For nearly 300 years, a Catholic Church has stood on the site of the iconic Saint Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square in New Orleans. That long history makes it the oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States.
The beginning of saint Louis cathedral
A Catholic Church was first erected on this site in 1727, only nine years after the founding of New Orleans. The church was named for Saint Louis, King Louis the IX of France. Various stained glass windows and statues inside the Cathedral pay tribute to Saint Louis. The church now carries the title Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France.
The Great Fire of 1788 destroyed the first church. That fire broke out on Good Friday. Residents rushed to the church and pleaded with the priest, Pere Antoine, to sound the alarm by ringing the bells. But according to Saint Louis Cathedral tour guide Brandon Briscoe, the priest refused. “Pere Antoine said no, today is Good Friday,” explained Briscoe. Pere Antoine went on to say, “We can’t ring the bells on Good Friday. That’s a day of penance and solemnity. Bells are a sign of joy and happiness,” Briscoe said. If the story is true, that refusal to sound the warning may have helped doom most of the French Quarter to a fire that destroyed eighty percent of the buildings.
bells mark hours and centuries
The Cathedral’s high central spire contains bells that ring on the hour and quarter hours throughout the day. The oldest of the bells dates to the early 1800s. The Cathedral suffered another setback in the 1850s, when an effort to raise the height of the bell tower ended with the collapse of the building’s walls. Today, the foundation and the lower front wall are all that remain of the 1793 Cathedral.
history buried under church
The ground beneath the Cathedral is the burial place for many of the early church and civic leaders of New Orleans. Burials began on this site in 1721, before the first church was built. And today there have been more than 100 people buried beneath the floor and the pews of the church.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a fascinating discovery was made in the garden behind the Cathedral. An archaeological dig uncovered the remains of structures that were likely part of the vey first settlement in New Orleans. Those archaeologists “found remnants of buildings that are not on the earliest maps and plans for the city of New Orleans,” said Briscoe. He added, “This is ground zero with the settlers who pitched camp and started the city.”
restoring a landmark
170 years of use has taken a toll on the aging Cathedral that overlooks Jackson Square. The settling of the soft soil beneath the building has caused cracks in the foundation. The large stained glass windows need significant restoration. The exterior of the building needs waterproofing and the historic bells need repair. The Cathedral along with the Archdiocese of New Orleans have launched a multi-million dollar fund raising campaign through a group called Preserve the Cathedral.
saint louis cathedral featured on tv
Saint Louis Cathedral is locate in the center of the French Quarter in New Orleans at Jackson Square.