Chorus Without End at the Old Cathedral in Jackson Square
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Every quarter-hour, the thin peal of bells
at St. Louis Cathedral calls saints and sinners, mostly the latter.
They clang out a slightly off-key sound, as if they well know
the offbeat rhythms of the neighborhood below them. The pulse
of a circus atmosphere around the church pounds from hour to
hour, as if to compete with the timbre of the sounds from the
tower. The church stands sentinel, nether judging nor joining.
Inside, the aroma of ancient brick masonry
greets the visitor. One thinks at once of an old French monastery,
although stone is nowhere. The darkened entry gives way to a
bright interior with painted surfaces everywhere. The eye is
drawn to the great high Rococo altar, where gilded and fluted
columns of the Corinthian order support a busy entablature. Two
rows of wooden columns divide the church into nave and side aisles,
with a mute upper gallery where, one imagines, crowds overflowed
before Vatican II put an end to crowded churches.
Along the walls, St. Louis lives through stages
in multicolored shards of artist's glass and lead. Here he receives
a blessing from St Blanche, his mother; there he marries. He
builds a chapel, receives the crown of France, and departs for
his first crusade across a wooden plank. Further on he visits
a leper with lesions of hollow glass, and in the great lunette
over the high altar Louis announces the Seventh Crusade. Overhead,
St. Peter receives his shepherd's staff from the Savior, surrounded
by apostles, as the Father oversees the mission.
Pere Antoine, Bishops’ Bones,
History, harmony, legend, and tradition preserve the mystique
of this cathedral. By most counts it is the third substantial
church of St. Louis on the square. The French built the first
one in 1727, following the town plan. It stood, weathered, until
the Great Fire of 1788, when Spanish dons were ruling. Rebuilt
with funds from local notary and real estate developer Andres
Almonester y Rojas, the second church barely escaped the flames
of yet another general fire in 1794. It was mainly in that second
church that the memorable Spanish Capuchin Pere Antonio of Sedella
served from 1783 until his much-lamented death in 1829. Here
lay the bones of old Don Almonster, and of the said Friar Antonio,
for whom the people named Pere Antoine's Alley alongside the
church. Here was sung the Te Deum thanking God for the Victory
of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
The Spanish church got its stripes when the
city received its first bishop in 1793. Sixty years later, New
Orleans became an archbishopric, elevating the cathedral further.
The present building rose then, incorporating a few bricks and
lines of mortar from its predecessor. The marguilliers or church
wardens had it built from plans drawn in 1849 by French-born
architect Jacques N. B. de Pouilly. Its iconic, multi-stage,
tapering, slate-covered triple towers are better than any that
Today the church contains the remains of eight
New Orleans bishops. Their lives reflect the story of the Church
and the city. Renovated, decorated and restored over and again,
repainted inside and out, waterproofed, strengthened with steel,
buttresses added, foundations fixed, the church stands. Today
the St. Louis Cathedral is a symbol of New Orleans and a tribute
to the people and clergy who have struggled to preserve it. Most
of all it is a haven of serenity from the soul-splitting life
of the world outside.
Sally Reeves is a noted writer and historian
who co-authored the award winning series New Orleans Architecture.
She also has written Jacques-Felix Lelièvre’s New
Louisiana Gardener and Grand Isle of the Gulf – An Early
History. She is currently working on a social and architectural
history of New Orleans public markets and on a book on the contributions
of free persons of color to vernacular architecture in antebellum