Erected in 1793, and originally known as the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas, the Archdiocese of New Orleans was a joint creation of the king of Spain and the pope. Having roots in the Catholic realms of Spain and France, the Archdiocese has a distinctive history, unlike the dioceses established in the English and Protestant traditions of the Eastern seaboard. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New Orleans became an "American" diocese but the traditions and practices took more than a century to completely change.
The early history of the Louisiana Catholic Church cannot be separated from the early colonial period of Louisiana. As part of the colonial empires of France and Spain, the settlers of Louisiana were to be Catholic if they were to be faithful subjects. Even the Code Noir, the French law which governed the treatment of slaves, mandated that slaves be instructed and baptized in the Catholic faith, freed from work on Sunday and treated humanely. As Dr. Charles Nolan wrote, "the early residents of this area would have found our distinction between political and religious matters strange and unintelligible. War, a business or marriage contract, and a baptismal ceremony were both sacred and secular."
The diocese originally encompassed the entire Louisiana Territory from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border, as well as the Florida peninsula and the Gulf Coast. Today there are 57 dioceses in the territory that was once the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas. We are but a fraction of that territory encompassing 4208 square miles, 8 civil parishes (counties), 108 parishes, 10 missions or quasi-parishes and 2 campus ministries.
For more than 221 years, from Bishop Peñalver y Cardenas, the first bishop of the diocese to Archbishop Gregory Aymond, the fourteenth archbishop, a multi-ethnic population of faithful, clergy and religious, have preserved and nurtured the faith by establishing parishes, schools, orphanages, hospitals and other necessary institutions. We have rebuilt communities and churches after floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, wars and epidemics. This faithful population consisted of French, Spanish, Irish, Germans, Acadians, Canary Islanders, Native Americans, Slaves, Free People of Color, Italians, Hungarians, Cubans, Vietnamese and, of course, Americans.
In its ever pressing need to bring the Gospel to its people, the Archdiocese of New Orleans held missions in many rural towns and communities. Mission priests traveled by horse and buggy to spread the Good News. Unique ways of bringing “church” to the people included the chapel car “St. Paul” and a chapel boat “Our Lady Star of the Sea.”
The women religious have played an important role with their contribution to Catholic Louisiana. In 1727, the Ursulines arrived to minister at the French Royal Hospital and being the formal education of young girls and women. In the first half of the 19th century, more religious communities were recruited to serve in Louisiana: the Daughters of Charity, Sisters of Mount Carmel, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of the Good Shepherd and the Dominicans Sisters. They educated girls and boys, young women and men from all walks of life, rich and poor, slave and free. They tended the sick and comforted the dying.
Within walking distance in and near the French Quarter, there are 5 churches (St. Augustine, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Immaculate Conception, St. Mary’s, and the Cathedral). There is the oldest cemetery: St. Louis #1 and the Old Ursuline Convent Museum. The St. Louis Cathedral and Old Ursuline Convent museum are part of the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center. The Old Ursuline Convent, built in 1752/3, is the oldest structure in the Mississippi Valley. Spared from the 1788 fire which destroyed most of the French Quarter, the building is one of the only examples of French architecture still existing in the Quarter. The building has been used as a convent, bishopric, school, meeting place for the legislature, archives and now a museum.
The St. Louis Cathedral is the iconic symbol of the city and it is the oldest continuous cathedral in the country. The floors in the center aisle were designed and installed by a free man of color. The stained glass windows tell the life story of St. Louis. Portraits of the bishops and archbishops adorn the ceiling. The prayer room that is just off the entrance is dedicated to Henriette Delille, a free woman of color, who established the Sisters of the Holy Family. On March 2, 2010, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted unanimously to approve a declaration that Servant of God Henriette Delille practiced “heroic virtue” during her ministry to slaves and African Americans. This brings her one step closer towards beatification.
But what truly makes our traditions and celebrations unique are the ties to our Catholic identity. Mardi Gras or Carnival season begins on January 6, the Epiphany or Kings’ Day. We start with King Cakes and inside the cake is a baby which represents the baby Jesus. Our Mardi Gras season ends at midnight with Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season. We are so tied to our traditions that even our National Football team was formed on November 1, 1966, All Saints Day, and named the Saints. So while you’re here visiting, absorb the culture, enjoy the music, enjoy the food and above all observe the riches of our faith that are interwoven in the fabric of New Orleans.