St. Louis Cathedral has been hallowed ground since the founding of the city of New Orleans. As her most notable landmark, with its triple steeples towering above the Cabildo and the Presbytere, this is truly the heart of the old city.
Early Days of St Louis Cathedral
The first church was dedicated shortly before Christmas 1727 on the site designated six years earlier by French engineer Adrien De Pauger in accordance with plans drawn by the Engineer-in-Chief of Louisiana, LeBlond de la Tour. By 1763 it had fallen into such a state of disrepair that it was abandoned. Repairs were made and the church was active again until the calamitous year of 1788. That year the river overflowed, an epidemic took many victims, and the Good Friday fire on March 21 destroyed 80% of the populated city, including the Church of St. Louis.
On Valentine’s Day 1789, the cornerstone for the new church was laid. The new church, designed by Don Gilberto Guillemard, a Frenchman in the service of Spain, was completed five years later, in 1794, and dedicated on Christmas Eve of that year. It was much larger than the first church, and its low, flat roof was flanked by the two hexagonal bell towers. The bells, which were cast in Havana, Cuba, and christened St. Joseph and St. Anthony, were placed in the towers a decade later.
Growth of the French Quarter
The second Church of St. Louis was a gift to the city from one of its wealthiest citizens, Don Andres Almonester y Roxas whose philanthropy already included a chapel for the Ursuline nuns, the reconstruction of Charity Hospital after a hurricane, and the establishment of a leper retreat on the outskirts of town. For this, he was awarded a seat of honor in the cathedral, where he was decorated as a Knight of the Royal and Distinguished Order of Charles III of Spain. On that day three servants were required to carry the flowing red train of his magnificent mantle from the church to his home across the square. Upon his death at age 73, Almonester was interred in a crypt under the floor of the church. The inscriptions upon a marble slab tell of his generosity.
In 1819 the church and city agreed that it was in the general civic interest for them to share the expense of constructing the central clock tower. The design of Benjamin H. B. Latrobe, former architect of the U.S. Capitol, was chosen and New Orleans clockmaker Jean Delachaux was tasked with finding a suitable clock. Delachaux brought the clock and bell back from Paris. The bell, which still faithfully rings out the hours, is named Victory. Inscribed in both French and English are the words that commemorate the Battle of New Orleans: “Brave Louisianians, this bell, whose name is Victory, was cast in celebration of the glorious eighth day of January 1815.”
In 1844 Baroness Pontalba began the beautification of the square. In addition to extensive improvements to the square itself, she added the brick façade, mansard roof, and dormer windows to the buildings she owned adjoining the square. The City Council and trustees added the same to the Cabildo and the Presbytere in 1847. These improvements so increased the size of the buildings that the Cathedral looked out of place in comparison. Aesthetics aside, the walls of the church had begun to crack and the growing congregation was running out of space. The church looked to French architect J.N.B de Pouilly for guidance.
De Pouilly first proposed lengthening the church and adding galleries but didn’t believe that would suit the growing congregation. He then proposed to destroy the cathedral and rebuild in what is now the Treme’ neighborhood. Ten years later he proposed to the trustees a plan for reconstructing the old church with a greatly heightened façade, a lengthened nave, the addition of gallery seating, and a third central steeple ornamented with wrought iron. On December 7, 1851, the reconstructed cathedral was dedicated and looked very much as you see it today.
The cathedral was designated as a minor basilica by Pope Paul VI in 1964. Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral in September 1987. The cathedral is open to visitors, and you may walk around freely when no services are being held. The paintings, gilding, and stained glass windows are extraordinary works of art in the Baroque style. The feeling that the murals are decorative rather than devotional lends an air of peace and tranquility conducive to quiet reflection.