Cemetery of the Week #127: St. Roch Cemetery

Vintage postcard of St. Roch's Cemetery, dated 1915.

Vintage postcard of St. Roch’s Cemetery, dated 1915.

St. Roch Campo Santo
1725 St. Roch Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana 70117
Telephone: (504) 304-0576
Founded: 1872
Size: Two square blocks
Number of interments: Unknown, due to the reuse of graves.
Open: Weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed weekends. (Call to confirm the hours before you visit. They seem to have changed recently.)

As with any cemetery in New Orleans, be aware of your surroundings when you visit.

St. Roch (also Rock or Rocco) was born to a rich merchant family in the Middle Ages. Sources disagree about whether he was born in the 13th century or 14th. He spent much of his life on pilgrimages. During one of these, he caught the black plague, but when he went alone into the woods to die, he was fed by a dog. After that, he could cure plague sufferers.

His cult ebbed and flowed in Europe until it was revived in the 19th century after the devastating outbreaks of cholera. When parishioners survived a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1868, Father Peter Leonard Thevis attributed their survival to the intercession of St. Roch. German-born Father Thevis vowed to build a chapel to St. Roch. This was completed in August 1876. Father Thevis is buried under the floor in front of the altar.

To the right of the chapel stands an Ex-Voto Room full of silver hands, feet, legs, and other body parts, as well as crutches and eye glasses, a testament to cures attributed to the saint.

One of the most famous monuments in the cemetery looks like a grave but is actually an ex-voto imported from Italy by a mother grateful for the health of her little girl. It shows a little girl lying on her back with her hands folded around a wreath of flowers.

The main gate to the cemetery, on St. Roch Avenue, combines Gothic Revival gatehouses with Egyptian Revival pylons crowned with statues. Between these stand a lovely ornate wrought-iron gate that labels the cemetery a campo santo, literally a holy field, but traditionally the Spanish for burial ground. Apparently, it’s named for the Campo Santo dei Tedeschi in the Vatican.

St. Roch Cemetery is surrounded by oven vaults, like the other cemeteries of New Orleans. These vaults are occupied of a year and a day, long enough for the New Orleans heat to dissolve their contents. Whatever is left is then pushed backward into a central caveau where all the remains are mixed together. The niche itself will be reused. This provides lower cost burial than the family tombs or ground burial also practiced in St. Roch.

A second section was added to the cemetery in 1895 when St. Michael’s chapel-tomb was built. The structure, with flying arches, had fallen into disrepair as early as the 1920s, but it has been restored.

New Orleans Architecture, volume III: The Cemeteries says that the cemetery will soon be full. I don’t know if that statement dates to the initial publication of the book in 1974 or to its re-release in 1997.

Vintage postcard of St. Roch Cemetery

Vintage postcard of St. Roch Cemetery

One of my vintage postcards has this to say: “Few who visit New Orleans fail to visit St. Roch’s with its unusual above-ground burial niches, like pigeon holes in the wall that surrounds the cemetery, and its romantic Shrine in the center, with storied charm for bringing love to girls who pray therein after visiting nine churches.”

The nine churches are visited on Good Friday, culminating in St. Roch’s Cemetery at 3 p.m., the time Christ is believed to have died. New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead said that some girls put a pebble or a bean in their shoes so that the pilgrimage would be more of a penance.

Useful links:

The history of the German immigrant parish

Map and listing on Lonely Planet

Video interview with the sexton of St. Roch in the 1980s

Lovely pictures of the ex-votos

Other New Orleans cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Week #6: St. Louis #1

Week #16: Metairie Cemetery

Week #77: Lafayette Cemetery #1

Week #97: Greenwood Cemetery

New Orleans cemetery books reviewed on Cemetery Travel:

New Orleans Cemeteries (Images of America)

New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead

New Orleans Architecture vol. 3: the Cemeteries

One response to “Cemetery of the Week #127: St. Roch Cemetery

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