I’ve driven past this church for years. It’s off a state highway that runs through Napoleonville. That little archway has always beckoned me. This weekend I finally pulled over and explored the world behind it.
Long weekends are made for rambles. This is Christ Episcopal, which was designed by an NYC architect. For some reason, he wanted it to have the feel of an English country church even though it’s in a Louisiana country town. This church was an English-speaking oasis in French-speaking Napoleonville.
A cemetery is at the back of the church. This lovely statue holds watch over the graves, all of them magnificent even though some are crumbling.
The church dates to 1853 and was built at a cost of $9,500. Time hasn’t always been kind to it. During the Civil War, Union soldiers used it as a barracks and later a stable. The stained glass became a target for shooting practice.
The creation of the church was a true collaboration by the Episcopal members of a largely Catholic community. Napoleonville was very Cajun in the 1850s, but a few residents weren’t Catholic and they wanted their own church. New Hampshire native Ebeneezer Eaton Kittredge donated a corner of his plantation for the church and cemetery. Col. William Whitmell Pugh supplied the cypress and bricks. George Ament oversaw the construction and is buried in the church cemetery.
The original congregation numbered just 21 members. Not all were Episcopalian. Some were Catholics who wanted to participate in “so great a good.” Let’s face it: They were probably curious.
After the war, the congregation pulled together once again. They held church services in the courthouse down the road while rebuilding their ruin of a church.
The church would later be struck by lightning and ravaged by other acts of nature. Still, it endured.
At times, the church has been a bit of a hotbed for controversy. One clergyman, Quincy Ewing, embraced women’s suffrage and the equality of black people during the early 1900s. Enraged by a sermon on women’s suffrage, U.S. Sen. Walter Guion stormed out and quit the church. Ewing survived the controversy, largely because his family donated the land for the church.
Today, Christ Episcopal is one of the oldest Episcopal churches west of the Mississippi River. The grounds were quiet when we visited. We ignored the “private property” sign, kept to the pathways and respected the serene beauty. Hopefully, we didn’t offend.
Not far from downtown Baton Rouge is what’s locally called the old Catholic cemetery. The official name is St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery.
The oldest markers date to 1827. However, it probably contains the remains of people who died as early as the 1790s. The cemetery used to be located in downtown Baton Rouge until the stench prompted its move. The reburials were placed in the new cemetery’s Section 1.
The cemetery has a website and a fascinating plot map. There’s even a newsletter and a Facebook page. The dedication to preserving the final resting place of so many of Baton Rouge’s early settlers is touching.
My grandmother devoted decades to genealogy research – mostly concentrating on Texas, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Missouri. However, since she moved to Louisiana in her late 20s and became friendly with other genealogy buffs in Terrebonne Parish, her files include stray Louisiana genealogy notes. I’ve been looking through her files to preserve them, and I keep finding Easter eggs.
Today, for example, I found a typed list of some of the graves in the “Catholic Graveyard – Gibson, Louisiana.” The list is typed on the kind of transparent paper I used in high school to write to my overseas pen pal in Sweden because it was light and cheap to mail. Now, I should caution that this list comes with a lot of unknowns. I don’t know who typed it. I don’t know who sharpened a pencil and made notes in the margins. I don’t know what the source was. What I do know is the list contains graves that aren’t in evidence today.
The Catholic Graveyard – Gibson, Louisiana is St. Patrick Catholic Cemetery along the bayou in the Terrebonne Parish village of Gibson. My grandparents from the other side of the family are buried there so I visit periodically to put plastic flowers on their graves.
Visiting the cemetery was one of the highlights of childhood visits to Gibson because we had to cross the bridge to reach it. The single-car bridge had a pedestrian bridge that hovered right above the water. It was metal, which rang like rain on a tin roof when you ran across it. Very satisfying to tiny feet – and we always walked to the cemetery. Gibson was fun in those days: a country store with gingerbread planks, a post office with a rows of gleaming postal boxes, a circular library and the cemetery.
I know just about every grave in that cemetery because I spent a lot of time studying them while Granny whitewashed my grandfather’s grave. I’ve never seen the Schmitt plot.
Joseph Schmitt married Lizzie Templet, who was the baby sister of my great-great grandmother. Joseph worked at the lumber mill in Gibson. Lizzie busied herself having six children. Lizzie’s life wasn’t a long one. She died age 42 in Gibson. Her youngest would have been 12. Joseph died a few years later.
Like I said, there is no Schmitt plot in the Gibson cemetery. Except – according to the notes in my grandmother’s files – there once was an enclosed plot for them. I’m not certain what’s meant by an enclosed plot. But apparently, Joe, Lizzie, sons Ed and Louis and daughter Julia and her husband are all buried in it.
