A HISTORY OF ST. MARY'S ASSUMPTION CHURCH
Baptized in the 1840ís:
Barbarich, Barbenich, Basich, Carolich, Cernich, Dorcich, Doritich, Foretich, Gargurevich, Giovanovich, Goitich, Gospolich, Guscurich, Jovanovich, Linich, Lucich, Marich, Merich, Pavelich, Pavitorich, Popovich, Reich, Sbisa, Tortorich, Tortovich. Kundek was Croatian.
A HISTORY OF ST. MARY'S ASSUMPTION CHURCH,
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
by: Jack Belsom
Under the protection of the blessed Virgin Mary assumed into heaven. 25 April A.D . 1858 reads the cornerstone on this historic New Orleans church, for over a century an architectural landmark among New Orleans places of worship.
According to church historian Roger Baudier,_the original St. Mary's church was founded as a result of the growth of the city of New Orleans in the 1830s when immigrant Germans and Irish swelled the city's population and the surrounding faubourgs became the home of these new citizens. Although the Roman Catholic Church of the City of Lafayette (that suburb which later was to be absorbed as the Fourth Municipal District of New Orleans) had been incorporated by an act of the Louisiana State Legislature on February 25, 1836, six years later no church had been built and no priests were assigned to the area.
A young Redemptorist, Fr. Peter Czackert, visited the city in November, 1842 on a fund raising project to aid the erection of a Redemptorist church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bishop Antoine Blanc, seeing the need for additional churches in New Orleans and for priests to minister to the German speaking Catholics of Faubourg Lafayette, approached Fr. Czackert and suggested that he undertake the work.
At first services were held in a rented dance hall on Josephine and Chippewa Streets. Pleased with this beginning, the Bishop extended a formal invitation to the Redemtorists to come to New Orleans to work in Faubourg Lafayette. On December 3, 1843 Fr. Czackert arranged for the purchase of a piece of property measuring 60 x 200 feet on Josephine Street. Fr. Czackert having been recalled to his duties in the east, the commission to build the first church was given to Fr. Joseph KUNDEK of Jasper, Indiana, although Bishop Blanc reserved for the Redemptorists the right to operate the church at a later date . On January 14, 1844 the cornerstone of the first church, on the corner of Josephine and Live Oak (now Constance) Streets, was laid. This modest frame structure was dedicated by Bishop Blanc on April 14, 1844, and for over ten years served the growing congregation. When Fr. KUNDEK, in turn, was recalled to Indiana, another diocesan priest, Fr. Francis Masquelet, was assigned to the parish.
On September 7, 1847 the Redemptorist foundation in New Orleans was officially accepted and Fr. Peter Czackert was appointed the first superior. He returned to New Orleans on October 23, 1847 and was installed as pastor of St. Mary's. His labors, however, were soon terminated; on September 2, 1848, he died, aged 41 years, a victim of one of the recurring yellow fever epidemics which struck the city.
Meanwhile the Redemptorists, extended their work to include also Irish and French families in the faubourg. Eventually three churches rose in close proximity in the area, one for each of the three major ethnic groups - St. Mary's for the Germans, St. Alphonsus (1850) for the Irish, and Notre Dame de Bon Secour (1858) for the French. St. Mary Is was the first German national church both in New Orleans and in the state of Louisiana.
By 1858 it become apparent that the original frame structure, which was only ninety by forty-five feet in dimensions, and which seated some eighty parishioners, would have to be replaced. Fr. Anwander led the move toward the construction of a new and more imposing St. Mary's. Undoubtedly the German parishioners were spurred on in their zeal by the example of their Irish neighbors for whom the new St. Alphonsus (church was nearing completion. On Sunday, April 25, 1858 then, the same day on which the new St. Alphonsus' Was consecrated, the cornerstone for the new St. Mary's was laid, Bishop Antoine Blanc officiating. On a site immediately adjacent to the old church a new building rose during the latter half of 1858 and during 1859. Materials taken from the original frame church were salvaged to build the mortuary chapel in St. Joseph's Cemetery on Washington Avenue.
