The White Priest: Claude Paschal Maistre

    A prophetic maverick who fought for emancipation and equal rights

 

                 

 

The Reverend Claude Paschal Maistre (pictured above), a native of France and pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, was one of the first white radicals in New Orleans to call publicly for abolition. Maistre ministered to the men of the Louisiana Native Guards when they were training in New orleans, befriended their families, harbored runaway slaves, encouraged African Americans to enlist in Union forces, and officiated at Captan André Cailloux's funeral in defiance of Jean-Marie Odin, the archbishop of New Orleans. Odin had suspended Maistre when the latter refused Odin's orders to cease "inciting" African Americans and to leave the city. Maistre subsequently founded a schismatic parish: Holy Name of Jesus, and publicly supported the Afro-Creole drive for equal rights during Reconstruction. He eventually submitted to a new archbishop (Napoleon Perché) in 1870. (Robert Cunniff sketched the above likeness of Maistre based on passport descriptions of the priest @1850.)

 

Entry written by Fr. Maistre in the Baptismal Registers for Negroes and Mulatoes [sic] of St. Rose of lima Parish, January 1, 1863:

“N.B. From the date of January 1, 1863, acts [baptisms and marriages] for persons of color will be inscribed in the principal register without discrimination, together with the whites.[written by Maistre]

From L’Union, a newspaper published by Afro-Creoles in New Orleans, April 14, 1863:

The small church of St. Rose of Lima was filled Monday morning by four or five hundred people and a great number who were not able to find a place inside. The chants of the Roman liturgy, aided by the sonorous tones of the organ, gave the impression of greater solemnity than usual. The Mass of Thanksgiving had as its purpose to thank the Almighty for the substitution of free labor for forced slave labor.

          After the Gospel, the reverend Cure [Maistre] of St. Rose advanced toward the assembly and gave a sermon  which, while evading completely political allusions, rendered homage to the highest principles of humanity and Christian charity.

          The lack of space does not permit us to report the sermon in its entirely; the following offers an outline.

          Who would have said a year ago that we would be gathered today to thank heaven for such an event. But in all things the first step is always the most difficult. Now this first step is done. Work is a necessity; but for that which is a necessity, it does not follow that it is necessary to execute it under the whip. It was not said when man was condemned to work that the strongest would tread the weakest underfoot. The earth is fecund for all. That which ennobles work is liberty. Liberty is ruled and governed by duty. Let us return thanks to God. Some creatures in rags, some phantoms, some skeleton-like men attached themselves to us and asked us to aid them. Today, we are able to say to them: yes, you are men, men like us, and we take them by the hand in order to guide them.

          Have we not some fears for the future asked the noble priest in closing. The ways of God are mysterious. He often allows the evil to go until the glass overflows. But He watches them and His justice finally prevails. Men might perish in the work; a principle – a faith set loose – spreads and bears fruit. One does not reverse his pace when principle has taken possession of the world.

          Developing that act of faith in the Christian ideal, the reverend preacher devoted his attention to the most beautiful glorification of progress and his conviction [line missing] . . . being passed into the souls of his numerous audience who found themselves excited to tears.

 

“Abolitionist Priest: Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans,” by Stephen J. Ochs

 WASHINGTON TIMES, August 26, 2000

 

                                                                       

A sketch of Rev. Claude Paschal Maistre based on descriptions from passports @1850.

 

 

Claude Paschal Maistre, a French-born priest, was among the first white men in New Orleans during the Civil War to call publicly for emancipation. Many white New Orleanians regarded the 5’5,” chestnut haired and bearded clergyman with the strong Gallican nose as a devilish Pied Piper leading ignorant blacks down the road to racial revolution and ruin. His archbishop, Jean-Marie Odin, loathed him as a dishonest, greedy, racial provacateur and eventually suspended him. Afro-Creole activists, on the other hand, hailed Maistre as the spokesman of genuine Catholicism in the city and regarded him as a key ally who lent religious legitimacy to their campaign for emancipation and equal rights. 

 

Maistre arrived in the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 1857 with a somewhat checkered past. Born in Laubressel, France in 1820, he was ordained a priest in 1844. Four years later, in 1848, as revolution swept France and much of Europe, Maistre ran afoul of the law in a matter apparently involving money. Fleeing France, he eventually made his way to the United States in 1851. Dismissed from the dioceses of Detroit and Chicago following allegations of sexual improprieties, doctrinal laxity, and financial chicanery, the maverick priest convinced Archbishop Antoine Blanc, who needed clergy, to allow him to work in the archdiocese of New Orleans. After several assignments in rural Louisiana parishes, where one of his fellow priests complained that he spouted abolitionist doctrine (perhaps imbibed from the French Catholic liberalism that emerged in France at the time of the 1848 Revolution), Maistre received appointment in 1857 as the first pastor of newly created St. Rose of Lima parish in the “back town” area of New Orleans.

