Why St. Roch Rolls

Cheryl Gerber Photographs

St. Roch, the saint, was best known for tending to 13th-century victims of the plague. St. Roch, the neighborhood, is best known for tending to victims of boredom because it’s a quirky little part of town. There is, for example, Our Lady Star of the Sea Church (St. Roch Avenue at N. Prieur Street) where one of the stained glass windows is quite modern, at least by stained glass standards. Pictured is Pope Pius XI, who was fascinated with the invention of radio, initiating the first broadcast from the Vatican. Among those in the background is fellow Italian, Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio. While most stained glass images are dated with “AD,” this particular event took place Feb. 12, 1931. As the Catholic News Service reports:

“… with a flick of a switch, the pope’s words spoken from a tiny, bare-bones studio in Vatican City were heard simultaneously in New York, Quebec, London, Paris, and Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.

With Christ, the word was made flesh; with radio, the pope’s words were made trans-Atlantic and truly universal.”

Nearby is St. Roch Cemetery, which began as a chapel built in 1876 by a local priest in response to his belief that the saint helped his congregation survive a yellow fever epidemic. A cemetery was also built on the property in the above-ground vaults-style common at the time. The chapel contains a statue of St. Roch and his dog who, according to legend, rescued him from dying of the plague in the forest. Most notable, however, is a side room in which worshippers through the centuries have placed “ex-votos,” most often replicas of body limbs representing an infirmity needing saintly attention.

St. Roch cemetery is in many ways the epicenter of traditional New Orleans Catholicism, including long having been a must-stop for the Good Friday tradition of visiting nine churches.

Curiously, a young boy who grew up in this neighborhood must have been influenced by its spirituality so much that he became a devout Catholic, even meeting his wife-to-be at St. Louis Cathedral. It seems appropriate that Tom Benson would one day own a team called “the Saints,” and in the spirit of Marconi, a television station, too.

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