To walk up the marble tile center aisle of St. Louis Cathedral is to step over and past the bones of people. Lots of people.
Graphic: Where, how Archbishop Philip Hannan will be buried
The triple-spired cathedral that is the international symbol for New Orleans is more than a church. It’s a working cemetery as well.
The mortal remains of 11 bishops and archbishops, as well as the unmarked graves of scores of early residents of the French and Spanish colony lie under the cathedral’s floor.
On Thursday, the cathedral will receive another body when hundreds of priests, bishops, and members of the general public gather celebrate a funeral Mass for Archbishop Philip Hannan.
Hannan died early Thursday at age 98, having spent 23 years as archbishop and another 23 years in an active public retirement in and around New Orleans. By long tradition, Catholic bishops and archbishops are buried in or near their cathedrals.
After his funeral Mass, Hannan’s remains will be lowered into a crypt below the crimson carpet in the sanctuary in front of the altar, where he will lie alongside eight predecessors.
An ancient tradition
Burying the honored dead within churches — or more accurately, building churches atop the remains of honored dead -- is an ancient tradition, dating to the earliest days of Christianity, said Monsignor Crosby Kern, the cathedral’s rector.
The temporal center of Roman Catholicism, St. Peter’s Basilica, is the most recent of several churches built over the site that tradition holds is the grave of Simon Peter, the fisherman Jesus picked to lead the church.
Recent archeology seems to have confirmed that St. Peter’s is, in fact, atop the grave of the apostle.
Later, Christians celebrated the Eucharist on the very tombs of the martyred dead, partly in the belief that those dead heroes were “friends of God” who would help carry forward their prayers in heaven, according to Ken Woodward, author of “Making Saints,” an account of the Catholic church’s sanctification process.
Saints' relics entombed in altars
For centuries, Catholic altars worldwide were required to keep the link between worship and tombs by containing a tiny relic of a saint — perhaps a sliver of bone — making each altar a symbolic tomb, said Monsignor Ken Hedrick of the archdiocese’s Office of Worship. The practice is no longer required, but strongly encouraged, he said.
For tens of millions of Christians, the Protestant Reformation eliminated the role of intercessory saints, and dismissed any inclination to draw near to their remains in prayer, in church or elsewhere.
But even so, the custom of burial in church is not restricted to Catholicism.
The Episcopal Church’s Washington National Cathedral, technically the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and Paul, houses the remains of more than a dozen people, including writer Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson.
A hole in the cathedral floor
Jimmie Dorsey holds the trap door up as The Rev. Crosby Kern, rector of St. Louis Cathedral , right,shows where eight other bishops and auxiliary bishops are buried beneath the floor at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans Friday, September 30, 2011-Susan Poag,The Times
Preparations For Archbishop Hannan's Funeral gallery (21 photos)
On Thursday, when the public gathers around Hannan’s casket, there likely will be no sign that a grave has been prepared for him a few feet away, Kern said.
Earlier, a few workers will have sawn a hole in the sanctuary’s wooden floor, then located an open crypt, one of eight new burial vessels ordered a few years ago by now-retired Archbishop Francis Schulte, Kern said.
Flooring and carpet will be replaced for the funeral Mass, leaving nothing amiss, he said.
Probably, Hannan will lie at the far right of the sanctuary, near the wall — the ninth in a wall-to-wall line of subterranean crypts bearing predecessor bishops or archbishops going back to Leo Raymond de Neckere, who died in 1833, Kern said.
Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel lies beneath the floor a few feet away, in the center in the somewhat ragged row, Kern said.
Kern remembers that 1964 funeral, the last for an archbishop of New Orleans.
Exact burial spots are not marked
And memory is important, because in all but two cases, final resting places are unmarked.
Instead, past bishops and archbishops are memorialized by wall-mounted plaques along the perimeter of the cathedral, without reference to where their remains lie — if indeed, they are dead.
Archbishops Francis Schulte and Alfred Hughes both have plaques, and both are very much alive.
Within the cathedral, only two actual burial sites are marked: one for Francois Philippe Marigny de Mandeville, landowner and soldier who died in 1728, and another for Andres Almonester y Roxas, a Spanish philanthropist died in 1798 after founding what would become Charity Hospital. They lie on each side of the main aisle, short of the sanctuary.
Beyond the sanctuary, scattered about beneath the pews stretching toward Jackson Square, lie the remains of many more colonial New Orleanians, clergy and lay alike, Kern said.
Colonial citizens lie under the pews
Before 1803, they were buried inside the cathedral’s predecessor building, which stood on the same site until 1850. That building was demolished to make way for the wider, deeper church that opened a year later, Kern said. The width of the old building was roughly defined by the rows of interior pillars in its successor.
Within the footprint of that earlier, narrow church, the locations of those early graves are lost.
But their burial records still endure in archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans:
Male child Bosques, buried in 1798; Juana Maria Destrehan, buried in 1798; Luis Chauvin Beaulieu, buried in 1801; Costancia de Reggio, buried in 1796.
They are under the pews, somewhere.
By the mid-19th century, burial in the cathedral became reserved for clergy, and later, reserved for archbishops only — and a few auxiliary bishops, with permission, Kern said.
Three auxiliary bishops lie in the cathedral, although not under the sanctuary. Three empty crypts in St. Anthony’s Garden, behind the cathedral, are available for others, or perhaps for Kern.
As cathedral rector, he is entitled to burial there as well.