In a city of weird cemeteries, St Roch is peculiar. Crowds of visitors make their way to nearby Lafayette and St. Louis No. 1, paying court to deceased voodoo queens and jazz musicians, but most will never make it to St. Roch. Off the beaten path, the odd collection housed here offers a strange sidetrip into Catholicism, and a worthy detour from New Orleans’s more famous cities of the dead. The cemetery itself is typical: above-ground mausoleums enclosed in a high wall. Nothing leafy grows here, and the bleached whiteness leaves St. Roch feeling exposed. On my first visit I was finally struck by the fact that New Orleans dead are not buried. We made our way towards the Chapel down an avenue of marble ovens cooking in the sun. We weren't there to pay our respects to the un-interred. We had come for the body parts. It’s the body parts that make St Roch special. Within its chapel, beside the more familiar Catholic paraphernalia, hang human fragments cast in chalky plaster. These anatomical votives collect dust beside cast-off prosthetic limbs, crutches, and antique braces suspended from a peeling plaster ceiling. Pennies, trinkets, and notes of gratitude spill from the crannies of a room more kin in appearance to occultism than Catholicism. But this is no voodoo shrine: these artifacts are ex-voto offerings, left by Christian pilgrims to the chapel. St Roch's unusual shape of devotion stems from its history as a place of divine healing. Reportedly, in the height of an 1857 yellow fever epidemic, the local reverend invoked the intercession of Saint Roch, promising that he would erect a chapel in honor of the saint, should his parish be spared. The chapel tells the tale, for as the story goes, not a single parishioner succumbed. The site quickly became a place of pilgrimage with thousands traveling here to appeal for divine intercession in matters of health. Those whose prayers were answered would leave tokens of gratitude in the form of cast-off medical implements and effigies: ex-votos. The docent who welcomes us to the chapel shares its name and he recounts a life-long relationship to the site. As a child, Roch could not enter the chapel on feet, having to first remove his shoes and crawl in on supplicated knee. The history he shares with us is personal; it is a story of his neighborhood, faith, and family. We stand within the spiritual and geographical nucleus of a neighborhood. Though we leave our boots on, the lightness of our stepping is an awareness of outsider status.
There’s a weird beauty to St. Roch and some not-so-subtle visual metaphors reminding me why I love old stuff. Every last crutch, penny, and plaster limb here represents a moment in a human life. The objects bear witness to the pains, hopes, and prayers of a community, its sorrows and its joys. For life---and especially life in new orleans--- veers sharply between grief and exultation. The ex-votos of St. Roch speak of a body's fight for control, for a soul's bargaining with a chaotic universe, and to the unavoidable sorrow plaguing humans on their swiftly tilting planet. Near the ceiling, Katrina’s deadly waterline bisects a plaster heart, reminding visitors that prayers are rarely answered in the way we expect.