Sedella, Antonio de
SEDELLA, ANTONIO DE
Missionary in colonial Louisiana; b. Granada, Spain, Nov. 18, 1748; d. New Orleans, La., Jan. 19, 1829. He was the son of Pedro Mareno and Ana of Arze. He was ordained in the Capuchin convent in Granada, on Dec. 21, 1771. Ten years later, Sedella went to the Louisiana mission where, except for five years of exile, he remained until his death a half century later. At various times he received appointments as assistant vicar for Louisiana-West Florida, ecclesiastical judge, commissary of the Inquisition, and pastor of St. Louis parish (later cathedral) in New Orleans. The motif of his public life was conflict with authority, and his influence, for good and for evil, has remained a subject of controversy.
Sedella clashed with the auxiliary of Havana, Cuba, Bishop Cyril de Barcelona, when the latter visited the Louisiana missions in the late 1780s and accused the friar of ignoring his episcopal authority, submitting incomplete financial statements, and endangering colonial stability by threatening to establish a tribunal of the inquisition. Having concluded that Sedella's presence in New Orleans was inimical to the mission's general welfare, Cyril asked Governor Estevan Miró to send the pastor to Spain. In April of 1790 the friar was quickly and secretly deported to Cadiz, Spain. There, through the services of a lawyer provided by friends from New Orleans, Sedella appealed to the crown; Charles IV used the patronato real and ordered the Capuchin restored to his office as pastor of St. Louis parish. In July of 1795 Sedella returned to New Orleans in the company of the first ordinary of that see, Luis Peñalvery Cardenas.
Ten years later, as a result of the transfer of Peñalver to Guatemala and the purchase of the Louisiana Territory by the new republic of the United States, the lines of ecclesiastical jurisdiction became tangled. Taking advantage of the hazy situation, Sedella (known at this stage of his career and in subsequent literature as Père Antoine) challenged the authority of Patrick Walsh, the acting vicar-general. When Walsh suspended Antoine, a public meeting was called, and the people demanded Père Antoine as their pastor. Walsh immediately wrote to Rome, where the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith settled the jurisdictional question by making New Orleans the responsibility of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, Md. When Carroll named Reverend John Olivier vicar-general for Louisiana, Antoine was reluctant to acknowledge the new appointed, but he finally did so after the dispute reached the newspaper. However, five years later Louis William Dubourg as apostolic administrator failed to control Père Antoine and eventually was forced to suspend the priest and place the cathedral under interdict. In his official correspondence, Dubourg denounced the Capuchin as a dangerous man and reported, after his consecration as ordinary of New Orleans, that he feared to reside in his see city as long as Père Antoine held sway there. Relying on these reports, the historian John G. Shea judged that Antoine was the "scourge of religion in Louisiana," while Roger Baudier made him responsible for the afflictions of Catholicism in the early history of New Orleans.
At first Dubourg administered his vast territory from St. Louis, Mo. For a brief period the bizarre idea of appointing Père Antoine as his auxiliary to mollify the people of New Orleans appealed to him. Putting aside this idea, Dubourg finally went south in 1820, where Antoine and the people received him with genuine affection. The Capuchin continued as rector of the cathedral until his death, earning the love of his flock through personal detachment, charity to the poor, and pastoral care during epidemics. His funeral in 1829 was the most remarkable the city had seen; government officials attended as a body and the greatest possible honors were paid his remains.
Appraisals of Sedella's role in the history of New Orleans have been extreme and frequently prejudiced, either indicting him for criminal behavior or proposing him for canonization. Many of his actions or postures— service as a secret agent for Spain, fractious attitude toward authorities, lax conscience relative to canonical regulations for funerals and marriages, association with Masons and rebellious trustees—cannot be written off as simple idiosyncracies. On the other hand, responsibility for the irreligion of the day cannot justly be assigned to Père Antoine. Any objective judgment of the influence of his pastorate must consider the environment of New Orleans as a rough frontier port city and the acute shortage of religious personnel there.
Bibliography: m. j. curley, Church and State in the Spanish Floridas, 1783–1822 (Catholic University of America, Studies in American Church History 30; Washington 1940). r. baudier, The Catholic Church in Louisiana (New Orleans 1939). c. w. bishpam, "Fray Antonio de Sedella: An Appreciation," Louisiana Historical Quarterly 2 (1919): 24–37; "Contest for Ecclesiastical Supremacy in the Mississippi Valley," ibid., 1 (1918). f. m. kirsch, Dictionary of American Biography, 20 v. (New York 1928–36) 1:321–322.
[e. f. niehaus]