 

Adept in financial matters (while in Chicago he had loaned out over $4000 at interest), Maistre proved himself an energetic pastor, acquiring land and building a church for his French-speaking, racially mixed congregation.  He showed a special interest in free people of color who numbered about 10,000 in New Orleans in 1860 and who were overwhelmingly Afro-French or Afro-Spanish in descent, French in culture and language, and Catholic in religion. Maistre encouraged among them the formation of numerous, legally incorporated, quasi-religious mutual aid and benevolent societies, such as La Société des Soeurs de la Providence. In addition to providing money for burials and emergencies and engaging in works of charity, these societies also provided opportunities for free people of color to elect their own officers and to exercise leadership roles – activities denied them politically in Louisiana.

 

Just as the Civil War began in April, 1861, a new archbishop arrived in New Orleans: the iron-willed Jean-Marie Odin, a legendary missionary bishop of Texas and a stickler for authority. He and Maistre promptly clashed over the legal title to parish property and Odin eventually had to pay Maistre several thousand dollars. The archbishop, however, remained convinced that Maistre had swindled him and the scene was set for a more serious confrontation between the two men after the Federal occupation of New Orleans in May, 1862.

 

Prior to the fall of the city, Odin had left for France to recruit priests, but he had earlier issued a pastoral letter declaring that justice lay on the side of the South. Disliking slavery but feeling compelled to accommodate to it as an accepted southern political and social reality, Odin viewed the North as the aggressor in the war. He called on priests in his jurisdiction to volunteer as chaplains for Louisiana forces serving the Confederacy.

 

Maistre did not share the southern sympathies of Odin and most of the city’s clergy and he emerged as one of the first outspoken white radicals in the city to call for an end to slavery. In doing so, he was probably influenced by a number of events, including the presence of Federal troops, the well-publicized anti-slavery pastoral letter issued in April 1862 by liberal French Bishop Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup of Orléans, Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, the recruitment of three regiments of black Louisiana Native Guards into the U.S. army, and by his association with Afro-Creole activists who campaigned against slavery in the pages of their newspaper, L’Union.

 

On January 1, 1863, Maistre marked the official date of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by disregarding archdiocesan regulations that mandated separate baptismal and marriage registers for whites, free people of color, and slaves. Thereafter, he commingled all names irrespective of race. Maistre also fed, sheltered, and ministered to runaway slaves, served as the unofficial chaplain to the three black Native Guards regiments that trained at nearby Camp Strong and befriended their families when other priests spurned them. In April 1863, he presided at a Mass at St. Rose celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation. During his stirring sermon, which brought many in the overflow crowd to tears, Maistre referred to the Proclamation as a “first step” on the road to eventual equality and he ended by confidently proclaiming, no doubt with an eye also to his own situation,  that God’s justice would ultimately prevail.

 

Enraged white parishioners left St. Rose en masse and some hinted darkly at lynching, including one fellow priest who declared that a cord would be too good for Maistre – that his priestly stole would suffice. There matters stood until Odin returned to the city in April 1863 and heard accusations from his clergy that Maistre had “incited the Negroes against the whites.” In a later report to Rome, Odin charged that Maistre had offended white Catholics by preaching  “the love of liberty and independence”  to slaves and persons of color and by exciting slaves “to insurrection against their masters.”

 

Concerned that Union authorities might [correctly] interpret any moves against Maistre as politically inspired, Odin seized on the pretext of Maistre’s earlier legal difficulties in France. Professing concern about possible public scandal, Odin demanded that Maistre leave his parish and retire to a monastery to do penance. Maistre, however, refused and skillfully used his connections with sympathetic military officers to secure an “order” from a provost marshal to continue his ministry among blacks. Odin thereupon  suspended him and placed the parish under interdict, forbidding Catholics under pain of mortal sin to attend any services involving Maistre or to have any spiritual dealings with him.

