The St. Louis Cathedral prides itself on being the oldest continuously active cathedral in the United States. It’s not the prettiest, though— the outside is all right, but the rather grim interior wouldn’t give even a minor European church a run for its money. Still, history and spirituality seep from within, so it’s worth a look—if you’re lucky, you may catch a choir practice. Volunteer docents, available most weekdays, are full of fun facts about the windows and murals and how the building nearly collapsed once from water-table sinkage. Note the sloping floor: Clever architectural design somehow keeps the building upright even as it continues to sink. Outside, a plaque marks the visit by Pope John Paul II in 1987.
The cathedral formed the center of the original settlement, and remains the French Quarter’s central landmark. This is the third building to stand on this spot. A hurricane destroyed the first in 1722. On Good Friday 1788, the bells of its replacement were kept silent for religious reasons (or wind, some say) rather than ringing out the alarm for a fire—which eventually burned down the cathedral and 850 other buildings. Rebuilt in 1794 and remodeled and enlarged between 1845 and 1851, the structure’s bricks were taken from the original town cemetery and covered with stucco to protect the mortar from dampness. That issue arose again during Katrina, which caused a leaky roof to ruin the $1-million organ (it’s been rebuilt and returned). Outside, two magnificent, ancient live oaks fell, narrowly missing a statue of Jesus. His thumbs were amputated, however, and Archbishop Hughes, in his first post-Katrina sermon in the cathedral, vowed not to replace them until all of New Orleans is healed. The dramatically lit statue makes a resplendent, if somewhat eerie, nighttime silhouette. Well, we think so; others call it “Touchdown Jesus”—do make a point to walk by at night to see why.