Today, nothing identifies the location in the Lower Ninth Ward where Mother Catherine Seals' “Temple of the Innocent Blood” once stood. This was true even before Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005 when the nondescript block where it was located was home to an array of post-World War II tract homes. But for a brief period from the 1920s to World War II, for the followers of Mother Catherine, the compound she founded was the center of a thriving spiritual community, a ‘Bethlehem’ at the fringes of the city.
Mother Catherine Seals was born Nanny Cowans in Kentucky in 1887, and she moved to New Orleans in her mid-teens, working as a laundress. After being denied treatment by a white faith healer because she was Black, Mother Catherine vowed to start her own fellowship—one that would not discriminate based on race. She soon moved her church to the undeveloped ground near Bayou Bienvenu in the Lower Ninth Ward, encouraging her converts to buy lots around her. There, she conducted an active healing practice, while her church became a safe haven for unwed mothers, abused women, and orphans— the “innocent blood” for which she named her Temple.
First-hand accounts provide descriptions of the sprawling complex. Tall wooden fencing surrounded two main structures—the Church and the Manger, a pavilion for public gatherings. The compound had hundreds of oil lamps strewn across the grounds, large statues of Catholic saints, sculptures, and eclectic ornamentation. Like other spiritual churches of the era, the Temple of the Innocent Blood blended Catholic iconography, with elements of spiritualism and mediumship, Protestant revivalism, and African-derived religious practices. Her following was comprised of people from diverse communities that spanned racial, gender, and class lines. The Temple was a space that subverted oppressive social hierarchies and racial segregation.
The Temple compound was investigated archaeologically in a UNO summer field school under the direction of Juana Ibañez and D. Ryan Gray. Recent residents of the block reported recovering statuary and small engraved marble slabs on the site. These stones, identified as ‘ex votos’ by historian Ina Fandrich, are used in Catholic shrines to express thanks for the intercession of saints. During excavations, archaeologists found stratigraphic layers associated with the compressed shell floor of the Temple compound, though architectural features definitively from the church or manger have so far been elusive. There is also a rich artifactual record of the early years of post-war development of the Lower Ninth Ward at the site, some of which may overlap with the latter days of the Temple.
Mother Catherine’s time at the Temple was brief. Two weeks before her death, she is said to have received a message from God informing her that she would soon pass away, and she ventured back to her birthplace in Kentucky, where she died on August 9, 1930. Her funeral was attended by thousands of followers and received nationwide newspaper coverage. The property rights of the Temple of Innocent Blood were up for grabs not long after Mother Catherine’s passing due to a mishap with her signature on her will; she had placed only an ‘X’ on the top of the document rather than signing her name. After a legal battle, the property rights were eventually handed to Mother Catherine’s successor, Mother Rita, who managed to keep the Temple operational till around 1940. By the time new residents moved to the surrounding blocks in the 1950s, the Temple was already almost forgotten.