The Saint Ann Shrine in New Orleans: Popular Catholicism in Local, National, and International Contexts

By David C. Estes


A map of the sacred geography in New Orleans might place Saint Louis Cathedral at its center and, working outward, include buildings that house religious orders, parish churches and schools, and the city's distinctive cemeteries. Such a map would depict the footprint of institutional religion on the city. Another plotting of sacred sites might focus on New Orleans' rich folkloric spiritual culture. Such a map might have at its center the tomb of Marie Laveau in Saint Louis Cemetery I and, around it, designate the locations of her home on Saint Ann Street, Saint John's Bayou and other locations on the shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain associated with Saint John's Eve voodoo rituals, the botanicas selling spiritual products, as well as homes where, in the past and still today, spiritual women conduct worship services, heal, and give readings.

St Ann Shrine in New Orleans. Photo: Nicholas R. Spitzer.

Appearing on both of these maps would be the Saint Ann Shrine on Ursulines Avenue in the Treme neighborhood. This shrine originated as an official activity of Saint Ann Parish in 1902 and was, from its beginning, a focal point for official celebrations as well as for expressions of popular devotion. Matrimony is among reasons for visiting the shrine, as suggested by this petition known to many Catholic women in New Orleans: "Saint Ann, Saint Ann, give me a man." In the early 1990s, the Archdiocese turned over the care and management of the shrine to a group of Creoles from the neighborhood. Some twenty years previously, because of white flight, the official International Shrine of Saint Ann was moved to suburban Metairie, and white volunteers had kept the site in the city open. With loosened institutional control, the site on Ursulines has become more closely linked to the vibrant expressions of African American folk spirituality in New Orleans. On Saint Ann's Day, July 26, 2002, the shrine entered yet another phase in its existence. Not only was this its one hundredth anniversary-a fact that none of the participants acknowledged-but more importantly the officiating priest announced that the archdiocese had decided that the shrine would now be officially administered by Saint Peter Claver Church, a historically black parish and one recognized nationally in 2000 by a Pew Charitable Trusts project on successful congregations.

The Saint Ann Shrine is constructed as a replica of the grotto at Lourdes, known for the miraculous powers of the water that is collected from a spring there. In a niche on the right exterior wall is a statue of the Immaculate Conception, the incarnation of Mary who appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in 1858. Beneath her is a tap that emits holy water, which believers collect in bottles. On the left as one enters the grotto is a small gift shop. Next to it is a stairway with a single landing where the stairs turn back on themselves. Pictures depicting the stations of the cross hang on these walls. These stairs are a replica of the Holy Stairs in Rome. At the top of the grotto, and open to the sky, is a life-sized replica of Jesus hanging on the cross with Mary and John standing on either side and Mary Magdalene kneeling in the center. Here the viewer has moved through both sacred space and time to Golgotha. The crucifix is visible from the front of the shrine, rising above the grotto, but the two figures on either side of it are visible only to those who ascend. After exiting via the stairs on the other side, one enters a room decorated with framed images and statues of saints. Immediately outside this room is another water tap at which believers wet their hands before crossing themselves. Inside the grotto itself votive candles burn in front of a statue of Saint Ann with her daughter Mary standing beside her on the left. Several prie-dieux directly in front of this altar invite the faithful to kneel and pray. Several feet in front of the grotto is a smaller image of Saint Ann, the mother of Mary and patroness of mothers in labor, of mariners (in Brittany), and of women searching for a husband in New Orleans. The grounds of this corner lot contain several other religious statues, including a small image of Saint Joseph, next to which people place keys in thanksgiving for assistance in finding housing.

St Ann Shrine in New Orleans. Photo: Nicholas R. Spitzer.

The origins on this holy place indicate a desire on the part of New Orleans Catholics, led by their priests, to build a shrine that would bring recognition to the South by competing with the Canadian shrine Saint Anne de Beaupré. Furthermore, by deciding to build an outdoor shrine in 1935 that replicated both the grotto at Lourdes and sites associated with Christ's passion, they placed their local shrine in a dynamic spiritual relationship with international holy sites.

The Shrine of Saint Ann was officially dedicated on July 26, 1902, the feast day of Saint Ann in the liturgical calendar. The year before this, the newly appointed pastor of this fifty-year-old French-speaking, mixed-race parish, then on Saint Philip Street closer to the French Quarter, noted in the official parish register that "things were pretty much mixed up and the religious spirit at the lowest ebb." 1 In addition to establishing catechism classes, instituting a new assessments for pew rent, and beginning to have one service per week in English, he sought to control parishioners' use of sacramentals: "About this time another abuse was suppressed: that of continually invading the presbytery at all hours of the day, for the blessing of devotional articles and to get holy water. A rule was made that devotionals would only be blessed in church, after every mass and Holy water distributed at the door of the Sacristy after the last mass on Sunday." In line with Jim Crow practices, black worshipers were restricted to the back pews.

