Louis Armstrong’s Catholic Roots

Suppose you were born Catholic and never knew it? That seems to have been the case with Louis Armstrong. In his biography of the Jazz great, Lawrence Bergreen talks about Louis’ baptism (which Louis himself apparently never knew about):
According to his own, cherished tradition, Louis Armstrong was an all-American jazz baby, born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on the Fourth of July 1900. He believed this to the end of his days, and so did everyone else, until a baptismal certificate confirming his actual birth date as August 4, 1901, surfaced and in the name of scholarship silenced one of the happiest legends in American popular music. Exactly three weeks after his birth, the infant was taken to Sacred Heart of Jesus Church at 139 South Lopez Street to be baptized “according to the rite of the Roman Catholic Church.” The baptismal card, signed by the Reverend J. M. Toohey, described Louis as “niger, illegitimus,” apparently because his father had by that time abandoned his mother and was living with another woman. So it was that Louis Armstrong, an illegitimate black child, was baptized into the Catholic Church. Since his grandmother, Josephine, was a practicing Catholic, she was most likely the one responsible for arranging the baptism, and the earliest religious influence over him, though limited, was largely Catholic. Although baptized as a Catholic, Louis never thought of himself as a member of the Church. He remained similarly aloof from Protestantism, the religion of his mother and other family members. Even so, he was vaguely religious, and, at times, deeply spiritual, but his approach to religious matters was always unorthodox, and he took what he wanted from Catholicism, Baptism, and Judaism, and, under his grandmother’s influence, voodoo.

Louis’s fourth wife, Lucille, grew up Catholic in the Corona section of Queens, where they lived until Satch’s death in 1971. The house is now a museum.

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