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Marie Laveau’s tomb restored pristinely

“This is the second-most visited tomb in the United States,” said tour guide Michael Batterman to a group of visitors to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 about the tomb of the widow Paris (Marie Laveau). “The first most visited tomb is Elvis Presley. Elvis is the king; this is the queen, Marie Laveau.”

While still littered with flowers, beads, doubloons, cocktails and other offerings left by people who believe the folklore that a wish would be granted by Laveau’s spirit as “voodoo queen’’ if they scrawled three X’s, spun around or kicked it, the tomb looks decidedly different than it did months ago. It has been restored.

The need for restoration was precipitated in late December 2013 by a vandal hopping the historic cemetery’s fence and painting the tomb – where Marie Laveau is reportedly buried – pink. 

That defacing of the nearly 200-year-old tomb with latex paint and the subsequent pressure washing from the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Cemeteries Office – that owns and runs the cemetery – exposed the tomb’s condition. “It has been in disrepair for a long time,” Sherri Peppo, director of the archdiocesan Cemeteries Office said. “When we pressure washed it, some plaster fell off.”

Years of neglect and constant marrings made by visitors were contributing factors in its disrepair.

Save Our Cemeteries collaborated with the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Cemeteries Office to contract Bayou Preservation of New Orleans to restore the tomb. 

“The Marie Laveau tomb is the most visited tomb in the City of New Orleans,” Save Our Cemeteries executive director Amanda Walker cited as one of the reasons to preserve the tomb. “Because Marie Laveau is such a legend, and her life is truly a mystery, people are fascinated by her. (And the fact that a Voodoo Priestess is buried in a Catholic Cemetery!)”

“Save Our Cemeteries was willing to put up the majority of the money,” said Peppo. Once the Cemeteries Office agreed on the restoration firm Bayou Preservation, the archdiocesan cemeteries office issued the permits for restoration in August 2014.

“Bayou Preservation has restored some tombs of families in our cemeteries prior (to  Marie Laveau’s tomb), so I was familiar with them,” Peppo said.

Owned by the Glapion family (Marie Laveau was the common-law wife of Captain Christophe Glapion after the death of her first husband Jacques Paris), it is not under perpetual care where the Cemeteries Office would maintain it. Peppo said this means the Glapion family is responsible for its upkeep, and no surviving member has contacted her office. 

$10,000 facelift

Save Our Cemeteries and the archdiocesan Cemeteries Office contributed to the restoration cost, and there was an anonymous donation of a $500 gift certificate for Bayou Preservation work. $3,000 is still needed.

Bayou Preservation owner Michelle Duhon said eight craftsmen – masons and plasterers and conservators with her company – spent from mid-August through Oct. 31 restoring the tomb. The scope of work included: removing the old plaster and concrete from the soft brick surface to get rid of the X markings, existing layers of paint and patchwork repairs; rebuilding the roof and replicating the cornice profile surrounding it; replastering three walls (leaving the original front wall); applying several coats of lime wash; and cleaning (using conservation cleaners) and consolidating (strengthening it to avoid further deterioration) the marble faceplate. 

Duhon said plaster samples were sent to NCPTT in Natchitoches (which she said is the federal branch of park services that does conservation testing) to determine the consistency of the tomb’s original plaster. She then manufactured a plaster to match the original. 

The result was pleasing to both Save Our Cemetery and the archdiocesan Cemeteries Office.

“The quality of the restoration was fine,” Peppo said. “They actually took samples of the old plaster and tried to match it as close as possible.” 

All agree that the restoration work could last decades if people would stop defacing the tomb with X’s. (A few visible X’s are already on the tomb.)

While the Glapion tomb was important to restore because “it is a landmark site in St. Louis No. 1, and it is well known and one of the first stops for tourists,” Peppo mentioned that other historic tombs in archdiocesan cemeteries, including a few in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, also are important and in need of restoration.

“Hopefully in the future, there will be others,” she said.

Walker said Save Our Cemeteries received an anonymous donation of $5,000, earmarked for use in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, and she and Peppo plan to meet in early 2015 to discuss a preservation plan, ensuring that the money is used in the “best possible way.” 

Visit www.nolacatholic or call the  Cemeteries Office at 596-3050. Save Our Cemeteries can be reached at 525-3377.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion

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