Sensing that the parish needed something that would create unity, in 1902 the guest Lenten speaker, a native of Brittany and an ardent devotee of Saint Ann, suggested that the parish should follow the example of Saint Anne de Beaupré in Quebec and of Saint John's Church on 76th Street in New York and, by honoring Saint Ann "in a special way," revive the spirituality of members and bring new members to the church. The pastor agreed to this suggestion, hoping that the shrine would also "become a center of religious activity from whence the devotion to good Saint Ann might radiate over this Southern Country and wherever favors obtained at this shrine might become known." The pastor presented his plans first to three hundred women of the parish during their Lenten retreat and, having immediately received their approval, he took the idea to the men.

The first shrine was a side altar of Gothic design on which was placed a relic of the saint that had been given to the parish upon its founding in 1852. By August 1902, the church had been given permission to establish a confraternity of Saint Ann, the purpose of which was to conduct meetings and masses monthly and to sponsor a public novena on July 26 annually. The special intentions submitted in writing at this feast increased from four hundred in 1903 to fifteen hundred in 1910. The effect of the shrine on the life of the parish can be inferred from the fact that communions increased from 6,020 in 1902 to 19,344 in 1911. When Saint Ann church moved from Saint Philip Street to Ursulines in 1920, the confraternity numbered more than nine hundred.

The temporary building into which the parish moved marked an important racial split that stands in ironic contrast to the predominance of African American visitors to the shrine today. The property on Saint Philip Street was sold to the Josephites as a church for blacks. Thus as devotion to Saint Ann in the Treme reached its high point over the next thirty years, the shrine was linked to the white establishment.

In 1926 the efforts of leaders were rewarded by being elevated to an archconfraternity, the only church so honored by the Pope in the United States. The parish record book states, "It was apparent that from this time onwards every effort would be made to spread the devotion to Saint Ann throughout the United States from this center of the devotion in this country, and to build here a National Pilgrimage Shrine of Saint Ann." Plans included erecting "a great Basilica of Saint Ann," and by 1928 the entire square block had been purchased. A national magazine, Saint Ann's Herald, was founded. At some point in the late 1920s, a winter novena starting the day after Ash Wednesday was added "to provide a continuous novena for those unable to be in New Orleans during the summer, and in order to accommodate Catholics from other sections in New Orleans for the carnival festivities."

By 1934 the archconfraternity experienced its largest new enrollment-four thousand members. However, at the same time subscriptions to the Saint Ann's Herald "fell off to an alarming extent" (162). Arrangements were made to have it printed in Huntington, Indiana, from the offices of the national weekly Our Sunday Visitor. As a monthly of twenty pages with consistency in its contents, the Herald had a growing subscription list.

At the end of 1934, with effects of the Depression being increasingly felt, the archconfraternity decided to proceed with plans that existed since 1927 for erecting an outdoor shrine. Although existing records do not indicate why the replica of Lourdes was selected as the design, national prominence was certainly on leaders' minds. They noted that,

    All other pilgrimage shrines of importance have such outdoor places of devotion . . . .The new composite outdoor shrine will be called Unit #2 of Saint Ann's National Shrine; the first unit being the Auditorium [which had been serving as the church since its erection in 1920], to be used eventually as a meeting place by pilgrims to the Shrine.

At the dedication of the present grotto on July 26, 1935, 43,500 intentions were received. The first outdoor procession was part of the ceremonies. Crowds estimated by the press to be between one thousand and two thousand marched around the block carrying candles that night while "motor cycle policemen kept the traffic off the streets." The order of procession allowed participants to make a ritualistic public display of hierarchical institutional authority: "A procession was then formed including acolytes, members of the clergy, Uniform Rank of Catholic Foresters, His Grace, members of the board of the archconfraternity and the laity, all marching to the grotto from the church" (From press reports in the clipping book in the Saint Ann Parish Records, New Orleans Archdiocesan Archives).

This high point of institutional success the Archconfraternity of Saint Ann never surpassed. Even though by 1937 the annual evening march began to include flambeaux carriers-a tradition sure to inspire New Orleanians-the debt incurred by building the grotto, totaling $78,5000 at one point, could not be repaid as the Depression deepened and as the nation entered World War II. Also, the neighborhood was changing in the late 1930s, and fewer than one thousand white families were estimated to reside within the boundaries of the parish.

Although leaders' dreams for Saint Ann's Shrine were never fully realized-in fact when the church left its temporary quarters in the auditorium it did not move into a basilica or even a church with a separate campanile as some had hoped but, instead, left Treme for a modern structure in Metairie-candlelight processions did continue to attract one thousand or more pious devotees into the mid-1950s. By then the themes of the novena reflected the concerns of the Cold War church. For example, a 1955 announcement reads: "General intentions of the services will be preservation of world peace and a greater spirit of modesty in modern [women's] dressing."

