Archaeology and New Orleans

Just attended the very excellent morning event at the Monteleone Hotel for the Making New Orleans Home: A Tricentennial Symposium.

This free set of events is happening today at the Monteleone, tomorrow at Xavier, and Sunday at UNO.
This morning’s talk, by Shannon Lee Dawdy, professor of anthropology at University of Chicago and D. Ryan Gray at University of New Orleans, was focused on the archaeological evidence found at a few sites in the French Quarter over the last 20 years, as well as  those professors using the tricentennial spotlight to state the clear political need to getting New Orleans a designation as World Heritage Site or at least an ordinance established on excavating properly before a new development is begun. (Professor Dowdy’s comment about how dire this situation was before Katrina was illustrated by her estimation of having only “5 cubic meters” of excavated of Colonial-era material available before Katrina.)
The two speakers were both known to me previously; Dowdy through her brilliant book, Revisiting the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans – which is one of my top books on New Orleans history – and Gray through his digs, especially the one around the corner at 810 Royal, the details of which can be found here.
Dowdy’s focus has been on what she terms the “rogue colonialism” of the period from 1699-1769, and especially the years before the “administrative abandonment” of New Orleans by the French Crown in the 1730s. That abandonment was a result of the failure of Law’s Company of the West (more popularly known as The Mississippi Company) which ended in the economic failure known as The Mississippi Bubble.
(Of course, the French Crown retained control of the colony until the 1760s, but did little with it and so it was not until the Spanish rule that the infrastructure expanded along with the population.)

Professor Dowdy’s theory is that during the earlier Colonial period shipping and trade were actually more robust than official accounts of the time offer because so much of what was happening was technically illegal (as it was meant to be managed exclusively by Law and later by or through the Crown.) Even during and after the Bubble, locals amassed wealth which was indicated by findings on these digs analyzed as goods procured via smuggling routes, particularly with Cuba, Mexico and the Carribean islands. With her 2004-2005 dig at the Rising Sun Hotel on the Conti block between Chartres and Decatur, the 2009 St. Anthony’s Garden dig at the back of St. Louis Cathedral and the 2011 dig at the old Ursuline Convent, many of the artifacts date from the 1750s and include Mexican pottery, Spanish coins, gilded glass long before Spanish control. Her St. Anthony’s Garden dig gave material evidence to the idea of the Native American settlement, with huts that predate the 1726 gridlines of New Orleans as do a significant number of artifacts found at the Convent site.
The dig at the back of the Cathedral (Dowdy confesses this was her favorite New Orleans dig) indicates a robust market operating there from the 1740s to 1788, including extensive evidence of camping which suggests that many people came to town to sell or barter there.

After Dowdy presented, Professor Gray used the old St. Peter Cemetery as an excellent example of the lack of protection around our buried history. That cemetery was between Rampart and Burgundy and Toulouse and St. Peter and operated between 1725 and 1789 as a Catholic cemetery for both enslaved and free citizens. After it was no longer used, the ownership of the cemetery was tangled between the Cabildo and the Church so when the Cabildo sold off parcels of it, the Church refused to move the bodies.
Since then, it has been up to private developers and lot owners in that area to undertake an archaeological dig, as happened during the building of the Maison Dupuy in the 1970s, during condo development in the 1980s and most famously, during a potential swimming pool addition by homeowner Vincent Marcello who contacted UNO which resulted in the removal of 15 bodies to a vault in St. Louis #1.

The best comment of the morning was from Professor Gray summing up the current problem: “For a city that cares so much about its history, very few protections are in place to preserve the material past.”

Oldest building, newest activity for this Quarterite

On a bright and lively Friday, I headed down to Nine Roses for lunch in Exchange Alley  to catch up with my MidCity pal and meet her visiting NY friends. After a delicious Vietnamese lunch (I recommend the Cheagan = Cheating Vegan Pho and the coffee Bubble Tea),  we then took a mosey around the Quarter.  We ended up doing an activity that I have never done over my 35 + years here: going into the Old Ursuline Convent Museum which, as anyone knows who spends more than a day here, is the oldest existing building in the city and actually predates any in the entire Mississippi Valley. According to the National Parks Service, “This is the finest surviving example of French Colonial public architecture in the country, Louis XV in style, formal and symmetrical, with restrained ornament. It was constructed between 1748 and 1752 for nuns whose mission was to nurse the poor and teach young girls.” The Ursuline Nuns staffed the first hospital in the vast Louisiana Territory that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains.  In this same facility were established the first convent in what is now the territory of the United States, the first day nursery, the first orphanage, and the first institution of Catholic charities.


The docents are dedicated, full of fascinating details and should be commended for their  pleasant natures, considering how many times a day they say the same thing.

You enter into the tiny gift shop where you buy tickets and hear about Our Lady of Prompt Succor, patroness of New Orleans, who every good New Orleanian knows, protects us from bad winds of hurricanes and more.

