Of Saints and Sinners in New Orleans:

The late city on an estuary

Justin E. Walsh, Ph.D.

(An arm of a sea at the lower end of a river is called an estuary, meaning a passage where an ocean tide meets a river current. Cities built in such locations are prone to flooding because they are usually below sea level.)



The history of New Orleans began about 325 years ago when Sieur Robert de La Salle told King Louis XIV that French claims in mid-America would be secure if France  kept England out of the Ohio Valley and kept Spain from moving north of the Gulf Coast. He said both objectives could be accomplished with forts at key points along the waterways of America’s interior. Before building the forts, however, La Salle felt the French should explore the rivers and lakes more. “As a first step, we must prove the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “Go to it, my son,” said the king as he agreed to finance a major expedition.



In December, 1681 La Salle led 54 people into “the Illinois country.” The party of seasoned woodsmen, Franciscan priests, and Indian guides formed the largest expedition yet sent into the interior by the French. La Salle traveled by way of Lake Michigan to the Chicago River, portaged to the Des Plaines, then to the Illinois, and reached the Mississippi in early spring, 1682. It was “tough sledding” at first because the rivers were frozen, but the ice had melted by the time the expedition reached the Mississippi and split into two parties. The main body continued south with La Salle toward the Gulf of Mexico, but five members were kidnapped by Indians and taken north. One of the five, Fr. Louis Hennepin, discovered the river’s source about 120 miles above where the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul stand today. This priest claimed Minnesota for France; to this day, Hennepin County, which houses Minneapolis on the west bank of the river, is named for him.

La Salle continued south until he entered the Gulf of Mexico. He ordered his party ashore at the mouth of the Great River and read a statement as his men planted a cross and a flag: “In the name of...Louis the Great, by the Grace of God King of France, this ninth day of April, one thousand six hundred and eighty-two, I take possession of this country of Louisiana, Mississippi and rivers which discharge themselves therein, from its source, as far as its mouth at the sea or Gulf of Mexico.” As his men fired a salute, La Salle pledged that missionaries would be sent to convert “the land of King Louis” to the True Faith. Then everyone sang a hymn, signed La Salle’s proclamation, and shouted “LONG LIVE THE KING!” La Salle returned to Paris dreaming about how he would build a great city at the site.

In 1685 La Salle set out with 400 settlers to return to the river’s mouth by way of the Gulf of Mexico. Since his maps were inaccurate, however, he sailed beyond the site and finally landed near present-day Galveston, Texas. There the entire party was massacred by Indians. Before his death La Salle had explored many of the rivers and lakes of mid-America. His string of forts and missions included Ft. Niagara at the falls where Lake Ontario empties into Lake Erie. He also built a fort where Erie, Pennsylvania stands today, another on the Ohio River near today’s Cincinnati, and a third in Indiana at St. Mary’s (today’s Ft. Wayne) where the Wabash River begins. He recognized the strategic importance of New Orleans from the start and thanks to his foresight France controlled the inland waterways of mid-America until the 1760s.



The city that La Salle envisioned at the mouth of the Mississippi was not born until 1717. It became a great seaport as well as an oasis of French culture. Its original area, today’s “French Quarter,” was nine feet above sea level and settlement did not extend much beyond this quarter until the 19th century. As New Orleans expanded, a system of levees and dikes was built to protect it. By 2005 fully 80% of the city was below water level in the immediate vicinity of the Gulf, the river, and Lake Pontchartrain. In brief, most of New Orleans stood in a crescent-shaped hole in a place subject to frequent hurricanes. During a hurricane gravity tends to fill holes with water.



Capuchin priests and Ursuline nuns arrived in 1720. The priests started a school for boys and the nuns opened one for girls, the first Catholic schools on land that became part of the United States. As the Faith prospered, the nuns also built an orphan’s home and a hospital. The Catholic population increased in the 1750s when England forced Frenchmen out of Nova Scotia. Catholic historian Carlton J. H. Hayes described what happened in his History of Modern Europe (p. 498):  “...1755 was a cruel year for the French settlers of Acadia [the French name for Nova Scotia]. Like so many cattle, seven thousand of them were packed into English vessels and shipped to various parts of North America.” In perhaps the worst mass deportation in American history, Acadians were forced from their homes at gunpoint. Several thousand of these Cajuns (immigrants from Canada) were shipped to New Orleans. Their descendants, still called Cajuns, are famous today for shrimp boats, spicy food, and gumbo soup.

