The (almost) true legend of St. Expedite in New Orleans
Some stories are rooted in legend, and some are rooted in verifiable fact. This one leans toward the legendary, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling to the faithful of New Orleans. It goes like this: Sometime around 1921, Catholic nuns at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Rampart Street received a crate marked “expedite” (which may or may not have been intended to indicate it was a rush order). Inside was an otherwise unidentified statue of a Roman soldier, helmetless and swordless. In one hand he held a palm branch, a symbol of martyrdom. In the other was a cross marked “hodie,” Latin for “today.” The nuns declared him to be St. Expedite, and installed him in the church, near the entrance, where he has for years drawn prayers from legions of people seeking rapid intervention.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is still in operation today, isn’t the oldest church in New Orleans. St. Louis Cathedral has that distinction. But it is considered the oldest surviving church in the city, having never been rebuilt to the extent that other houses of worship have. While it is probably best known for its International Shrine of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, to this day it still draws devotees of St. Expedite who are in need of speedy relief.
- The authenticity of the local legend of St. Expedite is questionable at best. A similar story, for example, places the nuns opening the “expedite” crate — which, as the story goes, contained the remains of an unknown saint — in 18th century Paris. Yet another involves the Ursulines nuns in New Orleans, said to have received an “expedite” crate around the time of the French Revolution.
- Further complicating the story is the fact that there was a real St. Expedite. Though his origin story is murky, he is said to have been an Armenian martyred in fourth-century Turkey while serving as a Roman centurion.
- St. Expedite’s relationship with the Catholic Church is a complicated one. He was purged from the Roman Catholic calendar after Vatican II, according to Catholocism.org — and is therefore no longer an “official” saint — but his continued popularity among worshippers, including in New Orleans, keeps his tradition alive.
- Although St. Expedite holds particular sway among New Orleanians, he isn’t unique to the Crescent City. Celebrations in his honor take place in Brazil, Italy and the African island of Réunion, among other places.
- Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was built in 1826 in the shadows of St. Louis Cemetery Nos. 1 and 2 as a “mortuary chapel” to host funerals for the many who died in one of the city’s yellow fever outbreaks. It was originally named the Chapel of St. Anthony of Padua.
- Before construction, the site of the chapel altar was marked with a cross on Oct. 10, 1826, by none other than Pere Antoine, the controversial but beloved longtime rector of St. Louis Cathedral.
- The church was built for $14,000 by the architectural firm of Gurlie and Guillot, whose other local projects included construction of the second floor of the Presbytere and also the “new” Ursulines convent.
- The church and shrine is staffed by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a community of priests and brothers founded in 1816 in France by St. Eugene DeMazenod, according to the church website.
- The church is the official chapel of the New Orleans Police and Fire departments.
- Also on Our Lady of Guadalupe Church grounds is a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, built in 1924.
Being a Catholic city, New Orleans has its share of favorite saints not named Drew Brees. In addition to St. Jude, there’s St. Anne (“St. Anne, St. Anne, find me a man!”), St. Joseph (whose statue is buried upside-down on the lawn to help sell a house) and St. Anthony (or “Saint Ant’ny,” the patron saint of lost things). But few saints so neatly pull together different threads of what make New Orleans so unique. St. Expedite is, first and foremost, a Catholic saint — which gives him instant credibility in the Crescent City — but there’s also an intriguing lightheartedness to his punny backstory that is hard for locals to resist. Then there’s the fact that his likeness has also been adopted by voodoo practitioners, once more highlighting that intersection of dark and light that is such an intriguing part of the city.