 

Maistre, however, refused to surrender the keys to St. Rose and continued his ministry at the church. To submit to Odin, in his view, would not only  imperil his own future, but also the pastoral care, and thus possibly the eternal salvation, of blacks in New Orleans. In July 1863, Maistre officiated at the public funeral for Captain André Cailloux who had been killed while heroically leading the charge of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards at the Battle of Port Hudson. The priest’s highly visible role at the funeral, during which he movingly eulogized Cailloux as a martyr to the cause of freedom, reflected the extent to which he had become associated in the public mind with the cause of black liberation and with the Afro-Creole radicals at L’Union, who attacked the archbishop and his “rebel clergy” as champions “of treason and rebellion.” The crowds of black Catholics, both slave and free, who defied Odin by attending the ceremonies surrounding Cailloux’s funeral reflected the increasing assertiveness and growing political activism of black New Orleanians -- qualities that Maistre encouraged. Members of one of the oldest black Catholic benevolent and mutual aid societies petitioned the archbishop for a new church specifically for blacks to be named in honor of  “St. Abraham [Lincoln].”

 

In defiance of his archbishop, Maistre presided at the funeral and burial of Captain André Cailloux, the first black warrior-hero of the Civil War. Harper’s Weekly, August 29, 1863

 

Maistre’s prestige among the city’s black population, however, almost guaranteed that he could not permanently retain possession of St. Rose. General Nathaniel P. Banks, who had replaced General Benjamin F. Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf in December 1862, attempted to build Unionist sentiment in Louisiana, by seeking to conciliate white citizens of New Orleans, including the archbishop. On January 14, 1864, therefore, military authorities, responding to a request from Odin, restored St. Rose of Lima to the archbishop. Maistre, though, had earlier sensed the changing political currents and in September 1863 had set in motion plans to construct his own church, to be named Holy Name of Jesus. Aided by a building committee composed of Afro-Creole and white radicals, construction on Holy Name moved forward while Maistre conducted services in a rented public room after his eviction from St. Rose. That blacks regarded the schismatic priest as a hero was evident from Odin’s contemptuous description of the new congregation as “a great number of irreligious and ignorant Negroes who consider him a virtuous persecuted victim for the love that he carried their race.” (After the war, at least one-third of Holy Name’s congregation included black Union veterans.) Radicals invited Maistre to deliver the benediction at the opening of the state constitutional convention in April 1864 – a gathering that legally abolished slavery in Louisiana. Maistre also continued to participate in high profile, public commemorations of events such as John Brown’s death, emancipation, and Lincoln’s assassination, and in mass meetings and conventions demanding citizenship and suffrage for blacks.

 

Yet even as he publicly embraced political radicalism and egalitarianism, Maistre quietly attempted to negotiate an end to the impasse with the archbishop that would not leave him as a clerical pariah. Odin, however, rebuffed his peace feelers, leading Maistre to further enrage him by appealing his case to Rome in 1865. Roman authorities, however, upheld the archbishop’s episcopal authority. After an acrimonious meeting between Maistre and Odin that ended in a shouting match, the stalemate dragged on until the latter’s death in 1870.

 

The appointment of a new archbishop, Napoléon Perché, who indicated his willingness to see the schism ended without Maistre’s expulsion from the archdiocese, finally opened the door to a resolution of the conflict. Reassured that he would not be cast adrift, Maistre, who had supported Radical Reconstruction in Louisiana after the war, also believed that he could leave the field of politics and polemics with a good conscience. Blacks had achieved citizenship and suffrage through the 1868 Louisiana State Constitution and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, and were making strides educationally, as seen in the opening of Straight University in New Orleans, where Maistre served on the first faculty. Moreover, his advocacy, of a racially inclusive vision of Catholicism had helped spur church authorities to greater efforts on behalf of black Catholics, especially in education.

 

In a public letter dated July 17, 1870 and published in the diocesan newspaper, Maistre finally and formally submitted to the authority of the archbishop. Holy Name of Jesus closed its doors and Maistre was reassigned to St. Lawrence Parish in rural Chacahoula, Louisiana. He served there until 1874 when illness forced his return to New Orleans, where, ironically, he lived in the archbishop’s residence until his death in January 1875. He was buried in a section of St. Louis Cemetery #2 normally designated for blacks.

 

Maistre had played the role of a flawed but persistent prophet of racial justice, inveighing against the evil of slavery and articulating a vision of racial justice and equality in both church and state. Although his hopes for a new era would be dashed by the failure of Reconstruction and the apparent triumph of Jim Crow in the succeeding decades, the principles that led the priest to defy the prelate would be vindicated in the mid-twentieth century.

 

Stephen Ochs chairs the Social Studies Department at Georgetown Preparatory School. This article is adapted from his book: A Black Patriot and a White Priest: André Cailloux and Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans (Louisiana State University Press, 2000). For more on Cailloux and Maistre visit http://www.gprep.org/~sjochs/cailloux.htm