Here’s the thing: Markers aren’t permanent. They have to be maintained. It’s possible I’ve walked past the Schmitt graves without realizing it because the markers are unreadable or the caretaker knocked a mower into them.
Never rely just on markers when doing genealogy research. Look at burial records if they exist. Study old genealogy magazines for grave lists. Sometimes, families couldn’t afford a marker. Other times, markers disappear.
Certainly, the next time I’m in Gibson, I’ll look for an “enclosed plot” with unreadable or missing markers. I’d like to leave some flowers for my vanished relatives.
La Balize (The Balize) hasn’t existed since the 1860s, when a hurricane swept it away once and for all. It was probably never a good idea to build a settlement where the Mississippi River pours into the Gulf of Mexico, but sometimes you have to learn things the hard way.
Balize once stood as the first port of entry in the Mississippi Valley. The Gulf tends to reclaim land at the deepest end of Louisiana, and that’s what happened to Balize.
Hurricanes battered the settlement until it was finally abandoned for good in the 1860s.
The last resident was a woman named Mrs. C. Laurie, who remembered a time when the town had three grocery stores, a dry goods store, a town hall and a fine church. Laurie called the town home from 1844 to 1862. She said she stayed three days longer than anyone else because her husband was looking for a good home for their relocation.
Only the dead stayed behind for good in a cemetery that now lies under the Gulf of Mexico. Balize was once home to 800 people. People were born there and died there. Others came from the East Coast or as far away as Ireland to find their final resting place at the tip Louisiana.
By 1921, all that remained of Balize were a few markers (the rest were lost in the marsh). One bore the name Joseph, son of Captain Joseph and Jemima Preble, died September 2, 1852, aged eight months, 25 days. That tomb probably has also slipped under the water.
We know about baby Joseph’s tomb because the New Orleans Item (a newspaper that no longer exists) sent someone to find the little cemetery in the marsh and record what remained.
The reporter also found markers for:
William Holliday, born June 3, 1837. Died March 30, 1841. Son of Robert and Mary Holliday.
Mary Holliday (young William’s mother) died in the 25th year of her age in the 5th day of April, 1844. Wife of Robert.
Susan Mitchell, wife of John Perrin. Born August 14, 1825. Died Sept. 7, 1843. Aged 18 years and 18 days. Remembered as someone loved who was snatched away.
Evelina Lemont, wife of Thomas Ruiz. Born at the Balize, Louisiana. Died Nov.30, 1860, aged 19 years, five months and four days.
Jourdan Yarborough, born Jan. 25, 1826. Died July 19, 1857. (a newspaper report from 1857 indicates he was a branch pilot who died suddenly of what appeared to be yellow fever).
John Parker, died on the 8th day of October 1848. Aged 37. A native of Boston, Mass.
Edward Taylor, son of Asa and Eliza S. Payson. Died March 5, 1818. Age 16 months and 21 days.
Margaret McNulty. Born August 7, 1817. Died July 19, 1842. In 1921, a bright crimson oleander bush adorned her grave.
Julia Glenon, consort of William Ellis. A native of County Westmeath, Ireland. Died at The Balize July 18, 1847, aged 58 years.
Josephine Barbara Ross, only child of James Baag and Adrionna Beaulard Ross. Born in the city of Savannah, Georgia, on the 15th day of June 1833, and died at The Balize, Louisiana, August the sixth, 1844.
Charlotte Webster, consort of H.B. Webster. Died Sept. 24, 1843, aged 38 years. A native of New York.
Other newspaper articles reveal others buried there:
Sarah Taboo, died at Balize in 1845.
Mary Jane Lamont, died in 1848.
Cyrus Lamont, a native of France and a branch pilot in New Orleans, who died in 1852.
John Sprigg, died in a steamboat explosion in 1840.
Anna Maria, daughter of Joseph and Jemima Preble. Died Nov. 2, 1859, aged 3 years, 3 months, 5 days.
John Bennett, died in 1857 during a voyage from New York onboard the Rebecca.
Paul Lucie (son of Francois Lucie and Catherine Cap Chedome). Born May 5, 1800. Died June 11, 1841. (This is taken from church records, which note he died as a result of wounds received at Bayou Lime-Klim by the troops of Gen. Smith. There seemed to have been some debate on whether he was a pirate).
Finally, the following were probably buried at Balize since they died there. Diocese of New Orleans records are unclear:
Joseph Rios (son of Juan Rios and Agueda Carballo). A native of Palma in the Canary Islands. 46 years old. A sailor. A bachelor. Died April 20, 1791.
Antonio de la Ossa (son of Balthasar de la Ossa and Magdalena de la Ossa). Native of Granada. 77 years old. A sailor. A bachelor. Died Oct. 11, 1791.
Juan Garcia. A sailor. Died April 17, 1794.
