By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
New Orleans’ Catholic cemeteries have a way of coaxing in the living, whether it’s through their dazzling, above-ground tombs, serene prayer spots, genealogical and historical riches or walkable grid of lanes that have earned them the nickname “cities of the dead.”
Because our historic cemeteries encourage the faithful to “use” their acreage for more than just burial, it is only fitting that space inside one of them was famously reserved for a special Catholic devotion: The Way of the Cross.
Sculptor stamps his work
Visitors to St. Roch Cemetery No. 1 can walk in the final footsteps of Jesus, helped along by the presence of 14 solid-marble, nearly life-size statues. Each station is ensconced in a house-like niche, giving visitors the feeling they are peering into each scene.
Artistic highlights of St. Roch’s stations of the cross include:
Station 1 (Jesus is Sentenced to Death): The sculptor casts children in the roles of the servants who present the bowl and pitcher of water to Pontius Pilate. The laurel-crowned Pilate is shown dipping his hand in the basin, his face clearly wrestling with his complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus.
Station 6 (Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus): Veronica’s marble cloth shows the weathered face of an elderly man, an image in stark contrast to the man in his early 30s walking to Calvary.
Station 8 (Jesus Speaks to the Holy Women): Children show up again in this grouping of figures.
Station 9 (Jesus Falls the Third Time): Could the rock embraced by Jesus in his final fall be the sculptor’s foreshadowing of Christ’s tomb and the slab on which he was laid to rest?
Station 11 (Jesus is Nailed to the Cross): In yet another unique artistic take on Jesus’ Passion, the sculptor depicts Jesus resting his head on the shoulders of the centurion as the centurion raises a hammer to pound in the first nail. This posture telegraphs Jesus’ acceptance of his fate and love even for his captors. A second centurion awaits his turn with the
hammer, while holding Jesus’ feet in place on the cross.
Station 13 (Jesus is Taken from the Cross): Mary bears the brunt of the weight of her son’s lifeless body – she holds him under his armpits – while another woman lifts Jesus at his legs. Two men, including St. John, look on. Women also play major roles in the previous station – Jesus Dies on the Cross – with the sculptor including only female mourners in the grouping.
Stations were a priestly wish
According to research conducted by Sherri Peppo, director of New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries, St. Roch’s riveting stations of the cross were the vision of Father Peter Leonard Thevis, who became pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Bywater in 1868, the year his predecessor, Father Ignatius Scheck, succumbed to yellow fever.
Father Thevis wished to develop a cemetery for his parishioners and promised to dedicate a chapel to St. Roch if none of his parishioners perished from yellow fever in the ensuing year.
Father Thevis carried out his promise by having the St. Roch Campo Santo Chapel and Shrine built. The chapel’s official dedication was on Aug. 16, 1876, and its first Mass celebrated on All Souls’ Day of that year.
Father Thevis died in 1893, before realizing his plan to replace St. Roch’s original terra-cotta stations of the cross with marble ones. The priest’s dream came to fruition posthumously – in 1948 – when the marble statues, donated by local families, arrived in New Orleans from Italy.
Their sculptor is unknown.
The faithful can make a personal Way of the Cross every day of the year, except Mardi Gras, during the cemetery’s opening hours of 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Priests and deacons lead a popular Way of the Cross at St. Roch on Good Friday.
“Over 100 years (after St. Roch Cemetery was built), the tradition of praying the Way of the Cross on Good Friday continues with many Catholic devotees who cherish attending this holy service in St. Roch Cemetery,” Peppo said. “It is a heartfelt blessing to witness over a couple of hundred devotees walk, pray and sing in this small, quaint, historic cemetery.”
The man who made St. Roch’s stations a reality – Father Thevis – is interred in the chapel, below the marble floor in front of the altar.
St. Patrick Cemetery in New Orleans also has stations of the cross – smaller, bronze-painted statues that sit atop columns. This walk begins in the front of St. Patrick No. 3 on City Park Avenue, continues in St. Patrick No. 2, and ends in St. Patrick No. 3, near the gate at Bernadotte and Palmyra streets.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.