Monstrance left indelible mark on St. Alphonsus

The origins of the dazzling monstrance used for eucharistic exposition at the Archdiocese of New Orleans Retreat Center go back to 1857, the year it was created for the newly built St. Alphonsus Church.

Although long gone from its original home in the Irish Channel, the sacred vessel lives on at St. Alphonsus in an extraordinary way: A detailed painting of the monstrance dominates a ceiling fresco 50 feet above the spot formerly occupied by the main altar.

“I’ve been working here for 25 years, and I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve walked under that fresco only to be told, a month ago, that it was modeled after not just any monstrance, but the monstrance that was once here at St. Alphonsus,” said Armand Bertin, church coordinator for the Friends group that has operated the building as a Catholic art and cultural center since 1990.

Artistic twins

The fact that Bertin only recently connected the dots is not surprising. Until the St. Alphonsus monstrance was acquired by the Metairie-based retreat center in early 2014, it had spent 35 years hidden from public view, either in storage or in private ownership.

Now that it has re-emerged, eagle-eyed art lovers who examine the actual monstrance and the St. Alphonsus painting can safely speculate the following: In 1866, when founding pastor – Redemptorist Father John Duffy – commissioned artist Dominic Canova to paint a series of ceiling frescoes at his then 8-year-old church, the priest insisted that a painted rendering of his own monstrance be prominently featured.

Monstrance elements captured in the fresco include:       

• Its unique shaft featuring the angel Gabriel. The winged figure is shown looking to his left, his hand pressed against his chest.

• Cherub faces around the luna, the circular opening that houses the consecrated host. Canova expanded on this monstrance motif by adding an arc of six cherubs to his painted composition.

• Clouds sculpted into the monstrance’s 27-inch wide sunburst are repeated throughout Canova’s fresco scheme. They resemble “cotton balls” in a skyscape that boasts angels lifting a banner that reads “Panis Angelorum” (Bread of Angels).

• A traditional depiction of the Blood of the Lamb – a bleeding lamb stretched over a fallen cross – on the base of the 3-D monstrance is faintly visible in the painted version.

Saved from auction block

A jaw-dropping four feet in height, the 19th-century masterpiece of gold-plated silver was created by Jean-Alexandre Chertier, a renowned Parisian silversmith whose legacy includes sacred items housed in Notre Dame Cathedral.

The monstrance, used for eucharistic exposition and benediction at St. Alphonsus from the time of the church’s 1858 consecration through its 1979 closure (a period that included the brief pastorate of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos), sat in storage for a decade while the fate of the church building was in limbo. To raise funds for the imperiled architectural gem, the monstrance was sold, along with assorted statues, candleholders and other furnishings, in a 1989 “fire sale.”

The monstrance emerged from the shadows of private collection in 2011, when it was listed for auction at Sotheby’s in New York City. When news broke of the impending sale, Archbishop Gregory Aymond coordinated an effort to withdraw the sacred vessel from auction. In the end, a New Orleans-based benefactor purchased the monstrance before any public bidding took place and donated it back to the archdiocese.

Two years later, Dr. Paul “Buddy” Ceasar, executive director of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Retreat Center, mentioned to Archbishop Aymond that the retreat center was looking for a monstrance following the purchase of the center from the Cenacle Sisters. The archbishop knew just where to find one.

During weekend retreats, the monstrance displays the Blessed Sacrament to the faithful for four hours after the Saturday afternoon Mass, and at various times during the center’s three annual weeklong retreats.

“When the monstrance is out there on the altar, people are just overwhelmed by it,” Ceasar said, noting that the high level of interest in the breathtaking piece led retreat center staff to place an explanation of it inside every retreatant’s bedroom.

Retreat center an ideal home

Although the monstrance is no longer at St. Alphonsus physically, Bertin is overjoyed it is inspiring awe once again in its intended diocese.

“It’s being used and appreciated and prayed before at the retreat house, which was the perfect place for it to end up,” Bertin said.

“Whenever I look at it, I see it as a sign of Father Duffy’s great love for his poor Irish (congregants),” Bertin added. “They didn’t have much, but they were able to come to this church and be uplifted by these stained glass windows and that beautiful monstrance.”

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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