Among the most revered of New Orleans historic landmarks is Old St. Patrick’s Church, a stunning example of the arts and crafts of another era. It stands in the heart of the business district and is one of the treasures that remains from early 19th century days when the city began moving outside the boundaries of Bienville’s original settlement, the French Quarter.It has been declared a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior, setting it apart as a special American edifice of importance.Old St. Patrick’s lies in the 700 block of Camp Street in what was known as the American sector. It is one of the few historic and architecturally significant structures in and around Lafayette Square, once a grand park for residents and businessmen in the uptown side of the city across Canal Street from the Quarter. It was in this section that Americans built their homes and business establishments and distinguised their lifestyles from those of the Creoles residing in the original city limits.
At this tree-shaded patch of green (that remains today a respected urban open space in the Central Business District) cotton merchants, politicians and residents chatted. American ladies rested on benches, or strolled beneath their parasols pushing their baby buggies in much the same manner as the Creoles did along their Promenade Publique (now called Esplanade Ave.) in the Vieux Carre.
Aside from the magnificent Gallier Hall which served as City Hall until recent years, Old St. Patrick’s is the onlyearly landmark of distinction in the square area that still remains much as it did originally.
The church dates to 1840, but the parish was established in 1833, the first outside the boundaries of the original city. The first structure was a small wooden building at the site the church occupies today. Now the church is in the midst of a section in the business area that is surrounded by what was once a neighborhood of grand mansions and fine mercantile stores that were outfitted with the finest appointments. This whole area now is regaining its significance as an in-town area for housing and shopping rows. In the old days the section was known as Faubourg (suburb) St. Mary. It was here that St. Patrick’s was born out of necessity, and from an Irish determination to worship in the splendor and magnificence equal to the French in their grand St. Louis Cathedral.
For too long, they thought, good Catholic Irish immigrants squirmed in the rear pews of the Cathedral on Jackson Square where God appeared to speak only in French. Bishop Antoine Blanc observed this and he encouraged the construction of a small wooden church on Camp Street for the Irish. In a short time it was filled to overflowing at every Sunday Mass. The Irish then began building a grand church, one that would rival the Cathedral. And indeed, it did.
The Irish hired noted architects Charles and James Dakin to plan it. Construction began around the existing wooden church which was dismantled and carried out when the new edifice was completed.
The new church was of Gothic style in elegant details, with a ceiling imitating Exeter Cathedral. The tower is 185 feet high, the vestibule 40 feet, the nave 85 feet. It was a triumph in Gothic comparable to any parochial structure of its kind in Europe.
But there were construction problems in the swampy area. The foundation was found to be defective in part. So the church hired James Gallier, an Irish architect who came here in 1834, to complete the building. The walls of the tower were settling at one side. Gallier accomplished a remarkable feat of engineering skill. He removed the old foundation, replacing it with a new one, without pulling down the walls.
Gallier became one of the church’s supporters, along with many of the aristocratic families in the neighborhood. He bought pew number 27 on the center aisle.During construction and afterwards the church was plagued with financial woes. It withstood the storms, the hurricanes and the swamp. Some of its trying days were recent ones. In 1965 Hurricane Betsy delivered it severe blows.
The visitor has much to see. Leon Pomarede, a young artist, did the huge murals behind the main altar in 1841 for $1,000 each. These are masterpieces. Once a French newspaper observed that if the artist had been executing such work in a Paris church, crowds would have gathered each day to watch him. The center mural is The Transfiguration, flanked by Christ Walking on the Water on the right, and St. Patrick himself baptizing the princess daughters of Ireland’s King Laoghaire, on the left.
The wood plaster details are sights to behold and the gorgeous fan vaulting above the altar is a unique display of fine stained glass. The windows, the doors, the ceiling spans and columns are as they were more than a century and one-half ago.
It was appropriate that St. Patrick’s was created with Bishop Blanc’s encouragement and that he blessed the cornerstone in 1838. At ceremonies in Old St. Patrick’s Church on September 16, 1851, Archbishop Blanc was to receive his pallium to become the ecclesiastical head of the fourth archdiocese of the United States. At the time St. Patrick’s was the pro-cathedral, while St. Louis Cathedral was being rebuilt.
Father James I. Mullon, a native of Ireland and a veteran of the U.S. Navy in the war of 1812 was the second pastor of St. Patrick’s and the man who inspired and directed construction of the present church building. His portrait hangs on a wall in the rear of the church, and he is the only person whose remains lie sealed beneath the sanctuary.
Nearly 150 years later, the church’s 11th pastor, Monsignor John P. Reynolds, whose family lived in the neighborhood in the early days of the parish, would inspire a total restoration. It would be completed under the direction of the noted architect and parishioner, Samuel Wilson, Jr.
It took a dozen years and the determined efforts of the priests and the thousands of those who occupied the pews to complete the landmark’s full restoration.
A sophisticated lighting system now highlights the splended vaulted ceilings and arches that were in darkness for more than one and a half centuries. When some churches were taking statues out, St. Patrick’s historic collection was being preserved. The cypress pews and the carved wooden pulpit were returned to their former elegance. The murals behind the main altar were completely restored in a manner similar to the restoration of the paintings in the Sistine Chapel.
Today the old church caters to an expanding commercial area around it and to the spiritual needs of many families who travel far distances to attend its services.
Old St. Patrick’s remains a delightful reminder of the past in the midst of change.
Frank L. Schneider, September 1994
1833 — April 21Parish established in Faubourg St. Mary by Bishop Leo deNeckere, C.M.
1838 — July 1Cornerstone of permanent church blessed by Bishop Antoine Blanc
1840 — February 23First Mass Celebrated in New Church
1850Designated Pro Cathedral
1851 — April 16Most Reverend Antoine Blanc received Pallium as First Archbishop of New Orleans
1915 — September 29Church is severely damaged by hurricane
1975Designated a National Historic Landmark
1978–1990Last major restoration under Monsignor John Reynolds
1990 — December 2Rededicated by Archbishop Francis B. Schulte, D.D.