Miguel Nabarro (son of Joseph Nabarro and Maria del Rosario De Roxas). A native of Cuba. 53 years old. A sailor. A bachelor. Died May 6, 1795.
In 1935, when someone cataloged the graves in St. Andrew’s Cemetery in Amelia, my great-grandmother didn’t make the list even though she died in 1917.
There’s a reason for that. Isabelle didn’t get a marker until 1969, when her brother died. It was a nice thought to include her, but my granny was dismayed when she looked at the marker. She knew she was 4 – not 5 – when her mother died. Isabelle died in August 1917, not July 1918. Oh, well. At least there’s a marker for her in the little cemetery along the bayou in St. Mary Parish.
The 1935 list of graves is valuable because graves deteriorate over time. Sometimes they become unreadable. Other times, the maintenance man knocks them with the weedeater. Stuff happens.
The list also is valuable because it’s annotated. That means someone added genealogy notes about the dead: who their parents were, who their spouses were, where they were born. These were just what little tidbits they knew.
So, think about stretching beyond findagrave. Look on usgenweb for cemetery lists or thumb through old genealogy periodicals. Often, you’ll find annotated cemetery lists made by people who are long gone themselves.
Among the odder things I’ve learned during endless amounts of time at home during the pandemic: There’s a travel forum discussion about whether it’s taboo to drink martinis in cemeteries.
When I saw the thread, I instantly knew what the inspiration was. It’s been years since I read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” but I vividly remember the scene in which an old woman mixes up a silver shaker of martinis and heads to the cemetery for an afternoon sit. It’s one of the few things I do remember about the book. Long-term memory has never been my strength.
However, I can understand the desire to spend a lazy afternoon wandering a cemetery. I don’t bring a martini shaker with me, but I always enjoy looking at the markers and wondering about the people buried there. Those markers tell a lot of stories, from women who died with their babies in childbirth to young men who went off to war and returned home in a wooden box.
Quite often, I bring the dog with me. And I do wonder if that’s taboo. She trots down the rows and gazes longingly at the woods or the cane fields (depending on which cemetery I’ve chosen). I let her run around to her heart’s content until she forgets herself and jumps onto a whitewashed vault. Then the leash goes back on and we go home.
It’s a good idea to visit cemeteries. A virtual visit to findagrave is useful but not the same.
Cemeteries are like little villages, especially in Louisiana, which is famed for burying the dead above the ground (we’re slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico). To me, our above ground tombs look like little houses. They’re fascinating.
My husband comes from a farming family. Because land was in abundance, they have a family cemetery on part of the farm. He used to wander the cemetery as a child and developed a fascination with a grave decorated with marbles.
In New Orleans, you can take tours to visit the more famous cemeteries. A tour is actually a good idea. People have been robbed in these cemeteries. Welcome to New Orleans.
I tend to visit cemeteries in Plattenville and Gibson, where family members are buried. One of these days, if I ever win the lottery, I’ll fix the crumbling family tomb in Plattenville and put a marker that lists everyone interred in it.
For now, I just wander the aisles and put flowers on my grandparents’ graves while the dog dreams of chasing field mice.
Cemeteries don’t have to be a sad place, even if you forget your martini shaker at home.
I found a book at the library the other day on the history of Catholic churches in Louisiana. I couldn’t locate my reading glasses so I borrowed a magnifying glass from the librarian and started perusing (no, it can’t be that I’m getting older; the type is getting smaller).
From the book, I learned that records for St. Patrick in Gibson only go back to 1887 even though it was a mission church as far back as 1845. Services apparently were held before a church existed.
The first entry for the Gibson church was for a burial. An African-American woman named Melia was buried in November 1887. No mention is made of her surname.
Father Hebert’s books note Melia’s death and burial.
This is all we’ll probably ever know about Melia. Her contribution to history is being a first – and only having a first name.
Newspaper writers of bygone years could be a little flowery – or Victorian – in their writing. Still, this is an interesting tour of the Ascension of Our Lord cemetery in Donaldsonville from “The Donaldsonville Chief.” I’ve added modern photos.
All Saints’ Day–The Principal Tombs and Decorations in the Catholic cemetery —
“There is no more beautiful custom in the Catholic religion than the observance of All Saints’ Day, which has been set apart by the Church to the memory of the saints
and is a feast of obligation as regards attending divine service and abstaining from
manual labor. The peculiar and touching custom of decorating the last resting places
of loved ones who have fallen under the relentless hand of the great reaper is essentially Southern, and has been of late years observed by nearly all religious denominations.
