Fun facts about Louisiana

The oldest church in the Louisiana Purchase

St. Gabriel Catholic Church

For my birthday each year, we usually drive to Natchez, a town we both love for its quirky restaurants, shops and rich history. The pandemic changed those plans.

The restaurant and shopping options aren’t as plentiful in Natchez as they usually are. Plus, our favorite restaurant didn’t survive the pandemic, and we’re not going to be over that disappointment for a long time. So we went to New Orleans, where I felt like a big city girl in the Museum of Art, made a really poor lunch choice, wandered a Magazine Street antique store crammed with crockery and wished a barefoot, wild-eyed homeless man the best of luck in finding a ride to the shelter.

Pierre Landry was a woodcarver and plantation owner who is buried at St. Gabriel.

For the second day of my close-to-home birthday trip, we headed to Donaldsonville. It’s an only hour away but neither of us had ever been there. It’s an old city surrounded by sugarcane fields and industrial plants. The town itself has a downtown that’s seen better days and loads of old homes. Like most small towns in Louisiana, it’s a fading beauty of a place.

Then we headed back over the Sunshine Bridge and down River Road to St. Gabriel, one of Louisiana’s oldest settlement (now home to McMansions where former governors live and prisons where … , nah, I won’t make that joke since we’re rooting out corruption).

Here’s the thing about River Road in Louisiana. It’s frustrating. We zipped past the former leprosy colony (now home to the National Guard) and met the end of the road. River Road isn’t seamless. It dead ends in places. So you have to backtrack, detour and pick it up again. Think you can drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge along River Road? Recalibrate your thinking.

The church was closed, but I took a snapshot through one of the windows.

Anyhoo, we finally arrived in St. Gabriel, which holds the oldest church in the Louisiana Purchase. It’s a beautiful story. The Acadians were tossed out of Nova Scotia and scattered to the wind. Some made their way to the American colonies. Others ended up in English prisons or French slums. Many of those who survived (and many didn’t) settled in Louisiana, where they built a church from the native cypress trees. Through the years of hardship and loss, they never lost their faith. The testament to their faith stands to this day.

It’s a small church that still houses the original bell, stamped with the year 1768. Behind the wooden building is a cemetery that must hold far more graves than there are tombstones.

Not everyone buried at St. Gabriel during the 1800s was an Acadian. Above is the grave of Charles Dakin, whose brother designed the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Exactly why he’s buried at St. Gabriel is a mystery. Like his brother, Charles was an architect. They often worked as a team, designing hotels and churches in big cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Yet, here he is, in a country graveyard, among settlers. Like them, he found a resting place far from home.

2 thoughts on “The oldest church in the Louisiana Purchase”

  1. I understand there was some Spanish Forts located in what is now Western Louisiana. The purpose was to keep the French out of Spanish territory. We see how well those worked out.

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