At the corner of North Rampart and Conti streets stands the old Mortuary Chapel of New Orleans, known in our days as the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua. Rampart street marked the ancient limits of the city laid out by Bienville, the street having been so named because of the strong redoubt which ran along it in colonial days.
As the city spread beyond its primitive limits, the moat which ran through the centre of the neutral ground, or present car track, was filled in; beautiful shade trees were planted along the way on either side; the outlying section of the ancient city gradually became a resident portion.
This rapid growth of old New Orleans, which a few years before had caused the City Council to Older the removal of the Old Saint Louis Cemetery to a further location, operated in 1811 as a powerful argument with the authorities to urge upon the Trustees of the Saint Louis Cathedral the erection of a mortuary chapel, whence the dead would be directly conveyed from their abode, and thence to the adjoining cemetery, thus avoiding, as the Mayor explained, "those funeral processions which are but too apt to scatter throughout the city the fatal miasma of fever."
It is, therefore, to the City Council that the old Mortuary Chapel owed its origin. The negotiations began in June, 1819. In consequence of a motion put before the City Council, and adopted, the Mayor wrote to the Trustees of the Saint Louis Cathedral, offering them part of the lots bordering on the parochial cemetery. "This land," the Mayor said, "would be sold to the Trustees at a moderate price, if they, in their well-known devotedness to the public welfare, would have a mortuary chapel erected there."
The proposal of the City Council was accepted, and Mr. Caisergues, President of the Trustees, was charged to reach an agreement with the Mayor on the subject. Unfortunately, the Cathedral was very much in need of money at this time, the parish fund having been drained by the election of a new steeple, the purchase of a town clock and an organ. So this project, like many others, fell through for lack of means.
The question. however, was not forgotten, and in September, 1824, the City Council renewed the proposition, recalling the negotiations opened a few years before, and the willingness of the Trustees at that time to comply with the request. The treasury of the Cathedral being now in a better condition, the Trustees appointed a committee to meet the Mayor and carry out the desires of the City Council.
December 29, 1825, the negotiations were completed. The lots offered by the city were bought by the Saint Louis Cathedral at a cost of $425 each. The deed of sale, properly made out and signed, was deposited in the archives of Felix de Armas, a Notary Public.
Once in complete and undisputed possession of the grounds, the Trustees of the Saint Louis Cathedral at once proceeded to carry out the idea of erecting the Mortuary Chapel, and in September, 1826, issued a call for competitive bids. The bid made by Messrs. Guillot & Gurlie was given the preference. According to their plans the building was to be 40 French feet in width, 80 feet in length, and 24 feet in height. The total cost of the chapel, with the guardian's house and the wall of inclosure, was to amount to $114,000, payable in installments according to the contract. While the building was in course of erection, however, several alterations in the way of improvements were incorporated in the original plan, and the total cost of the buildings thus raised to about $117,000.
The work was prosecuted with great rapidity, and on Wednesday, October 14, 1820, at half-past four o'clock in the afternoon, the corner stone of the chapel was laid by Rev. Antonio de Sedella, the famous and beloved Père Antoine who played such a part in the early history of New Orleans. Père Antoine was assisted by his clergy; the Trustees of the Saint Louis Cathedral, the Mayor, the City Council and the Recorder of the city were also present at the ceremony. Within a few months, quaint and beautiful, and in keeping with the ancient Spanish style of architecture which prevailed in New Orleans, the Mortuary Chapel arose. Even before its completion, a custodian, whose name was Louis Vallegas, was appointed and given a salary of $21 a month. At the same time the City Council hastened to bring into execution the sanitary measures it desired to inaugurate, and issued the following decree, September 29, 1827:
"The Trustees of the Saint Louis Parish Church, having informed the City Council that the Mortuary Chapel erected near the Saint Louis Cemetery is now completed, the. City Council hereby resolves:
December 27, 1827, after the mass, and in presence of the civil authorities, Père Antoine blessed the new sanctuary.
As the Saint Louis Cathedral was the only Catholic church in the city, and the Old Saint Louis Cemetery the only Catholic cemetery, funerals came in large numbers every day, and soon the custodian was unable to call the priests of the Cathedral to perform the rites. Father Tomero, who appears to have been a missionary priest, being aware of this state of affairs, offered himself as chaplain of the Mortuary Chapel, and was accepted at a salary of $30 a month. The appointment of a resident chaplain forms the actual starting point of the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua.
It continued to be used as a mortuary chapel until about 1860.
During forty years and more, from the time that Père Antoine first chanted there the "De Profundis," and the "Requiescat in Pace," its portals were daily open to funeral processions, and its walls re-echoed the unchanging and solemn liturgy of the Church over her dead, "Eternal rest give unto them, oh, Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them."
How many hundreds of this old Franco-Spanish city have spent within the venerable walls of the old chapel their last hour at the light of day, God alone can tell.
