A Brief History of the Cemetery
St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery’s origins date back to 1792 when the Spanish government, which controlled the territory that would become Louisiana. ordered the construction of a Catholic church and the establishment of a formal cemetery in Baton Rouge. Known as the Cemetery of Our Lady of Sorrows after the original name of the church, or simply the Spanish cemetery, it occupied what is now North Street between North Fourth and North Fifth streets.
The site was the official Catholic cemetery from 1792 to 1824 when Baton Rouge authorities passed a resolution demanding the church stop using the area for burials because of the overpowering “odor.” The odor was attributed to residents of the town’s oldest neighborhood — Spanish Town — who allowed their livestock to roam through the cemetery, breaking open graves. The cemetery also had run out of space for burials.
As a result, the pastor of what was now called St. Joseph Church and its Board of Trustees began looking for another site. In 1825, Armand Duplantier, Philip Hicky, Michael Branagan and B.T. Beauregard — acting on behalf of the Corporation of St. Joseph’s Church — bought two lots for a new cemetery on what is now Main Street. The location, between North and Main streets, was a half-mile outside the town limits.
After the new cemetery — named St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery — opened, those with loved ones buried in the old Spanish cemetery were ordered to move them, but not everyone did so. Thirty years later, in 1854, the church and the town signed an agreement under which the church ceded the property that eventually would become North Street to the town, and the town moved the remaining graves to St. Joseph Cemetery.
Section 1 of St. Joseph Cemetery — the section on the west side nearest to the railroad tracks — was opened up to receive the remains from the old cemetery, but no evidence of those early burials is visible. The common assumption is that anyone who died after 1824 was buried in St. Joseph Cemetery. However, there is no way to tell where those graves are today. The earliest known sexton’s records only cover the years 1880 to 1928, when the last paid sexton retired.
Much of the early history of Baton Rouge is memorialized in St. Joseph Cemetery. The oldest marker that is still readable belongs to Lucien Charvet, who was born in Grenoble, France, and died in Baton Rouge on Oct. 30, 1827.
An even older marker exists in the cemetery, but it is only partially legible. According to church records and the wording that is readable, the marker belongs to Celeste Allain Patin who died Oct. 7, 1827 — 23 days before Charvet.
Many of the graves in the cemetery also bear witness to the yellow fever epidemics that swept through Baton Rouge during the 19th century, and records show whole families who were buried together, along with their servants.
At one time, the cemetery was also the final resting place for five Jesuits who served St. Joseph Church between 1848 and 1865. The five — Rev. Anthony Parret, Brother Henry Visconti, Rev. Joseph Adams, Rev. Vitalis Gilles and Brother Philip Corne — all fell victim to epidemics that struck the city. Eventually, their remains were moved to the Spring Hill College Jesuit Cemetery in Mobile, Alabama, and a marker was erected in their memory at St. Joseph Cemetery in 1990.
In addition, the cemetery contains the grave of the Rev. John Anthony Heil, one of the first pastors of St. George Catholic Church. He passed away on Oct. 10, 1918, during the influenza epidemic. His grave is in front of the cemetery’s central cross. (Pictured here)
Of the four men who bought the land for St. Joseph Cemetery, only Hicky is believed to be buried there. However, while markers exist for his wife and children, no marker has ever been found for him.
Other stories from the city’s past can be gleaned as well — just to stroll through the cemetery and glance at the tombstones provides a walking history of early Baton Rouge.
(Some of the information for this history was drawn from “Baton Rouge Cemeteries” by Faye Phillips and “A History of the Catholic Church in Baton Rouge” by Frank M. Uter.)