Kate McNee was married to a musician for 20 years. So when she and her late husband, Hart McNee, decided in 2007 to start their own Mardi Gras Day parading group, it was only natural that they would choose to name it after the patron saint of music, Saint Cecilia.
Since Hart’s death a few years back, the annual Carnival gathering of this intensely local group has taken on even more meaning in Kate’s life.
“St.Cecilia is family, friends and neighbors,” she says. “For me, that’s the most important part. On Mardi Gras Day I’m surrounded by them.”
When you think about it, that’s probably the sentiment of most Carnival walking groups, from Pete Fountain’s Half Fast Marching Club to the many Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Whether Uptown, downtown or back o’ town, it’s the warm familiarity of friends and neighbors that draws folk back year after year.
Some marching groups begin their day in the courtyard of a famous Garden District restaurant. Others gather at someone’s house in the Marigny or in designated areas of the Treme. But no matter the locale, these seriously local gatherings reflect one of the wondrous, utterly charming traditions of our day-long celebration.
Some parading organizations are longtime closed groups; others are more open, like the famous Society of St. Anne, which has been parading through the Marigny and French Quarter for years. It was that group’s extraordinary growth and worldwide recognition that was the impetus for the creation of St. Cecilia, in an effort to scale down the number of paraders and be more “neighborhoody,” Kate says.
“Obviously we welcome everyone. But I want St. Cecilia to stay intimate and special/” That’s a distinct challenge in this day of Instagram and tweets.
Accompanied by the Bywater Brass Band, the group that Hart McNee created after 20 years playing with the Storyville Stompers, the St. Cecilians gather around 9 a.m. on Carnival Day in artist Elizabeth Shannon’s garden. There, Shannon, a 13-year Bywater resident who moved from the Marigny, having lived “across Elysian Fields for 33 years,” serves them all champagne, Bloody Mary’s and king cake.
Then it’s off through the Marigny to the French Quarter, with a stop at Harry’s Bar on Chartres Street, and down to the Mississippi River. There Kate (who says she comes from a “seriously not spiritual family”) and the group have a decidedly spiritual moment, a tradition continued from the early days of the St. Ann Society when paraders began paying tribute to those who had passed away in the preceding year.
“Once we got to the river, people often had small bags of ashes,” Kate explains. “They would do an offering. The band calmed down and played a dirge, much like a New Orleans funeral. Then when that ceremony was done, they would be back up, and we moved on joyful and triumphant. In St. Cecilia, we do continue that tradition.”
Life and death, and the music and friendships that bind us — could there be anything more “New Orleans”?
Happy Mardi Gras, everyone.
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.