Paris-New Orleans Ties: St. Louis IX, King Of France

Story By Peter Finney, Clarion Herald

Photos By Frank J. Methe

There is an indelible connection between the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

For one, St. Louis IX, King of France (1214-1270), is the patron saint of the archdiocese. 

The king and father of 11 children reigned for 44 years and was known as a wise and gentle monarch who cared deeply for the poor and the infirm and attended Mass daily.

His funeral Mass in 1270 was celebrated at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

In 1248 in an attempt to liberate the Holy Land, St. Louis embarked on the Seventh Crusade but was taken prisoner. Upon his release, he returned to France and worked diligently to create a fairer judicial system, outlawing the judicial duel (trial by ordeal).

Builder of hospitals, schools

He provided funds for the building of monasteries, schools and hospitals. His crowning achievement was the construction of Sainte-Chapelle, a stunning church filled with luminescent stained glass that became the repository of several special relics, most prominently Christ’s crown of thorns. 

St. Louis had received the crown of thorns from the Byzantine emperor of Constantine. In a legendary five-mile procession from the outskirts of Paris, St. Louis walked barefoot with the crown of thorns and deposited it in the chapel of St. Nicholas inside Notre Dame.

That same crown of thorns was saved from the Notre Dame fire by Father Jean-Marc Fournier, the fire brigade chaplain, who entered the burning church to safeguard both the crown and the Blessed Sacrament.

St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans has 10 stained-glass windows depicting various moments of St. Louis IX’s life. The windows were created at Oidtmann Studios in Linnich, Germany, and installed in 1929. 

Catechism class in glass

Dr. Emilie Leumas, archdiocesan archivist, has visited Notre Dame Cathedral numerous times in her travels and was struck by the stories of faith told through the cathedral’s stained-glass windows.

“At the time the cathedral was built (in the late 12th century), most of the people of the church, the common man, could not read or write,” Leumas said. “Everything they saw, from the statuary, the stone carvings, the wood carvings, the stained-glass windows are the stories of our faith and the lives of the saints. The people learned through these pictures.”

Leumas was amazed that the cathedral survived the anti-church violence of the French Revolution and two world wars virtually unscathed.

“There were some stray bullets that hit it during WWII,”  she said.

The cathedral also was the place where the emperor Napoleon literally crowned himself, grabbing the crown from Pope Pius VII and placing it on his own head.

Most of the architectural documents and other important papers – or at least copies – have been stored off site, Leumas said.

Revolutionary architecture 

Msgr. Christopher Nalty, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish who has visited the cathedral often, said the church’s Gothic construction ushered in a new era – “very, very tall structures to provoke your heart to transcend, to go up.”

“To build it that tall, you have to build much thinner walls,” Msgr. Nalty said. “The roof sits on top of that. The problem that the architects noticed was the weight of the roof started pushing the walls out, so what you see at Notre Dame are these large flying buttresses that support the rather thin walls for the size of the church from pushing out with the roof pushing down.

“The concern I have, just knowing a little bit about church architecture, is now that that roof is gone, are those buttresses going to start pushing in the walls, which  are no longer supporting the roof. I’m sure the architects in Paris are paying attention to that.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org