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A Pilgrimage to New Orleans, A City of Catholic Art & History

New Orleans, Day Two

Any pilgrim to New Orleans probably feels as though one day in this great city is not enough. So, it is a fantastic thing to continue our New Orleans pilgrimage into a second day. Recall that all pilgrimages intend to deepen our relationship with Jesus, leading us toward our eternal, heavenly destination. On this second pilgrimage day, the primary focal points are sites that connect us with the city’s great tradition of engaging in the corporal works of mercy, well-known cemeteries, and some other great cultural sites and experiences.

Women & the works of mercy

One great historical figure who has a deep and abiding connection to New Orleans is St. Francis Xavier Cabrini. Within three years of migrating to the United States, she came to New Orleans in 1892 with a mission to help poor Italian immigrants in the city. Many who are from New Orleans know Cabrini High School, which is a long-time staple of education in the city. Yet, it is important to know that until 1959 that same site was an orphanage for abandoned children in the city. Still, before the well-known site on Esplanade Avenue, Cabrini founded an orphanage right in the heart of the French Quarter, at 817 St. Philip St.. The site now exists as a posh apartment complex; but there is still a statue of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in the courtyard standing as a memorial to her mission and work there. It is good to take a moment at either of these sites to pray that God’s mercy and compassion will be with migrants and orphans within our world today.

Aside from Cabrini, one of city’s most beloved historical citizens is Margaret Haughery, and taking in some of the sites related to her life is a must on a New Orleans pilgrimage. Margaret Haughery was brought to the United States by her Irish parents as part of the first wave of immigration in the early 1800s. In Baltimore, she met the man who would be her husband, Charles Haughery, and they soon moved to New Orleans. Just a few short years after settling at the mouth of the Mississippi River, Charles tragically passed away and Margaret was left widowed with young children.

In order to support her young family, she took up work as a laundress at the St. Charles Hotel (the site of the present-day Royal St. Charles Hotel); and she also purchased a bakery from which she produced delicious and famous Irish soda bread for members of the community. Because of her experiences, she had a heart for widows and orphans. She founded the St. Vincent Infant Asylum to take in and care for the smallest children in the city who were abandoned by unwed mothers. That beautiful red-brick building still stands at 1507 Magazine Street in the Garden District of the city, now operating as the Hotel St. Vincent.

Because of her work in New Orleans, Haughery was the second woman in United States history to have a statue erected to her honor. That statue still resides in a small park in the city’s Garden District. Both Cabrini and Haughery remind us of what the New Testament calls “pure and undefiled” religion, which is visiting and assisting “orphans and widows in their affliction” (Jas. 1:27).

One final pilgrimage site related to the corporal works of mercy is in the city’s well-known Lakeview district, near Metarie. The National Shrine of Blessed John of Vercelli and the Holy Name Society of New Orleans are both headquartered at St. Dominic’s parish in this area. The shrine, housing a relic of Bl. John, is tucked away at a side-altar inside the main parish church. Visiting the shrine allows us to pray for the canonization of this man who was sixth master-general of the Dominican Order; and to pray for the work of the society, which is engaging in the works of mercy that are so needed within the New Orleans community.

Memento mori

In addition to visiting some of the great sites related to the corporal works of mercy, New Orleans also has some great places to remind us of the eternal destination of this earthly pilgrimage. The city is famous for its cemeteries filled with above-ground tombs. There are several large cemeteries, named also in honor of that historical king of France, which pilgrims can enter and memento mori (“Remember, you will die.”). St. Louis Cemetery #3 sits right across from Cabrini High School on a lovely stretch of Esplanade Avenue, that famous New Orleans street. A pilgrim to the cemetery will notice visitors who are there to pray for deceased loved ones, or might even encounter a funeral procession. Walking through the cemetery allows a pilgrim to pray for the souls of those who have died before, and to meditate on the fact that she will join them in that state, sooner or later.

A place to experience great art

At the very north end of Esplanade Avenue resides City Park. The entire park is a great place for a respite and some leisure activities, such as jogging, frisbee, or paddle boating. Yet, the treasure of this city space is the New Orleans Museum of Art, right at its center. This small museum (compared, at least, to Chicago or New York), has some fantastic pieces of art on display, which will enrich the pilgrimage experience.

Inside this quaint space, a pilgrim is surprised to find several fantastic pieces that will deepen devotion to the saints and to our Blessed Lord. There is an original painting by El Greco, The Ecstasy of St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1600). Also hanging there is Whisperings of Love, an easily-identifiable original Bouguereau depicting a woman with an angel whispering in her ear. Peter Paul Rubens’s world-renown depiction of St. Teresa of Avila (1615) also graces a central wall. Perhaps the greatest little treasure in the museum, hidden somewhere in an oblique room, is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s depiction of Jesus Christ, The Good Shepherd (c. 1914).

Beyond the specifically religious art, a large depiction of Marie Antionette is perhaps the centerpiece of the whole museum. Antionette was queen of France when the Revolution commenced in 1789; and she was the eighteenth-century version of a cultural influencer, which is shown in the painting. The museum also has two original Picasso paintings, a Kandinsky, and a number of very interesting pieces related to American and Louisiana history. One last very notable piece of art is one of Degas’ most famous works, a depiction of his sister-in-law arranging flowers.

Currently, the museum also has a fascinating traveling exhibition of art (statues, crucifixes, and more) from the era of exploration and colonization in Portuguese India, which is sure to leave deep impressions. It is possible to spend as much as a full day in this small museum, but it is also possible to take in much of its wonder and beauty in just about two hours.

Imbibing the culture

Finally, no pilgrimage is complete without enjoying at least a small taste of the local culture, and New Orleans has plenty of such culture. First, every pilgrim should take the opportunity to visit Café du Monde, directly adjacent to Jackson Square. I recommend going early in the morning, when the sun is rising over the French Quarter and the crowds are thinner. Order the world-famous coffee and beignets, sit on the patio looking toward St. Louis Basilica, and imbibe some great New Orleans jazz music offered on the street. (Be sure to offer the musicians a few dollars for their effort to entertain you.) There is also the opportunity to fill your stomach with some world-class creole food after a day of seeing pilgrimage sites.

So, whether a traveler has one day or a full week in New Orleans, these stops and sites will allow her to take in the city’s rich history and culture; to grow in faith and hope along the way; and to be inspired by the saints’ efforts to bring the mercy of God into the world. Surely, any traveler will return home with a new vision for how to go about life in this world.

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