Cemeteries chief looks back on office’s 50 years
The office of New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries was officially incorporated in 1966 by Archbishop Philip M. Hannan to manage the 12 Catholic cemeteries within New Orleans that had been operated by individual church parishes.
This celebration has confused several people because they know our Catholic Cemeteries are older than 50 years!
In fact, all 12 of the Catholic cemeteries included in the 1966 incorporation originated between 1789 and 1874. A 13th cemetery was purchased in 1970 from a private owner in Luling.
While the Archdiocese of New Orleans has six named cemeteries – St. Louis, St. Patrick, St. Roch, St. Vincent, St. Joseph and St. Charles – all except St. Charles are separated by city streets and have duplicate names such as St. Roch No. 1 and St. Roch No. 2. This creates the current 13 New Orleans Catholic cemeteries.
225 years old and counting
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, originating in 1789, is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans. Situated a few blocks away is St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, dating back to 1823. Both cemeteries hold the distinction of being listed in the National Register of Historic Places in Louisiana.
St. Louis No. 1 encompasses one square city block, approximately 2.25 acres, while St. Louis No. 2 encompasses three square city blocks, approximately 5.5 acres, and has the most abandoned and deteriorated tombs.
Between St. Louis No. 1 and No. 2, there are only 30 burials a year. The income from these interments barely covers the cost of general maintenance. Fortunately, St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, located two miles away on Esplanade Avenue, averages more than 300 burials annually, so the labor cost can be shared among these cemeteries.
Over the past 50 years of maintaining all of these historic cemeteries, several major projects have taken place, including restoring old wall vault sections and building an infrastructure of drainage and roadways.
The major challenge is that work in historic cemeteries is never-ending and very costly.
In 2012, a 40-foot wide section of the six-foot-high, exterior brick wall that surrounds St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 collapsed. It was after this major collapse that all four exterior walls were inspected, and in 2015 the restoration work was completed at a cost of $500,000.
The work entailed flushing out the deteriorated brick mortar by drilling holes every 18 inches, vertically and horizontally around the entire perimeter. After flushing out the deteriorated mortar, new mortar was pumped into the holes to fill the gaps between the bricks, creating stable walls without compromising the historical integrity of the appearance of the brick walls.
While our ministry is entrusted to care for these historic cemeteries, the legal responsibility of restoration and upkeep on individually owned tombs falls on the tomb owners and their heirs. However, we certainly have a moral obligation to work toward a plan that can maintain these historic deteriorated tombs to preserve the history that is intimately associated with New Orleans faith and culture.
Perpetual Care of tombs
One way to preserve any tomb is with Perpetual Care maintenance. We offer full restoration on any family tomb with the option of a one-time payment that is deposited into the Perpetual Care trust. The trust has been successfully managed over the years and provides the necessary income to care for all Perpetual Care tombs, dating back to the first Perpetual Care tombs in the 1930s. To date, there are approximately 2,800 tombs and copings under Perpetual Care in the 12 Catholic cemeteries. Of those, 180 are in St. Louis No. 1 and St. Louis No. 2. The 13th New Orleans Catholic cemetery in Luling is entirely covered by Perpetual Care.
Now for the challenge
How can we maintain historic tombs that appear to be “abandoned” due to tomb owners passing away and no burials in the tomb in over 50 years?
Prayer alone does not pay for restoration, but praying has helped in guiding us to develop a new plan that is currently taking shape and offering some light of hope for the hundreds of abandoned, dilapidated tombs in St. Louis No. 1 and St. Louis No. 2.
The first plan of action came about accidentally with the vandalism taking place in St. Louis No. 1. On March 1, 2015, the New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries began charging tour operators a monthly fee for entrance to the cemetery to bring in their tour groups. The first year saw much improvement with the reduced vandalism and inappropriate behavior.
The funds collected over the first year covered labor for the front gate, seven days a week, as well as occasional security, utility costs and the purchase of a guard shack, but the funds did not cover restoration expenses. In the second year, we restructured the cost to the tour operators. We estimate the new fee structure will yield approximately $25,000 this fiscal year, which will be earmarked for abandoned tomb restoration.
New Friends group
The second phase of the plan is fund-raising. Our goal was to start simple and spread the word about our mission. Thus, the new Friends of New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries was created. For a minimum annual donation of $25, individuals can aid historic tomb restoration. In return, they receive special “Friends only” mailings, such as a unique, 50th anniversary coaster with custom artwork. To date, we have 39 new “friends” since starting the campaign in June 2016.
Grants being pursued
The third phase includes potential grant money. The Archdiocese of New Orleans has a grant writer who is assisting with this effort, starting with a list of local foundations known to award grants to the archdiocese and other local historic preservation efforts. To carry out the parameters to qualify for grant money, we have begun the initial work of having the first section of “abandoned” tombs surveyed by a local cemetery preservation company, Bayou Preservation.
Bayou Preservation has surveyed and submitted a report to our office on 35 tombs in St. Louis No. 2, including photographs, required restoration and cost of repairs. This first phase of tomb restoration will cost $137,000.
Our preservation efforts in St. Louis No. 1 and St. Louis No. 2 will continue for several years to restore these historic tombs before they are beyond repair and collapse. Our efforts, along with the assistance of other professionals, will prevail to bring these tombs back to life.
Additionally, the beautiful, unique St. Roch Campo Santo chapel in St. Roch Cemetery No. 1, which was dedicated in 1876, has major termite damage to the wooden altar and in the ceiling and walls. We are currently waiting on a cost estimate for restoring the altar and other damage.
While the work in historic cemeteries never ends, we believe our continued dedication and the efforts of our supporters will ensure that future generations will be able to experience and appreciate the faith, history and beauty that we have come to love and cherish about these historic Catholic cemeteries.
This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Catholic Cemetery Magazine. It is reprinted in the Clarion Herald with the magazine’s permission.