The history and future of a sacred space
Saint Roch Chapel in 1920, photographed by John Mendes. Based on chapels in Germany and Hungary, it was noted as one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in the United States. Saint Roch, also the patron saint of dogs, is depicted in statue with his faithful dog at his feet. To the right are handwritten and carved letters of gratitude; to the left are ex-votos from healed devotees. The chapel’s cornerstone was laid on September 6, 1875; it was dedicated on August 16, 1876, on the feast day of Saint Roch, and the first Mass was offered on All Soul’s Day, November 2, 1876. When Rev. Thevis died in 1893, he was buried beneath the center aisle.
Image appears courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection, Gift of Waldemar S. Nelson, 2003.0182.286.
In 1867, during the height of the yellow fever, German priest Rev. Peter Thevis came to serve Holy Trinity Church’s largely German congregation. Rev. Thevis fervently prayed for his parishioners to be saved from the disease; according to church history, none of them died. To give thanks, he constructed a chapel to Saint Roch, patron saint of the afflicted, in the cemetery he had established known as “Campo Santo.”
By the early 1900s, the chapel was a top attraction for pilgrims and sightseers. It was promoted in tourism guides and a Canal Street shop sold commemorative silver spoons depicting the chapel.
Many came to pray for healing from their various maladies. Some came for relief from afflictions of the heart; young women were known to offer a novena to Saint Roch in hopes of finding a husband. Others came to offer thanks for Saint Roch’s intercession, leaving offerings of gratitude at the altar. These talismans represented the giver’s affliction: plaster limbs, crutches, braces, false teeth and replicas of hearts, lungs, ears, brains and more. By the mid-1940s, these gifts almost totally obscured the altar from view.
After structural damage was discovered the chapel was fully restored in 1948, and the ex-votos were moved to a small alcove near the altar where they still reside today. A statue of Saint Lucy, patron saint of the blind, also stands in this room, holding a platter of eyes.
To mark the reopening of the chapel in 1949, an official first-class relic of Saint Roch was procured from Italy. This sliver of bone was displayed during novenas and Stations of the Cross. The relic, along with other holy objects, was stolen sometime after 1984.
In 2017, structural damage was again discovered. The chapel remains closed for ongoing renovations; when finished it will be reopened for visitation. The ex-voto room is the only interior area that won’t be touched, leaving the offerings left behind undisturbed. The archdiocese is hoping to find another relic to replace the one that was stolen and mark the rededication of this sacred space. Φ