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NOLA History: Halloween, All Saints and All Souls in New Orleans

Ghosts and ghouls and goblins…All Hallows’ Eve is upon us! New Orleans is never lacking for an excuse to party, and Halloween gives us a great one. Historically, though, it hasn’t been about jack-o-lanterns, black cats, and witches on broomsticks. The Catholics who built the city’s traditions were just gearing up to the really important day: The Feast of All Souls, on November 2.

st. louis cemetery new orleans

Three “double” tombs in front of the Italian Society Mausoleum in St. Louis Cemetery Number One in Faubourg Treme (author’s photo)

Individuals are recognized by the Catholic Church as “saints” when there is sufficient evidence that person is in heaven. Obviously, conclusive evidence of such a state is hard to come by, so the Church looks for supernatural events after a person’s death. The most common evidence of sainthood are “miracles” attributed to the prospective saint. When a sick person is cured beyond the explanation of medical science, and that cure is believed to be the result of the person praying to a prospective saint, that becomes a documented “miracle.” When enough evidence of the “cause” is gathered, the Pope declares the person a saint.

New Orleans history

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, a Redemptorist priest whose work in New Orleans helped make him a candidate for sainthood. (Wikimedia Commons)

Martyrs, those who give their lives defending their faith, are believed to go immediately to heaven, which is why the yearly calendar of saints’ feast days includes a large number of them. In fact, the first recorded general recognition of saints was in 609, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome for the Blessed Virgin and all martyrs. May 13 was designated the date this event would be commemorated. During the papacy of Gregory III (731-741), the recognition of “all saints” was moved from May 13 to November 1. This commemoration gave the Church a “catch-all” day, where folks could pray for their “personal saints,” family and friends who they believed were in heaven but would never be formally recognized by the Church as such.

The tradition of All Hallows (All Saints) is a strong one, but it’s still secondary in New Orleans. Faithful Catholics rise and go to Mass on November 1, then they head out to the cemeteries, to clean up and prepare their family tombs for November 2, the “Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed,” also known as the Feast of All Souls. While most people don’t want to believe that Grandpa is burning in the fiery pit for all eternity, maybe he wasn’t as good a person as he could be. The Catholics have a solution for that situation: Purgatory. The idea was, since Grandpa wasn’t ready to go directly to heaven, he had to make a stop along the way, for purification. This pit stop was worked up over centuries into an elaborate system, where the faithful could pray for a “reduction in sentence” as it were, for their loved ones that were in Purgatory. Knowing that Grandpa wasn’t on the express train motivated Grandma to make sure the family tomb was kept up well and prayers regularly said for the repose of his soul. Since November 2 was a work day (the day before often is a holiday in Catholic-dominated countries), any clean-up projects at the cemetery had to be done on the day before.

New Orleans history

“Decorating the Tombs” from Harper’s Weekly, 1885 (public domain)

Cleaning up the family plot is often a bit more complicated in New Orleans than other parts of the United States, because we regularly bury our loved ones above-ground. The New Orleans cemetery tour guides will tell stories of how this had to be done in the early years of the city, since burying coffins below sea level would force them to the surface as the water table would rise. The truth of the tradition is a bit more simple (and obvious): above-ground burial was something that came over to New Orleans from France. Above-ground tombs gave families a better focal point for visiting the departed and praying for a remission of their time in Purgatory. These tombs are usually made of regular brick-and-mortar, then plastered over and whitewashed. Catholic cemeteries in New Orleans were usually constructed by the various ethnic groups that made up the city’s faithful. The French-Spanish-African Creoles had the original St. Louis cemeteries in Faubourg Treme and Faubourg St. John. The Irish built the St. Patrick’s cemeteries at the head of Canal Street, and the Germans had their cemeteries dedicated to St. Joseph on Washington Avenue.

New Orleans history

Family tombs and “oven” niches in the cemetery wall (left), St. Louis Cemetery Number One (Wikimedia Commons)

The heat and humidity of the city’s climate takes its toll on those structures and they require periodic maintenance. Tombs are more or less communally held by family members, so all the adult children would go out to the cemetery with Grandma on All Saints Day. The kids would come along, of course, so the scene in the cemeteries was often quite festive as everyone spruced up their tomb. What started as work details became picnics where families that grew apart would come together for a very worthy cause. Siblings and cousins could catch up with each other, and Grandma was able to go to the cemetery regularly for another year with her head held high.

Happy Halloween and a Blessed All Saints/All Souls!

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans.  His latest book, Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, is available at bookstores in the city and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.