Free Tour of Colonial New Orleans, Courtesy of Our Newest Contributing Editor
WELCOME TO OUR NEW CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, MICHAEL PASQUIER! HERE'S HIS BRIEF INTRODUCTION AND FIRST POST.
My name is Mike Pasquier. Currently, I’m a visiting faculty member of the Department of Religion at Florida State University. I’ll be joining the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Louisiana State University in the fall. But before I move to Baton Rouge, I’ll be spending a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Until now, I’ve focused my research on the history of Catholicism in the American South, Catholic devotional culture, and the relationship between religion and colonialism in Louisiana.
I’m finishing a book manuscript tentatively entitled “Les Confrères et les Peres: French Missionary Priests and Frontier Catholicism in the United States.” And I’m conducting new research on the intersection of African religions, Native American religions, and European Christianities in the Lower Mississippi River Valley during the eighteenth century. I’m also co-editing (w/ Tracy Fessenden) a special issue of the Journal of Southern Religion (on religion in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina). Here in my first post
My first post takes us on a tour of the colonial New Orleans explored in Emily Clark's
___________________________________________A STROLL DOWN CHARTRES STREET
(Also an introduction to religion in New Orleans via Emily Clark’s Masterless Mistresses)
I’d like to take us on a brief tour of New Orleans. No, this isn’t one of those silly “Haunted Tours,” although they are kind of interesting. And, no, this isn’t a chance for us to walk straight from the Fairmont Hotel (home of the Sazerac, the “original cocktail” to Bourbon Street, although I do recall not recalling similar experiences while an undergraduate student at Louisiana State University. Instead, let’s begin by standing on Decatur Street just outside the gates of Jackson Square while facing the St. Louis Cathedral with the Mississippi River about 100 yards behind us.
At the risk of belaboring a very tired metaphor, I would like for us to imagine standing at a crossroads—a historical and cultural crossroads. Behind us flows one of the longest running natural (and rather muddy) transporters of peoples, ideas, and technologies connecting the Atlantic and Caribbean worlds to the interior reaches of North America and indiscriminately cutting through our imaginary conceptions of regions like “the South” and “the West.” We are standing on Decatur Street, originally called Levee Street, literally steps away from over 300 years of human engineering and even more human disasters (recall the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and Randy Newman’s song “Louisiana 1927." Blocking our view of the St. Louis Cathedral is a statue of General Andrew Jackson, the American “savior” of New Orleans who led a coalition of Choctaws, free people of African descent, Baratarian pirates, Spanish and French Creoles, and militiamen from Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky against the British during the War of 1812.
Finally, we can contemplate the façade of the St. Louis Cathedral, built on the site of two previous Roman Catholic churches in 1794 and standing at the center of the French Quarter. But if we want to see French colonial architecture, we’ve got to walk up to the steps of the cathedral, take a right, and start walking down Chartres (pronounced “charters”) Street. You see, a fire destroyed much of the wooden buildings of the French Quarter (also called the Vieux Carré) in 1788, which meant that Spanish officials (oh yeah, Louisiana became a Spanish colony in 1763 after the Seven Years’ War) rebuilt the city, followed by thousands of American migrants building over what remained of French and Spanish structures following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
Whew! I’m already tired, and we haven’t even arrived at our destination. Just a few more blocks to go. Had we taken a left, we could have detoured down Pirate Alley and visited the former home of William Faulkner. But, alas, we’ve got no time to waste (this is a blog after all, where brevity is a virtue). As we begin our stroll toward Esplanade Avenue, you’ll notice the passing of Pere Antoine Alley, St. Ann Street, Madison Street, Dumaine Street, and St. Philip Street, until we finally reach the corner of Chartres and Ursuline Street. Look to your left and you will see General P.G.T. Beauregard’s home. Take a walk around the block and you’ll pass Brangelina’s new mansion on Governor Nicholls Street. Look to your right and you will see the Old Ursuline Convent. Built in 1752, the Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest example of French colonial architecture in the Mississippi Valley and the former residence of a group of Roman Catholic nuns who travelled from France to a minor colonial outpost called La Nouvelles-Orleans in 1727.
If you want to understand the historical and cultural context of everything we’ve seen up to this point, then you must read Emily Clark’s Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834. Published in 2007 for the prestigious Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, Masterless Mistresses is a story about the first group of Catholic women religious to immigrate to a place that would become part of the United States. It is a story about early modern Europe, the Atlantic world, and the commingling of French, Spanish, and American interests in North America. It is a story about women in a world dominated by men, Catholic women in a world defined by anti-Catholicism, celibate women in a world where Protestant women valued motherhood and domesticity, and slaveholding women who also devoted themselves to the education and welfare of enslaved and free children of color. Clark calls the Ursulines “ideological outlaw[s]” and “mistresses without masters” because of the many relationships and conflicts that developed between the French (and later Spanish and American) nuns and everyone else they met in the streets of New Orleans. Clark also extends her discussion of the Ursulines to larger issues related to the retelling of early American history. “Gender,” Clark reminds us, “as much as race and class, gnawed at the fragile foundations of unified American identity. Weaving the Ursulines into the fabric of American history tellingly reveals that to us.”
Unfortunately, Clark’s masterful Masterless Mistresses is one of only a handful of other books that conceives of colonial Louisiana as something other than a peripheral sideshow to “the normative culture of British North America that prevailed in the young Republic.” Might New Orleans be more central to early American religious history than the historiography would suggest? Might the Mississippi River be just as important as, say, the Chesapeake Bay in delivering European and African peoples to a New World already populated by native peoples? Might we learn from Walker Percy—a Catholic convert who came of age in Greenville, Mississippi, and who became a National Book Award winner for his 1961 novel The Moviegoer—when he says that “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something.”
It’s strange to think that we historians of American religion—that is to say, people most likely to read this blog—are stuck in a realm of possibility when, all along, New Orleans and the rest of the Mississippi River Valley have been soaking in their deep, thick, gelatinous (yes! I used the word “gelatinous”) culture, seemingly content to let us experts of American religious history avoid the obvious.
But hey, New Orleans ain’t goin’ nowheres. Right?