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At St. Roque’s

From Ailenroc’s Book, by Cornelia Alexander. Note from the blogger: St. Roch’s chapel still exists in New Orleans, and greatly resembles the description given by Mrs. Alexander more than a century ago. Here is more information about the cemetery and chapel, and here is a collection of photographs from the place which I found very interesting.

“No visit to New Orleans is complete without a pilgrimage to St. Roque, and you must go there. I have some wishes to make, and will go with you.”

So said my friend, whom I will call “Nell.,” for short.

“Some wishes to make?” I repeated.

“Yes,” she said. “According to an old legend, one may get any wish granted by walking to St. Roque—never stopping on the way—saying a prayer, and making a wish.”

“How easy! And who, pray, might St. Roque be?” I asked.

“O, he was just a saint,” she said, lightly, “a very holy man. I don’t know much about him, but I do know that wishes are granted at St. Roque’s Church. I’ve tried it. I wished once for money, and got it.”

Nell. was not raised a Catholic, but has drifted that way from superstition and association.

Seeing that I was still unbelieving, she appealed to Miss Cecilia, a lovely Creole girl, a native of the city, and a pure and tender lamb of the Catholic fold.

Miss Cecilia is religious. She attends all the masses, says all the prayers, names all the saints, and things heaven is a gigantic convent. When her brother lay dangerously ill she made nine pilgrimages to St. Roque’s, and is serenely confident that his health was restored on account of her penance in walking the five miles, and on account of the candles she burned and the holy water she sprinkled herself with. So she is quite an authority.

“Go, by all means,” she said; “you will never regret it. Any time is good, but St. Joseph’s Day is the best, except Good Friday. O,” she said, fervently, her fine eyes glowing, “it is a lovely place to go to pray!”

“I can pray anywhere,” I responded, “and don’t think that the place makes any difference.”

“But it does,” argued Nell. and Miss Cecilia in a breath, “because St. Roque’s has been blessed.”

“And who blessed it?” I asked.

They responded: “Why, the priests, to be sure!”

So a time was set for the pilgrimage, and, as a searcher for quaint and historic spots, I was glad to go; but before starting my friend took me to a little shop where all sorts of Catholic things are for sale—prayer books, images, rosaries, wax tapers, altar clothes, etc.

“Let me see a St. Joseph,” she said; and the shop-woman brought out some little pewter things that looked like cartridges. A pewter cap was on each, which, being removed, showed the tiny figure of a man with a child in his arms.

“Nickel apiece,” said the woman. “Maybe you take three for a dime.”

“One is enough,” said Nell.; and, while searching in her pocketbook for the nickel, she asked: “Which is the best charm for money?”

“St. Joseph is the best,” the woman said, “for money, but St. Benedict is the best for health. Always put the image in the shell on his head. See?”

Nell. took the tiny saint, whose value is so small, and led the way up the street. I, being a looker-on in Venice, followed her.

She stopped at the Jesuits’ church and went in. The pale and careworn face of a brother appeared at a little grating, and Nell. said: “Can I get this St. Joseph blessed?”

He bowed.

She laid a dime on the window sill, saying: “For the poor.”

He bowed again, took the image and the dime, and vanished, but returned in a moment, saying: “The Father has blessed it.”

“Now,” she said, as we went out, “this St. Joseph is yours. It has to be a gift, it has to be blessed, and it brings you good luck. Nearly every soul in New Orleans carries one for luck. Even the Jewish shop-girls carry them in their pocketbooks.”

I received it meekly, and it lies in my pocketbook; but if any good luck has come with it, I fail to know it.

As the old saying is, “we took foot in hand” and stepped off on our walk—a long, long walk, up one street and down another, until finally the picturesque little chapel, covered with ivy and surrounded by tombs, came into view.

At the gate is a little lodge, and in the windows are souvenirs for sale—tiny gold spoons, with the chapel engraved in the bowl (price, $1.50); beads, crosses, and more St. Josephs.

The door bore the legend, “No admittance, only on business,” and I was surprised when Nell. knocked.

A priest responded, who was the opposite of the Jesuit, being hale, hearty, and looking well fed. A few words passed and he handed her a tin candlestick, with a long, slim candle set therein, for a nickel.

“Will you have one?” she asked?

“No, no,” I said; “I can see well enough without a light.”

It might have been fancy, but I thought that a contemptuous smile played for a moment on the full lips of the priest; and not wishing to appear stingy in not buying the candle, I said I would like a “Life of St. Roque” that was in the window. It was a small pamphlet, and I supposed would be a nickel; but when he said a quarter, I declined.

We went up the beautiful shell walk, Nell. carrying her unlighted candle before her, and several other ladies doing the same.

The altar was ablaze with numberless candles, and was gay with flowers; pictures and images were on the walls; but my attention was drawn to the full-length marble figure which lay in a glass case under the altar, and before which all the candles were burning. It was the sculptor’s conception of the body of our Savior after the crucifixion, and was so real and lifelike that my heart contracted painfully as I gazed. The lifeless look, the suffering stamped upon the dead face, the thorn-wreathed brow, the wounded side, the pierced hands and feet, were terrible for me to look upon, and I wondered that others seemed so careless and unmoved.

On each side of the altar is a large urn to hold offerings to St. Roque. Hands and feet of marble and plaster hang thereto to commemorate miraculous cures wrought there. In a corner stand a pair of crutches, and marble hearts and blocks, with “Thanks” and “Merci” inscribed thereon, hang on the wall or cluster on the altar.

“O, it is wonderful,” says Nell., “the cures that have been wrought here!”

“Who does the curing?” I ask.

She answers: “St. Roque has it done.”

I look again at the pitiful figure under the altar, and think: “They put him to an open shame.”

Nell. dips deeply into the holy water, puts money into the contribution box, and we sit awhile on the old, old seats, while her candle burns itself away.

St. Roque’s is a tomb. I discover that the walls are numbered crypts for the dead. What is overhead I know not, but there is another story.

We go out and walk around the churchyard, and, in so doing, follow an old lady, who, Nell. tells me, is “doing” the stations of the cross. There is no room inside for the pictures which trace the life of Christ from the cradle to the tomb, so they have little porches built to shelter them, where people may pray. Some of the pictures are very old, and exposure to the air has faded and tarnished them; but some are in bas-relief, and are wonderful for naturalness of expression.

The churchyard is inclosed by a brick wall, and the wall is a tomb, or a collection of tombs, the coffins being slipped into vaults just large enough to hold them, and sealed.

But Nell. has another thought. “Let us go to the wish well,” she says, leading the way. It is a round hole in the middle of the walk, paved with marble; and one must look at his or her own reflection in the water, and wish.

A boy comes up and says “Would you like some sacred heart clover for luck?” and while Nell. is hunting another nickel for him, I examine the clover, and think that a touch of brown paint in skillful hands will work the miracle every time. “It is found in this cemetery alone,” he says and superstitious Nell. believes him.

He goes into the church and gathers up the empty candlesticks and takes them to the priest. Other visitors are coming in a constant stream with fresh candles, and this candle burning is certainly a source of revenue. Who gets it, I don’t know, neither do the devout Catholics.

Miss Cecilia tells me that it is a beautiful service at early mass, when the priest makes the round of the pictures, chanting in Latin (which they do not understand), and followed by the congregation; and she wonders that “poor Protestants can keep their religion together.”

St. Roque’s is only one of many churches here almost worshiped by the people, but having an added value in their eyes as being a granter of wishes. It is said that the Creole girls go there to wish for husbands. My friend only wished for the wherewith to keep up the husband she has.