The emerald aisle: In 1840, St. Patrick’s Church became an answer to Irish New Orleans’ prayers
As Ireland’s Great Famine spurred immigration to the New World in the 1840s, New Orleans found itself hosting a thriving Irish community. Deeply Catholic, but also widely discriminated against, many of the city’s new Irish residents dreamed of worshipping at a church other than St. Louis Cathedral, “where seemingly God spoke only in French,” as The Times-Picayune wrote in 1977. That dream became reality in February 1840, when the grand St. Patrick’s Church — named after the patron saint of Ireland — was completed in the 700 block of Camp Street in the heart of the city’s American sector.
The neighborhood around the church — originally Faubourg St. Mary, now the Central Business District and Warehouse District — has changed enormously over the past 175 years. St. Patrick’s, however, still stands much as it did when it was first built. As an active parish, it is a place of baptisms, weddings and daily Masses, pastoring to its regular congregants as well as to CBD workers.
- Although St. Patrick’s Church was built in 1840, the parish was established in 1833. Its congregants first worshipped in a wooden church constructed on the site of the present-day building.
- The present-day church was built around the original wooden structure, which was dismantled and carried out when the new church was finished.
- St. Patrick’s is recognized as the first permanent church built outside the original boundaries of the city and home to the second-oldest parish in the city.
- During the rebuilding of St. Louis Cathedral in the mid-19th century, St. Patrick’s was named pro-cathedral, making it the temporary home of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
- In 1974, the church was designated a National Historic Landmark and is recognized as a notable early example of Gothic Revival architecture in the city.
- The church’s Gothic tower is its most notable external feature. Inside, however, a trio of towering murals by French artist Leon Pomarede serve as a backdrop to the altar, depicting The Transfiguration, Christ walking on water, and a baptism by St. Patrick.
- The Gothic vaults adorning the ceiling were built in imitation of those at Exeter Cathedral in England.
- Charles and James Dankin were hired to plan the building, but after foundation issues emerged during construction, the noted Irish architect James Gallier was brought in to finish the job. Among other things, he arranged to remove and replace the foundation of the church’s 185-foot main tower — without taking it down.
- In the mid-1960s, St. Patrick’s found itself facing a crisis of existence. With warehouses and office buildings replacing homes in the neighborhood, it had only two registered parishioners living within its parish boundaries. When Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, some proposed closing it for good. The Rev. John Reynolds, who oversaw the church for 35 years from 1965 until 2000, then instituted a 12-year, multi-million-dollar renovation and revitalization plan credited with helping to breathe new life into the church.
- Church records indicate the Rev. John Mullon, who served as pastor to the parish when St. Patrick’s was built, was buried under the floor of the church upon his death in 1866. During the massive renovation, however, “we found no trace of him,” Reynolds told The Times-Picayune in 2000.
From the time of its founding, St. Patrick Church has stood as a cornerstone of New Orleans’ Irish-Catholic community. All these years later, it has become a landmark, but it is also much more than that. It is a breathtaking piece of living history in the middle of downtown New Orleans. It is a source of pride to the city’s Irish community. And it is a beacon of worship to the faithful throughout the city it has served for more than 175 years.