Blog #1: The Intercession of St Roch.
“”Security is mostly a superstition. God himself is not secure, having given Man dominion over His works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run that outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold… Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free-spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
“Let Us Have Faith”, Helen Keller, 1940.
While originally from New Zealand, I have lived for the past 22 years in New Orleans, which is for me one of the most fascinating cities in the world. For almost that entire time, I have lived in the Faubourg St Roch, one of the oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans outside of the French Quarter. Unlike the nearby Treme, which was the first African-American neighborhood in North America, the St Roch and neighboring Marigny ‘wards’ were largely built by Creoles, the resourceful mixed race, often Haitian descended New Orleanians, who as its architects, engineers, carpenters, masons, and iron workers, designed and built the French Quarter. Prior to the Civil War, this neighborhood had one of North America’s largest populations of Free People of Color who owned many of the restaurants and businesses in the French Quarter, and it would be the highly-successful Creole musicians who after being disenfranchised by the Jim Crow laws of the 1880’s (after Louisiana became part of the United States), were then forced to take the orchestral music of the uptown French contredanse’s back into their own downtown neighborhoods, where its subsequent funkification played a crucial role in the birth of Jazz. (Unlike musicians like Buddy Bolden, the African-American cornet player credited with first playing ‘that hard jazz’, it was the trained Creole musicians who could read and write music that ultimately preserved Jazz- the only original American art form – for posterity. Jelly Roll Morton, the famous pianist and composer who claimed to have invented jazz, was a Creole who was born only a few blocks from my house.)
I actually live right on St Roch Avenue itself, a beautiful street with an oak tree lined ‘neutral ground’ that divides the wide boulevard and runs from the Mississippi River first through the Marigny, and then across the St Roch ward to the St Roch Park (where Dr John says in his autobiography the toughest kids in New Orleans used to hang out; you got your ass kicked if you tried to cross St Roch) and then out on through what once was swamps towards Lake Ponchatrain. Just before the park there is the very classical, above-ground cemetery – St Roch #1 – which was opened in 1874 for the mostly German congregation of the rather remarkable Rev. Peter Thevis (whose beautiful church in the Marigny is now a venue called The Marigny Opera House), and in the exact center of the cemetery stands a tall Gothic-style mortuary Chapel, that used to have beautiful stained glass windows until they were all blown out by hurricane Katrina and have yet to be replaced.
This Chapel is dedicated to St Roch himself, a Catholic Saint from the 12thcentury, who, the story has it, went on a pilgrimage from his home town in France to Rome, and ended up catching the bubonic plague in Italy. After he went into the forest to die, a dog nursed him back to health, after which he stayed in Italy for many years helping other victims of the plague and performing many miracles. When he finally returned home to France, no one recognized him (including his own Uncle), and he was arrested for being a spy dressed in Pilgrim’s clothing, and thrown into jail for 5 years where he subsequently died. After his death, a strange birthmark on his chest identified him as the former Governor’s son, vindicating him posthumously of the charges, and after miracles were reported due to his intercession, he was later sanctified.
St Roch is the therefore the Patron Saint of dogs, prisoners, falsely-accused people, and undoubtedly most importantly in New Orleans throughout the 18thand 19thcenturies, to invoke against infectious diseases. In Europe peasants would write VSR, Viva St Roch over their doorways to ward away the bubonic plague, and when the French came to Haiti, and later to their colony of Louisiana, St Roch came along on the journey also. Thanks to its hot, swampy and mosquito-infested location close to the mouth of the Mississippi River, where it would eventually become the main trading point with the entire Caribbean and Central and South America, New Orleans was from the start a notoriously disease-ridden and plague-infected town. Throughout the 19thCentury, the wealthy residents of New Orleans would leave the city for the summer, and head for cooler, more northern temperatures, while the death-rate from cholera and other diseases amongst those that remained in New Orleans was some years as high as one-third of the remaining population. This is why Mardi Gras developed a reputation for the ferocity of its local celebrations–Mardi Gras is usually right before it starts to get hot, and so if you were stuck in New Orleans during the summer in the 1800’s, there was no guarantee you would see your next Mardi Gras.
