The history of St. Louis Cathedral: From a drawing in the dirt to a New Orleans icon
In the beginning, there were other churches in New Orleans. But they weren’t grand. They weren’t awe-inspiring. Finally, city founder and Louisiana Gov. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville on March 29, 1721, “used his loyal and valiant sword to trace the exact spot” where a permanent church should be built, as historian Buddy Stall wrote in his 1992 book “French Quarter Montage.” Construction wouldn’t begin until 1724 — but St. Louis Cathedral had been born.
The iconic church we see today isn’t how the cathedral originally looked. The first permanent church built on the site burned in the Great Fire of 1788. The second church was put into service on Christmas Eve 1794, with a new central clock tower added around 1820. A round of significant renovations started in 1850 and involved almost a total rebuild of the church, resulting in the façade that serves today as such a stately centerpiece to Jackson Square.
- St. Louis Cathedral is recognized as the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in continuous operation in the United States, in operation since 1727.
- The church is named after Louis IX, the sainted French king and crusader who reigned from 1226 to 1270 and who is also the namesake of, among other things, the city of St. Louis, Mo.
- The original church was designed by engineer-in-chief Le Blond de la Tour, with construction overseen by French engineer Adrien de Pauger, the same man who drew the original map of the French Quarter. De Pauger died before construction of the church was completed and, as per his wishes, was buried in the unfinished church.
- Although its main entrance overlooks Jackson Square, the cathedral’s address is 615 Pere Antoine Alley, named after Father Antonio de Sedella — commonly known as Pere Antoine — the Capuchin priest who was pastor of the church from 1785 to 1790 and again from 1795 to 1829.
- The modern clock tower and bell in the church’s main steeple were commissioned in 1819. The bell was baptized “Victoire” by Pere Antoine, after the name inscribed on it.
- The bell’s name, like the full inscription on it, marks the victory at the Battle of New Orleans, which occurred just a few years earlier. Translated from the original French, the full inscription reads, “Brave people of Louisiana, this clock, whose name is Victory, was cast in memory of the glorious 8th of January, 1815.”
- The body of New Orleans Archbishop Francis Schulte was interred beneath the cathedral in 2016, joining those of 12 other local Roman Catholic leaders buried there.
- In 1964, the cathedral was declared a minor basilica by Pope Paul VI.
- While one of the alleys flanking the church is named for the beloved Pere Antoine, the other is named — in a typically New Orleans blend of the saintly and sinful — Pirate’s Alley, a nod to privateer Jean Lafitte and his marauding Baratarians. “Lafitte’s outfit had no more connection with Pirates’ Alley than with the teachings of the church … ,” writes historian John Churchill Chase. “But the name fascinates all visitors.”
- The cathedral has made numerous appearances on film, in everything from Steve McQueen’s “The Cincinnati Kid” to Disney’s animated “The Princess and the Frog.”
From the age of postcards to the era of Instagram, St. Louis Cathedral remains one of the most photographed sites in the city of New Orleans. In the process, it has become an icon. But it is much more than a photo op. It is a functioning house of worship — a place of Masses, weddings and funerals — that, 295 years after Bienville first etched its outline in the dirt, continues to function as the beating heart of the Catholic Church in New Orleans.