A Good Friday Tradition: The Nine-Church Pilgrimage
By Lisa Holzenthal Lewis
It was a sunny morning in April 1931 when Yelva and Mildred set out with their mother and three sisters for the churches. The streets were unusually quiet in the city of New Orleans on this spring morning. They began at the Jesuits' Catholic Church on Baronne Street and walked a Novena of Nine Churches on this Good Friday in remembrance of the walk of Jesus Christ to his crucifixion at Calvary many years before. They practiced this tradition as their mother had done for many years, beginning with her mother when she was a little girl. Yelva and Mildred have only one reason why they did this: it was a tradition they followed. In fact, this tradition can be dated back to 1868 when a New Orleans newspaper, The Morning Star and Catholic Messenger dated April 12 cited "crowds of men, women and children, who appear to be making a pilgrimage to every sanctuary in the city." At each church Yelva, Mildred and the girls stopped to kiss Jesus on the cross and pray, sometimes concluding at the ninth church with the Stations of the Cross.
This devotion was practiced and popularized by New Orleans Creoles, descendants of pioneer French and Spanish families. It is not known to have been practiced by the Cajuns in Louisiana, who are made up of descendants of Canadians who came to live along the bayous of south Louisiana. Over time, the custom spread to other Catholic groups.
For many years, devout Catholics in New Orleans have followed this Good Friday tradition of visiting nine churches. In fact, it has been practiced in many other places as well. Father Marcellus Moorman, a Franciscan priest stationed in Baton Rouge during the 1990s, participated in the tradition in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1920s as a boy and in the 1940s as a young priest. Father Marcellus, who passed away in the late 1990s, stated that they always ended at Immaculate Conception Church where there were 150 steps leading up to the church. They would say the rosary on their knees on the way up the steps. Other priests who also practiced this tradition in other cities were cited by Jan Villarubia in Gambit, a New Orleans newspaper, in 1983. These are Father Robert Stahl in West Virginia, Father Michael Fritzen in Chicago and Father Paul Desrosiers in Massachusetts.
Most people who practice this devotion explain the reason for the number of churches is that nine is the novena number, a novena being the traditional Catholic cycle of nine prayers. The New Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
The nine days the apostles spent in Jerusalem at the command of the Lord as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit has been suggested as a scriptural prototype of the novena, but this devotion was first introduced not as an exercise preparatory to an event of great spiritual significance but as an observance of a period of mourning.
It still is observed following the death of the Pope, a nine day period of prayer called a novendalia or Pope's Novena. Tracing back even further, nine days of mourning were often observed in ancient Greece and Rome after a death or burial. This practice was adopted and adapted by Christians.
In New Orleans, the actual walking seems to have originated with the Spanish in 1772 upon their arrival. The Spanish clergy were horrified at the relaxations that were being allowed by the French clergy. The French people were accustomed to riding carriages to the Cathedral on Good Friday, but that would happen no more. Since Jesus walked to Calvary, from then on all would walk, as dictated the Spanish clergy. Cross, Crozier and Crucible attributes the nine church pilgrimage as preservation of this custom of walking. The WPA Guide to New Orleans, published during the Depression, tells of a Friday practice in which young girls said prayers and left a small sum at each of the nine churches in return for the sending of a husband. This practice was often concluded at the Saint Roch Cemetery chapel where the girls picked a four leaf clover to be "doubly lucky."
The pilgrimage to nine churches was traditionally practiced in small groups of family or friends. According to Yelva Raymond, a New Orleans native in her nineties, there was no set schedule. Nine churches were chosen and as Jan Villarubia quips in her Gambit article "Making the Nine Churches," "the trick was to pick nine close together so you wouldn't have to walk too much." This was not so difficult in New Orleans at the time of this devotion's highest popularity. For example, there were fifty-five Catholic churches in New Orleans in 1940, according to Dr. Charles Nolan, Archivist of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
In Yelva's family, only the girls participated. She says her mother may have liked for her four brothers to go along but they refused. Yelva's father died when she was quite young so he was not involved. As is mentioned in Cross, Crozier and Crucible, "there were those, whose religion was diluted with sugar water. This was especially true of the men folk." Some men did participate but, in many families, it was only the women who practiced this.
The visitation of nine churches was practiced only in fairly large cities with large Catholic populations, mainly out of the necessity of having nine churches in an area of walking distance. As Jane Angela Bordelon writes in Cooking and Chatting with Sadie, "Since New Orleans was a predominately Catholic city, Aunt Mary, Daddy and I would walk to nine churches on Good Friday . . . . Many people did this, which was a common practice." When asked why they practiced the pilgrimage, Yelva Raymond and her sister Mildred Walz replied that it was a Catholic tradition; their mother had done it as a child. They expressed their desire to pray on this most solemn of Catholic feast days and to share in the sufferings of Jesus. Religion seems to have been very important to their lives, as it was to many Catholics of the day. This communal devotion serves to reinforce Catholic faith and tradition even if not specifically organized by a priest or church but rather by small groups of laity. Yelva also said, "It was interesting to go in all those churches. They were so pretty. The windows were so beautiful." Jan Villarubia states this idea as well: "It was also fun to. . . visit all those weird churches and hidden away chapels."