Before they were removed, the Acadians had converted the Micmac Indians. According to Hayes, at the time of the deportation some 8,000 Micmacs “were hunted down and killed as if they were no better than wild buffalo.” Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison in his Oxford History of the American People presented a less harsh view of British policy. With typical Yankee understatement he wrote (p. 159) “The Acadian deportation was carried out with unnecessary hardship....It is not a pretty story.”

Britain’s anti-Catholicism helps explain why many French-Canadians supported America during the Revolutionary War. For example, the head of French missions in Indiana and Illinois, Fr. Pierre Gibault, helped George Rogers Clark capture Ft. Vincennes. Due to Clark’s victory, the western boundary of the new United States was set at the Mississippi River. After the war Fr. Gibault, who preferred a French bishop to Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, moved to New Orleans where he died in 1801. Because of its French heritage, New Orleans was the most Catholic city in the United States when we purchased Louisiana in 1803.

A festival called Mardi Gras was a popular sign of the city’s Faith. The word festival originally meant a feast day set apart for the observance of something holy. This particular feast originated in Paris in 1699 and came to New Orleans with the first settlers. Mardi Gras translates literally as “Fat Tuesday,” meaning a day of feasting before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. During the 19th century New Orleans continued to be noted for this Catholic feast.



Mother Philippine Duchesne and Mother Katharine Drexel, two saintly nuns, helped keep the city solidly Catholic.

St. Philippine Duchesne, born in Grenoble, France, arrived in 1818 to establish the first convent in the United States for the Mesdames of the Sacred Heart. This religious order educated the daughters of wealthy Catholics. In the words of Marian T. Horvat, Mother Duchesne brought “European formality and ceremony to the lives of the young ladies she influenced, a culture and refinement that would be a signal mark of the alumni of the Sacred Heart up until the 1960s, when the schools suffered the effects of the cultural revolution that entered the religious orders and Church with Vatican II.” The Mesdames established several schools in Louisiana and in 1828 founded an orphanage and academy in St. Louis, Missouri. By the time Mother Duchesne died in 1852, there were about a dozen Sacred Heart schools in the United States. St. Philippine was beatified by Pope Pius XII in 1949 and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988.1 

Blessed Katharine Drexel, an American-born heiress, dedicated her life to helping people at the opposite end of the social spectrum from those educated by Mother Duchesne. In 1895 Blessed Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In addition to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, members of this order took a vow to be mother and servant of the Indian and Colored Peoples of America. According to Charles Richard, who studied Mother Katharine’s career, her schools were “models of racial harmony. Students, parents, teachers, laity and religious were constantly reminded that, in the Eucharist, we become One Body in Christ.”

In New Orleans Mother Katharine founded Xavier University for young African-Americans. Charles Richard said the young men and women educated there were “a far cry from the media’s image of crack-smoking, gun-toting inner city savages.” The black students at Xavier “work hard and dress modestly; a search of their book sacks is more likely to turn up holy cards and Bibles than drugs or weapons.” In other words, students at Xavier were polar opposites of many students who lived in the city’s ghetto. This was because the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament saw that “the needs of American blacks are the same needs as the poor and downtrodden in any other mission country: they need a trained intellect and a disciplined will; they need the kind of dignity and equality afforded only by the sacraments; they need the virtues of charity and forgiveness; in short American blacks need the Catholic Church.” Mother Katharine Drexel devoted her life to improving the lot of America’s minorities. She died in 1950 at the age of 91, was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, and today awaits canonization.2 



Just as the word festival originally meant a religious feast, in the 20th century the word carnival came to mean sensuous entertainment. In New Orleans Mardi Gras  degenerated into a wildly sensuous carnival.

