In the center of St. Roch Cemetery, past the columns, fences and above-ground tombs that mimic the historic houses in the surrounding neighborhood, there’s a little chapel. Through an arched door just off the altar is a small side room with a floor of marble bricks, each one inscribed with the word “Thanks” or “Merci.” The walls here are lined with plaster replicas of feet, hands, livers and brains. One pink plaster human heart, hanging about five feet high, bears a distinct line across it. That’s the water mark, where the flood rose after Katrina. Rusted crutches and leg braces that look like antique torture devices also dangle from the walls. Sitting on a table are more modern offerings of silk flowers, handwritten notes, photographs of loved ones, and even a Post-It reading “stay so very #alive.”
These are ex votos, tokens of thanks to St. Roch (pronounced “Rock” here in New Orleans) that the faithful have left for generations. They speak to specific human pain and needs beyond ethereal prayer. A heart may be left for lost-love regained, a hand in hopes of eased arthritis. A voodoo-like feeling, worship outside the bounds of sanctioned church activity, hangs over the room. At the altar outside the chamber, one can often find St. Roch’s biggest fan, with his graying crew cut, watery blue eyes and a broom clutched in his hands. His name, he says, is Roch.
“Life in a cemetery is really welcome,” he insists. “Whoever comes in here, we’re happy to have them.”
Every Friday, Roch, who requested he be referred to by only that name, devotes himself to the upkeep of the grounds. Although he has no official job here, he lights candles on the altar, freshens up the flowers and pulls out a boombox to play a CD of Renaissance chants. The sound bounces up to the blue ceiling and back down to the marble floor. The near life-size statue of St. Roch looks down from the altar. The music, Roch says, changes people as they enter, gives them a cue to take notice and slow their thoughts.
Growing up in the neighborhood in the 1960s, Roch was raised “Catholic not just with a capital ‘C,’ but with a capital CA-T-H-O-L-I-C and an exclamation point,” he says. Back then, St. Roch chapel was a major pilgrimage site for locals and visitors, and “on certain holidays my mother and I crawled on our knees all the way from the front gate to this wooden prayer rail,” he says, his hand running over the grain.
After years struggling with Alzheimer’s, Roch’s mother died in Hurricane Katrina. To honor her, he took the red stained glass cross that hung in her room and placed it with the other ex votos. He keeps an eye on the offerings there but never removes anything, no matter how strange.
“The other day I found a box of some kind of dried Thai rice mixture,” says Roch. “Things come and go. That’s fine. I don’t think I’m guarding it. It just kind of lives on its own.”
Two young children, a boy and a girl, enter the room of ex votos and seize up, their shoulders hiked to their ears, eyes wide as if the toes on the plaster feet might start to wiggle, or the fake pink heart might start to beat. Roch gives them an out: “It’s cold in here, isn’t it?” The boy nods. “Well you don’t have to stay, baby. Go ahead out in the sunshine.” They turn stiffly and take his suggestion.
The children pass under the inscription over the chapel door that reads, “Erected by Vow 1875.” One priest, Father Thevis, commissioned the chapel and cemetery for St. Roch. “Just like those little ex votos in there—well, we’re standing in one big thank you,” says Roch. “It’s an ex voto writ large.”
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In the years after the Civil War, New Orleans was desperate for everything, including more priests. Fresh waves of immigrants kept washing up to the mouth of the Mississippi River: Italian, Irish, Spanish, German. Holy Mass was always said in Latin, with the priest’s back to the congregation, but marriage, confession and burial required a leader with the same tongue as his flock. And so New Orleans’s archdiocese sent an official to the Rhine Valley on behalf of the German congregation of Holy Trinity. In 1867, he returned with Father Peter Leonard Thevis, who was, in the words of Catholic historian Roger Baudier, “fired with a desire to bring the Gospel to people in distant lands.”
Thevis arrived during an outbreak of yellow fever, the disease that had earned New Orleans a grisly nickname: “The Wet Grave.” Church historian Baudier described the city as “a teeming port where cholera and Yellow Jack often joined with Death in an awesome and tragic dance macabre.” Previous outbreaks had priests working funerals from dawn to dusk as bodies stacked up waiting to be buried. There was no telling how dire each outbreak would get. In July of 1867, a few cases were confirmed, and by the fall of that year, writes Jo Ann Carrigan in her book The Saffron Scourge, yellow fever claimed up to 400 lives a week, although the upper classes and local press were unalarmed because “most of the cases had occurred, as usual, among the unacclimated Europeans and northerners.”
And so, according to J.M. Laval’s 1925 history of the chapel, Father Thevis “invoked the intercession of St. Roch.” The twelfth-century French martyr was popular throughout Europe. He had cared for victims of the Plague, and, according to church history, survived the disease himself with the help of a dog who brought him food. Depictions of St. Roch always include a canine companion. If no one in his congregation died of yellow fever, Thevis vowed he would erect a chapel to honor St. Roch and a cemetery for the parishioners.
Church history says no members of Holy Trinity died that year. Even in the next big outbreak of 1878, “many were stricken,” writes J.M. Laval, “but not one succumbed, thanks to the constant prayers that were offered to St. Roch.” The undertaker of the time “did not record one single death among that congregation during that memorable period, when pestilence laid waste the homes of the city.”
“Did they all really survive?” A skeptical archivist named Mary Lou Eichhorn at the Historic New Orleans Collection raises an eyebrow as she pulls files on church history and yellow fever. “Maybe a case or two got swept under the rug as cholera or something else.”
