“Our Lady of Guadalupe” Church wasn’t always the name applied to the stately church seated at the corner of N. Rampart and Conti Streets. Originally it went by the name of Old Mortuary Chapel and, as the name suggests, it’s purpose was to act as a funeral church.
At this point, it might not come as much of a surprise to find that death by Yellow Fever and New Orleans went hand in hand through twenty-three major epidemics.
The Old Mortuary Church was desperately needed. In the midst of any one onslaught of the disease, a fevered panic grew at the thought of depositing all of the bodies. There was simply not enough space, even when one factored in makeshift morgues like 625 St. Philip Street in the French Quarter.
Bodies lined the streets, stacked high and wide—so wide that many found it difficult to cut through the sidewalks at all. Spread of the disease was attributed to close spaces within the city and a lack of cleanliness. Other historical sources were more keen to blame the “sinfulness” of the city instead. And some even blamed the funeral processions as to be another cause of spreading yellow fever.
Whatever the reason, there was simply no cure. The dead continued to pile up, sometimes even bursting open in the hot, humid summers. Something had to be done.
In 1821, a law was passed illegalizing the display of the dead at St. Louis Cathedral, which was the only Catholic church at the time. In 1826, The Old Mortuary Church was established instead. It was positioned near St. Louis Cemetery #1, making the trip quite quick to bring the dead to be interred. St. Louis Cemetery #1 was just a few blocks farther away, but located deeper into the swamp to hopefully prevent the disease from spreading within the cemetery and into the city itself.
At the height of the epidemic periods, lines of omnibuses and funeral carriages continued for nearly two-and-a-half miles as families waited to attend.
In 1853, the New Orleans Daily Crescent wrote: “At the gates [of the cemetery], the winds brought intimation of the corruption lurking within. Not a puff was not laden with the rank atmosphere from rotting corpses. Inside they were piles by the fifties, exposed to the heat of the sun, swollen with corruption, bursting their coffin lids.”
Is it any wonder that the former Old Mortuary Church might be one of the more haunted locations in New Orleans? Family members were not allowed to step foot inside of the church, for fear that they might catch the disease, too.
Which means that for years the only bodies to pass through the front doors of the burial church were the priest, pallbearers . . . and the thousands upon thousands of dead who succumbed to what some called the Saffron Scourge.
If our suspicions are correct, then Our Lady of Guadalupe is certainly plagued by residual energies . . . perhaps more so than any intelligent spirits who have not passed on To The Other Side.
Are you hoping to visit the most haunted church in New Orleans? We have good news! The former Old Mortuary Church is open daily for visitors, though we highly recommend taking our Ungrateful Dead Tour: Tales of St. Louis Cemetery #1 to learn the full spectrum of death and dying that took place at this old church.