Our Lady of Guadalupe
While the title for the oldest church in New Orleans goes to the Saint Louis Cathedral, the title for the oldest surviving church goes to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Rampart Street. The difference? Unlike the Saint Louis, Our Lady of Guadalupe was never rebuilt and has remained virtually the same since it was erected in 1827. The church was built at the height of the Yellow Fever epidemic, and its original intention was to serve as a second chapel for the ever-increasing victims of the deadly disease. The church was even positioned right in front of the Saint Louis Cemetery to allow easy access to burials and mass graves. Hundreds upon thousands of corpses passed through the church during the worst years of the epidemic. At one point, bodies were even piled up several feet high just outside the church. The heat caused them to burst open under the hot sun, filling the air with the smell of rotting corpses. A beautiful sight indeed! Our Lady of Guadalupe holds the statue of the Saint of Expedite, a controversial saint not wholly recognized by the Catholic Church. The statue is often visited by Catholics and practitioners of Voodoo to pray for matters that require urgency. The church sits on Rampart Street, an important avenue for the Black community in New Orleans. Rampart was the epicenter of Jazz and Blues in the city. Nowadays, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church hosts a weekly Gospel Jazz Mass on Sundays.
Yellow Fever and The Old Mortuary Church
New Orleans was hit hard by Yellow Fever. Being a southern city built over a swamp, mosquitoes reigned supreme. At least 20 waves of Yellow Fever hit the city, and it was common for the bodies to pile up quickly. In some instances, hundreds to thousands of bodies lined the streets of New Orleans. Long funeral processions for several people at a time were common. The city was running out of space for the dead.
Science wasn’t very advanced back then. Nobody really knew what caused Yellow Fever. It was a mystery. The miasma theory, the belief that “bad air” causes sickness, was one possibility. Doctors claimed the disease could spread via proximity to the dead bodies of the victims. This belief caused the city to ban burials for Yellow Fever victims at the Saint Louis Cathedral. The city needed a place for a proper burial, so the Old Mortuary Church was conceived.
The church was built in 1827. It was built for the sole purpose of serving as a chapel for the victims of Yellow Fever. It was conveniently placed right next to the Saint Louis Cemetery. This was not only done for the ease of transporting the dead but also to keep the corpses away from the city center to prevent further transmission of the disease. At the time, the area around Saint Louis Cemetery was an undeveloped swamp. City officials hoped to keep the disease far from the general population of New Orleans.
The Old Mortuary Church saw heavy use. During the worst of the pandemic, there were mile-long lines in front of the church as they waited for their funeral processions. Bodies were sometimes laid in large piles outside the church. If they were left to sit in the hot sun, then they would burst open, leaking bodily fluids and entrails onto the church grounds. The stench filled the air around the church. On especially hot days, the corpses could be smelled from miles away.
The legend at the time stated that family members of the deceased who stepped inside the church might contract the disease or otherwise become cursed. So the families were forced to leave the corpses in the hands of the church. The only living allowed inside were the pastors and pallbearers. Eventually, many of them came down with Yellow Fever too.
Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Shrine of Saint Jude
The Dominicans came to New Orleans in 1903. By then, the church had been repurposed for the growing Italian community in New Orleans. They expanded their mission in Louisiana and set up several churches and parishes under the direction of Father Lorente. They also moved into the Old Mortuary Church. Father Lorente passed away shortly after, and the Old Mortuary Church was abandoned.
In 1918, the Archbishop requested the church to send more priests to New Orleans to once again populate the church, though this time to worship the Lady of Guadalupe. The priests renamed the church Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In the 1930s a shrine was erected to worship St. Jude. An unusually high number of people who prayed to St. Jude had their prayers answered, giving the saint a large following in the area. The tradition of weekly novenas to St. Jude continues today.
Today, Our Lady of Guadalupe is a community centerpiece. The church sits in a historic Black neighborhood on Rampart Street, an important district for music history. Rampart Street is often referenced in Blues and Jazz music. The neighborhood is also home to several Black-owned businesses and historical landmarks. The church hosts a weekly Gospel Jazz Mass on Sundays.
The Legend of Saint Expedite in New Orleans
Inside the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church sits a statue of Saint Expedite. He was purportedly a Roman soldier who was martyred for converting to Christianity, though the story isn’t confirmed. He is said to be the patron saint of urgent matters. His status as a saint is controversial, and he’s not universally recognized by the Catholic Church.
Nobody really knows the story of how Expedite became a saint, but one theory takes place in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. The legend goes that a group of Catholic nuns found a large box inside the church stamped with the words expedite. They opened the box and found an ornate statue of a Roman soldier, hold a palm leaf in one hand, which signifies martyrdom. Expedite holds a cross in the other hand. The cross is inscribed with the word Hodie, Roman for “today.” The nuns declared him to be Saint Expedite and had the statue placed near the front of the church. Those who need a rapid dose of divine intervention come to the church to pray to his statue. Voodoo practitioners often pray to Saint Expedite.
Are there ghosts in Our Lady of Guadalupe?
While there haven’t been any confirmed ghost sightings in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, many say there is a strong spiritual presence. The history of the church, and the sheer amount of corpses that passed through, mean there must be some sort of paranormal activity on the church grounds. Many say they simply feel an eerie feeling when inside the church. The Marion Grotto underneath the church is especially spooky. The small concrete room is a shrine used for prayer, and it’s filled to the brim with hundreds of candles. So much so, that the walls have been blackened by the smoke from several decades of prayer.
Want to read more about haunted New Orleans?
The Big Easy is a colorful town. This town’s got good music, great seafood, a rich history, and a beautiful collision of cultures. The city is also notorious for being haunted, and many believe that secret magical cabals, witches, and vampires lurk in the streets of New Orleans. That might be true, but it’s also full of ghosts! The Le Petit Theatre is one of the liveliest venues in the city. According to some accounts, over 40 ghosts live inside, enough to fill up the seats! Witnesses claim that the silhouettes of ghosts are common, and photos taken in the theatre often capture orbs and strange apparitions. The ghosts of Union soldiers are commonly seen in the theatre as well. Loyola University is a Jesuit college in New Orleans. Marquette Hall is the oldest building on campus and was once home to a morgue on the fifth floor. Today the building is inhabited by several spirits. But the haunts at Loyola don’t stop there; the school was visited by Satan during an exorcism gone wrong, and the spirit of a nun who committed suicide is often seen on campus. The people at the Hotel Monteleone thought they could keep the ghosts away by designating the 13th floor as the 14th floor. Boy were they wrong. The ghosts of several children haunt the halls of the 14th floor, and they like to scare away guests who interrupt their playtime. Want to see more New Orleans haunts? Check out the top ten haunted spots in the city right here!
Main Image Source: Wikimedia