Who was Pere Antoine? And why is an alley named after him?
He was rigid in his beliefs, and strong-willed to boot, making him a controversial figure, particularly among the powerful. But the Capuchin friar Antonio de Sedella — known to his flock as Père Antoine — was also unfailingly devoted, both to his God and to the people of New Orleans, where he earned a reputation for shepherding to everyone, including slaves, the poor and even prisoners. Then, one day in 1805, when he failed to show up to say Mass, his congregants — fearing him ill — rushed to the little cabin in which he lived. There, they learned he had been suspended over his latest dispute with the vicar-general of Louisiana. Taking matters into their own hands, the Catholics of the city — Americans for all of three years — held a meeting in which they set about electing Père Antoine their parish priest. The vicar-general’s hands were tied: Père Antoine was, once and for all, the people’s priest, and he would remain so until his death in 1829 at age 81.
One needn’t look far in the deeply Catholic New Orleans for signs of Père Antoine’s legacy. St. Anthony’s Garden behind St. Louis Cathedral was named after his namesake saint and was dedicated in Antoine’s memory. In addition, the alley on the northeast side of the cathedral — the former St. Anthony’s Alley, also known as Cloister Alley — was renamed Père Antoine Alley around 1924. For those who believe in such things, the old monk’s ghost is said to walk occasionally through it on quiet mornings.
- While St. Louis Cathedral was New Orleans’ primary place of worship, Père Antoine’s humble cabin, “with its bare floor and pallet lying on a couple of planks, and rough table, crucifix and chair, was the rock of spiritual authority in the city,” Grace King wrote in “New Orleans, the Place and the People.”
- Upon Père Antoine’s death, the entire city went into mourning. Businesses closed. The City Council passed an ordinance pledging to wear black crepe on their arms in his honor for 30 days. He was buried in St. Louis Cathedral.
- Antoine is said to have presided over the christening, and later the wedding, of voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
- Père Antoine arrived in New Orleans about 1779, during the Spanish era, and in 1789 informed Gov. Esteban Rodriguez Miro that he had been appointed Commissary of the Inquisition. Translation: He was to bring the Spanish Inquisition to New Orleans. The next day, Miro expelled him to Spain. Antoine would return about 1795, not as a torturer but to lead the congregation at St. Louis Cathedral.
- For years, a tree on Orleans Street was known as the Père Antoine Palm, generating legend after legend as to its origins. Perhaps the most well-known was turned into a story by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, titled simply “Père Antoine’s Date-Palm.”
- In 1819, Pere Antoine christened the bell in St. Louis Cathedral as “Victoire,” after Gen. Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British in the Battle of New Orleans four years earlier.
Père Antoine was a proven troublemaker, a man unafraid to rustle feathers, but he was also an undeniable man of the people. In her Louisiana Biographical Dictionary, Jan Onofrio points out how opinions of him range from Catholic historian John G. Shea’s declaration of him as “the scourge of religion in Louisiana” to C.W. Bispham’s view that Antoine “did more for New Orleans, morally and spiritually, than any other known person.” In their own way, both are probably right, underscoring the complexity of Père Antoine’s often contradictory legacy — which made him a perfect fit for New Orleans.