An excerpt from my second book, Louisiana’s Sacred Places: Churches, Cemeteries and Voodoo
A young German priest full of fire, Father Peter Leonard Thevis, an associate pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Faubourg Marigny, prayed to St. Roch to spare his congregation from the yellow fever epidemic. The city of New Orleans was ravaged with cholera and constant plagues. Immigrants were the most affected as they flooded through the ports in a post Civil-War climate. Day-long funerals laid to rest hundreds every week, and at its height, the city lost nearly 5,000 lives in a single year due to yellow fever.
In his prayers to St. Roch, Thevis pledged to build a shrine in the saint’s honor if his congregation were spared. Although some Holy Trinity parishioners were stricken with the disease during the 1867 and 1878 epidemics, no one died. They were miraculously saved.
The city granted Thevis a piece a property on what was considered the outskirts of town. Thevis traveled to Europe and studied many architectural designs before constructing the Gothic- style chapel.
During the yellow fever epidemic in the mid 1800s, thousands of bodies across New Orleans were filling up the cemeteries at a rapid pace. Prayers to St. Roch were made to spare an entire Catholic congregation from the hideous disease. Their prayers were answered and everyone survived.
A century later people all over the world still believe in the miracles of St. Roch, which is evidenced inside a small room on the right-hand side of the altar. A dull light peeking through the smudged iron-clad window brings life to the peeling-plaster walls. Inside, what appears to be a ghastly torture chamber, is in fact a collage of heart-felt stories that give thanks to St. Roch for healing minds, bodies and souls.
The walls, like pages from a diary, bear witness to miracles. Most compelling are the artificial limbs, some plastic, others plaster. Some are legs from the knee down, while others are just the foot, some brown with peeling paint and flesh-colored tones. Some have worn toes, others are more perfectly set. There is even a sculpted hand and ear. Even the flood lines of Katrina stain the trophies, evidence of life’s tragedies and triumphs.
This chamber of miracles has a life of its own. It almost commands you to stay—and if you listen, the relics tell their story. A pink plaster heart, with the message, “thanks,” written across it, curiously dangles on the wall. Could it be a broken heart that found a new love, or a damaged heart now healed?
On the opposite wall are rusted leg braces and crutches. Some have shoes still tacked on the metal; old-style orthopedic shoes with laces and soles worn from wear. Staring at these monstrous trappings, the room slowly fades with images of a worn and shriveled body. Are they abandoned by a man who walks, or a child who jumps for joy?
It has become the resting place for that piece of life filled with pain, that one sad truth never forgotten, and that defining moment of freedom.
St. Roch cemetery, 1725 St. Roch Avenue off of St. Claude Avenue, New Orleans. 504-304-0576. Open Monday through Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Sunday, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Tours available through Save Our Cemeteries, http://www.saveourcemeteries.org.