CHAPTER 6 –THE CATHOLIC FLEUR
New Orleans is considered the most Catholic city in the United States. The fleur’s liberal use in regional Catholic churches and St. Louis Cathedral provides some insight into the seamlessness that once existed between church and state.
While many believe St. Louis Cathedral is a French structure, it was built as a Spanish mission after the original wood structure was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1788. Restoration and revisions to the original structure, including the main tower and steeples to replace domes, created the iconic amalgamation that one associates with Catholic New Orleans. Fleur de lis were literally built into the building, painted on the ceiling and worked into the stained glass. After all, Saint Louis was the only French king to be sainted. His symbol was the fleur de lis.
The Spanish colonies in Louisiana and along the the Gulf provided refuge for thousands of people who wanted to remain Catholic and start a new life.The people who settled French and Spanish territory here were familiar with the fleur and its divine, if not noble, implications. Islenos from the Canary Islands, 'Cajuns' from Acadiana and the maritime provinces of France brought fleur de lis with them. Irish immigrants fleeing repression from the English also knew about the fleur, as it was part of the Catholic symbology of the Emerald Island.
Enslaved Africans were forced to be Catholic and attend mass. Because the city had a large population of free people of color, the church provided opportunities for devout Catholics within its infrastructure. Henriette Delille created the Sisters of the Holy Family to care for orphans and the education of black Catholics. Today, in the order’s parish church, the fleur de lis is prominently displayed.