New Orleans, despite its raffish reputation, is a city of churches. In its almost 300 years, churches have historically been not just places of worship but provided community identity and reflected the aspirations, culture and art of its citizens. Visit any of these beautiful and storied buildings, and you will enter a little capsule of a New Orleans world not seen anywhere else.
St. Louis Cathedral
St. Louis Cathedral is the heart and symbol of New Orleans. This is where everyone in New Orleans (Catholic, Protestant or n/a) wants to be married and buried. The stately church reigns over Jackson Square with its three soaring spires and classically proportioned white façade. This building dates from 1849, but a church has been in this spot since 1724. Step inside for a close-up view of its stained glass, richly detailed frescoes and Old World serenity. The lush, fenced cathedral garden, facing Royal Street, is a secret in plain sight. St. Louis is known for its attention to sacred music, often presenting free concerts featuring classical and gospel performers. The cathedral unintentionally generates some of the best street entertainment in the French Quarter with its back-to-back schedule of weddings. Newly married couples burst out of the church doors to lead a second line to their reception, backed by a raucous brass band and exuberant, dancing friends and family filling the street. Most are happy for you to join in.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church
Austere St. Mary’s sits primly on Chartres Street, its plain but beautifully proportioned white stucco exterior giving little hint of the treasures within. The site has been part of religious life in the city since the arrival of the Ursuline nuns in 1727. Their convent, now adjacent to the church, was established in 1734. Alas, French northern European building methods were not compatible with the city’s subtropical climate, and the Ursulines had to continually rebuild and replace their home. It was turned over to the archbishop for his residence, and in 1845 one end of the convent was demolished to build St. Mary’s. The church’s interior is richly decorated with stained glass, highly detailed statuary, marble columns, and framed with a masterful coffered ceiling of carving, painting, trim work and joinery. During the mid-19th and early 20th centuries St. Mary’s was home to many of the Sicilian immigrants who settled in the French Quarter and was known as “St. Mary’s Italian Church.” Today the Ursulines, archbishops and Italians are gone but the church’s subtle atmosphere of unchanging devotion remains. As it is not a parish church with regular hours, the best way to see St. Mary’s is on Ursuline Convent tours.
St. Augustine Catholic Church
A few blocks from the French Quarter, St. Augustine has been the gravity center of the Tremé neighborhood since the 1840s. New Orleans’ large and vibrant community of free people of color was involved in the church from its beginnings. Often called “Creoles of color,” these property owners, artisans, businesspeople and professionals were several generations removed from slavery and sometimes were slave owners themselves. In the early years, St. Augustine's congregation was made up of white Creoles, people of color, and slaves. The famous “war of the pews” was an effort by whites to claim (buy) as many pews as possible to keep people of color in the minority. This gradually changed and the church became a beacon to the Treme community of people of color, and, after the Civil War, freed slaves. The 1842 building is an odd mix of 19th-century classicism and early 20th-century renovation. Today the church maintains a small archive showcasing life in antebellum Tremé. The outdoor sculpture of “The Tomb of the Unknown Slave” is a chilling and moving testimony to the past.
St. Alphonsus and St. Mary’s Assumption
New Orleans’s abundant and complex religious history is showcased by two large, impressive side-by-side Catholic churches, St. Alphonsus (1855) and St. Mary’s Assumption (1858). The Italianate St. Alphonsus was built for Irish Catholics and the German Baroque St. Mary’s for German Catholics (until 1925 there was a French church on the street, Notre Dame de Bon Secours, lost to a hurricane). The tacit competition between the new immigrants resulted in dazzling churches with sumptuous interiors. St. Alphonsus, which is prominently featured in some of Anne Rice’s novels, is a cultural center with a small museum about immigrants. St. Mary’s remains a parish church, and is home to the shrine to the Rev. Francis X. Seelos, who is expected to be declared a saint by Rome.
Unlike many inner-city churches, St. Patrick’s has prospered amid demographic and population shifts. The 1840 church has adapted to its now-commercial neighborhood with noontime Masses for office workers and other support activities. St. Patrick’s was the first Catholic church to form outside of the French Quarter. Irish immigrants, feeling unwelcome by the French-speaking Creoles who dominated St. Louis Cathedral, started a new church in 1833. The building, with its magnificent Gothic tower, is a local landmark. The interior is a wonderland of splendid design, with its crisscrossing arched ceiling, Gothic appointments, imported stained glass and the beautiful murals behind the altar.
Christ Church Cathedral
When Louisiana was a French and Spanish colony Catholicism was the only legal religion. But in 1803 the U.S. took possession of the colony, and before the ink was dry on the Louisiana Purchase local Protestants organized a church of their own. After a vote, it was decided the church would be Episcopalian. Christ Church outgrew three large, handsome buildings before erecting its current Gothic cathedral on St. Charles Avenue in 1886. The graceful building has grown into a small complex, and is the scene of constant activity including jazz masses, concerts and a center for volunteerism.
Jews were among the early settlers of New Orleans but, like Protestants, had to be circumspect about their faith because of the lack of religious freedom. Jewish congregations emerged soon after the Louisiana Purchase, and Touro traces its roots to those early pioneers. Judah Touro (1775-1854), scion of an influential Rhode Island family, was the congregation’s benefactor in its formative years, and the group took his name. The synagogue had several homes before moving to the domed, Byzantine-influenced building on St. Charles Avenue in 1908. Touro blends past and present with its full schedule of services, meetings, lectures, and educational ventures. Its New Orleans flavor is obvious in projects such as its Jazzfest Shabbat.
Built in 1851 by the Jesuits, this breathtaking, Moorish-inspired structure melds Islamic architecture with Christian and Jewish symbolism (including hundreds of Stars of David). Massive bronze doors, soaring Arabesque arches, stunning stained glass (featuring 18 stations of the cross), cast-iron pews and columns are among the church’s many architectural highlights. Of special note is the towering cupola, the marble statue of Mary (originally carved for Marie Amélie, queen of Louis Philippe of France, during the mid 1800s) located above the onion-domed high altar and two Venetian-glass mosaic shrines at the rear of the sanctuary.