The Old Mortuary Chapel:
New Orleans' Oldest Surviving Church
The Old Mortuary Chapel as it looked in 1880;  photo by George Francois Mugnier.
1964
The church's historical marker.
2006
The link to this page is:  http://old-new-orleans.com/NO_Mortuary_Chapel.html

View of French Quarter showing locations of Mortuary Chapel & St. Louis No. 1

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Old New Orlenas

The Past Whispers




    The first church built in New Orleans was St. Louis Church, now St. Louis Cathedral.  The original St. Louis Church was constructed 100 years earlier than the Mortuary Chapel, however, it burned and was rebuilt twice, so the Mortuary Chapel is the oldest original church still standing.
     In the 1820's, the New Orleans City Council declared it illegal to bury victims of the city's annual Yellow Fever epidemics from St. Louis Cathedral (then St. Louis Church, the only Catholic Parish in the city, which was majority Catholic).  At that time, the source of the disease was still unknown and there was a concern that the church might somehow become contaminated with the constant funeral services performed throughout the Yellow Fever season; there was, also, a fear that contamination might occur as the dead were transported through the streets to the church and on to the cemetery.  Their fears were understandable, between 1817-1860, Yellow Fever epidemics struck the city 23 times, and the cause had yet to be identified.
    Land for a mortuary chapel was chosen at the corner of North Rampart and Conti Streets, within walking distance of St. Louis (No. 1) Cemetery and construction began on the church, whose sole function would be to bury those who died during Yellow Fever season, from July to December.
    The building was completed in 1827 and it was dedicated as The Chapel of St. Anthony of Padua.  Services began immediately.  In the beginning, no one was allowed in the chapel except the priests and altar boys who performed the mass for the dead, and the pall bearers who carried their burden into and out of the building.  The victim's family, in black, with the women heavily veiled, observed the scene through the open doors of the church.  Later on, the mourners were allowed to enter the sanctuary but, for many years, no pews or seats of any kind were installed.
    In the 1840's, records show that the chapel began to take the overflow baptisms and wedding services from St. Louis Cathedral and there are records of some masses being offered, as well.  By the 1870's, with an influx of Italian immigrants in the neighborhood and no longer a need for a chapel devoted to Yellow Fever services, St. Anthony became the parish church for a congregation made up almost entirely of Italian immigrants.
    By 1918, after some years of disuse, the Dominican order took over the duties of the church and it was renamed Our Lady of Guadalupe.  It is (and has been for many years) the official chapel of the New Orleans Police and Fire Departments.
    The old Mortuary Chapel has had an extraordinary history and the full story of its 180 years can be found
here.  This page includes a remarkable and haunting description of the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, when almost 6,000 people perished in one month alone, taken from "The Diary of A Samaritan" by William L. Robinson, an excerpt of which reads:
   "[As part of the experiments to control the disease] tar was set on fire around and in the cemeteries...in the yards of private houses...and in the middle of Canal, Rampart and Esplanade streets.  At sunset, when all were simultaneously fired, a pandemonium glare lighted up the city.  Not a breath of air disturbed the dense smoke, which slowly ascended in curling columns...here it seemed equipoised, festooning over our doomed city like a funeral pall and there remaining until the shades of night disputed with it the reign of darkness.
    "The [chapel] contiguous to the graveyard on Rampart Street was a thronged receptacle of the dead and their mourners during the day until after dark.  Hence arose the mournful Miserere, filling the air with its melancholy influence and heightening still more the universal despondency and sadness."

    There's, also, a memorable eyewitness account of a funeral service at the Mortuary Chapel--possibly the only account that has survived--written in 1835.  (Scroll down to the heading "The Funeral Church.")  But I wouldn't read only those two entries, the church's entire history is fascinating. --
Nancy Brister
1905
2008