St. Louis Cathedral statue repair: A Katrina healing

During St. Louis Cathedral’s first post-Katrina Mass nearly a decade ago, Archbishop Alfred Hughes made a promise rich in symbolic meaning.

The storm-damaged marble statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, located behind the cathedral in St. Anthony’s Garden, would not be repaired until the local church and the city of New Orleans were made whole again.

“That statue lost some fingers,” said Archbishop Hughes, speaking to congregants still reeling from the 1-2 punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita at the historic “homecoming” Mass celebrated Oct. 2, 2005. “That image (of lost fingers) could remind us to turn to the Lord’s loving, merciful, saving, transforming heart, and then to supply our own fingers for his fingers,” he said.

A decade later, in recognition of the region’s stunning spiritual and physical recovery – tempered by the realization that for some, the recovery continues – Archbishop Gregory Aymond will be carrying out his predecessor’s pledge.

Christ’s left index finger – lopped off by a fallen tree limb during Katrina and recovered by a post-storm cleanup crew – is being reattached to the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue in concert with the cathedral’s Aug. 23 Mass commemorating Katrina’s tenth anniversary.

The Mass, which also will honor the feast of cathedral patron St. Louis King of France, will begin at 11 a.m. and be followed by a public unveiling of the restored statue in St. Anthony’s Garden. Archbishop Aymond, the Mass’ main celebrant, will be assisted by concelebrant Father Philip Landry, cathedral rector. A reception for St. Louis Cathedral parishioners will follow in the rectory.

Abp. Hannan was on the spot

The story of the recovered finger’s reunion with its sculpted hand involves yet another archbishop of New Orleans – Archbishop Philip Hannan.

After the storm, the then 92-year-old archbishop collaborated with the 82nd Airborne – the military division for which he served as a paratrooper-chaplain in World War II – to film aerial footage of the devastated city for WLAE-TV.

“He also asked the 82nd Airborne to clean up fallen trees and debris in St. Anthony’s Garden,” said Brandon Briscoe, a former seminarian who was enlisted by Archbishop Hughes to assist in the reopening of St. Louis Cathedral Parish after Katrina.

While hauling away branches of oak, sycamore and magnolia, Christ’s index finger was found in the grass by an 82nd Airborne volunteer, Briscoe said.

“It was almost miraculous that those trees didn’t topple the statue over completely when they fell,” Briscoe notes.

Archbishop Hannan turned over the salvaged finger to Archbishop Hughes, who in turn gave it to the cathedral’s late rector, Msgr. Crosby Kern, for safekeeping in the cathedral rectory. Archbishop Hughes decided the statue would remain “broken” as long as the church and city were in disarray.

At the Aug. 23 Mass, the wholeness of both will be celebrated as citywide observances of Katrina’s 10th anniversary kick into high gear.

Garden held hidden secrets

Another post-Katrina silver lining was in store for St. Anthony’s Garden, a serene square carved out in 1831 at Pirates Alley, Royal Street and Pere Antoine Alley. Before the storm-ravaged green space was replanted, archaeologists from the University of Chicago conducted excavations of the plot over the course of two summers.

“They found the remnants of buildings that are not on the earliest maps of the city of New Orleans,” Briscoe said. “Their conclusion is that the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue sits on Ground Zero for the city – this is where the city was founded from Day One.”

The statue, known for dramatically casting its shadow on the back wall of the cathedral when illuminated at night, was sculpted in the Lenzi studio of Pietrasanta, Italy, a Tuscan town that still boasts a half a dozen sculpting studios. The statue’s French inscription reads: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I have confidence in you.” Its main inscription records that it was erected in memory of “Mr. and Mme. J.E. Merilh,” a New Orleans banking family.

Amazingly minor damage

The arresting Sacred Heart of Jesus statue escaped the hurricane relatively unscathed, with damage limited to the figure’s vulnerable fingers. Unfortunately, other finger pieces were lost in Katrina: the thumb and the tip of the little finger of Christ’s left hand; and the tip of the little finger of the right hand. So in addition to reattaching the salvaged index finger to its proper place, restorative professionals from New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries will fabricate pieces to replace the missing digits and pressure wash the entire statue, said Sherri Peppo, executive director of the Cemeteries Office.

The helping hands continue

Father Landry, who succeeded Msgr. Kern as rector in 2013, said he hopes the restored sculpture will not only lift the spirits of the local church, but those of the wider community.

“We have been renewed and restored in so many ways in the last 10 years,” Father Landry said. “There are areas that are still affected (by the hurricane), but overall we are in that process of recovery. I see numerous young men and women, especially on their spring breaks, who are still coming to the city as volunteers to help out in various areas.”

In addition to the Aug. 23 Mass, St. Louis Cathedral will be the site of an interfaith commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. That event is being sponsored by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the archdiocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Office.

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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