Strange States: Louisiana's Macabre St. Roch Chapel

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If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

This time we head to the mouth of the Mississippi River—Louisiana—to explore one of the more bizarre, yet moving signs of faith in New Orleans. 

Between 1817 and 1905, nearly 40,000 people in New Orleans died from yellow fever. There were many years where the death toll stayed within single digits, but 1867 was particularly scary, with 3107 succumbing to the mosquito-borne virus. In the midst of this epidemic, a young priest named Father Peter Thevis of the Holy Trinity Church prayed to Saint Roch, a 14th century Catholic saint, asking that his parish be spared from the disease.

According to his hagiography (or saintly biography), Roch cared for the sick during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Rome. He is said to have cured many of the afflicted with prayers, the sign of the cross, and the touch of his hand, all while somehow avoiding the illness himself. However, his immunity didn’t last forever, and after he was infected, he was forced into exile in the forest. While living in a simple hut, Roch was visited every day by a white dog that brought him fresh bread and licked his wounds until he was healed. The only lasting sign of his disease was a single swollen lymph node, called a bubo, on his thigh.

Apparently Father Thevis’ prayers were answered, because no one from his church died during the 1867 outbreak. As a way of showing his appreciation, Thevis built a cemetery and chapel in honor of the saint, completing the project in 1876, just before another outbreak of yellow fever wiped out 4046 people in 1878. Miraculously, Father Thevis’ parish was spared from this second epidemic as well.

Since then, the St. Roch Cemetery and Chapel has become a popular place for those suffering from physical afflictions to come and pray for relief. Many times, the healed faithful will come back to the chapel and leave behind a small token of thanks in the form of a handwritten note, a small statue, or a symbolic coin on the altar. But you’ll also find those who leave more personal offerings, such as crutches, prosthetic limbs, and leg braces from polio victims, as well as somewhat morbid ceramic reproductions of afflicted body parts, like hands, feet, ears, and even internal organs like eyes, hearts, and brains.   

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!   

See all the entries in our Strange States series here.

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March 24, 2014 - 1:00pm
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