Archives Month – Benevolent Society and Family Tombs

The records of the Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office, which date back to the 1700s, represent the rich history of New Orleans and its diverse communities. Our archives can be used for property, family history, architectural, and landscaping research.

Benevolent associations can be categorized into three groups: mutual aid societies, fraternal organizations, and labor unions. Mutual aid societies organized for social and economic benefits. Fraternal organizations were created with the same ideals, but with an added element of brotherhood and usually included “…distinct sets of symbols [and] …elaborate rituals.”1 Labor unions organized to promote and uphold the labor rights of their members.

Joining benevolent societies became exceptionally popular in the mid-1800s as 80% of New Orleanians were reported to have belonged to an organization. Benevolent associations were especially helpful to immigrants who often faced economic, social, and health difficulties upon arrival into the country. “Membership into a society provided a social outlet as well as a place to be buried, aid for families, and monetary assistance in the event of sickness or accident.”2

Example of a society tomb, Societe Francaise D’Assitance Mutuelle (French Benevolent Society of Jefferson), located in Layfayette Cemetery No. 2 and on the Louisiana Landmarks Society’s annual list of Nine Most Endangered Sites in New Orleans
https://www.louisianalandmarks.org/new-gallery/ffnuhca8q3922nr6xoa1rvaiw2i9ba

Since the city faced numerous epidemics, additional cemeteries were created, and as a result, society tombs became a fixture of benevolent associations. Society tombs became useful in expediting the burials of those who succumbed to cholera and yellow fever at a time when cemeteries could not keep up with the number of burials during the height of these epidemics. Additionally, “because procuring a decent grave in a consecrated cemetery was more expensive in New Orleans than in most other American cities, a large segment of the population could not afford to keep their remains aboveground and dry unless they belonged to a burial society.”3 Without membership, a person making a low-income would likely end up in one of the potter’s fields like Charity Hospital or Holt Cemeteries, municipal cemeteries designated for the indigent, unclaimed, or unknown.

Society tombs are large mausoleums with several reusable vaults which could be used to inter hundreds of individuals over the course of several decades. Most society tombs did not engrave the names of those interred on the closure tablets as would be done on individual headstones or family tombs.

Example of a family tomb, Soniat Dufossat family. St. Louis No. 2. Photo by Janine Smith, June 2019
Detail of closure tablet of Soniat Dufossat family tomb. Notice the inscription at the bottom for Charles T. Soniat, a notary public whose acts are housed in the Clerk’s Office.

In a previous blog, we discussed Benevolent Associations and the customary benefits of funeral and burial coverage for their members, specifically with the tomb sale between the Ladies Apostolical and the Ladies of Hope.

Ladies of Hope

Expanding on the blog post of benevolent societies and social aid and pleasure clubs, we will examine the charter for the Ladies of Hope.

Martinet, Louis. 1909 December 3. Vol 6, Act 26

The Ladies of Hope, as represented by Suzane Thomas Richard, Hortensia Lable Durald, Theresa Francois Lopez, Louise Murphy Bacas, Bella Rita West, Ella Stansbury Taylor, Marie Rachel Francois, Eugenie Poiny Richardson, Louise Alexandre Van Buren, Clothilde Arthur Nicholas, Pauline Blanchard Peters, and Louise Pierre Williams, chartered their organization on December 3, 1909. The act was executed by notary, Louis A. Martinet.

Readers may recall that we featured Martinet during Archives Month 2020.

Martinet, Louis. 1909 December 3. Vol 6, Act 26

The charter established the organization’s official name as The Ladies of Hope Benevolent and Mutual Aid Association, which had been founded on September 23, 1877, “under the protection of Saint Ursule,”  (or Saint Ursula). Within the charter it states, the purpose of officially chartering was to acquire the rights and privileges for benevolent and charitable purposes as secured by the State of Louisiana. As a mutual aid society, the objectives of the Ladies of Hope were to “give and render aid and assistance to its members in case of sickness and to provide for their burial in case of their death.”

Martinet, Louis. 1909 December 3. Vol 6, Act 26

Readers may recall that in the 1880 tomb sale it was mentioned that the Ladies of Hope were unincorporated at the time of the sale.

Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association

Lareshe Paul E. 1867 October 30. Vol 32, Act 192

The Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association chartered their organization of 60 members on October 30, 1867, before notary, Paul Laresche. This particular charter is unique in a number of different ways, including the decorative title page for the act. It is one of the lengthier charters that have been identified in the Research Center at 32 pages. Additionally, the charter specifically names all 60 members.

The purpose of the Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association was “to assist, give aid and protection to its members in need, to bury those deceased, sympathize with their relatives, also aid their destitute widows and orphans, according to its power and ability.”

Lareshe Paul E. 1867 October 30. Vol 32, Act 192

Two other unique attributes to this charter come from articles six and seven. Article Six states that all proceedings of the organization were to be conducted and kept in English.

Lareshe Paul E. 1867 October 30. Vol 32, Act 192

Article Seven states that the association was to use a common seal described as a “circular stump made of copper and steel with the device of the state engraved thereon representing of a Pelican with the following inscription “The Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association of New Orleans.”

In Article Nine, specifications of meetings were detailed. Members were expected to meet at the “Hall of the Association on the second Monday of each month, at Eight o’clock P.M. precisely, for the transaction of regular monthly business.” Public notice of all monthly and special meetings was to be given in “one of the daily city Journals.”  

Other sections of the charter include information about officer titles, elections, qualifications for office, vacancies, duties of officers, fees, dues, penalties and trials, voting rights, appropriation of funds, and dissolution of by-laws.

Article Fourteen covers the application of membership and states that “no person shall be entitled to become a member of this association unless he is of good moral character, and not less than twenty five years of age and not over forty years of age.” In order to become a member, an application was to be presented in writing at a monthly or special meeting with a recommendation from two members and $5. The application would go before the “Investigating Committee, who shall report upon the character of the applicant” at the next meeting, and the association would proceed to the ballot to vote on the applicant’s induction. The rest of the process is described in detail below.

Lareshe Paul E. 1867 October 30. Vol 32, Act 192

The charter also mentions that the decorum of members would be monitored. In Article Seventeen, entitled Penalties and Trials, member who were “guilty of habitual drunkenness, of immoral or scandalous conduct, or of any crime accounted infamous…” would be expelled from the association.

Lareshe Paul E. 1867 October 30. Vol 32, Act 192

Article Twenty-One discusses the topic of funerals. In the event of a member’s death, the president of the Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association would notify members by public notice, “or by sending a written notice to each member through the collector.” Members would assemble at the “Hall of the Association half an hour previous to the funeral, and dress themselves as may be determined with crapes [bands of crinkled fabric worn on the sleeve as a sign of mourning] on the left arm; and from there proceed to the deceased, officers taking the lead according to rank.” Crapes (also spelled crepes) would be worn for 30 days in memory of the deceased. Anyone not in compliance would be fined $1.

Lareshe Paul E. 1867 October 30. Vol 32, Act 192

The Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association also provides a good example of an amended charter. Amendments are official changes to the original charter, usually affecting the by-laws, articles, or informational text found within the charter.

The Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association amended their charter on April 13, 1875, before Charles Soniat. The reason for the amendments, as stated in the present charter, was because the original charter was “complicated and encumbered with unnecessary matters and details.”

The updated charter covered standard format and information and was much shorter in length. The page count for the charter was eight pages, with the majority of the last three pages as members’ signatures.

The purpose of the organization was slightly adjusted to read “the objects and purposes for which this corporation is established are to give one another mutual aid and assistance in case of sickness or other misfortune, to bury those deceased and create among members ties of friendship and fraternity.”

In keeping with the organization’s purpose, approximately five years later, the tomb committee for the Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association contracted with Kursheedt and Bienvenu for the building of a society tomb. (Readers may recall that Kursheedt and Bienvenu were the original contractors for the Delafield Tomb, but the contract was later canceled.) The contract was executed by notary, Charles Soniat, on September 9, 1880.