Regardless, Thevis kept his promise. His diary from this time, held in the archives of the archdiocese, is a small leather-bound book filled with tight, fastidious script, in German with occasional English. It has yet to be translated, so Thevis’s full narrative is not known. But the city did grant his parish property on the outskirts of town. Church history says he went to Europe to study chapel and mortuary design, and ordered an ornate wood and marble altar. The parish started laying out the cemetery, the campo santo or “holy country” as they called it, for their house-like tombs, mausoleums, and the “oven”-style graves built into the outer walls. The gates opened on the feast day of St. Roch, August 16, 1876.
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By 1925, Thevis was long dead, his body buried beneath the floor of the chapel that had since become a tourist attraction. “Every visitor to New Orleans inquires the way to St. Roch,” said one brochure. “No tourist would consider his experience in New Orleans complete without visiting the famous Campo Santo, with its exquisite chapel. … The breezes play among the willows and wake a soft requiem over the graves where the dead lay quietly sleeping.”
By the 1940s, the neighborhood had filled in around the cemetery, and All Saints’ Day could bring in thousands. Any time of year, young women trekked there to offer a novena—nine consecutive days of prayer— in hopes of finding a good husband. They’d walk with pebbles or rice in their shoes, for added penitential suffering.
And they might sit with the husband they found, years later, on a family tomb. Cemeteries were places to hang out, bring a picnic or spend an afternoon walking. This slowed when the parish families started moving to the suburbs in the 1960s, leaving the cemetery and chapel with visitors for funerals, but not much of a daily life.
The ex votos, some of which date back a century or more, are mementos left in payer. Leg braces represent victims of polio; the plaster brains those who may have suffered from brain cancer. With no parish any longer associated with the chapel, visitors have taken this tradition and made it their own, hence the grab bag of offerings today.
Augusta Elmwood has lived on St. Roch Avenue—the broad street that eventually sprung up next to the cemetery—since 1978, and serves as an unofficial historian of the street. Her grandfather was a sextant at St. Roch cemetery – the caretaker – who carved some of the bricks for the chapel floor. Augusta has one of those he carved built into her fireplace. She knows because her grandfather’s R in the “MERCI” blocks had a certain curvature, a swagger. She traces the tail of his R in her living room. “It’s the only thing in the contract for the house,” she tells me. “If we leave here, that brick goes with us.”
She’s seen all kinds of burials, the limousines making their way toward the St. Roch cemetery gates. One particular procession sticks out, a jazz funeral that marched down St. Claude to bury a retired postal worker.
“His wife…” she pauses, choked up. Another swallow. “When they pushed the casket in, this is what she said: ‘That’s all I can do for you, honey.’ And she turned around in her black high heels and her black dress and she danced out of the cemetery. That’s how we do death in New Orleans.”
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On a cold day in February, three men in dark green archdiocese uniforms shovel out a raised tomb in St. Roch, removing an old coffin in preparation for a new burial. Some tombs hold dozens, and this is the only way to fit so many people. The person they are digging out was buried decades ago, so the wood coffin is broken down. Splinters of it mix with the mud as they dig. The occasional hunk of metal from the casket’s handles or hinges lands with a clink on the cemetery pavement. What skin and bones remain of the body get placed in a white plastic bag, stored in a vault and then reburied with the rest of the family after the funeral of the newest arrival has finished.
The three men, Elliott, Lyle and Jackie, all say they approached cemetery work with queasy stomachs that calmed over time, and they each deal with the dead in their own way.
“Some people just put it out of their mind, on the side, you know?” says Elliott. “I’m fascinated by the science of it—and also the stories. This lady here was thirty years old. Tomorrow I might see somebody who was two years old, a little baby. Might see a guy who lives to make one hundred. You never know what life will bring.”
Jackie’s been with the archdiocese thirty-six years, and the dead don’t bother him. “I’ve seen far more frightful things among the living than the dead.” Like fights during funerals. “Families, they split, right there at the graveside.” He shakes his head. Lyle doesn’t want to talk. He keeps to hosing away the loose dirt and places a cover of bright green Astroturf over the open grave.
St. Roch’s graves hold families of many backgrounds and races. Names like Quezerque, Finn and St. Germain show the consistent diversity of this “back of town” area. The families show off their craftsmanship and creativity in tombs, too. One is circled in an ornate chain, cast iron tassels hanging from it. A stone crib stands tribute to a lost child. A marble triangle placed on a ledge is carved in honor of “Darling Ethel.”
Back in the chapel, Roch, the volunteer, stares into the eyes of his patron saint. “I came in here the other day because I was feeling sick,” he says. “I’m a twenty-five-year survivor of HIV/AIDS. And I just came in here and sat in the pews on a stormy day, and I just kind of relaxed. I didn’t ask for anything, just tried to feel at peace and accept that I’m sick.” One of his favorite things about St. Roch is how he’s been a comfort to any number of communities for a range of maladies, plagues of all kinds. “St. Roch is dynamic,” Roch says. “Gets reinvented all the time.”
Three people ride into the cemetery on bicycles, steer around the cross and lean their two-wheeled steeds on the chapel wall. They’re here, like most visitors today, out of secular, aesthetic curiosity. They suck on daiquiris, sticky red alcohol from Styrofoam cups, and marvel at the chapel and its ex votos.
This is part of cemetery life, too: a visit based on pure, sunny-afternoon joy. St. Roch holds no judgment. The ornate statuary, wood and marble, even the solemn bell of the chapel welcome everyone equally. None of it belongs to any one group. No one period of time defines it. This final resting place and its chapel, built by vow, belong to all who worship, seek healing or give thanks, whether that’s what they would say they are doing or not.
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Aubrey Edwards is a portrait photographer and educator living proudly in the Crescent City. She is presently earning her Master’s of Science in Visual Anthropology, and spearheads the all-female photography collective Southerly Gold.