St. Louis Cathedral stands as a beacon of hope and an icon of New Orleans
To walk into St. Louis Cathedral-Basilica is to step back in time. Rich frescoes and statuary proclaim the story of Christianity; stained-glass windows depict the life of King Louis IX; and flags representing the many countries that have influenced New Orleans over the past 300 years hang above pews. This majestic house of worship is the center of New Orleans.
Monsignor Crosby W. Kern, the 42nd pastor-rector of the city’s beloved St. Louis Cathedral, holds the honor of being in charge of the oldest Catholic cathedral in continuous use in the United States. “The bishop technically is the pastor,” says Msgr. Kern, “but I am pastor of souls. I am a curator because there are so many historic things here. And I am the visible part of the church to the civic people.”
New Orleans was founded in 1718 when French colonists brought the first Catholic parish to the city. “The official parish wasn’t established until 1720,” says Msgr. Kern. “Before that it was a mission.” The city was just a small village, and Mass was held in a temporary church in a warehouse. But from the beginning, colonists designated the area now known as Jackson Square as the town square and appointed the site where the church would be built. In 1727 a permanent church was established and named St. Louis after the sainted King of France.
In 1743 Father Dagobert de Longuory arrived and spent many years working in the colony and as pastor of the church. The city came under Spanish governance 30 years later, and Spanish friars arrived to the church, replacing Father Longuory after his death in 1776. Fray Antonio de Sedella, known fondly as Pere Antoine, arrived in 1785 and would serve the cathedral, keeping meticulous records, for 40 years until his death. The Pere Antoine Alley that runs alongside the cathedral was named for him, and his remains lie beneath the cathedral.
“In the early years everything revolved around the church,” says Msgr. Kern. “It became the center of life. Leaders of society met here. The Cabildo was the seat of government, right next to the cathedral; the Presbytere [would become] a courthouse, so the courts, the government, the jail—all that was right here. It was the gathering place. And in St. Anthony’s Garden behind the church [today the site of an important archeological dig], there was a flower market and ice cream place. Creole society met here. New Orleans had the greatest concentration of free people of color. If you look at our baptismal records, there are something like 40 countries mentioned, including tribes in Africa. So there were parallel societies that lived in the city. But all connected to the church. That was the common ground, the church.”
On Good Friday, in 1788, two massive fires broke out and swept across the city, destroying 80 percent of the buildings, including St. Louis Church. Through the generous support of Don Andrés Almonester y Roxas, a civil servant and generous benefactor to the city, a new parish church was built atop the ruins of St. Louis Church. The new church, with dome-topped triple spires, was completed in 1794. “In the meantime the King of Spain made a Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas so the church reopened as a cathedral,” says Msgr. Kern. Luis Peñalver y Cárdenas was the cathedral’s first bishop.
In 1845, under Bishop Antoine Blanc, the cathedral began to show severe signs of deterioration, and during construction the side walls fell down. “It had to be almost entirely rebuilt, save for the facade,” says Msgr. Kern. “So the cathedral was expanded in length and width; the frescoes on the ceiling were added; and a black-and-white marble [center aisle] was created by a man named Eugene Walburg, a free man of color from New Orleans, and probably one of the most prominent marble workers this country has ever produced.”
“When the cathedral reopened in 1850 [with new pointed triple spires], it became a Metropolitan Cathedral, the home of an archbishop. Bishop Blanc became the cathedral’s first archbishop. He’s buried in the cathedral, with all the bishops.”
Because of its historical significance, in 1964 Pope Paul VI elevated the cathedral status to that of a minor basilica. The cathedral of today, on what is now John Paul Promenade, has changed little since 1850 and is known worldwide. But even with its popularity as tourist destination, wedding location and holiday celebration spot, the church is resolute in maintaining its sacred and historical integrity. “Above all, it’s a house of worship,” says Msgr. Kern. “And everything we do lends to that. It has a mission as any Catholic church does to proclaim the gospel. As long as we’re proclaiming the gospel, we’re all right. What we don’t ever want to be is a museum.”
Cathedral parishioners and visitors have included Lindy Boggs, St. Francis Cabrini (benefactor to the city’s Italian immigrants), Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Marquis de Lafayette, Saint Katharine Drexel (founder of Xavier University), emperors, kings, presidents and governors.
“Of course the most prominent visitor was Pope John Paul II in 1987,” says Msgr. Kern. “The cathedral’s the only building I know of that’s become an icon for the city. It’s always been a sign of hope, no matter what has happened. From the very first devastating hurricane in 1723. After the great fire of 1788, Pere Antoine opened the church grounds for people to camp and live in when the city was destroyed. It’s been the rallying point through the war of 1812, through the yellow fever epidemics. People have gathered here at the cathedral to give thanks, to petition; it’s the soul of the city. It’s everybody’s cathedral, whether you’re Catholic or not. As long as the cathedral is standing, New Orleans is here.”