The Church: Marie Laveau at St. Louis Cathedral

Marie Laveau was a devout Catholic throughout her life. Explore Laveau’s connections to the St. Louis Cathedral and Vodou’s relationship to the Catholic Church.

Marie Laveau was born September 10, 1801, to Marguerite Darcantel and Charles Laveaux, both free people of color. New Orleans had a sizable population of free people of color, due in part to Spanish colonial law that allowed enslaved people to save money and purchase their own freedom. [1] Six days after her birth, Pere Antoine baptized Laveau at St. Louis Cathedral. The baptismal record labeled Laveau as a mulatresse, meaning she had African and European ancestry. Charles Laveaux is not listed as Marie Laveau’s father on the baptism certificate, likely because he and Marguerite were not married at the time of Marie Laveau's birth, but he later claimed Marie Laveau as a natural heir in his will. [2] Marie Laveau’s mother and her grandmother Catherine Henry, who was born enslaved but later purchased her own freedom, were her primary caregivers. [3]

On August 4, 1819, Marie Laveau married Jacques Paris, an émigré from St. Domingue-Haiti, at St. Louis Cathedral. Once again, Pere Antoine performed the sacrament. [4] For years, many believed this marriage produced no children, but the recent discovery of baptism certificates reveal Paris and Laveau had two daughters, Felicite (born 1817, baptized 1824) and Marie Angelie (born 1822, baptized 1823). No other historical documents mention Felicite or Marie Angelie, and it is presumed that they died in childhood. [5] Around 1824, Jacques Paris disappeared from the historical record. Researchers have not found a death certificate or any immigration records, although Felicite’s baptismal records note he was deceased. Marie Laveau became known as the Widow Paris. [6]

Despite her practice of Vodou, Marie Laveau was a devout Catholic. All of her children were baptized at St. Louis Cathedral, and she was a frequent visitor for Mass. In the words of her daughter Marie Philomene, “besides being charitable, Marie was also very pious and took delight in strengthening the allegiance of souls to the church.” [7] (Long, 23) Marie worked closely with Pere Antoine, encouraging her followers to fill the pews of the cathedral on Sundays, working to heal the sick from yellow fever and other ailments, and also visiting prisoners, especially those condemned to death. [8]

Despite being the Vodou Queen of New Orleans, it is no doubt that Marie Laveau was a devout Catholic. While this may seem contradictory to many, this speaks directly to the syncretic nature of Vodou, blending African beliefs and Catholic practices. Vodou is an Afro-syncretic religion, blending elements of West and Central African religion, Native American spirituality, and European Catholicism. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when enslavers trafficked West African peoples to the Americas, they banned enslaved people from practicing their traditional religions. In Louisiana and some parts of the Caribbean, enslavers forced enslaved people to undergo Catholic baptism. In order to continue to practice their traditional religion, while avoiding punishment or death from French and Spanish enslavers, Africans used elements of Catholicism to “mask” their religious practices. The Father of Catholicism’s Holy Trinity came to represent the African deity Vodu. The intermediate spirits, called loa in Vodou, correlated to the various saints of the Catholic Church. The precious rituals and miracle-working relics of the Catholic Church would have been somewhat familiar to Africans, who had specific religious ceremonies and spirit-embodying charms on their ancestral continent. This blending of religions occurred across the New World, with different Afro-syncretic religions appearing across the Americas, including Santeria in Cuba, Vodou in Haiti, and Candomble in Brazil. While each of these religions differs from one another, they all share the similar origin of enslaved Africans pursuit of religious survival. [9]

While New Orleans Vodou differs in ways from Haitian Vodou, such as not having structured initiation and containing heavier Catholic influences, the African roots are essential in understanding both religions. Laveau’s influence on New Orleans Vodou is also essential to understanding the differences between these two religions. Laveau was not the first or last leader of Vodou in New Orleans, but her influence on New Orleans Vodou can still be seen today through the practice of public rituals at Congo Square and home, the annual ritual on St. John’s Eve on Bayou St. John, and the incorporation of Catholicism into theology. [10]



St. Louis Cathedral, 615 Pere Antoine Alley, New Orleans, LA 70116