The murder of a priest in 1857

Hurricanes are a bad thing for Pointe a la Hache, which is poorly protected from them. Father Savelli met a different type of destruction in 1857.

Here’s what I knew.

Stefano Dolese/Doleze/Dolise immigrated from Italy and settled in Plaquemines Parish’s Pointe a la Hache, where he died a horrible death in the summer of 1857. His house caught fire. He rushed to his son’s bedroom only to find the door locked. Not knowing the son had already escaped through the window, he broke down the door, bursting into the bedroom just as the fire reached seven kegs of gunpowder in a neighboring room. Afterward, only bits of Stefano were found.

Here’s what I didn’t know until today.

After Stefano’s death, his widow started sleeping with the local priest, resulting in an even more horrific death not even six months after the fire.

Here’s the story.

I came across a piece of this history in a book called “The Catholic Church in Louisiana.” It’s one of my favorite books in the genealogy collection at the Main Library in Baton Rouge. Basically, it’s a history of all the Catholic churches in Louisiana. You would think it would be a dry read. It’s not. Granted, the writeup tilts heavily in favor of the church.

The church, for example, would like to characterize this saga as an assassination. Others might call it justifiable homicide. Let me set the scene.

The community of Pointe a la Hache – located near New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish – is vulnerable to hurricanes. The population’s dwindled since Hurricane Katrina. In 1845, however, the community was growing enough to earn its first resident priest. Father Nicholas Savelli – a native of Italy – arrived in 1845 and started preaching from a church built atop an Indian Mound. Within less than 10 years, it would all come to a very bloody end.

According to the book, Father Nicholas Savelli was going about his business tending to the Catholic population of Plaquemines Parish in 1857 when “sentiment against the priest flared up and fanned by gossip and slander, soon blazed into bitter hatred.” A message was sent to the priest about a sick parishioner. Father Savelli set off and reached a point in the road where murderers were waiting in the bushes to ambush him and stab him 36 times. They then found a bathtub, deposited the priest’s body in it, stripped him, mutilated him, filled the tub with whiskey, drank the whiskey that was marinating in the priest’s body parts, danced in an orgy until dawn and left the priest’s clothes hanging in the confessional. Quite the day in 1857 Plaquemines Parish.

The book attributes the murder to anti-clericalism. Newspaper stories from the era fill in the rest of the details.

A man named Dominique Ormes was arrested as one of the murderers. He quickly started talking.

According to Ormes, who seems to have married into the Dolese family, Father Savelli started visiting Stefano Dolese’s widow every night after Stefano’s unfortunate death. Exactly what happened during those visits was in dispute. One relative said the priest slept with the widow. Another said he stroked her bosom with his cane to excite her. The widow herself said, yes, the priest stroked her bosom with his cane but it was just to convince her to move in with her mother.

Whatever happened, the Dolese family didn’t like it. Their neighbors didn’t like it. The Dolese family was well respected in Plaquemines Parish. On Oct. 3, 1857, the priest and many members of the community met up on the highway. Father Savelli wouldn’t leave the encounter alive.

What happened to the priest’s murderers is unclear. The Catholic Church eventually sent in a new priest who presumably stayed away from the Widow Dolese. There was mention in the newspapers of arrests but no further mention of trials.

There is one postscript buried in the church archives.

The priest’s father wrote Archbishop Anthony Blanc in 1858 thanking him for sending documents that apparently questioned the imputations of shame in his son’s death. He also had a favor to ask. It seems that Savelli had never done anything for his family, which included his parents, four brothers and a sister, but had promised to support them once he’d regained from the church the money he’d spent building a church, a presbytery, a cemetery, a garden with 600 feet of oranges and several chapels.

Would it be possible, Savelli’s father wrote, for the family to get a reimbursement?


2 thoughts on “The murder of a priest in 1857”

  1. Wow, this is one of the craziest stories yet! You wrote it with great wit, but there’s also so much horror. And as a Catholic, I’m much interested in those nineteenth-century goings-on!

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