One of the lesser visited cemeteries, The St. Roch Cemetery is one of the most unique “Cities of the Dead” in New Orleans. This is a big statement in a city of 43 separate above-ground cemeteries. What makes it so unique? In its center is a small chapel lined with dismembered fake dolls and body parts. While this may seem like the sight of some satanic ritual or an example of the artistic integrity of the Crescent City, it serves as a signal of hope for an old city plagued by pestilence. The St. Roch Cemetery was established in 1874 by Rev. Peter Leonard Thevis for the diminishing German congregation of the nearby Holy Trinity Church. Yellow Fever was rampant throughout the city, and the disease spared no man, woman, or child, regardless of race, religion, or creed. Originally named Campo Santo, after the cemetery, church, and hospice for Germans located on the south side of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Roch’s chapel was dedicated on August 16th, 1876, on St. Roch’s feast. The cemetery was built in honor of the patron saint of dogs, bachelors, invalids, and, most importantly, of warding off disease.
St. Roch: The Saint of Warding Off Plagues
After the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1868, Reverend Thevis turned to a familiar face for healing and hope. St. Roch was often prayed to by members of Thevis’s congregation during times of pestilence. He promised his followers that if the disease spared them, he would construct a chapel in honor of the lesser-known saint in the center of a great cemetery. While being one of only three major outbreaks of Yellow Fever in the post-civil war era, the 1868 outbreak still took hundreds of lives and the life of James Galier, Jr., the New Orleans architect. Still, it appears the congregation of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church survived in full as St. Roch’s chapel and the cemetery were officially designated in 1874. Soon many curious neighborhood residents began seeing doll parts lining the inner walls of the sanctum. It was common practice to leave St. Roch offerings that resembled body parts healed by his grace. To this day, many of those doll limbs and plaster body parts remain in the chapel. So who exactly was St. Roch?
Often described as a pilgrim paired with a canine companion and seashell in hand, St. Roch was born in Montpellier, France, in 1295. He was the only son of a wealthy governor from the city. Born with a deep red cross on his chest, he had a pious upbringing, and his mother believed him to possess great healing powers. At the age of twenty, his parents passed, and he began his life as a traveling monk. Joining the Third Order Franciscans, he eventually found himself in Acquapendente in Italy. The plague had ravaged the town, and they turned to the wanderer for assistance, sensing his holy powers. St. Roch would create the sign of the cross over the townspeople, and miraculously, their ailments would disappear. Soon, he contracted the disease and wandered off to die in solace. A small dog found him and gently tended to his wounds. Licking his open sores and bringing him food. He was miraculously healed.
The Ghosts of St. Roch Cemetery
While his story ends in misery, returning to his city only to be labeled a spy and thrown in jail till his death, he brought relief to those around him. People still visit his shrine; mass is held on the first Friday of each month at 10:00 am. Reverend Thevis is buried beneath the marble floor of the St Roch chapel. Despite it, holy reverence to the congregation, odd happenings have still taken place inside the St. Roch Cemetery. In 1937 reports of a lone woman rising out of her tomb and sitting atop a grave came flooding into the New Orleans Tribune. People gathered every night for weeks hoping to catch a glimpse of this phantom woman, especially her appearance from her tomb! While the Tribune attributed this to just being the shadow of an urn, coupled with two trees in the distance, many still report seeing the woman on a nightly basis. A mere block away from the cemetery walls, one nearby resident reported seeing a ghastly apparition through his window on many shadowy nights. As with many New Orleans homes, their house was raised a couple of feet in case of flooding. The resident and local Trombonist, known locally as “Outlaw Dave,” reported seeing a figure of a man appearing clearly from the waist up outside his window. A good 8 feet above the ground! His wife, an educator and dancer in the community, Mrs. Christine, reports being awoken late at night by raps on their window from the same curious spirit. Perhaps a lost soul searching for their tomb long forgotten or a former resident of the home. They have since moved and have declared “the spirit was harmless, yet quite rude and pester some.”
Voodoo In The St. Roch Cemetery
The St. Roch Cemetery also notably hosts a large number of Voodoo happenings. Voodoo in New Orleans is alive and well, and the cemeteries play a significant role in the practice. Spirits are honored quite often right where they lay. Offerings, ranging from balls of wax with pins struck through them to animal parts, are left at gravesites in reverence of the spirits. Sometimes these offerings are left to benefit the practitioner, and other times to cause harm to others. A local newspaper wrote that in 1931, relatives of a woman buried in the St. Roch Cemetery were visiting her grave site, only to find black candles lining her grave and a mound of dirt dug out from her tomb. Upon further investigation, they found a tin can with a picture of a man inside, tobacco, and a pack of needles—all typical offerings to the spirits. The ancestors of loved ones can often be used to bring forth blessings or grief to others.
While Voodoo is a misunderstood religion in the American psyche, it has dark aspects. “Gedes,” or spirits of the cemetery, are highly revered in New Orleans and Haitian Voodoo. Many locals report seeing voodoo practices occurring late at night in the St. Roch Cemetery and the numerous others that line the city. Consider taking a Voodoo tour to learn more about it and the other mysteries of New Orleans!
Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Deder, Peter B. The Cemeteries of New Orleans: A Cultural History. 1st edition. Louisiana State University Press. 2017
Saxon, Lyle, et al. Gumbo Ya Ya: Folk Tales of Louisiana. 3rd edition. Pelican Publishing Company 1987