Where I’m walking: St. Roch Cemetery No. 1, 1725 St. Roch Ave. The 1873 cemetery is in Faubourg St. Roch, called “New Marigny” on the National Register of Historic Places. The rough boundaries of the neighborhood are North Claiborne Avenue on the north, St. Claude on the south, Press Street on the east and Elysian Fields on the west.
The cemetery is home to many fine tombs and mausoleums, but more notably, the lovely Gothic St. Roch Chapel with a painted wooden statue of its namesake — and his dog — on the altar. Arresting in its simplicity, the chapel has a tiny room paved with ex voto tiles and walls hung with offerings, either from gratitude or in hopes of being cured.
Nearby, the St. Roch Market has been renovated, and the city has approved a lease to a tenant. In the opposite direction, the 1931 Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic church, 1835 St. Roch Ave., still draws crowds of the faithful, especially to its Sunday morning gospel mass.
The cemetery is in active use by the archdiocese. There will be a Blessing of the Graves there on Saturday, immediately following the 10 a.m. holy day of obligation Mass on Saturday at Our Lady Star of the Sea.
Why I’m here: Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are important feasts in the city of New Orleans, owing to our deeply Catholic heritage. Elsewhere, the season may be more about faux creepiness, but here, there is more than a trace of spirituality associated with these days. How better to pay homage to saints and souls than with a pilgrimage to one of our above-ground cities of the dead?
Seen on the Street: I choose a row of five tombs on St. Roch Avenue Walk, just outside the chapel, between Assumption Walk and Flagellation Walk. They are situated on a wide aisle, making it possible to step back and take a good look at them. The row appeals to me because of its mix of tomb sizes and materials, as well as some of the simple but appealing decorative elements that distinguish one from the other.
Homing in: The first in the row is a gleaming whitewashed tomb with an inset marble slab for the names of the occupants. On the façade, pilasters support an entablature that features a rounded, arched pediment. A carved stone cross atop the tomb features twining leaves and lilies. I note a “Perpetual Care” marker in bronze at the foot, and understand instantly why I find it in meticulous condition.
To the right, I encounter an equally well-maintained tomb of a totally different character. This one is made of gray granite and designed with rough-hewn granite in the lintel and base contrasting with slabbed and lightly polished granite surrounding the tablet that bears the family’s name. I spot carvings of stylized lilies and crosses flanking the name plate.
Time and the elements have not been kind to the third tomb. Its soft red bricks are exposed and bare of the protective stucco (lime mix, of course) that protect them in our humid environment. But there remain a few clues — including the pointed arch of the roof — to how it might look were it to be restored.
The fourth is the most elaborate of the group, topped by three spires, each adorned with a cross. Composed entirely of gray and white marble, it looks like a miniature chapel. I peer deep inside — no name plate on the front — and discover the name of Rev. Anton Bichelmayer, rector of Holy Trinity Church, a native of Bavaria.
The final tomb in the row features many of the elements seen on its neighbors: A mix of rough-hewn and polished stone, an understated rounded pediment, and incised decorations. What’s different is the cross on the top, made of stone carved to look like logs. I’ve seen references in other cemeteries to Woodmen of the World — could that be the explanation here?
Heard on the Street: A crowd of about 10 cyclists pedal down the main aisle while I am off admiring something on a side aisle. First one, then another, until I stop what I’m doing and go check them out. They are led by a gregarious young man, Nick Fox.
“I’m with Confederacy of Cruisers,” he tells me. “Like ‘Confederacy of Dunces.’ ”
His outfit conducts a Creole neighborhoods tour by bike that often brings him and his protégés to St. Roch. One or two riders are locals, some are from New York, and another makes a point of telling me he is from Wisconsin.
Later, I spot a couple holding hands and strolling. Kelly and Jeremy Whitefield are from Moore, Oklahoma, and got the idea to visit the cemetery on the ghost tour they took the night before.
“This is our first visit to New Orleans and we love it,” she tells me, “We can’t wait to come back.”