St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans
The Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France with its three towering steeples, is one of New Orleans‘ most notable landmarks. Today, it is more commonly known as the St. Louis Cathedral. New Orleanians have worshipped in Roman Catholic churches on the site of the Cathedral since 1718. The first church was a crude wooden structure built in the early days of the colony.
Adrien De Pauger, a prominent French engineer, designated the site for a church in conformity upon his arrival in New Orleans on March 29, 1721. The second church, which was dedicated to King Louis IX of France, is reputed to be the first brick between posts building in New Orleans. Brick between post construction continued in Louisiana until the middle of the nineteenth century. De Pauger died in 1726 before seeing the completion of the Church of St. Louis and was buried, at his request, within the unfinished building.
The Church of St. Louis stood for six decades before the Great Fire of New Orleans destroyed it on March 21, 1788. Prior to the fire, French Governors Bienville, Kerlerec, Périer and Vaudreuil de Cavagnial and Spanish Governors Gálvez, Miró and Unzaga worshipped at St. Louis, and children of colonists and slaves were baptized at the church. Numerous weddings and funerals were also held at St. Louis.
In early 1789, construction of the third Church of St. Louis began. The church was the gift of Don Andres Almonester y Roxas, a native of Andalusia, and wealthy landowner in New Orleans. The St. Louis Cathedral was completed in December 1794.
On April 25, 1793, Pope Pius VI created the diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas. Prior to the completion of the Cathedral, Pope Pius VI appointed Don Luis Ignatius Peñalver y Cárdenas of Havana as the first bishop in New Orleans. The Church of St. Louis was dedicated as a Cathedral and put into service on Christmas Eve in 1794.
In the early 1800s, Jean Delachaux, a New Orleans clockmaker, was authorized by the Cathedral’s trustees to obtain a clock for the facade of the Cathedral. The City of New Orleans agreed to the expense of buying the clock and bell and to share the cost of erecting a central tower in which to house them. Delachaux brought the clock and bell from Paris.
After a High Mass, a procession to the bell was held and it was baptized with the name of Victoire. Since the early 1800s, the bell has continued to ring out the hours from above the church’s clock. It is inscribed in French, “Braves Louisianais, cette cloche dont le nom est Victoire a ete fondue en memoire de Ia glorieuse joumee du 8 Janvier 1815.”
Surmounting both inscriptions are American eagles and at the bottom of the bell an inscription reads, “Fondue a Paris pour M. Jn. Delachaux de Nouvelle Orleans.”
British architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed the central tower of the St. Louis Cathedral in 1819. The central tower was one of Latrobe’s last projects. He died of yellow fever in New Orleans on September 3, 1820 before the tower was completed. In 1825, Italian painter Francisco Zapari was employed at a fee of $1,855 to decorate the interior of the church and its three altars.
In the 1840s, Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba purchased land on the upriver and downriver sides of Jackson Square where she constructed the two buildings in a French, Creole and Greek revival style at a cost of more than $300,000. The matching four story red brick Pontalba buildings that overlook two sides of Jackson Square overwhelmed the smaller scale of the Cathedral. It was decided that something needed to be done to enlarge the Cathedral and bring it to proper scale. The Cathedral was also in need of repair and was too small for the congregation in the growing city.
In 1834, the Cathedral’s trustees consulted with celebrated French architect Jacques Nicolas Bussière de Pouilly. He suggested lengthening the church and adding galleries, but was not optimistic that these changes would enlarge the church sufficiently to fit the needs of the growing congregation.
On March 12,1849, a contract was made with an Irish builder, John Patrick Kirwan, for the restoration of the Cathedral of St. Louis. De Pouilly’s original specifications, which became part of the contract, called for a reconstruction that left intact only the lateral walls and the lower part of the front and the flanking hexagonal towers of the old church. It became evident as construction proceeded that the side walls would also have to be demolished. The cost of demolition and repair cost more than $20,000. Inspections by experts sought to determine the extent of damage, and proposals and counter-proposals between trustees and the builder resulted in the trustees firing Kirwan. De Pouilly was also dismissed and the trustees employed another architect.
In 2004, a 4,500-pipe organ designed by Holtkamp Organ Company was installed in the Cathedral. It weighs more then 28,000 pounds and towers some 51 feet above the Cathedral choir loft. Its pipes range in size from a few inches to more then 32 feet in height. The current model replaced a three-manual Miller Pipe Organ, which in 1950 replaced the original organ dating to 1851.