“The Spiritual Heart of Baton Rouge”
St. Joseph’s past is inseparable from the history of Baton Rouge. It remains integral to the city today. It is the center of the Catholic Community and at the same time, catholic in its ecumenical thrusts. It was, and remains, the place downtown for all to come in celebration or in grief. With its red doors, the landmark shows its presence more dominantly. It is a structure that deserves to be noticed, appreciated, used and celebrated.
For approximately 150 years St. Joseph Church (now Cathedral) has stood on its present site ministering to an ever-increasing population. King Carlos IV of Spain founded the parish in 1792, with the name of “Nuestra Señora de los Dolores” (Our Lady of Sorrows); at the time, the colony of Louisiana was under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Diocese of Santiago de Cuba. The first pastor, Father Carlos Burke, was an Irishman who had been schooled in both Lyons, France, and Salamanca, Spain, in preparation for his ministry among people who spoke French, Spanish and English. The first church was a small wooden chapel that barely seated a hundred people. With a resident pastor, growth was immediate: within three years he reported 529 parishioners!
In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase brought the Baton Rouge area into the United States, and so under the religious jurisdiction of the Diocese of New Orleans; statehood would soon follow in 1812. In 1826 a French priest, Father Antoine Blanc, became the seventh pastor; notably, during his pastorate, in 1828, the name of the parish was changed to St. Joseph and a new, larger church building was constructed in 1830. Steady growth continued, and Father Blanc went on to become in 1835 the fifth Bishop and later in 1850 the first archbishop of New Orleans. Another of the early French pastors, Father August Martin, made the first attempts at founding Catholic schools in the area and went on to become the first Bishop of Natchitoches.
In 1849 the Jesuit priests took over the administration of the parish and more strongly supported Catholic schooling. English was now being used instead of French in sermons, the parish was growing, and the need for a still larger church building was clear. The most lasting legacy from the Jesuit era is the present St. Joseph church building, though it has been through many changes since its cornerstone was laid in 1853.
Father John Cambiaso, S.J., was the architect for this third church building. Designed in the “Gothic Revival” style, it originally had a red brick exterior and a much lower square tower. Partially destroyed by Union cannon fire during the Civil War and rebuilt afterwards, the building has seen many expansions, redecorations and renovations over the years. Most notably a steeple was added in 1891, and the stucco facing and clock were added four years later. The parish continued to grow, and by 1924 the building had been enlarged to twice its former size. Additions of that era included the beautiful stained glass windows from Germany and the mosaic stations of the cross from Italy. The last major renovation took place in 1966-1970, to conform with the liturgical renewal initiated by the Second Vatican Council. The principal feature of this work was the installation of the great mahogany crucifix sculpted by Ivan Meštrović and granite altar within a newly-constructed marble sanctuary. In 1992, to celebrate the bicentennial of the parish, the great gallery organ “Providence” was installed in a newly-constructed loft.
The oldest church building in the metropolitan area of Baton Rouge, St. Joseph was chosen by Pope St. John XXIII to be the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Baton Rouge when this was founded in 1961. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also received a national award from the U. S. Liturgical Conference as an outstanding example of a church renovated according to the directives of Vatican II. It has been called the “mother of parishes” in the metropolitan area because all the other nearby parishes were once a part of St. Joseph, and it has also been known as the “nursery of bishops,” for at least nine of the priests assigned to it have been ordained as bishops.
Father Paul Counce, a native of Baton Rouge, now serves as the 35th pastor of St. Joseph Parish. While its resident parishioner base is small due to its location downtown, the Cathedral Parish is beloved by friends far and wide for its history, its ministries, and its constant witness to our precious Catholic faith. The Cathedral continues to prosper because of the hope, faith and generosity of the people of Baton Rouge. Its history continues to be made. May the countless prayers offered within the walls of the Cathedral bring a special blessing to all who worship and visit here, and may that blessing also follow you through life!