The Legend of St Maurice Lives in New Orleans
I became aware of St. Maurice and his Legions' act of martyrdom when I was watching a documentary on National Geographic. I was captivated about his steadfast courage and his integrity to die with his men for their spiritual beliefs. The story took on a deeper meaning when it became clear that St. Maurice was a man of African descent. I was taken aback because I never knew that there was a saint that was so revered and patronized as much as this man was. In Europe, the story of St. Maurice is legendary while in the United States, his story rarely gets told.
While doing research on St. Maurice, I was extremely surprised that the city of New Orleans has its own personal connection to this man. St. Maurice’s story about race, politics, loyalty, courage and faith is much like the overall story of New Orleans.
St. Maurice, was born in Thebes, Egypt in the 3rd century. He joined the Roman Army at a young age and rose through the ranks to eventually lead a Roman legion called the ‘Theban Legionnaires’ that fought and defended the Roman Empire in Northern Africa. The Theban Legionnaires were composed entirely of Christians, which was odd at that time, considering that Christianity was thought to be one of the threats to the Roman Empire.
On a military campaign to crush a rebellion by the bagaudae (a barbarian group from Switzerland), the Roman Emperor Maximian ordered Maurice and his legion to clear out a path on the St. Bernard pass across to Mt. Blanc. Before the battle, Maximian wanted Maurice’s legion to make a pagan sacrifice, but Maurice boldly told the Emperor that although his men’s alliance was to Rome, God superseded all things and they could not participate in any pagan worship.
After the battle, the Emperor ordered the Theban Legionnaires to harass fellow Christians. Yet again, they refused to obey the order. Angered by their refusal, Maximian ordered a decimation (the death of every tenth soldier) until his orders were obeyed. The legion refused and a second and a third decimation was executed until the Theban Legionnaires were eliminated from the face of the earth in the year 286 A.D. In the city of Agaunum, Switzerland (now St. Maurice-en-Valais), there’s an abbey that’s believed to be the site where St. Maurice and his Theban Legionnaires’ martyrdom took place.
St. Maurice’s selfless action of martyrdom for Christianity was so revered that the act of Chivalry is attributed to him. So admired by his courage that in 1591, part of his relics were arranged and returned in an elaborate ceremony to the monastery in Agaunum by the Duke of Savoy, Charles Emmanuel I. In 2008, those relics were relocated and rededicated in Italy (Schiavi di Abruzzo) where they remain to this day.
St Maurice’s legend continues to inspire as many professions claim patronage to this Saint namely armies, soldiers, sword smiths, infantrymen weavers and dyers. Also, many cities in the countries of Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain and Italy have sought his patronage. To this day, in the countries of Estonia and Latvia, there is a military order of unmarried merchants that call themselves the ‘Brotherhood of Blackhead’ in homage and patronage to St. Maurice.
The New Orleans Connection
On November 7, 1852, a group of the faithful celebrated Holy mass near the U.S. barracks in the home of Mr. Metreaud, Sr. who lent his home to the Diocese of New Orleans to be a temporary chapel until the completion and invocation of the church of St. Maurice and his Theban Legionnaire.
The church was to be constructed as a gathering place to serve the communities of the lower part of New Orleans (the lower 9th ward) and St. Bernard Parish. On November 29th, a church Chaplain by the name of Abbe Napoleon Perche (who later became Archbishop of New Orleans in 1870) purchased 5 lots from a Madame Celina Mouton. The land that was purchased was the battle site of the War of 1812, where future President Andrew Jackson and his volunteer militia force would defend the city of New Orleans and defeat the powerful British Army. The historical significance of the area was not lost to Father Mangrin (who headed the new parish) when he named the church St. Maurice. In the book “St Maurice Parish of New Orleans”, author Charles E. Nolan describes what could be the reason for Father Mangrin’s choosing St. Maurice as the church patron.
“From its very beginnings, the congregation placed itself under the patronage of St. Maurice and his companion martyrs. Father Mangrin did not explain this choice of a legendary Roman soldier as the community’s patron. We know these first parishioners were very conscious that one of America’s faced British troops in 1815 - lay within its boundaries; in addition, the nearby United States Barracks had been active during the United States’ most recent military conflict with Mexico. Whatever may have been the reason, the choice of a soldier patron was prophetic because the pastors and parishioners of St. Maurice would be touched in a singular way by each succeeding period of war.”
After several years of construction, in 1857 on the second Sunday in Advent, Abbe Perche blessed the church and delivered a beautiful sermon. Perche showed his mettle and steadfastness by selecting the site, raising funds, purchasing the land and overseeing the construction of the building. It was only fitting that he blessed the church because he was the main driving force behind this endeavor.
The Years that Followed
Along with the church and the Ursuline Nuns convent, a school was built to educate and give spiritual guidance to children that lived in the church parish. This community was diverse and educated both black and white students almost 100 years before integration laws were passed in the United States.
This parish saw a lot of natural disasters that threatened the church. Most notably, during the storm of 1915, St. Maurice Church was heavily damaged but was eventually renovated and re-decorated. In 2002, the Diocese of New Orleans did a massive renovation at the cost of $2.2 million dollars but 3 years later, Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed all the work that was done. In 2008, 151 years after its construction, the church closed their doors because of low attendance and people moving away from the area. Sadly, this diverse community of parishioners praying and going to the same school together had become a distant memory.
Stewardship & Restoration
Abandoned for 6 years, it was given a new life, when in 2014, local attorney Blake Jones bought the church from the Diocese of New Orleans in an auction. Chris Jones (son of Blake Jones) who now oversees the property for the family said that the church and the surrounding buildings were in dire need of renovation. They had to gut out the church and the roof structure had to be rebuilt because thieves had stolen copper fittings.
Restoring this church and the surrounding property seemed like a daunting task but with the help of some organizations and architectural students, the church like the legend of its namesake, was not ready to be forgotten. However, the work is not complete, more renovations need to be done and Mr. Jones is completely aware of that.
When the church was purchased, Mr. Jones wanted people to appreciate and celebrate the grandeur of this site. In 2014, the church was showcased in the P3 art exhibition with the assistance of the non-profit organization, Creative Alliance of New Orleans (CANO) who use the site often for events and art shows. Moreover, the church and the adjacent buildings have become a big draw especially for movie and television productions that are filmed in New Orleans namely Keanu (2016) and Trumbo (2015). These productions help pay for property taxes and invest towards continual renovation.
St. Maurice’s church should be an historical site because the almost 160 years of this church’s story is intertwined with the story of New Orleans. The tricentennial of the city of New Orleans is fast approaching and it would be a shame if the church of St. Maurice is not included in the telling of the collective history of the city. Just like the patron this church was named after, it will stand strong and will abide.