When the archdiocese attempted to close the shrine in the early 1990s, a group of Creole Catholics from the neighborhood protested. By contacting the three original owners of land on which the shrine sits, all of whom were still alive, they forced the archbishop to acknowledge the legal obligation with those previous owners to maintain the shrine or to return the land to them. As a compromise, the neighbors have for some seven years now been the designated caretakers. Receiving no funds from the archdiocese for general upkeep or for needed repairs, the volunteers solicit donations from visitors. Although the grounds are well tended, the shrine itself shows signs of water damage. Under the direction of Mrs. Emily O'Brien, a senior citizen, volunteers open the shrine on Tuesday and Saturday mornings for three hours.

On the feast of Saint Ann in 2002, about seventy-five people gathered at ten in the morning for a mass to be conducted by the priest from Saint Peter Claver Church, a few blocks away. Although almost all of them were African American, they were entertained while waiting for the priest by musicians with amplified instruments singing secular songs in Spanish. During the service, the priest announced, to the people's surprise, plans to refurbish the shrine during the coming year and to re-institute a three-day novena and candlelight march on Saint Ann's Day in 2003. The repair work on the shrine will complete the archdiocese's work on the former church and rectory, turning them into affordable apartments for the elderly.

The largest attendance occurs on Good Friday, when many observe the custom of "making" nine churches. The Saint Ann Shrine counts as one of the nine stops. The shrine is open from 7:30 A.M. until 2:00 P.M. In 2000 I counted 412 visitors, of whom 74 were children. Of the adults, 75% were African American, twenty-three were of Hispanic ethnicity, and the rest were white. Two-thirds of all adults were black women, one-sixth were black men. There were thirty-eight white women and eighteen white men. Overall, 75% were women.

From the gift shop, volunteers sell votive candles that believers light and set before Saint Ann, despite the wish of volunteers that no candles be lit on Good Friday.

For the past several years, the minister of a spiritual church, dressed in a curly wig, purple robe, and a crown of thorns, and carrying a cross, dramatizes the Stations of the Cross in the mid to late morning. In 2000, he performed an expressive dance as each station was read out. In 2002, he was assisted by two ten-year-old boys dressed in white who played the roles of the thieves and three black women who depicted Mary and other women. After each station had been read out and enacted, a girl in a red leotard and black skit performed a liturgical dance while a woman sang several songs, including "At the Cross." Observing this folk drama were about sixty African Americans, twenty-five Hispanic Americans, and twenty whites.

The Saint Ann Shrine in New Orleans is of interest within the context of the wider historical practice of replicating Catholic shrines. It originated in 1291 when angels reputedly carried the home of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph from Nazareth to Italy, where after several moves it came to rest permanently at Loretto. Although made of stone instead of wood, it was considered the authentic structure and became the site of miraculous cures.

Marian apparitions proliferated in Europe beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, and the site at Lourdes quickly attracted the most pilgrims. Spring water from Lourdes, valued for its miraculous powers, was distributed in the United States, beginning in 1872, by Father Alexis Granger, pastor of the campus church at Notre Dame University. A replica of Lourdes was erected in South Bend at Saint Mary's College in 1877. Although that structure no longer stands, the copy built in 1896 on Notre Dame's campus remains and is probably the best known of all such replicas in the United States. Unlike the one in New Orleans, it is constructed of stone.

Colleen McDannell, a professor of religious history, has suggested that "the production of religious replicas was, curiously enough, the production of authenticity" in the minds of believers (1995: 161). Faithful spectators accepted such duplicates as real, not fake, and considered visiting them to be equally spiritually meaningful as going on pilgrimage to the original site.

No records exist that shed any light on why the Lourdes grotto was replicated at the Saint Ann Shrine. But several possibilities might be explored. From one perspective, the archconfraternity of Saint Ann invoked the healing power of that shrine in a city historically ravaged by diseases such as yellow fever and in great need of Lourdes' principal blessing-health. Duplicating this famous grotto might also have been intended as a practical method for increasing devotion to Saint Ann by tapping into popular Marian devotion, which had continued to swell since 1830 when she appeared at Rue Bac in Paris. Not to be discounted is the fact that the replica also recreated a French sacred spot in a city that has never lost sight of its French colonial past. Of course, Saint Ann herself is closely connected to France, her bones having been reputedly discovered in Brittany.

The architecture of the Saint Ann Shrine has provided a setting that many believers in New Orleans have incorporated into their devotional lives. Its complex symbolism draws on multiple historical traditions, thus enriching the spiritual lives of local devotees. Over time, the shrine has played varying roles that have changed in accordance with the demographics of its neighborhood and the administration of the archdiocese. Yet it has consistently been recognized by New Orleanians as a place of special spiritual significance.


McDannell, Colleen. 1995. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.


1. The Saint Ann Parish registers are held in the New Orleans Archdiocesan Archives.

This article was originally published in the 2000 issue of the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany and is reprinted with permission. David C. Estes is a folklorist who was at Loyola University in New Orleans.