Let us pray: 223 years ago this month, the foundation was laid for the Archdiocese of New Orleans
On April 25, 1793, while Spain still ruled New Orleans, Pope Pius VI created the Diocese of Louisiana and the Two Floridas, a vast territory covering what would become known as the Louisiana Purchase as well as Spanish land in what are now Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. It is the second-oldest diocese in the United States; only Baltimore’s, which was established in 1789, is older.
As the population of the original diocese grew, the immense expanse was divided into smaller dioceses. The Diocese of New Orleans was established in 1826. It was elevated to an archdiocese in 1850, a designation reflecting the population growth. The Archdiocese of New Orleans today comprises eight civil parishes in southeast Louisiana: Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. Tammany and Washington. Of the 1.2 million people living in this area, about 515,000 — nearly 40 percent — are Catholics.
- The first bishop of the diocese was Luis Ignatius Peñalver y Cárdenas, who was appointed in 1794 and installed in 1795. The longest-serving head of the local Church was Archbishop Joseph Rummel, who headed up the archdiocese for 29 years, from 1935 to 1964.
- The sacramental records of the diocese (and, later, the archdiocese) reflect Louisiana’s history: They started in French, moved to Spanish and went back to French before converting to English after Louisiana became part of the United States. However, some records were kept in French until the start of the 20th century.
- Those records are among the few places where descendants of slaves can trace their ancestry because everyone in colonial New Orleans was baptized, and those christenings were recorded. They reside on the archdiocesan archives’ website: https://archives.arch-no.org.
- St. Louis Cathedral, which Pope Paul VI designated a basilica in 1964, is the seat of the New Orleans archdiocese and the oldest continually operating cathedral in the United States. It is named for St. Louis IX, a French king and one of the patron saints of the archdiocese. It was built in 1724, and rebuilt in 1794 after the original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1788.
- New Orleans also has a pro-cathedral: St. Patrick’s Church on Camp Street. A pro-cathedral is a parish church that can temporarily fill the cathedral’s role. St. Patrick’s did that from 1849 to 1851, when St. Louis Cathedral was being renovated.
- Current Archbishop Gregory Michael Aymond, who was appointed and installed in 2009, is the first New Orleans native in the post.
- When Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans in 1987, he spent two nights at Archbishop Philip M. Hannan’s official residence on the campus of Notre Dame Seminary.
New Orleans has always been a heavily Catholic city. The diocese, which was established in 1793, 75 years after the city’s founding, not only ministered to the populace but also took on such roles as educating young people and caring for the poor and the sick. Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, who served for 23 years, mightily expanded the church’s role in the community by caring for whole groups of people, including Vietnamese refugees, whom he welcomed to New Orleans after Saigon’s fall in 1975, and people with AIDS, for whom the archdiocese provided housing through Project Lazarus.