In so much of the United States, the secular world is all-encompassing, and while there are many freedoms gained by taking a specific religion out of the limelight, so much history and culture is lost when the faith that shaped them is pushed to sidelines. But there is a place where culture, history, and faith remain not only in the limelight but in a firm embrace. I speak of course of the unique and symbiotic relationship of New Orleans and Catholicism.
There are of course, numerous cities in the United States that have large Catholic populations but it's hard to find anywhere else where Catholic traditions and cultures have become so deeply ingrained in the culture of a city. New York and Boston for instance both have large Catholic populations but these areas originally were founded predominantly by Protestants and large Catholic populations immigrated in after their founding. Los Angeles and several other California cities have large Catholic populations, but although they were founded by the Spanish (a largely Catholic country), California has had large Prostestant populations move in, thus diluting the Catholic influence.
New Orleans was founded by the French, who were largely Catholic. Next it passed into the hands of the Spanish... also, largely Catholic, before it moved into the hands of the French once again. The Cajuns who immigrated into the Southern Louisiana bayous were also largely Catholic, meaning that New Orleans wasn't just a Catholic bubble in a mainly Protestant area, but rather, New Orleans became a hub for a much larger Catholic community. Louisiana remains today the only state that is divided into "Parishes", a religious term for a church community, rather than "Counties" like every other state in the nation. Even after Louisiana became part of the United States, New Orleans continued to grow in its Catholic population. Large immigrations of Irish and Italians swelled the city, putting the preverbial icing on the very very Catholic cake.
How does this play out into the modern culture of New Orleans? First let's consider the city's greatest landmark. Most US city's are instantly recognized by great secular architectural pieces. New York has the Statue of Liberty. St. Louis has the Arch. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge... so what's New Orleans' greatest, instantly recognizable landmark? St. Louis Cathedral, the central church of the Catholicism in New Orleans. You see a poster or some general advertisement about New Orleans, and chances are, you'll see the Cathedral. It's even part of the logo for the University of New Orleans, a PUBLIC university, which is located not at all near the French Quarter, where the Cathedral is located.
As far as New Orleans festivities are concerned, it's clear to see the Church's influence. As I explained in my Mardi Gras post, Mardi Gras itself is a church holiday. The Carnival season is kicked off on King's Day, the celebration of the day the three wise men visited the Christ child in the manger. King Cake, which symbolically represents their journey and the search for the Christchild, is enjoyed by New Orleanians of every religion, not just Catholics... or even just Christians for that matter!
Now let's discuss Lent, the church season that Mardi Gras exists to herald. In other areas, this season is greatly overlooked in the rest of the nation. There are even some Christians that don't even know what Lent is. Lent is the 40 day period (technically 47 days since the Sundays aren't counted) of penance that is observed in preparation for the celebration of Easter, the holiday that celebrates Jesus' rising from the dead. The season begins with Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras. On this day, Catholics go to Church and stand in line to get ashes smeared on their forhead usually while hearing "Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return" or the watered-down version "Repent and turn away from sin." It's meant to remind you of your mortality and your need to seek forgiveness for sin, which was Jesus' whole point of death and Resurrection. This tradition is not very well observed in other places in the US, but in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday, you can't turn the corner without seeing numerous people who look like someone put out a cigar on their forehead. It's hard to forget about a day centered around repentance when you're nursing your Mardi Gras hangover, and that's only the beginning of Lenten tradition.
As previously explained, Carnival Season comes from the Latin meaning "Farewell to the Flesh", this is because on Fridays in Lent, Catholics are not supposed to eat meat. So what can we eat? Seafood. Now, this is meant to be a penance, but in New Orleans, where Seafood is so abundant, "no meat on Fridays" is simply an excuse to pig out on seafood. There are many "Catholic" New Orleanians who otherwise don't step foot in a church, but absolutely refuse to eat meat on a Friday in Lent. "No, no it's Friday. I'll have the shrimp po-boy instead of the roast beef." New Orleans seafood restaurants are absolutely PACKED on Fridays in Lent, and restaurants that aren't specifically seafood restaurants advertise Lenten specials with no-meat options. I got Domino's Pizza the other day, with a big flyer on top that advertised shrimp as a topping available during Lent. It also doesn't hurt that the season of Lent happens to coincide with crawfish season. It's very popular for families and groups of friends to have big crawfish boils on Fridays in Lent, especially on Good Friday. Yup, in New Orleans, even the day of Jesus' Crucifixion is a cause to party.
Another Lenten tradition that is observed widely in New Orleans is the tradition of giving up something for Lent. Although the Church encourages more that Catholics do extra charity work or engage in extra prayer, the practice of giving up something for Lent is still widely observed. Many New Orleanians also use Lent as an excuse to re-resolve to follow any New Year's Resolution. So while health clubs around the nation see a boost simply on January 1st, New Orleans gyms also see an increase of membership at the beginning of Lent, from those who are giving up a muffin-top for Lent.