Soniat, Charles T. 1880 September 9. Vol 9, Act 114

The contract states that J.G. Bienvenu represented the firm at the time of the contract and agreed to build a tomb in the Metairie Cemetery for the Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association at the cost of $4,500. The plot of ground measured 24 x 24 feet square.

Soniat, Charles T. 1880 September 9. Vol 9, Act 114

Featured below, the design for the tomb was laid out in the plan attached to the notarial act.

Soniat, Charles T. 1880 September 9. Vol 9, Act 114

The finished tomb can be seen on the right in the photograph below.

Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association located on the right in the photograph.
Photo courtesy of Frank B. Moore Collection at the University of New Orleans Library via the Louisiana Digital Library, https://louisianadigitallibrary.org/islandora/object/uno-fbm%3A309

Within the act, the specifications for the tomb were included. Items like swamp cypress for the foundation, Rosendale cement, and Mitchell Quincy Granite were requested. The pelican statue and its base were to be made of white marble, and the entire tomb was to be lined with “hard burnt Lake bricks laid in a mortar of fresh Rosendale cement and sharp sand in a proportion of one to three and one half. All other brickwork to be the same.”

Soniat, Charles T. 1880 September 9. Vol 9, Act 114

The tomb was to contain 48 vaults and 12 receptacles. The front and rear would be “alike, the sides will be the same, as front and rear with the exception of the tablets will be substituted with marble panels, one piece to each panel.”

By looking at the plan and photograph above, we can compare the rendering to the finished product. The photograph shows the 12 receptacles on each visible side of the tomb, making 48 vaults total, or 12 on each side. The main difference is what the contract refers to the “uprights between the columns” or the smaller columns between the larger columns that break up the panels in the plan. It appears that the “uprights” described in the contract were omitted in the final construction of the tomb.

According to an article in the Times Picayune, the dedication of the newly constructed tomb took place on July 19, 1881, nearly ten months after the signing of the contract. The article states, “At about 6 o’clock the association arrived and marched into the cemetery with banners flying and preceded by a large band of music. The association formed around the tomb with their banner in front.” It continues by mentioning that the ceremony’s opening remarks were given by Jno. H. Manuel, the chairman of the building committee (also referred to as the tomb committee in the notarial act). The association’s president, Hon. A. L. Tissot, also addressed the crowd.4

Notice on the last page of the contract, Manuel and Tissot’s signatures are the first two on the list.

Soniat, Charles T. 1880 September 9. Vol 9, Act 114

After the tomb was consecrated by Reverend Father G. A. Rouxel, Dr. Emile Doumeing (who is listed as a witness and the First Vice President in the article) delivered an oration to the association. The speech was copied in its entirety in the article. In summation, Doumeing’s speech includes a few relevant statements. It notes that the Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association formed on November 24, 1866, before the official charter in 1867. Doumeing specifically thanked Kursheedt and Bienvenu and the sculptor “who has successfully chiseled out the marble pelican on yonder height…” Unfortunately, neither the contract nor the article identified the sculptor. The article cited that the association had over 400 members at the time of the tomb’s dedication and stated that the association was flourishing financially since it was able to pay for the tomb as soon as it was completed.5

Research has shown that the Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association eventually sold their tomb to another benevolent society.6 The notarial act has not been identified, and it is possible that the sale of the tomb was not recorded. However, the tomb is still in existence in Metairie Cemetery, and based on the current design of the tomb, which is largely the same as when it was owned the Pelican Mutual Benevolent Association, the new society can be identified.

Societa Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza dei Bisacquinesi del Titolo La Madonna Monte Triona

Photo by Janine Smith, July 2021

The tomb now bears the inscription “Societa Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza dei Bisacquinesi del Titolo La Madonna Monte Triona,” and the pelican has been replaced by the Madonna and Child. There are now 16 receptacles or vaults per side.

Photo by Janine Smith, July 2021
Photo by Janine Smith, July 2021

The Societa Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza dei Bisacquinesi del Titolo La Madonna Monte Triona chartered their organization on November 24, 1919, before notary, Sydney Gautier.

