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The History of the Jesuits in New Orleans

In 1682, La Salle claimed the Territory of Louisiana for France. At that time, France sent missionaries to explore and set up a mission in the Mississippi valley. In 1718, Jean Pierre Lemoine Sieur de Bienville founded New Orleans. Bienville was very fond of the Jesuits so in 1720 a Jesuit priest was sent as emissary of King Louis XV to report on the general conditions of the colony, both temporal and spiritual.

King Louis gave the Company of the West the right to develop the Louisiana Territory. In 1725, the Jesuits entered into a contract with the Company of the West to take care of the Indians in the Louisiana Territory.

The Jesuits were given a home in the heart of the French Quarter, but they soon outgrew this residence. Bienville had served as governor for three terms and was being called back to France. Before he departed, Bienville gave the Jesuit priests the land that was located two blocks upriver from the French Quarter. The so-called “Jesuit Plantation” covered what is now the Central Business District (CBD) of New Orleans, which includes the property we are standing on today. The Jesuit priests and brothers managed the land, on which they grew sugar, tobacco and oranges.

In 1763, all was not well in France. The Kingdoms of Spain, Portugal and France resented papal supervision of the Church in their countries. Bitter hatred developed for the Jesuits, which would lead to the suppression of the Society of Jesus throughout the world. At this time, the newly appointed governor of the territory, Governor Abadie, arrived with a document that would wreck the work of the Jesuits in the Mississippi territory. The Supreme Council of Louisiana imitated the mother country and suppressed the Jesuits in the Colony. 

All the property possessed by the Fathers, except their personal belongings, was seized and sold at auction. The sacred plate and vestments of the chapel were given to the Capuchin friars. Every Jesuit was ordered back to France. Within ten years, the Jesuits had been suppressed throughout the world; at this time only Russia would allow the Jesuits to remain in their country.

It wasn’t until 1814 that the universal restoration of the Jesuits occurred. Seventy-three years later, in 1837, eight Jesuit priests arrived in New Orleans. They were brought here at the request of Reverend Anthony Blanc, Bishop of New Orleans, for the sake of educating the young men of Louisiana. Thus, the Jesuits started a college at Grand Coteau, which is in southwest Louisiana between Opelousas and Lafayette.

Nine years later, the Jesuits from Lyons, France, purchased the plot of land on which we are standing for $22,000. This is the second time the Jesuits took ownership of this same piece of property. They erected two buildings, which were to serve as a chapel, a residence and a college. The legal foundation of The College of the Immaculate Conception was in 1847, a church of the same name was established in 1851, and the first mass was offered in that church on August 15, 1857.

Fr. John Cambiaso, who was responsible for the plans and construction of the church, came to New Orleans as an official representative of the Superior for the Province of Lyons. Fr. Cambiaso was born in Lyons to a noble family and received his early education at the Jesuit College there. At 19, he entered the Society of Jesus and spent his years prior to coming to Louisiana teaching. While living in Spain, Fr. Cambiaso became a great admirer of Moorish architecture.  He, therefore, designed our church in the same graceful style.

The Moorish Kingdoms, which are of the Muslim religion, and the Arab people, took over much of Spain in 711. The reconquest of Spain by the Christians started in 718, but it wasn’t until 1491 that the Christians were victorious over the Moorish Kingdoms. Because the Moorish Kingdoms were in control of Spain for nearly seven hundred years, their culture and architecture are a part of Spain and her people. Notice the Islamic design in the domes and architecture of the church.

The lot on which the church was to be built still bore traces of what the city once was when the city was first founded; a water-covered cypress swamp. It was the natural habitat of alligators, herons and muskrats. It had to be drained inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot. The foundation that Fr. Cambiaso built was a double row of large red cedar planks, over which was laid a layer of oyster shells embedded in strong mortar and reinforced with iron bars. Over it was built a wall five to seven feet wide built with fire bricks and indestructible mortar. Unfortunately, the foundations were too narrow and not properly adapted to the city’s soft soil. When the church edifice began to rise and the third story was reached, substantial changes had to be made in its construction in order to reduce the weight. The upper story of the church was built of picked cypress wood lined with strong wrought iron bars, and the roof and side elevations were covered with copper laid on iron rods.

In 1925 construction began on the Pere Marquette Building next to the church. This project seriously damaged the Moorish structure – shaking its foundation so that half of the columns in the rear moved forward a full inch, the wall on the uptown side lifted one inch, the tile floor in the rear lifted by an inch and the marble split in several places. The windows also were jammed shut. An architect was consulted and still more movement was measured within the structure. The old church withstood the pile driving for the Pere Marquette Building, as well as the extra 500 piles for the garage that was built behind the church. However, the blasting of dynamite half a block away for the Canal Bank Building finally rendered the church useless. In 1928, the original church was deemed structurally unsafe.

Fr. Cambiaso’s church had to be taken down brick by brick. A diary was kept on the activities of dismantling, which mentions the removal of the pews, the bare altar and the historic organ. But the most heartfelt entry, filled with the greatest sorrow, was the removal of the statue of Our Lady, which stood in the niche high above the main altar. It was written, “The historic statue of Our Immaculate Mother that has stood for over half a century in the resplendent niche above the golden altar is taken down today, July 26, 1928. The workmen laid it on a little truck and rolled it to a storage place next door. The scene was very sad and looked like a depressing funeral. I pray that our glorious Queen of Earth and Heaven may soon rise again and be placed on a throne more beautiful than the one from which she has just been removed, owing to dire necessity."

Demolition was completed at the end of September 1928, and new construction began on October 26, 1928. At the point at which the initial pile was driven, a hole was bored, into which a statue of Christ the King was placed. The hole was plugged and covered with an iron cap to prevent injury to the statue. The second pile has a statue of the Immaculate Conception. The third of St. Joseph, the fourth has St. Louis the patron of the Archdiocese and the fifth is of St. Ignatius.

The cornerstone was laid on May 16, 1929. The magnificent bronze doors were placed in position on February 4, 1930. Our Lady of Immaculate Conception was placed back in her niche on February 6, 1930. The altar was replaced, the organ reconstructed and the pews put back in position by February 17, 1930. Mass was celebrated in the new Immaculate Conception Church on March 2, 1930. There was a solemn dedication of the church by Archbishop Shaw.