Like many places, St. Patrick's Day (March 17) is another Catholic observance that's celebrated in New Orleans by Catholics and Non-Catholics alike. Of course, we put our own New Orleans flair on it by celebrating with parades, and like any New Orleans parade, we don't just wave and smile. Green throws like beads and frisbees and cups are thrown to the crowds as well as cabbage, potatos, Irish Spring soap, and other grocery items.
Right after St. Patrick's Day, the Irish step aside to let the Italians have the limelight with St. Joseph's Day (March 19) parades and celebrations. A Scicilian St. Joseph's tradition has taken firm root in New Orleans with the popularity of St. Joseph's Altars. Many churches and families set up St. Joseph's Altars that are open to the public. These altars are filled with cookies and pastries, many in religious shapes, and visitors can take home goodie bags full of all sorts of Italian treats. On the Sunday closest to St. Joseph's Day, the Mardi Gras Indians have a huge celebration they call "Super Sunday". The Mardi Gras Indians are groups of African-Americans that dress in elaborate Native American style costumes (anticlimatically called "suits"). They are organized into "tribes" that parade around their sections of city and have mock fights (basically tribal dance-offs) when they run into another tribe. Where is St. Joseph in this? Yeah... absolutely nowhere. It's just always held around St. Joseph's Day.
But it's not just these celebrations that show off NOLA's Catholic heritage. More obvious than anywhere is our Football team's name - the Saints. Honoring and asking for intercession from the Church's most notable followers is a very well-known Catholic practice. There's also a very popular jazzy hymn called "When the Saints go Marching In" that New Orleans street bands play very often that the Saints adopted as their signature tune.
One of the strongest areas that Catholicsm has in the city is in its school system. The Catholic school system in the city is much older than the public school system. Most are single sex schools run by a specific religious order of brothers or sisters, such as Dominican, Jesuit, Mt. Carmel, and Urusline. In fact, Ursuline, an all girl school ranging from preschool to twelfth grade was founded in the 1720's, when the city itself was less than a decade old! And it's still going strong. While many of the Catholic grammar schools are co-ed, most of the high schools have remained single sex, and because there are so many, the competition between them is fierce. School pride and loyalty is so strong that your personal identity as a New Orleanian is very much determined by where you went to high school. When two New Orleanians meet, one of the first questions asked is "Where'd you go to school?" That means they want to know where the other went to high school, not college. Many kids attend the same school their parents and grandparents attended. My daughter, for instance, will be attending Dominican High School, which is where me, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother all went to high school. She'll be our fourth generation there! Often, New Orleanian parents will know where their kids are going to high school before they know where they're going to grammar school! With all the tradition and family ties that surround the Catholic school system, it's no wonder that the New Orleans public school system really doesn't meet the standards of public schools elsewhere. Locals just tend to overlook it. It's really only recently with the introduction of charter schools that the public school system has even been much of an option for New Orleanian parents. Even non-Catholics attend the Catholic schools, and the selection of local private schools. Suffice it to say, New Orleans parents are very used to the idea of paying for their kid's education way before college.
Now, you might ask, "What about Voodoo?? You always hear about Voodoo in New Orleans." Many of the slaves that came into the city brought their native religion of Voodoo with them, and while it's true that many were converted to the Catholic faith of their masters, those who were freed (New Orleans did have a large population of "free people of color" even before the emancipation) and those slaves who were allowed to maintain their faith did pass down Voodoo, and there are some practioners today. A lot of the Voodoo hype comes from a particular Voodoo priestess named Marie Laveau, who was also a practicing Catholic and was married in St. Louis Cathedral. She was a popular hairdresser amongst many upperclass white families and thus was well known in New Orleans society. Madame Laveau combined a lot of her Catholic faith with Voodoo ritual and is even known to have performed some of these rituals inside of the Cathedral. I find it very amusing that the most famous person associated with Voodoo was actually a Catholic!
It's hard to go through the city and not be reminded of its Catholic heritage, whether you're simply passing a Catholic church while driving around (not hard to do!), or you see a statue of the Blessed Mother in someone's front yard. New Orleans is more than just a city that happens to have a lot of Catholics. When people of very different nations all flowed in together, they took their one common factor, their faith and allowed it to be the foundation for a culture and set of traditions that is entirely unique and uniquely New Orleans.
So if you're visiting the city or simply studying it's history, be sure and take a peek into some of it's historically Catholic sites. St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, St. Patrick's in the Warehouse District, Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter, Holy Name of Jesus on the campus of New Orleans' Catholic University--Loyola, St. Roch, the Shrine of Blessed Father Seelos, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor - which is on the campus of Ursuline Academy. You might wanna call ahead to find out the schedules and times when you could see these places because they are religious sites. But if you are able to see them, you'll get a great understanding of the spirit of the Crescent City.
If you want to read more about the unique New Orleans Catholic culture, check out Earl J Higgins's book The Joy of Y'At Catholicism!