The Reverend Thevis built the Chapel in 1875 to fulfill a promise he made to St Roch for his intercession in protecting Rev Thevis’s congregation from the yellow fever epidemic of 1869 (not a single parishioner died), and when the Reverend himself later died, he was buried under the marble floor at the foot of the altar in the Chapel as per his own wishes. The neighborhood itself was in fact known as Faubourg Franklin until 1869, and then was changed to Faubourg St Roch, presumably equally in thanks. The last major out break of Yellow Fever in the USA was in New Orleans some thirty years later, in 1905.
Flash forward to March 31st, 2020, and I am sitting in my house on St Roch in self-isolation in what may still be the early days of a global Coronavirus epidemic, much like many of you are, where ever you are. This blog has actually been a long time coming, the first version of this website went up in 2009 shortly after the publication of Tryptamine Palace, but then had to be pulled down again when I had a little uh, issue, coming across the border from Mexico back into California. Now that issue has been successfully resolved after a number of years, I have been wanting to get the website back up for quite some time. But in reality, getting my latest two books all the way to publication took a considerable amount of effort, and once that has been accomplished, I had time to think about beginning this blog.
So since at least January I have been trying to decide how I wanted to start the damn thing, since for a Writer starting a journal of sorts that hopefully may run for decades is no small feat … and now here we all are, waiting in our homes for an invisible danger of potentially Biblical proportions to quietly pass. The World has suddenly gotten much more dangerous again, for after more than a century of our dominion over viruses, they are now apparently back, and the only thing you can really guarantee, is that more novel viruses will come in the decades ahead.
We have entered a new Paradigm, and only Time can tell what this means in the Big Picture, since for the great majority of human history the world has been a very dangerous place, and it has only been the last 75 years that humans have become the most deadly thing on it. Personally I have to admit that I have a begrudging admiration for the Coronavirus, which has had an unparalleled impact on the white-hot globalization of the Industrial World for what is still comparatively little human cost, and as the lungs of the Mother Earth get a chance to clear, and heal a little from the global virus called Humanity, one has to wonder in the long run if putting a little danger back in the World may actually not be such a bad thing. For as the heroic Helen Keller points out in the often mis-quoted excerpt at the beginning of this blog, Danger has never really stopped human beings from attempting to do anything in the past
Thus for my first ever blog-post, it seems appropriate to share with you the strange fevered history of St Roch, since I don’t know how many Shrines to the Patron Saint against Infectious Diseases there are in North America, but there can’t be many, and this one is five blocks from my home. As you might imagine, with a nickname like Roc (since I was 13, long before I knew anything about New Orleans) and having now lived on St Roch Avenue for over 20 years, I have long been fascinated with St Roch himself, and in the years before the hurricane, even though Im not Catholic, I used to go down and sit quietly in his Chapel, which with the light streaming in through the stained glass windows, was a serene and beautiful place.
Over the years after its inception, the St Roch Chapel ‘gained a reputation as a place of healing and became a pilgrimage site for those in ill health and for those seeking spiritual consolation’1, but then over the past century, as the danger of wide-spread plagues became more and more a thing of memory and generations past, our gratitude to St Roch apparently waned, and it is rather ironic that at this particular juncture in history, the St Roch Chapel has been chained and boarded up for the past fifteen years since Katrina, still awaiting ‘major renovation’.
But even though it’s closed, I think I will take a walk down to the cemetery and stand outside the Chapel anyway. To ask for St Roch’s intercession on behalf of us all, and to say a prayer for the Brave New World to come.
VSR.Viva St Roch. Stay safe out there. This too shall pass.
For any one interested in the history of New Orleans and its fascinating culture, I highly recommend “The World That Made New Orleans” by the historian-musician Ned Sublette; if your interested in the story of the Buddy Bolden and the birth of Jazz, check out the excellent historical novel “Coming through Slaughter” by Michael Ondaajte. These are two of my favorite books about my spiritual home town.