St. Joseph parish was established in February, 1844 to serve a growing population in the area. The first St. Joseph church was located on Tulane Avenue opposite Charity Hospital. It was of medium size, Gothic architecture, with a tall front steeple. The first pastors were diocesan priests, Edward D'Hauw and B.M. Poyet. Upon completion of a new church for St. Joseph parish, the original church was abandoned. In 1895 it was renovated by the Archdiocese and placed under the patronage of St. Katherine. It became a center of Catholic worship for many Negro Catholics, with the Vincentian priests serving in the apostolate to the Negro population. St. Katherine's church was demolished in 1964.
In 1858 the Archdiocese entrusted the parish of St. Joseph to priests of the "Congregation of the Mission" (initials "C.M."), also known as "Vincentians" or "Lazarists." Reverend John Hayden, C.M. was the first of many Vincentian pastors.
In 1859 Father Hayden built a school for boys, taught by Christian Brothers, and in 1864 a school for girls, taught by the daughters of Charity.
In 1866, with future plans in mind, Father Hayden purchased the square of ground on which the present church building stands.
CONSTRUCTION OF THE CHURCH
The ground breaking ceremony for the new church took place on Sunday, May 9, 1869. Construction began in that same year, but was suspended between 1875 and 1884 because of defects in the foundation. In October 1871, the pastor, Father Thomas Smith C.M., presided at the laying of the cornerstone. The orator for that occasion was the famous "Poet-Priest of the South" - Abram Ryan, C.M.
The building was designed by architect P.C. Keeley of Brooklyn.
The church was dedicated in December 1892 with a ceremony attended by some 3000 people. On that day, the church was an empty shell: the walls were bare the windows were of plain glass, and there were no pews. The first Masses were celebrated on Christmas Day, 1892, on a wooden altar. Since that time, many embellishments have been added to the interior of the church. The first four of the ten stained glass windows were placed in 1903 at a cost of $1500 each.
Money for construction and furnishing of the church was obtained from collections and donations from local people and also benefactors in other states. It is recorded that Father R.J. Fitzgerald, a pastor in those early days, shortened his life because of excessive labor and anxiety occasioned by the building of the church. The stained glass window of the Nativity was given as a memorial to him.