In 1853, just after the terrible epidemic of yellow fever, the City of New Orleans had far outgrown the purpose for which the Ancient Mortuary Chapel was founded. All over the city, from Carrollton to the Barracks, were scattered churches. Catholic and Protestant. To these churches the dead had been borne in one of the most fatal visitations of yellow fever that New Orleans had ever known. It seemed to everyone the height of absurdity to apply to the Saint Louis Cathedral Parish alone, the sanitary regulation of 1827, regarding the burial of the dead. The city had outgrown the regulation, and the old Mortuary Chapel had outlived the original purposes for which it had been founded. The same law that applied to other churches in permitting funeral services to be held within their portals, now applied to the Saint Louis Cathedral, and the use of the old chapel for mortuary purposes was gradually discontinued.
Some ten years afterwards was attached to the Saint Louis Cathedral as assistant, the great soldier priest of the Confederacy, Rev. Father Turgis. His famous record in the great struggle between the States is not only a matter of Southern, but of national history. When the struggle ended the hearts of the old soldiers followed their friend and father, and evening after evening his room in the Old St. Louis Presbytery was thronged with his comrades of the Old Orleans Guard and Pointe Couple Artillery. Finally the survivors of these two historic commands thought that Father Turgis ought to have a church for himself, and so they petitioned the sainted Archbishop Odin to give him a parish. Having no other church to offer the warrior priest, Archbishop Odin gave him the old Mortuary Chapel on North Rampart street, and there, day after day, the faithful old priest said mass with members of his old guard kneeling around. The walls of that little church and presbytery could unfold the most beautiful tale of brotherly love could they speak, for the small pension allowed Father Turgis by the boys in gray was all distributed in alms to the old and helpless Confederates, who used to style him their Guardian Angel. About the quaint old confessional were grouped every Saturday night the old soldiers who had followed him so faithfully during the bloody war. Around the Communion table they would gather, and the few survivors who are still among us love to relate how evening after evening found not less than fifteen or twenty of the old soldiers gathered in his room in the presbytery just back of the chapel. They represented every creed; they loved him and delighted to recount with him the days that had so bitterly tried their hearts and souls.
Father Turgis died in the little back room of the old presbytery of Saint Anthony's Church. Almost his last words were: "I have seen death so often that I do not fear it now." His remains were exposed in the old chapel and here was chanted above them the Solemn Requiem Mass. No funeral in New Orleans, except that of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, ever attracted such a crowd to the city. From all parts of the State the Confederate veterans came to the old chapel. The streets were thronged for blocks around. Hundreds of men and women followed the funeral on foot. All the survivors of the Army of Northern Virginia and of the Army of Tennessee followed the remains to their last resting place in the New Saint Louis Cemetery, where a beautiful monument has been raised to Father Turgis' memory by the Army of Tennessee.
Immigration from Italy began to pour into New Orleans. It soon became apparent to the Archbishop, Most Rev. Napoleon Joseph Perché, that more special provision had to be made for the religious guidance of these emigrants. For some years there had stood in Esplanade street, near the Levee, a frame building which was called the Chapel of the Resurrection. It was devoted exclusively to the use of Italian emigrants, and Rev, Father Cajone was in charge. In the early '70s he had as assistant in his work Rev. Father Manoritta, than whom no Italian worker became better known in New Orleans.
In January, 1875, Archbishop Perché decided to convert the old Mortuary Chapel into a parish for the Italians, and he named Rev. Father Manoritta as rector. The ancient edifice, which had from its foundation served as an annex to the Saint Louis Cathedral, was now entirely severed from connection with it and became a distinct parish church for Italians under the name of Saint Anthony of Padua's Church. The following is the first record found among the parish archives: "This day, January 25, 1875, I have baptized the first person ever baptized in this church of Saint Anthony of Padua. Signed, Father Manoritta, formerly Chaplain of the Chapel of the Resurrection." The church continued in charge of Father Manoritta until November 5, 1902, when he resigned the rectorship to spend his last days in his native Italy. The last baptism recorded by Father Manoritta is dated November 2, 1902. On November 5, 1902, His Grace, the lamented Archbishop Chapelle, placed the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua in charge temporarily of the late Rev. Father Widman, S. J., who continued to administer its affairs for eleven months until October 1, 1903, when Archbishop Chapelle confined the care of the Italian people to the Spanish Dominican Fathers, and placed Saint Anthony's Church in their charge. The rector of the church is Very Rev. Thos. Lorente, O. P. He is one of the famous Philippine Friars, having been professor in the University of Saint Thomas, at Manila. He served as Secretary to Most Rev. P. L. Chapelle, while the latter was Apostolic delegate in the Philippine Islands, immediately after the close of the late war with Spain. Through the zeal of the Dominican Fathers the little congregation, scattered all over the city, has grown considerably. Many of the old customs of the churches of Italy still maintain here and the feasts are celebrated with elaborate ceremonies.
Once it was feared that the ancient landmark would be given over to the pickaxe and hammer of demolishers, and that travelers would be seen hurrying onward in the busy rush of commerce and pleasure, to the spot where once men went for meditation and prayer. But such a fate seems to have been conjured, and the ironclad monster engines that once menaced not only the existence of Saint Anthony's Chapel, but of the Old Saint Louis Cemetery beyond, now roll on between both, bringing in close touch the restless activity of the living and the eternal stillness of the dead.In and Around the old St. Louis Cathedral of New Orleans, by Rev. C. (Celestin) M.Chambon, Philippe's Printery, Exchange Place, New Orleans, 1908
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