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Christ Church Catheral in New Orleans, USA.
By Mary Rooney Armand
Photography by Cameron Armand
Historic New Orleans is overflowing with culture, history and, believe it or not, churches, which offer a different kind of destination for visitors to the eclectic city.
Growing up in historic New Orleans, a town associated with the French saying “laissez le bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll), Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street, it was easy to overlook the beautiful, timeless churches lining the old streets.
During a recent Mardi Gras parade while chaperoning my daughter’s band through Uptown New Orleans, we stopped for a few moments on St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District.
The Garden District, well known worldwide, is home to historic mansions, huge live oak trees, and dark green streetcars continuously rolling by. The over 100-year-old oak trees are a sight to behold with their indigenous moss hanging and large climbing branches sprawling across the avenue.
I looked up and protruding through the oak tree canopy with dangling multicolor beads, was a large, white church. As I examined the architecture of the vast building, I wondered how it had gone unnoticed to me.
Determined to discover the roots of this spectacular church, I snapped a mental picture of my new discovery.
Christ Church Cathedral was founded, and services were held in public buildings until 1816 when the first church was erected on the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets.
After a few conversations and research, I discovered the sprawling, eye catching building was Christ Church Cathedral. It was the first non-Catholic church founded by Protestants who arrived in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Prior to the Louisiana Purchase, settlers who brought faith and traditions of worship to Louisiana were the Roman Catholics. Catholicism was introduced during the 18th century in association with the King of Spain and the Roman Pope.
In historic New Orleans’ core, the French Quarter, stand two reminders of Catholic tradition, St. Louis Cathedral and the Ursuline Convent which are considered to be two of the oldest structures in the Mississippi valley.
St. Louis Cathedral forms the center of the French Quarter landscape facing the Mississippi River and flanked by a green square surrounded by iron fencing topped with distinctive posts. The original Church of St. Louis was erected on the site in 1727 and was named after King Louis IX of France. However, that building was completely burned in a devastating fire in 1788. The current building which still holds mass was completed in 1794.
The convent, constructed in 1745 for the Ursuline nuns, was used as a convent, orphanage and school. Today it serves as a museum in the French Quarter featuring the diary of Sister Madeline Hauchard where it reveals the important role this order of nuns played in the development and expansion of faith in New Orleans.
Although there are still many Roman Catholic churches and parishioners in the city, there are hundreds of other active denominations including Protestant, Judaism and other affiliations. Since the introduction of religion in the city, many churches still hold services and are active but some have been converted and are now used for other purposes including restaurants, shops and private homes.
As the population of non-Catholic residents in New Orleans began to swell, there was a desire for Protestant church services to be held. The settlers desired a Protestant liturgy spoken in the English language since Catholic Mass at this time was still held in Latin.
After a vote among the new settlers representing several denominations including Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian, the Episcopalians won the majority and were selected to be the first English speaking Protestant church in New Orleans.
Christ Church Cathedral was founded and services were held in public buildings until 1816 when the first church was erected on the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets. After many years of city and parishioner growth, the congregation relocated and the original Christ Church building was demolished. It is now home to shops and restaurants and is a bustling tourist destination.
As the city and congregation continued to grow, the church relocated a total of four times. Construction on the fourth and current structure on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Sixth Street began in 1886.
St Charles Avenue begins on Canal Street in downtown New Orleans and runs through the part of the city considered uptown until it reaches the Mississippi river. Along this corridor stand three historic gems that are all connected to Christ Church Cathedral through its architectural history.
The current and fourth Christ Church Cathedral was designed by New York architect Lawrence Bolton Valk (1838-1924) who specialized in church design across the United States, including structures in California, Nebraska, New York, Iowa, and Colorado.
For the building plans, Valk followed the Gothic Revival style, which had been the design of the third church building. Prominent New Orleans architect James Gallier Jr. (1827-1868) was hired to build the third Christ Church Cathedral, which was known for its Gothic central tower and buttresses.
Mr. Gallier’s father, James Senior (1798-1866), was also a well-known New Orleans architect. He was responsible for the second Christ Church Cathedral structure and another historic building in the city, Gallier Hall.
The imposing Greek Revival styled Gallier Hall, built in 1845-1853, originally served as New Orleans’ city hall. It is still standing on St Charles Avenue and serves a vital role in Mardi Gras festivities and other civic functions.
Another famous New Orleans architect, Thomas Sully (1855-1939]), was commissioned in 1889 to design and complete the chapel of the current Christ Church following the same Gothic Revival pattern used by Gallier and Valk.
Thomas Sully also left his mark on many institutions and residences throughout the city, including The Columns Hotel which still stands on St. Charles Avenue less than a mile from Christ Church and 2 miles from Gallier Hall.
The architecture in New Orleans spans a wide variety of styles, including French Colonial, Greek Revival, Victorian and Italianate. The churches around the city employ a wide variety of styles, designs, and materials.
The Gothic Revival style used in Christ Church Cathedral was popular from 1830-1860 and was inspired by medieval times. It features tall, arched windows and entries as well as ornate, castle-like details.
At the entrance of Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue, the smell of old wood and history is as strong as the building itself. The interior of the church consists of dark finishes for the pews, rails and hard wood floors, chandeliers and stained glass.
Beautiful cream-colored arch ways surround the altar that is covered by a window framed dome. The church also houses a grand old organ constructed in 1922 featuring 866 keys removed from the 1847 original organ at one of the church’s previous homes.
New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have had their share of devastating hurricanes which have impacted many of the historical buildings and trees around the city. The city is still home to many architectural treasures, which is a testament to the resiliency of the culture.
In September of 1915, 25 years after the completion of Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue, a powerful, category 4 storm directly struck the coast of Louisiana. Known as The Great Storm of 1915 (this was prior to the naming of Hurricanes), it packed powerful winds and left its devastating mark on New Orleans.
In 1915, over 20,000 buildings and structures suffered severe damage including 11 churches. Christ Church Cathedral, one of the affected churches, lost its beautiful steeple.
Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans 90 years later in September of 2005, did not permanently damage the church.
Christ Church Cathedral and the surrounding New Orleans faith community are still a thriving part of New Orleans. People of faith have been responsible for orphanages, schools, hospitals, shelters, and many other organizations that provide support and a safe haven for the citizens of the area.
Currently, Christ Church holds services in the chapel and on Sundays in the Cathedral. On any given day, tourists on St. Charles Avenue can be seen passing by the historic church as part of a walking tour or individual pilgrimage.
Mary Rooney Armand – writer, teacher, and mission-worker – has been on a lifelong journey to discover her identity in Christ and help others do the same, especially women and children. She believes we were all created to live freely and thrive in our relationships and purpose.
She also directs a mentoring program for children, Kids Hope USA, at one of the schools in her community and has led multiple mission trips to Honduras.
Mary has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and worked in sales and marketing for many years before shifting her focus to help others grow in their walk with Christ.
You can find her on Instagram and Facebook.
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