77 stairs in the choir loft, the pipe organ is one of the oldest of its kind still operating in the country. This height gives a closer look at the rare “basket weave” ceiling formed by well-spaced wood.
Because St. Joseph Church sits practically in the middle of the (Louisiana State) University Medical Center New Orleans campus, many doctors and nurses join together with parishioners and visitors who come from all over the area for Masses, Habeney said.
From the liturgies to all this spiritual and artistic beauty, St. Joseph Church surely lifts hearts and minds heavenward.