Right before Lent every year, revelry exploded along Bourbon Street. This thoroughfare in the French Quarter, named for the French royal family, became famous instead for its jazz emporiums that dispensed bourbon which was 90 proof Kentucky straight. Jazz was personified by native sons like Louie Armstrong who transformed an old Negro spiritual, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” into a jazz classic. (New Orleans eventually called its airport Louie Armstrong International.) Armstrong’s deft trumpeting and vocalizing told of a new kind of saint who played trumpet, sang jazz, and caroused with the city’s underclass. He was most likely interested primarily in this world, customarily used drugs, and frequently practiced Voodoo. This last was imported from Jamaica after America’s Civil War. When it escaped from the backwaters of bayou country, casting-spells, fortune-telling, and necromancy became tourist attractions downtown. In this milieu witchcraft, the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, and Mardi Gras, became inextricably mixed. The descent of New Orleans into perversity was underway.



In 1950 Sister Lucy dos Santos, the late seer of Fatima, was directed to write down the third secret from the apparitions of 1917 and place the information in a sealed envelope. Since the secret had never been revealed, Our Lady asked that the envelope be opened by the Pope either when Sister Lucy died or in 1960, whichever came first. When Pope John XXIII opened the envelope in 1960 he decided not to reveal its contents. Sister said later the secret was not revealed because the world had entered “a time of diabolic disorientation.” She added “It is painful to see such a great disorientation in so many who occupy places of responsibility. The devil has succeeded in infiltrating evil under the cover of good...the blind are beginning to guide others...and souls are letting themselves be deceived.” As a result, more and more people lived sinful lives and more and more things became the opposite of what they should be. New Orleans dubbed itself “the Big Easy” to describe its disorientation and Mardi Gras deteriorated into a debauch that lasted for weeks before AND AFTER Ash Wednesday.

In the nation at-large the subversion of Sundays was a sure sign of disorientation. During the 1960s millions of Americans kept the Sabbath by fervently following the National Football League (NFL) instead of by attending Church. The League expanded from a dozen teams to 32 teams and no one protested when sportscasters made sacrilegious analogies to sacred things. For instance, “Touchdown Jesus” was born when an announcer compared a mural depicting Our Lord’s Ascension to the way a referee signaled touchdown by raising both hands above his head. And when a desperation pass was thrown to win a game in the closing seconds it was called a “Hail Mary pass.” So far as is known not one Catholic bishop protested either the desecration of the Holy Name or the derogation of Our Blessed Mother.



When the NFL started the Super Bowl to decide its annual champion, New Orleans built a state-of-the-art stadium to attract the game and the millions of tourist dollars it would bring. Naturally, the stadium was called the Superdome and it brought an expansion team to the Big Easy. Since basketball had already expropriated the name New Orleans Jazz, the football team had to take the next-best name of New Orleans Saints. These were saints of gladiatorial proportions who came marching into the Superdome every fall to wage fierce combat against Lions, and Cowboys, and Redskins. The word adversity, which means a state that is contrary to one of well-being, came to mean for New Orleans a time when its Saints had a losing streak.

In 1971 New Orleans celebrated its first “Southern Decadence Days” (D-Days) over Labor Day weekend. Decadence means deterioration characterized by self-indulgence, and it proliferated as the city turned its back on what is right and good to embrace what is wrong and evil. The city on the estuary was soon enmeshed in graft, political corruption, lax law enforcement, and toleration of such things as prostitution, drug addiction, and  abortion. Although 35th in population among American cities, in 2004 New Orleans led the nation in number of homicides. In 2005 the mayor announced plans for the 34th annual observance of “Southern Decadence Days.” By this year the title was a euphemism for a celebration of sodomy as more than 125,000 homosexuals prepared to party over the first weekend in September.



Alas, the 35th annual D-Days were not to be! One week before Labor Day, hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans. Within 24 hours the dikes gave way and 80% of  the largest city in Louisiana lay under water. Nearly 400,000 people who fled before the hurricane hit lost everything they left behind.



