I once had a conversation with Tom Benson about the neighborhood where he grew up. His parish church was Our Lady Star of the Sea located on St. Roch Street, not far from St. Claude Avenue, in Bywater. Benson mentioned that on Sundays parishioners frequently attended the four o’clock mass. That did not seem like such a big deal until I realized that he was talking about the 4 A.M. mass. Some churches once had early morning “fishermen’s masses” so that parishioners on the way to dangling lines might, if they paid attention, hear about fishermen from the Sea of Galilee. And, as Benson acknowledged, the mass was also a sobering stop for those returning home from the night before.
Churches, the buildings themselves, get more attention during Easter week especially in Catholic New Orleans, where the tradition of visiting nine churches on Good Friday is still practiced by some.
I do a severely modified version, usually visiting maybe three of four churches and while the early worshipers would walk to the churches, we do not want the car to feel unwanted. We alternate some churches each year, but always on the list is Star of the Sea, which is as quirky as it is spiritual. First stop though should be the St. Roch cemetery on the next block. It is a classic early New Orleans style cemetery with its above ground tombs and baroque art work. The center piece is the tiny St. Roch chapel where a tiny room contains ex-votoes, replicas of body parts left by troubled worshippers looking for a cure for appropriate inflictions. St. Roch’s statue usually includes a dog at his feet. According to legend the dog cured him from the plague by licking his wounds.
Though the legend admittedly sounds weird it might have been symbolic. Roch (1295—1327) in Bywater was one of several saints who were popular as symbols of hope versus the plague. Among other titles, Roch is the patron saints of bachelors, surgeons and disabled people. Oh, he is also the patron saint of dogs.
Far more upbeat, but equally unusual, is a stained glass window in Star of the Sea. Facing the altar look up to the right toward the back. Instead of the usual scenes of the crucifixion or the nativity or miscellaneous saints showing their piety, on one window the depiction is of a radio broadcast. The scene shows the then Pope (Pius XI) seated at a table, delivering the first ever radio broadcast from the Vatican. There is a microphone and broadcast equipment near him. The man in the suit standing nearest him is Guglielmo Marconi the inventor of the radio. On this day Marconi became the world’s first radio announcer as he introduced the Pope. Speaking in Italian he said that that the “electronic radio waves will carry to all the world” the Pope’s “words of peace and blessing.” Pius XI, as is voice was beamed though the heavens, assured that his prayers were with all the people of the world.
There is little explanation why this distinctive window exists and nothing at all on the church’s web site. One clue however might be that the present church was completed and dedicated in 1931. The first Vatican radio broadcast was the same year, Feb. 12, 1931. (Perhaps, and this is just a theory, the window was some rich parishioner’s commemoration to honor the then new-age church.)
As impressive as the window may be, the eye of the visitor is drawn immediately by something else. In 2001 the interior of the church went through a refurbishing which was highlighted by an artist’s work entitled “Dance of the Holy Innocence.” Standing behind the altar, the work depicts eight full bodied angels surrounding Our Lady while doing what appears to be a joyous dance. These are not the somber, pious angels of medieval art. These angels are totally hip and though innocent know how to have fun. Perhaps there is a spiritual message in discovering that angels too can party.
Not that the church isn’t enough of a sensory experience but on past Good Fridays a recording of Aaron Neville singing “Ave Maria” plays continuously.
Next door the parishioners are preparing for a Good Friday evening fish fry appropriate for a place called star of the sea.
Spirituality and celebration have met.
They belong together.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.