A Pleasant Day in the French Quarter

There is no argument that New Orleans is always a party. It is possible, however, to spend an afternoon walking the old city seeing the sights, enjoying the cuisine and culture, and learning something new, without having to head to confession the next day! Starting out on Canal Street, I headed to Jackson Square to visit St. Louis Cathedral. It was the first time I had ever been inside. I was awestruck – they just don’t build churches like that anymore. There were a lot of tourists there (like me), but still there was a quiet, reverent atmosphere that was a distinct and refreshing detachment from the busyness outside. The painting of St Louis above the sanctuary was marvelous. He is announcing the 7th crusade; the more you look at it the more it draws you in. Full of energy and promise, it also hints of the failure to come. It was a stark reminder to me that as a Christian I am called to be faithful, not necessarily successful.

Heading down Rue Chartres, I visited the old Ursuline Convent. A masterful piece of French Colonial architecture, built in 1752, it is the oldest building in New Orleans, in fact the oldest in the entire Mississippi Valley. Built with 2 foot thick masonry walls and giant beams from 500 year old cedar trees, it has survived fires, hurricanes, and time. Besides a convent, it has been everything from an orphanage to a meeting place for the Louisiana Legislature. When it was the Bishop’s residence a chapel was added, St Mary’s. Covered in the French fleur-de-lis, with a 100 year old German organ, and full of images of Italian saints, this Church reflects the the European immigrant heritage of New Orleans. The Docent was also quick to point out that the City has always been a majority of African descent both free and slave. Between the Chapel and the original Convent building is a hallway that contains the national Shrine of the Military and Hospitaller Order of the St Lazarus of Jerusalem. This order of Chivalry dates back over 900 years to the 1st Crusade. It is still active in worldwide charitable works.

If two Crusaders in one day were not enough, the exhibit on Joan d’Arc was a presentation of photography that was a truly unexpected surprise. Made of images of statues shot in black and white, it captured an intensity and power that was subtle yet intense, a lot like I imagine Joan d’Arc to be. Because of their arrangement and angles, the displays seemed to move with the passion of the great saint. This exhibit is one that I will not soon forget.

Needing a little refreshment after so much culture, I headed to the Café du Monde for the obligatory café au lait and beignets. For those who have had the pleasure, you know there is nothing quite like it. Those things are about 250 calories apiece so I had a good deal more walking to do!

A stroll along the Riverwalk and then down by the French Market began to burn off a few of those delectable doughnuts. The two French market vendors that caught my eye were the Chinese painter who used several colors at the same time on his brush to create a rainbow like calligraphy, and the Bulgarian jeweler who only used debris from Hurricane Katrina as a medium. The rest of the afternoon was spent stopping in shops that caught my curiosity and talking to locals. Being alone, there was no issue lingering at a haberdashery. Never being one to own a lot of hats, this place may change my mind. There certainly was a wide-brimmed fedora that seemed to call my name.

Back by the Cathedral I talked to one of the local artists; business is brisk she said, but it would be nice to have a patron like the artists who painted in the Cathedral. A city policeman was unusually chatty, elaborating on all the local political oddities and issues, of which in his mind there was a plethora. I don’t doubt him. There are definitely some places in the Big Easy to be avoided.

I was fortunate enough to get back to Immaculate Conception, a Jesuit church that almost rivals St Louis Cathedral in beauty. There was still a few minutes time for some prayer and reflection. Then I chatted with the sacristan for a bit, as they were closing for the day. She said the church had served as the parish church for the various national groups who had settled in the city. The French, Spanish, German, and Italian flags were hanging in the nave, as can be seen in the picture, reminding me again of the long ethnic history of the city. Having spent the previous day in Massachusetts, it was a stark contrast in the differences between the peoples who settled our land.

Back on Canal Street there was a large group of young African-Americans, with trumpets, saxophones, tubas, and trombones in hand. As I walked by I was amazed at the talent just playing away there on the street corner. This is truly a unique place.

The day ended with some red beans and rice at Mother’s Restaurant, a longtime local eatery with all the flavors I would expect of such a New Orleans landmark. After 6 hours of wandering around the city, interacting with scores of people, I was ready for some Cajun cuisine and then to bed!

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