A city that winks at sin

New Orleans at 300

When you are raised in a town where the grown-ups wear masks and dance at Mardi Gras parades, it plants a certain optimism for the human experiment.

One autumn morning in 1992, over breakfast in Manhattan, I had just been interviewed on national television for my new book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. The man picking up the tab, Doubleday’s religious publishing director Tom Cahill, said gently: “I know you have more information, but I hope for your own good that you pursue other topics.”

Trailed by thoughts along those very lines, I nodded appreciatively, but held back on sharing my fascination for jazz funerals. The topic struck me as too remote from the city of cities. Cahill disclosed that he had his own book in the works, How the Irish Saved Civilisation. “Terrific title,” I said, never ­imagining that his 1995 release would spring three million sales, allowing Cahill to leave editing and write full-time. My book did well, but did not approach his stratospheric sales.

Back in New Orleans, I churned out articles on the early phase of the abuse crisis in the Church, while documents on abuse-victim cases in Boston and Los Angeles were still buried by protective prelates and well-paid lawyers. Perhaps a spiritual hunger had me mesmerized by the solemn march of brass-band musicians playing tender dirges, escorting the coffin to rest, and up-tempo anthems on leaving the cemetery to celebrate the soul’s “cutting loose”. One favourite, “Didn’t he ramble”, stems from “The Derby Ram”, an old English ditty about a bounding ram. As the song migrated, the words took on cutting satire:

His head was in the market
His feet were in the street
A lady came walking by, said,
“Oh look at the market meat.”

Didn’t he ramble?
He rambled all around, 
In and out of the town.
He rambled till the butchers 
cut him down. 

Over time, I came to see burial rites as a lens on the larger society. My focus shifted to the city’s beguiling personality, and how it grew from long tension between a culture of spectacle, rooted in the ring dances of slaves – burial choreographies in homage to ancestors – and the laws of white supremacy. Massive late nineteenth-century burial parades on city space pushed the limits of public space, pushing for better laws.

I never imagined that more than three decades would pass before I delivered City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300. “Funerals with music” was the term used by jazzmen before television, a time when the streets became a venue for spontan­eous choreographies of gyrating black folk, called “second liners”, many of whom never knew the dead guy.

In 1997, I began filming interviews and funeral parades. A Guggenheim fellowship afforded research on the broader culture of spectacle that animated city life. In early 2002, I had several chapters done, and the treatment under way for a companion documentary, when The Boston Globe series on clergy sex abuse ignited a media firestorm. I threw myself into a book proposal and that March landed a contract for Vows of Silence, with my co-author, Gerald Renner.

Published in March 2004, the book expanded our reporting on Legion of Christ founder Fr Marcial Maciel, a notorious preda­tor, long trailed by abuse accusations from teenage seminarians. Pope John Paul II had showed unwavering support to Maciel, even after eight men filed detailed allegations in the canon law tribunal under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1998. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State, who had received financial gifts from the Legion, pressured Ratzinger not to prosecute. In late 2004, Ratzinger ordered an investigation, and in 2006, as Pope Benedict, banned Maciel from ministry.

The embarrassing truth is that I put the New Orleans book on the back burner because investigative reporting paid well, and I couldn’t resist following the arc of a story I had broken 10 years before. With priests and nuns feeding me information, I did more articles, worked on documentaries about the Church, published a book on church finances, covered the 2013 conclave and had several stretches in Rome reporting on Pope Francis.

I flew back from all that to wakes with spirit-pulsing pews, and followed the flow of second liners in homage to musicians I had known as friends. In breaks from church reporting I explored archival sources, gaining a viewfinder on how New Orleans evolved. Three years ago, I finally halted from the church reporting to work on the elusive book and kick-start the film.

For years, two stories had shadowed me like a vaulted arch: the city of my birth, and the Church in which I was raised. I had given too much to one, not enough to the other. After getting through Hurricane Katrina, I was writing about the recovery, going deeper in archives, anticipating the city’s tricentennial in 2018 – and free, at last, from the clutches of a psychologically tangled Church.

Any notable place harbors dynamic lives whose posthumous powers fuel a narcissistic demand that their exploits be weighed, revised and chronicled. New Orleans was founded in 1718 by a French Canadian of minor nobility, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. He had his body emblazoned with snake tattoos to show Indians he could fight as fiercely as they. Bienville made war and peace with Native Americans to anchor the food chain, and like a character out of some Joseph Conrad novel, Bienville demanded that defeated chiefs bring him the heads of Indians who had killed Frenchmen. The chiefs brought him dangling heads.

In 1763, France ceded La Nouvelle-Orléans to Spain. Spanish became the official language. In 1781, most people in Nueva Orleans still spoke French when a 31-year old Capuchin monk, Antonio de Sedella, arrived from Spain and so charmed the gentry that they called him Père Antoine. In writing about him, I brooded over which name better applied to the cleric at a given moment.

Sedella was a secret agent of the Spanish Inquisition, which had a colonial court in Cartagena, in present-day Colombia. Church officials, fearful of the Enlightenment’s free-thinking poisons, created an Inquisition tribunal in Mexico as well. Carlos III of Madrid, known as His Catholic Majesty, approved the selection of bishops in his empire. In New Orleans, Bishop Cirilo Sieni de Barcelona baptised the baby girl of Governor Esteban Miró and his wife.