Gautier, Sidney F. 1919 November 24, Act 85

The purpose of the society was to “…be the Uniting of Italians from Bisacquino in Italy, residing in the United States and in the City of New Orleans and State of Louisiana, into a brotherhood or Society wherein the members thereof shall find relief and assistance in case of need, and wherein said members shall exercise towards one another, benevolence and charity, and for other social and charitable purposes generally.”

Bisacquino is a township within Palermo, Sicily, Italy, and the Monte Triona is a mountain in Bisacquino. La Madonna is a reference to the Sanctuary of Madonna Del Balzo which was built in 1678 on a cliff of the mountain.7 According to a 1928 article in the Time Picayune featuring the society, “it was an old custom in the Italian village to climb Monte Triona each year to celebrate the feast of the Assumption [a major Holy Day of Obligation celebrated by the Catholic Church on August 15th to commemorate the Virgin Mary’s ascension into heaven].”8

A brief article in the Times Picayune dated October 22, 1919, mentions the newly formed Societa Italiana di Mutual Beneficienza del Bisacquinesi del Titolo La Madonna Monte Triona. The organization took pride in its thirteen word name, claiming it as “the ‘heftiest’ name among similar associations in the city.” Membership called for individuals to be from Bisaquino or descendants thereof.

“Thirteen Words In Name. Italians of New Orleans Launch New Benevolent Society.” Times-Picayune, 22 Oct. 1919, p. 20. NewsBank: America’s News – Historical and Current,

Societa Italiana San Giuseppe

Italian Row, Metairie Cemetery, August 2021. Photo by Janine Smith

With the mention of Sicilian benevolent associations and Metairie Cemetery, it would be remiss not to acknowledge Italian Row. Italian Row is located in sections 86 and 88 in the cemetery. There was an influx of Italians, specifically from Sicily, in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, which earned part of the French Quarter the nickname “Little Palermo.”9

The wave of Italian immigration led to the establishment of Italian benevolent societies, many of whom organized by place of origin, such as the case of the Societa Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza dei Bisacquinesi. With the founding of the societies themselves came the emergence of their society tombs. Many families and societies purchased tombs near each other in cemeteries like Metairie Cemetery, which “evolv[ed] into Italian ‘sections,'” that is locally referred to as “Italian Row.”10

Top of Societa Di Mutual Beneficenza San Giuseppe Tomb, Metairie Cemetery, August 2021.
Photo by Janine Smith.

One society whose tomb is located on Italian Row is that of the Societa Di Mutual Beneficenza San Giuseppe, or the St. Joseph Italian Mutual Benefit Association. The society chartered their organization on June 5, 1899, before notary, Ulysses Marinoni.

Marinoni, Ulysses. 1899 June 5. Vol 3, Act 58

The purpose of their organization was to “…promote and establish a feeling and spirit of friendship and amity and good fellowship between its members, to aid and succor them in sickness, and bury them when dead; to provide funds for their help, and to furnish them with medicines and a doctor when in need of them; to devote the funds of the association to the assistance of its members, and to accumulate a reserve fund to provide for its contingencies, and in general to do and perform all the acts which are necessary to the purposes a benevolent association. The said assistance, help and succor as well as medicines and doctor to be given to said members as well as to their wives, female children, and male children under fifteen years of age.”

It is worth mentioning that St. Joseph is revered among Sicilians because he is believed to have intervened during a time of famine and drought during the Middle Ages in Sicily. As a result of his divine intervention, Sicilians vowed to honor the saint with their harvest. Today, St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) is still widely celebrated in New Orleans with a multitude of traditions including food-covered altars and parades.11

Photo by Cheryl Gerber and neworleans.com via https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-is-st-josephs-day

By 1911, the St. Joseph Italian Mutual Benefit Association was prepared to construct their society tomb. As represented by the association’s president, Pietro Pizzo, and its secretary, Domenico Graffagnino, the society came before notary, Ulysses Marinoni, on September 18, 1911, to contract with Pietro Ghiloni.

Marinoni, Ulysses. 1911 September 18, Folio 559

The contract was for a “certain marble, concrete and brick tomb with marble facing on a certain lot in the Metairie Cemetery in the City of New Orleans, and on lot 96-97-98-99-142-143-144-145, section no. 86…”

All of the work was to be completed on or before March 18, 1912, “under the supervision and to the satisfaction of William T. Nolan, Architect” and acting as Ghiloni’s agent.