This practice was most commonly done on Good Friday, the Friday preceding Easter, although some people claim to have participated in nine church visitations on Holy Thursday. In Jan Villarubia's article, a Mrs. Bachemin insisted Holy Thursday was the proper day for the pilgrimage. She also mentioned that one was supposed to make a wish upon completion of the nine-church pilgrimage. Monsignor Henry C. Bezou of New Orleans explained that at one time, "churches were visited on Holy Thursday, because on that day the Blessed Sacrament was taken out of the usual place on the main altar and put in a temporary repository." Ms. Villariabia continues, "The tradition of visiting churches eventually spilled over into the following day, Good Friday, with the veneration on the cross." Whether this correctly explains the origins of this practice is debatable; it certainly is one theory.
This tradition of visiting nine churches on Good Friday is not as commonly practiced nowadays. When asked why this is so, Yelva responded that "It is too scary now." It is not considered safe for older ladies to travel alone, especially in inner city areas where church concentrations are greatest. Yelva said she discontinued the tradition after she married and stopped working in downtown New Orleans where it was convenient to find nine churches. In those days, babies kept young married women close to home. Yelva had five, Mildred seven. Dr. Charles Nolan of the New Orleans Archdiocese attributes the tradition's demise to suburban exodus. Additionally, Vatican II changed the Lenten idea of penance from self denial to positive deeds centering more on community service.
However, the practice has not completely died out. In 1994 and 1995, Randy Labauve of Baton Rouge visited the nine churches on Good Friday. His young wife Stephanie accompanied him. Both times they went with other families not currently living in New Orleans, to New Orleans specifically for this purpose. Randy and Stephanie explained why they practiced this devotion: "It is a beautiful way to commemorate Christ's death. It is partly selfish in that we truly enjoyed seeing the old New Orleans churches which are usually kept locked. But also we went to adore Our Lord and honor his presence in all the churches on this special day on which he died for us."
Neither Randy nor Stephanie were raised in New Orleans and neither had knowledge of the devotion until Holy Thursday 1994 when it was mentioned to them by friends of Stephanie's parents, the Tanner family. They visited the churches in no particular order and on the first year's visit were unaware of the walking tradition. Someone told them of this in 1995. They drove to visit the churches due to unfamiliarity with New Orleans and the inclusion of numerous small children. Stephanie mentioned however that in 1995 they spoke to a rather large group of teenagers who were making the traditional nine-church walking pilgrimage.
As has occurred in the earlier days of this devotion, again there were no organized groups, but Stephanie did mention that she noticed quite a few other people who appeared to be visiting nine churches. She spoke with some of these people who were acquaintances of their group of friends. At each church, they stopped to pray and admire the beauty of the structure and, if any service was in progress or soon to begin, stayed for the service. Stephanie remembered the Passion service at Saint Patrick's Church as being particularly moving.
Because of the private nature of this devotion, it is difficult to estimate just how many people still practice it. From the research done for this report, though, one must surprisingly conclude that the practice of visiting nine churches to commemorate Christ's passion is still observed by some Catholics today. It may be a way for Catholics to feel they take a small part in the passion through imitation of his walk to Calvary, a public expression of a people's identification and empathy with their God. Although Good Friday is a very somber recollection of the death of Jesus Christ, it is not all sadness. Catholics truly rejoice in Christ's crucifixion and are encouraged to embrace his passion as the "royal road to resurrection" found only through his crucifixion.
Since the Eucharistic presence of Jesus is removed from all churches on Good Friday, this period from Good Friday until the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday is the only time when Jesus is not present in this special form in the Catholic churches. For this reason, it is somewhat ironic that Catholics choose this day to visit churches. The nine church visitation seems to be somewhat like a search as well as, as previously mentioned, a sharing of Jesus' sufferings. This search cannot yield its fruits until the Easter Vigil. This means that only through the cross, when viewed with the other two days of the Easter Triduum, can salvation be found. Not in the cross but through it, when combined with Jesus' resurrection, can the promise, the hope, the eternal salvation of the Catholic faith be attained.
Conrad, Glenn R. and Earl F. Niehaus. 1993. Cross, Crozier and Crucible: A Volume Celebrating the Bicentennial of a Catholic Diocese in Louisiana. New Orleans, LA: Archdiocese of New Orleans in cooperation with the Center for Louisiana Studies.
Cooking and Chatting with Sadie: A Collection of Old Family History and Recipes from Avoyelles Parish to New Orleans, Louisiana, 1993. n. p.
Keating, Charles J. 1965. The Way of the Cross: with Text from the Scriptures. Baltimore, MD: Barton-Cotton.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1967. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America.
The WPA Guide to New Orleans. 1983. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Villarubia, Jan. 1983. Making the Nine Churches. Gambit, 26 March, p. 20.