Above: Father Patrick Williams, Attorney General for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, led the rededication and blessing of St. Roch Cemetery Church on May 14, which has been closed since 2005. The church’s four-year internal repair included a full restoration of the severely damaged reversible, visible in the background. (Photos by Beth Dones and Frank J. Meath from the Clarion Herald; Courtesy of New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries)
by BETH DONZE
This morning, after more than a year of delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries unveiled their award-winning restoration of St. Roch’s Chapel during a renovation and blessing ceremony attended by about 80 faithful.
Prior to blessing the church with holy water, the head of the prayer service, Father Patrick Williams, attorney general for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said holy places like St. Roch’s Church, have an important dual role in the lives of believers. Not only do they provide a “window on God” that connects God’s earthly children to the “Transcendent,” they also connect all those who pray and worship there—past, present, and future.
“Whenever we meet, we are bound to them; our hearts and prayers are with them,” Father Williams said, referring to the prayer service reading of the First Letter of St. Peter, in which God’s children are called “living stones” that God uses to create his “spiritual temple” on ground.
Father Williams prayed, “May this church be a source of comfort to the living and a sign of our hope for our never-ending lives.” “Make this church a place of healing consolation for those who grieve, a place of prayer, and a reminder of the sure hope of the resurrection and God’s love for us.”
Still standing, 146 years later
The Gothic-style chapel was originally dedicated in 1876 in gratitude for Saint Roch’s intercessory protection of New Orleans during the yellow fever era, and has withstood hurricanes, floods, termites, and closed doors over its 146 years of existence.
The church’s four-year overhaul, launched in 2017, included the complete restoration of the nave and the 30-foot-high vaulted ceiling, the latter of which is now painted midnight blue with gold accents.
The brick church walls, formerly curved and in danger of collapsing due to moisture-retaining cement mortar, have been reshaped, re-plastered and polished with lime-based products.
Restoration specialists also replaced termite-infested frames around the church’s 11 arched windows, installed all new electrical wiring and lighting, and reconfigured the recesses in the nave walls into 36 double niches for future burials in the church of cremated remains.
Retable is back to life
New and rehabilitated furnishings for the church include eight benches (salvaged from a decommissioned church in the northern United States), a 19th-century statue of Saint Roch, a statue of Christ in the tomb, and an exquisitely refurbished unit suspended above the altar featuring six painted scenes from the life of Saint Roch. Destroyed by termites and six feet of water in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was painstakingly restored and assembled by third-generation master carpenter Juan Montoya, whose work included features such as an epilogue, floral medallions, and spindle work.
During the restoration, a tattered and faded image of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns was discovered inside the church tabernacle and delicately restored for display at a future Mass.
The most famous interior feature of St. The Roch Chapel largely untouched—the cavern-like room containing earlier images—molded by limbs, leg braces, crutches, baby shoes, and other tokens of gratitude for Saint Roch’s healing intercession—remained as one frozen framework historical for the prayers of pilgrims of the past.
Although the restoration focused almost entirely on the interior of the church, a new fixed-seam copper roof now protects it from water intrusion, new steel beams anchor the attic that once housed termites, and the original bronze bell rings once again.
Thirteenth century namesake, nineteenth century needs
The church, which is also the national shrine of Saint Roch, is named after the Third Franciscan Order who devoted his life to caring for the victims of the bubonic plague and has been credited with miraculous cures. Saint Roch was born in 1295 in Montpellier, France, and is the patron saint of the sick, the disabled, dogs, and dog lovers.
When New Orleans was plagued by wave after wave of yellow fever in the late 19th century, Father Peter Leonard Tevis, pastor of nearby Holy Trinity Church, asked his parishioner to pray to Saint Roch for his intercession. In appreciation of the lull in disease outbreaks, Father Tevis’ flock erected the church in 1876 as a memorial of gratitude.
Although later generations of believers packed the church for funerals, masses, and prayers for healing, use of the space began to dwindle as the number of parishioners at Holy Trinity Church declined (the church permanently closed in 2001) and neighborhood Catholics gained access to the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church, built 1931.
The church was already designated a Local Historic Landmark in 2002, and was recently awarded the 2022 “Excellence in Historic Preservation Award” from the Louisiana Landmarks Association.
In addition to serving again as a funeral temple for burial grounds, Sherry Bebo, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries in New Orleans, said the church will host a healing mass on the first Friday of each month at 10 a.m., starting June 3. Divine Word Father Emmanuel Tanno, Patron of Our Lady Star of the Sea, will act as the chief priest of the Masses, which are open to all, and especially to those in need of physical or spiritual healing. Seating capacity ranges from 24 to 32. The church is located in Saint Roch Cemetery No. 1, 1725 Saint Roch Street. To inquire about burial options within St. Roch Church, call (504) 596-3050; email [email protected]; Or visit nolacatholiccemeteries.org.