In the attached letter below, (written in Italian) the secretary of the society states that at the meeting on September 5th, the society accepted the plan for the erection of the tomb for the sum of $4,000 and gave the right to the president, Pietro Pizzo, to sign the contract with Mr. Ghiloni. The plan was not met with any opposition.

Marinoni, Ulysses. 1911 September 18, Folio 559

The specifications for the tomb were also included as attachments to the notarial act.

Marinoni, Ulysses. 1911 September 18, Folio 559

From the general description above, the tomb, or mausoleum as it was referred to, would have 36 sepulchers, or vaults for burying members, and two [ossuaries], where skeletal remains would be stored. “The movable front of these sepulchers [the closure tablets] to be of white Italian veined marble for the carving of inscriptions – (when born, died, etc.) …On each side of the mausoleum will be located an Italian marble tablet for motto, etc. The structure to be surmounted with a statue of St. Joseph 4’6″ high, carved from the best grade of statuary white Carrara Italian marble.”

The remainder of the specifications are outlined in detail below.

Marinoni, Ulysses. 1911 September 18, Folio 559

The images below show the society tomb as it stood in August 2021.

Societa Di Mutual Beneficenza San Giuseppe Tomb, Metairie Cemetery, August 2021.
Photo by Janine Smith
Societa Di Mutual Beneficenza San Giuseppe Tomb, Metairie Cemetery, August 2021.
Photo by Janine Smith

Readers may recognize the notary from the previous two notarial acts. Ulysses (sometimes spelled Ulisses) Marinoni Jr. was featured during Archives Month 2020 in the blog regarding the Italian Community of New Orleans. Marinoni Jr.’s sister, Olga Marinoni Nolan, mentioned in the post, was married to William T. Nolan, the architect for the San Giuseppe tomb.

The 1920 census reported that William Nolan was born in Canada and immigrated to the United States in 1900. At age 42, he was still working as an architect. Olga Nolan, age 34, was listed as having been born in Louisiana. Her father was born in Italy, and her mother was born in France. William and Olga’s children and the family’s governess were listed below them. Note that the son, was named Ulisse, likely after his uncle, Ulisses Marinoni, Jr.

Year: 1920; Census Place: New Orleans Ward 11, Orleans, Louisiana; Roll: T625_623; Page: 9B; Enumeration District: 192

The Nolan-Marinoni family tomb is also located in Metairie Cemetery.

Nolan-Marinoni Family Tomb, Metairie Cemetery, July 2021.
Photo by Janine Smith

Join us next time as we look at the development of cemeteries along Canal Street and Metairie Ridge in the section of the city that has become known as the “Cemetery District.”

The Clerk’s Office has a rich amount of history pertaining to benevolent societies and their associated tombs. If there are any particular interests that you would like to learn about, please contact the Clerk’s Office. We are happy to assist.

Sources:

  1. Dedek, Peter B. The Cemeteries of New Orleans: a Cultural History. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. pp. 89
  2. Dedek, Peter B. The Cemeteries of New Orleans: a Cultural History. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. pp. 90-91
  3. Dedek, Peter B. The Cemeteries of New Orleans: a Cultural History. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. pp. 96
  4. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/2940509/pelican-mutual-benevolent-association/
  5. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/2940509/pelican-mutual-benevolent-association/
  6. http://www.oakandlaurel.com/uploads/4/7/4/2/47423505/2018_italians_in_nola_cemeteries.pdf
  7. http://sicilia.indettaglio.it/eng/comuni/pa/bisacquino/turismo/turismo.html
  8. Times-Picayune, 20 Aug. 1928, p. 13. NewsBank: America’s News – Historical and Current
  9. https://www.neworleans.com/things-to-do/multicultural/cultures/italians/
  10. http://www.oakandlaurel.com/uploads/4/7/4/2/47423505/2018_italians_in_nola_cemeteries.pdf
  11. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-is-st-josephs-day

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