A Pilgrimage to New Orleans, One of America’s Great Catholic Cities

New Orleans: Day One

A pilgrimage is one of the best ways for anyone to increase and solidify faith and hope. Every Catholic ought to make time for a pilgrimage at least once every few years.

Even if we don’t have the ability to take a “bucket-list” pilgrimage to Rome or the Holy Land (whether because of limited finances or global pandemic), there are still plenty of great options inside the United States. One of the best domestic pilgrimage sites lies in Louisiana, at the mouth of the Mississippi River. New Orleans is far more than Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, or Saints football. New Orleans is a fascinating city with a great Catholic heritage and plenty of wonderful pilgrimage sites. We should all be so blessed to meet the Lord in this city. This short article presents dayone of a two-day pilgrimage to the Crescent City.

The concept of pilgrimage begins with the fact that a pilgrim is journeying toward an important destination. In our life of faith, all pilgrimages, grand or small, reflect the ultimate pilgrimage of life. We are all pilgrims toward Heaven, and we know that journeying with Jesus is the only way to get there. We must have this in our minds and hearts on every pilgrimage we take.

Jesus & the saints: pillars of a pilgrimage

With this in mind, day one of our pilgrimage begins with One who is the focus of our whole journey, Source and Summit of our Faith, Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. In New Orleans, there are parishes everywhere, but one destination for worship stands above the rest as a focal point for a pilgrimage. At the north end of the world-famous Jackson Square in the French Quarter stands St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, an eighteenth-century Spanish Renaissance-style church. Construction on this fantastic structure began in the mid-1700s, and was finally completed about a century later. Seeking out a church like this one for worship is a fantastic way to place our entire pilgrimage on the firm foundation of He who is “the Way” (Jn. 14:6).

In addition to daily worship (12:05pm weekdays) of Jesus in the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament, the basilica offers pilgrims many artistic expressions of deep devotion to Our Lord and the saints. Three statues crown the tabernacle wall behind the altar: they are Faith (a woman holding up a cross), Hope (a woman clinging to an anchor), and Charity (a woman caring for children). The rest of the basilica, of course, is devoted deeply to French saints, especially Louis IX, King of France.

A mural above the tabernacle wall depicts St. Louis calling for the seventh crusade, which he led in the late-1240s and 1250s. The ten stained glass windows on the main level of the church depict significant moments of Louis’s life as well as the king engaging in works of mercy. Gazing at these windows offers pilgrims the wonderful opportunity of meditating on ways to allow the Christian faith to be present and operative in daily life: through the Sacrament of Matrimony; through feeding the poor; and so on. These pieces of art allow our minds and hearts to soar toward Heaven as we realize the saintly virtues and actions that are necessary to get us there.

Near the entrance to the basilica resides a small side altar and shrine to the memory of Venerable Henriette DeLille. DeLille was a descendant of a West African slave (her great-great grandmother) and she lived as a free black in New Orleans. Throughout her whole adult life, she worked in the city to establish justice on behalf of persons and groups that were segregated and enslaved. In 1842, she founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, the mission of which society was to nurse the sick, care for the poor, and instruct the ignorant. Much of the work of this community was specifically to aid the free and enslaved blacks of the city. In our own era of racial tension and dissonance, we can learn from Venerable Henriette’s pious example, and we can certainly ask for her intercession.

Ceiling fresco / Arnoldius, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Maid of Orleans

Also at the back of the basilica is a statue of St. Joan of Arc, the original Maid of Orleans. Yet, outside the basilica, still in the French Quarter, just off Jackson Square, is the Place de France, a tiny, yet impressive public monument to Joan of Arc. The centerpiece of this small plaza is a large golden statue of the young saint, lifting high the flag of France during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). This young lady’s courage, and knowing she was called by God, allowed her to exercise leadership of the French army at the Battle of Orleans, which marked the slow and steady defeat of England in this long war.

We ought to spend time praying at this monument, seeking St. Joan’s intercession for a couple of reasons. First, we are in the middle of an ongoing cultural battle against secularism and relativism (among other “isms”). We need to ask the Lord to send us valiant warriors for this cultural war against evil. Like Joan of Arc, those cultural leaders and warriors may have to disguise themselves in order to get to a place where they can lead the proverbial charge. Second, we specifically need to pray for God’s grace to be upon the women in our lives. I happen to have two wonderful women in my life: my beautiful wife and daughter.

I pray through the intercession of St. Joan that these women will become examples of how to faithfully and fearlessly bring truth, goodness, and beauty into the world. Our world needs strong women to help restore the glories of life-giving Christian culture.

Prayers for good health & miraculous cures

Just outside the French Quarter, but only a few minutes’ drive away, is the National Shrine of St. Roch. St. Roch (Rocco) is the patron saint of good health and miraculous cures, because he lived in Italy during the era of the Black Plague. The shrine (which is currently closed to the public because of termite damage) contains prosthetic limbs, teeth molds, and other faux body parts that people have left over the years as they came to the shrine to ask healing for themselves or loved ones. While it is currently not possible to enter inside, the shrine also contains a very nice cemetery filled with those famous above-ground tombs that are synonymous with the Crescent City.

St. Roch Cemetery & Shrine / Infrogmation, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The perimeter wall of the cemetery contains depictions of the Stations of the Cross in beautiful marble statues. The stations and the tombs bring to mind very acutely the fact that our earthly pilgrimage will surely be marked by some suffering, and will eventually end in death. We can use a place like the St. Roch Shrine to memento mori (“Remember, you will die,” in Latin), and to unite our sufferings to Jesus, all the while praying for healing and good health through the intercession of St. Roch.

Interior of St. Roch Shrine / Infrogmation of New Orleans, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Remember, the most important aim and goal of a pilgrimage is to grow in faith and hope. These several pilgrimage stops can certainly aid in accomplishing that goal; and they can be accomplished in a single day, or in short intervals over a couple of days. These magnificent and solemn sites will ensure that a pilgrim gets a taste of the city’s rich Catholic history and culture and grows closer to Jesus Christ along the way. Enjoy your travels!

Featured Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash. All other photos are courtesy of the author, unless otherwise credited.

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Derek Rotty is a husband, father, teacher, & free-lance writer who lives in Jackson, Tennessee. He has written extensively on Catholic history, culture, faith formation, & family. Find out more about him & his work at www.derekrotty.com.

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