New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Wednesday, July 24, 2024
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March 29, 1721 Governor Bienville choses site of New Orleans

Although it was nine years before a permanent church was built, Christians living in New Orleans did have an opportunity to attend religious services. The first temporary place of worship was located on St. Ann Street. It was a makeshift half warehouse, half chapel.

On Sept. 11, 1722, the first recorded hurricane struck New Orleans. The storm played havoc with the area. Every building in the new city was destroyed, including the building housing the temporary chapel. The winds were so strong three large vessels that lay in the Mississippi River were blown on shore.

The next temporary structure, located on Toulouse Street near the river, was described as "half of a wretched warehouse." It didn’t last long; conditions were so deplorable the chapel was moved to a former tavern facing the river between St. Louis and Toulouse streets.

When Father Raphael de Luxembourg, head of the Capuchin priests and first to administer the religious needs of the people, arrived in New Orleans, he was unimpressed with the living conditions and the place where religious services were conducted. He immediately began a crusade to remedy the situation. He worked hard to have a new and proper church built.

Even though Governor Bienville, on March 29, 1721, used his loyal and valiant sword to trace the exact spot where the church was to be built, construction did not begin for several years. Father Raphael did not give up. He continued to prod the officials. One more temporary location was used before the church became a reality. This one was in the military barracks across from present-day Jackson Square.

Finally, in 1724, construction of the first permanent church in New Orleans began; it was located on the exact spot designated by Bienville in 1721. Engineer-in-Chief Le Blonde de la Tour drew the plans, and French engineer Adrien de Pauger was responsible for construction.

The structure was made of wood and brick, the first of its type in Louisiana. Both building materials were obtained locally. The construction style used was known as colombage. The process required stout timbers carefully cut and fitted together with mortise and tenon joints. All pieces were held together with wooden pegs.

Pauger also had in his plans heavy timber buttresses on each side to brace the structure against hurricane winds. The building was so sturdy that during construction it was decided the buttresses were not needed. Before the structure was completed, de Pauger took ill and died. As requested in his will, his remains were buried within the unfinished building.

After numerous delays, the new parish church was dedicated by Father Raphael before Christmas 1727 and was named for St. Louis IX, sainted king of France.

The structure was the most impressive building in the city. Over the door was a clock which struck the hours only. A small belfry housed not one but two bells.

The permanent church was the pride of the community and the Capuchins. The first problem to surface once the church began services was not caused by faulty construction or the weather, but by the stormy faithful. As was customary at the time, armchairs were made available near the altar for the Governor and the Intendant. Two L-shaped pews were provided for members of the superior Council and staff officers. All pews in the church were auctioned off to the highest bidders. This led to considerable rivalry among the parishioners, each wishing to obtain the most desirable seat. Just as the structure survived the damp, humid climate, the squabbling over pew space also passed.

In 1763, the harsh elements finally took their toll on the building. The holy structure had to be abandoned while necessary repairs were made. Once again, the people went to services in a temporary structure. This one was in the king’s warehouse on Dumaine Street. After many months the building was finally repaired and reopened.

On March 21, 1788, the first permanent Church of St. Louis was delivered a devastating blow. The catastrophe has gone down in New Orleans history books labeled "the Good Friday fire." The church survived the ravages of time, the elements and squabbling over pew space, but not the flames of 1788. The entire French Quarter was levelled to the ground. In all, 856 out of 880 structures lay in ashes, including the church of St. Louis.

During the six decades that the church stood there, French Governors Perier, Bienville and Kerlerec and Spanish Governors Unzaga, Galvez, Miro and Manuel Gayoso worshipped within its walls. Gayoso died in New Orleans and is the only colonial governor buried in Louisiana. His mortal remains were buried in the church.

For 61 years, the first structure housing the Church of St. Louis was the center of community life in south Louisiana. Babies, be they lowly or highborn, free or slave, were baptized in the church.

Couples were joined in holy matrimony. Sunday Mass and all holy days of obligation were attended. Through its doors, the mortal remains of the faithful were brought for burial rites of Holy Mother Church.

From the beginning of life to preparation for eternal life, and at all times in between, the church of St. Louis served the faithful then as it does today.

Source: Buddy Stall at