More than 100,000 others who either defied evacuation orders or lacked the wherewithal to escape were without food, drinkable water, passable roads, electricity, or any means of communication and transportation. Many of these sought refuge in the Superdome where people customarily watched games in the lap of luxury. Now, its roof damaged by Katrina, the Dome was an inhospitable place due to lawlessness and the lack of sanitation, fresh air, and common courtesy. After the waters receded sufficiently, these refugees were bussed to sites hundreds–sometimes thousands—of miles away. In the meantime the Saints home games were rescheduled: one in New York City, three in San Antonio, Texas and four at a college stadium in Baton Rouge. As of this writing, the Superdome awaits a wrecking ball and neither the Saints nor anyone else will ever desecrate a Sabbath there again.

Rescue of those stranded in the 80% of the city that was flooded began four days after the dikes broke. When outside help finally arrived people were rescued from rooftops and waist-deep water by helicopters and small boats. These evacuees were taken first to unflooded sites downtown and then bussed to other states. About 1,000 people, many of them elderly or disabled, died in the chaos. No one knew how much Katrina would ultimately cost or how many additional lives might be lost to plagues after the water receded. Nearly half-a-million displaced persons were scattered far and wide, and many of them would never return to make homes in the city on an estuary. Also, the mayor cancelled the 34th annual Decadence Days on September 13, after hurricane Rita flooded New Orleans for the second time in 13 days.

President George W. Bush called the destruction of New Orleans “the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States.” The city at the mouth of the Mississippi will in all likelihood never be what it once was.



During the crisis rescue workers were fired upon by looters. Nearly 500 out of 1,500 law enforcement officers deserted their posts and some were videotaped taking appliances and clothing from an unattended Wal-Mart. Many who patrolled regular beats intentionally ditched their patrol cars in favor of 90 new Cadillacs taken from an auto dealer without permission. At the Superdome, the strong preyed upon the weak.  Hospitals and nursing homes were also dangerous places. For example, at Charity Hospital and St. Rita Nursing Home health-care professionals allegedly killed elderly and disabled patients instead of trying to save them.

In the aftermath all officials played the blame game. The mayor charged the state and federal governments with malfeasance. The governor blamed the mayor and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) for the deaths of  thousands of people. And the U.S. government’s Homeland Security Agency blundered from one mishap to another. For instance, it arranged shelter for 200 evacuees in Charleston, South Carolina but flew them to Charleston, West Virginia which was unprepared to accept them. One month after the flood, as the Louisiana delegation in Congress demanded $200 billion from the Federal treasury, it seemed that the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, and the United States of America were all ungovernable.

Things were bad enough that a non-Catholic columnist for the Washington Times, Joseph Farah, seemed to echo Sister Lucy’s words about diabolic disorientation. On October 2 Farah wrote “We live in a world where up is down, right is left, black is white, and right is wrong. It’s just like in the book of Judges where we read about every man doing what’s right in his own eyes.” Farah added that “Self-government is dependent, at the very least, on the ability of people to distinguish right from wrong. It is undeniable that Americans are losing that ability.” The columnist traced the problem to forces that have been persuading people “through schools, the universities, movies, TV shows, advertisements, the press, pseudo-scientific research, and a thousand other means, that there is no objective truth, that there is no ultimate morality, that there is no authority higher than government to which we as individuals are accountable.”

To right the situation, Farah said “The church needs to become engaged in our society–to take a leadership role. Pastors need to speak out boldly and preach personal responsibility in our culture. Faithful leaders need to put timidity aside and talk about right and wrong. We need to hear about sin again. We need to hear about eternal consequences for our actions. We need to hear about good and evil.”

Capitalize Church so that it means the Catholic Church and substitute the National Council of Catholic Bishops for pastors, and Farah presents a formula to abandon diabolic disorientation and return to the firm rock of tradition. One wonders how many catastrophes must occur before our bishops and the people of the United States take heed.



1See “St. Philippine Duchesne,” Catholic Family News, August, 2005,pp.7-8.

2See “Katharine Drexel, Mother and Servant to the Indian and Colored Peoples,” The Angelus (February, 1996), pp. 14-19.