Miró corresponded with Sedella over ­matters of church administration in a ­supposedly theocratic state. New Orleans, though historically Catholic, was fast changing as upriver merchants, flatboat operators, sailors, spies, British, French and Spanish émigrés (including non-believers) gave the town a map-of-the-world personality. The Inquisition wanted radical literature removed. Sedella closed his letters to Miró: “I kiss the hand of your Lordship.”

Pere Antoine and Cirilo mixed like acid and silk. The rule-bound hierarch recoiled from Sedella’s sloppy indifference to record-keeping, and resented his charisma. Cirilo wanted him ousted when Sedella challenged Miró, demanding soldiers to help him carry out his Inquisition agenda. The last thing Miró needed was a power-addled monk inspecting libraries of French planters to ferret out forbidden books. In 1790, Miró washed his hands of the menace, ordered soldiers to take Sedella to the dock, without bags packed, and shipped him off to Spain.

Unbowed, Sedella solicited a fat file of testimonials from local followers for an appeal to Madrid that took five years; but Carlos IV overruled the expulsion. In 1795, Père Antoine returned to his place in the sun. The Archbishop of Havana, Cirilo’s superior, wrote sternly to the bishop: “You have exceeded your powers … [and] done wrong by sending off Fr Sedella.” Recalled to Spain, his career in tatters, Bishop Cirilo disappears from the history of New Orleans.

As the pastor of St Louis Church at the ­central plaza, Père Antoine baptised slaves, presided at weddings and funerals of free ­people of colour, welcoming all with ­uncommon warmth for southern society. Wearing sandals, a robe and rope belt, the red-bearded monk enlarged his popular following.

In 1804, after the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans became an American city. Many Spanish-speaking clerics left. Not Sedella. The Vatican gave authority over New Orleans to Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, a Jesuit and founder of Georgetown College; Carroll sent Fr Patrick Walsh as the vicar, or highest authority. The outgoing Spanish emissary arranged a salary for Sedella to pass intelligence to officials in Havana. Père Antoine became a spy for Spain.

On 14 March 1805, the Moniteur de la Louisiane announced a church meeting to elect a pastor, contrary to church law (bishops, not laypeople, appointed pastors), as Walsh advised the mayor and alderman. People yelled: “We want Père Antoine as pastor!” Declaring that rituals at the cathedral were invalid, Walsh took residence in the Ursuline community; the crowds didn’t follow.

The Louisiana Supreme Court, which was melding a Franco-Hispanic code into laws aligned with the United States Constitution, interpreted the American separation of Church and State in its ruling that the ­marguilliers, or church wardens, owned the cathedral. This victory for Sedella consigned the Church into a legal limbo that took years to resolve in Rome’s favour.

Bishop Carroll complained to Secretary of State James Madison, who averred that he had no authority in a church dispute. Fr Walsh died of yellow fever in 1806. Carroll sent his vicar general, Fr John Olivier, to intervene, but an angry mob prevented him from taking over. “We have a Spanish priest here who is a dangerous man,” Governor William C.C. Claiborne, who didn’t know about Sedella’s annuity for spying, wrote to the Secretary of War. “He rebelled against his own Church, and would even rebel, I am persuaded, against his own government.”

Père Antoine spent many daylight hours in a hut behind the cathedral, counselling people from across society, high and low, ­fortifying his cult of personality. He changed like a character in a novel, on a pendulum swing from his Inquisition years to performing weddings for divorced people, letting Catholics marry Jews or Protestants, indifferent to church strictures. “In the truest sense he ­epitomised the character of his flock,” the ­historian Joseph G. Tregle Jr wrote. “Sin seemed to concern Père Antoine hardly at all.”

In 1815, the Vatican sent a new bishop, Louis DuBourg, who called the cathedral administration “scandalous,” noting that a mulatto altar boy bore a resemblance to Père Antoine. But “so violent was the mood and the attitude of the populace” against DuBourg, a church historian wrote, that the bishop fled to St Louis, where he established a new diocese.

When Père Antoine died in 1829, the body lay in state for three days; all government buildings closed. A judge adjourning his courtroom announced that he deserved sainthood. The Archdiocese of New Orleans held a funeral befitting a senator. However one may view Sedella’s Machiavellian nature, the local Church in the generation after his death abandoned its solidarity with black people that Sedella had secured, and swung to the side of the Confederacy as the Civil War began.

We are unlikely to ever learn if Père Antoine sired a son with his housekeeper. I could easily believe it, and just as easily believe that the investigating Bishop DuBourg, incensed at his own powerlessness, trafficked in dirty ­gossip. Against the temptation to compare the scandals of recent years with Sedella’s flaunted antinomian behaviour, I view him as a renegade who absorbed the character of the place for which he fought so hard to return. A city that winks at sin and yawns at the crimes of politicians has a quaking spirituality, of African and Christian roots, which in an ­outsize way he helped nurture.

Jason Berry is an investigative reporter and documentary maker. City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300 is published by University of North Carolina Press at £23 (Tablet price £20.70).