Historian John Fredrich Nau recounts the efforts of the parishioners in working on the new St. Mary's. Because the deep mud on the then unpaved Live Oak Street prevented vehicular traffic from reaching the building site, women of the congregation aided the construction workers by carrying bricks in their aprons from Jackson Avenue. The new church was designed in modified Gothic style with features suggestive of the baroque; it reflects the expert craftmanship ' of skilled New Orleans bricklayers of the mid-nineteenth century. The building is considered the finest example of German baroque brick architecture in New Orleans. Unfortunately it has not proved possible to determine the identity of the architect who designed St. Mary's; newspaper accounts of the day make no mention of his name. In spirit the design suggests at points the baroque churches of Italy, and the facade is a marvel of brick molding which creates crosses, arches, and niches.
The interior, which continues the baroque feeling, reflects the work of master plasterers of that era. The church, which seats 900 has interior dimensions of 60 x 137 feet, with a height of 44 feet. In plan it contains a nave with two side aisles which. are separated by molded ribs. On each side the central columns have been omitted, thus forming a sort of transept.- The vaulting above is not modified, however, and the absent column is replaced with an elaborate pendentive. Architectural screens separated the sacristies from the main body of the church, and these screens continue the patterns found elsewhere in the molding.
Another interesting architectural feature of the total plan is the bell tower, which rises 142 feet from a square base to an octagonal shaped crown, again with decorative brick patterns. As early as 1928 the New Orleans Morning Tribune noted that students, of architecture came daily to sketch the designs and construction of the stone and wood work of the bell tower, "said by architects to be one of the most perfect in the South."
Finally, in June, 1860, the work was completed and the Daily Picayune announced the dedication for Sunday, June 24, 1860 at 9:00 a.m. with Bishop W. H. Elder of Natchez assisting Archbishop Antoine Blanc at both the dedication and the pontifical high mass which followed. Bishop Elder preached the principal sermon in English and there was a briefer sermon preached in German. For the occasion Theodore von la Hache, a noted New Orleans musician and choir director of the period, came from St. Therese Church with his choir to assist the organist, Mr. Kirschenheuter, in a performance of La Hache's Grand Festival Mass.
The new church now erected, over the next decade and a half the congregation continued the work of adding to and embellishing the original structure. In January, 1861 the great bell, "Mary-Joseph", cast in France and weighing 4000 pounds, and the companion bells, "Pius" and "Gabriel"', were installed. On February 13, 1861 the side altars were installed. On February 13, 1861 the side altars were consecrated and the newly installed organ was first played on June 16, 1861. The elaborately carved pulpit was used for sermons for the first time on April 6, 1862. Gorgeous stained glass windows of richly colored Munich glass were added over the years, and in 1874 on Christmas day the ornate high altar, carved in Munich, Germany, and described as one of the finest examples of the woodcarvers' art in the United States, was dedicated. The dominating idea of this great altar is Mary's Assumption into Heaven and her coronation by the three persons of the Trinity. Mary is attended by archangels, the four Evangelists, popes, bishops, saints, and martyrs, all in full color and gold.
Among the many Redemptorists who have served at St. Mary's in the one hundred thirty years since the founding of the parish, without doubt the most famous was Fr. Francis Xavier Seelos, C S.S.R., a man of saintly reputation, who in 1867 fell victim to yellow fever while giving succor to those stricken by the epidemic.
In 1965 St. Mary's Assumption was severely damaged by the rain and winds of a hurricane which struck New Orleans. Because of the extent of the damage it was necessary to close the church, and, indeed, for a time the fate of the old landinark was precarious, since it appeared that it might have to be demolished. Restoration work has now begun, however, and while it progresses slowly, it seems that St. Mary's eventually will be re-opened, to the delight of parishioners, students of architecture, and the citizens of New Orleans who have expressed an interest in its preservation.
Roger Baudier, The Catholic Church in Louisiana (New Orleans, 1939), 368-371
John F. Byrne, C S.S R., The Redemptorist Centenaries (Philadelphia, 1932), 241-244.
Mary Louise Christovich, Roulhac Toledano, and Betsy Swanson, New Orleans Architecture, Vol . I , "The Lower Garden District", with textly-Samuel Wilson, Jr. and Bernard Lemann (Gretna, 1971), 33, 58-61, 124, 132.