After purchasing tickets (thanks to our generous visitors) you are free to head into the courtyard, then into the main building. The docent there directs you to the tour of the church to your left, which was built in the 1840s on the site of the original Ursuline chapel as the Archbishops Chapel.  That turn of events was possible because of the 1820s move of  the Ursulines up to what is now known as Jefferson Avenue where they remain today (whenever I hear someone talking about that, I hear The Jefferson’s television show theme “Movin On Up”). A lovely church, only open for special events and musical concerts such as during the French Quarter Fest. Of course, we all notice the statue of the saint with a skull in her hand and ask the docent about it who is used to the question: it is Saint Rosalia of Palermo, made for St. Mary’s during the time when it served as the Italian community’s church. The story below taken from Wikipedia was  told to us in almost exactly the same words by the docent, EXCEPT for the last sentence:

Rosalia was born of a Norman noble family that claimed descent from Charlemagne. Devoutly religious, she retired to live as a hermit in a cave on Mount Pellegrino, where she died alone in 1166. Tradition says that she was led to the cave by two angels. On the cave wall she wrote “I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses, and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.” The feast of Saint Rosalia is on September 4th. [1]In 1624, a plague beset Palermo. During this hardship Saint Rosalia appeared first to a sick woman, then to a hunter, to whom she indicated where her remains were to be found. She ordered him to bring her bones to Palermo and have them carried in procession through the city.

The hunter climbed the mountain and found her bones in the cave as described. He did what she had asked in the apparition. After her remains were carried around the city three times, the plague ceased. After this Saint Rosalia was venerated as the patron saint of Palermo, and a sanctuary was built in the cave where her remains were discovered.[2] 

Upon examination by a renowned geologist and palaeontologist, William Buckland, the bones of St Rosalia were thought to be those of a goat.[3]

We see the National St. Lazarus order shrine in the hallway and the docent tells us a great “only in New Orleans” story: the building had termites and needed money to treat. The society of St. Lazarus was given this hallway in 1980 to build a permanent shrine in return for their financial assistance and in regard for their respected order which is over a thousand years old; you may know it as the Knights Templar, or as the Knights of the Crusades. The docent tells us that the order gathers at  the shrine every October.

The next area of the museum takes you through the history of the order in New Orleans, which is worth spending some time reading, including Thomas Jefferson’s agreement as to the order’s rights to be held separate from civil authority. His letter was written as a response to their request for autonomy at the time of the American takeover of New Orleans during the Louisiana Purchase:

To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans

I have recieved, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. the principles of the constitution and government of the United states are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship & respect.

Th: Jefferson

After that room, take a minute to view the graceful clock in the hall, still with its the original clock face  that was brought with the nuns when they first arrived in New Orleans in the 1720s. That clock later survived the Galveston hurricane which killed those nuns who had left the New Orleans area to set up an order there. The clock was returned to New Orleans and still strikes every 15 minutes (or so).

Then, check out some history of Catholic New Orleans in the other rooms, and finally take some time in the orderly back garden. The temporary exhibit there now is of six people who spent time here who are either saints or on their way to sainthood (“Ordinary People, Extraordinary Gifts: The Road To Sainthood”). The statues are very pleasing  and are set at human height to allow for close inspection. (After reading a bit online  about Cornelia Peacock Connelly, I can see why she deserved to be venerated by the church!)

The last welcome sight was of the rubber tree that I had grown to enjoy for many years as a passerby, and used to hang heavily over the convent wall. After a hard freeze a few years back (an unlikely occurrence in the city but it does happen) the rubber tree had disappeared from view. I had hoped that it had not been taken out entirely and had kept my eye out for its return on top of that wall for some years- how cheery to note  from an inside vantage point that it is just about ready to be seen by the outside world again.



A Musical Prelude to the Celebration of Easter, Free Public Concerts…

…Concludes With
A Performance by Cynthia Cheri-Woolridge & Friends
At Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in the Vieux Carre

NEW ORLEANS, LA—On April 10, 2014 the sixth and final of Bishop Perry’s Center’s series of free, public concerts will take place at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 1116 Chartres St. at 6 p.m. Stars of this concert will be Cynthia Cheri-Woolridge and Friends, a gifted group of gospel and spiritual singers and musicians. Among friends expected to join Cynthia in the performance on Thursday is Dr. Michael White, the renowned jazz musician, jazz historian, and teacher.
Others joining Ms. Cheri-Woolridge will be Desmian Barnes and Percy Williams on trumpet; Arthur Mitchell on Saxaphone; Robino Barnes on Bass; and Jarvis McCelos on drums. Singers will include Jerrydette Joseph, Sylvia Thomas, Anicia Cheri, Gary Foster, and William Wiloughby, along with the Bishop Perry Center “Heavenly Notes.”

The series—A Musical Prelude to the Celebration of Easter—features music ranging from classical favorites of the great gothic and baroque cathedrals of the world to Broadway to New Orleans jazz, spirituals, and gospel. The concerts take place in the architecturally and historically significant Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, part of the old Ursuline Convent Complex, located in the French Quarter.