The old Catholic Cemetery of Donaldsonville, where sleep so many of its founders, contains numerous handsome and costly tombs and monuments, as well as poor and humble ones, but both classes alike bore evidence that those who rest within still live,
hallowed in loving hearts and undying memories. The cemetery is approached by
a long grassy walk, bordered on each side with tall, widespreading willows, and ere
the visitor has reached the gates of the hallowed enclosure, the mellowed light, the
hush and solitude seem to shut him away solemnly from all the outer world.
Just beyond the entrance, to the right of central avenue down which we look upon
passing through the gates, is the Bringier tomb, a square, granite mausoleum, the
largest in the cemetery, in which lie members of the Bringier, Tureaud, Kenner and
Colomb families. It was simply decorated here and there with natural flowers, and in
one corner of the railed enclosure stood a bundle of sugar cane, bound like a sheaf of
wheat. A compartment in the side of the tomb devoted to the Colomb family had
been but a few days before opened to receive the remains of Marie Louise Colomb,
who had been snatched away from earthly life at the age of 15, before she had tasted
either its joys or sorrows. Immediately opposite the Bringier tomb, on the other side
of the avenue, is the tomb of Mrs. Antoine D. Vega, one of the few in the graveyard
that bears a poetical inscription.
In front of the O’Malley tomb, a little further down the avenue, a broken column
of snowy white told a pathetic tale of a bright young life cut off in all its promise,
and bore the simple inscription, “John O’Malley.”
On the Wilson tomb near by was carved the name of Mary Armide Theresa Wilson,
aged 10 months. Loving hands had tenderly placed sweets flowers here, fragrant as
the fleeting perfume of her life, weaving them about the marble slab which bore up
on its face the indelible letters telling of the time when Christ suffered them to come unto Him.
Further along a black marble headstone told of Doctor A. Maszke, Baron of Elpenbein, a native of Mariampol, Pologne, who died far from home and loved ones, a poltical exile from his native land.
The family tombs of Jean Dominique, Comstock, Simon Braud, Dr. Theo. Webre, Robt. Coquille, Guedry, Matthew Couughlin and Louis Dalmas are among the most conspicuous in this portion of the cemetery, the two last named attracting especial attention by their decorations and the flowers and shrubs growing around them.
On a flat, old-fashioned ” table tomb” was traced the name of Eloi Melancon, grass-grown and mossy, as if preparing for a final plunge into oblivion.
The beautiful Gothic sepulchre of the Andrews family, the antebellum owners of Evan Hall, is constructed of finest marble and attracts immediate attention.
Near the end of the middle avenue are grouped the tombs of several branches of the Duffel family, all bedecked with natural flowers.
At the termination of the avenue rises the great mission cross so recently erected, and
near its base, surrounded by an ornamental iron railing, repose the remains of the Sisters of Charity who have breathed their last within the peaceful walls of the St. Vincent
Institute. In the centre of the enclosure rests the revered Sister Mary Austin, whose
grave is surmounted by an imposing headstone erected by the ladies of the parish,
many of whom were her pupils in bygone years. Two large urns, bearing the initials
E. J. and M. V. respectively, and filled with blooming chrysanthemums, composed the
offerings to this gentle religieusd, whose good deeds and kindly excellence will never
fade from the memory of those who knew and honored her in life. Within the shadow of the cross she served so faithfully she sleepeth well.
Turning now to the left we pass the tombs of J. LeBlanc, E. Bujol, T. Landry and Hubert Treille, all newly cleaned and decorated. Below these a spacious iron-railed enclosure contains two old tombs said to bear the names of Pedesclaux and Winchester. Weeds and wild flowers hold high carnival here; coarse coxcombs have thrust their gaudy heads through fissures in the brickwork, and from the gnarled branches of a leafless tree, trembling and swaying with every passing breeze, there hang the dismantled remnants of a forsaken nest.
Adjacent to this neglected spot is the tall and stately Landry sepulchre, the most conspicuous in the cemetery, wherein lie the remains of members of the old Landry and
Duffel families. A stray shell injured a corner of this structure during the war, and
for many years a great hole in the mason work disfigured it, but the place has been
neatly repaired and no longer serves as a reminder of the time when the passions of
the living marred even the tranquil slumber of the dead. At the entrance of this
mausoleum a headstone marks the resting place of Father Herman Stucke. Father
Tichitoli was also buried here in an upright position; in conformity. with his dying re
quest, the slab above him forming one of the steps of the Landry tomb, but the remains have lately been relocated to the enclosure belonging to the Sisters.
Turning again to the left and coming up the lower avenue, we pass tombs bearing
the familiar names of LeBlanc, Ayraud, David Israel, Mollere and Hatkinson-four
of the latter in a group-Tournillion, Randall, Dugas, Brand, Rlanchard and others
equally well known and prominent in this community.
One simple headboard, graced with a posy of white marguerites, bore the name of
Ada Terrio; not many among us have forgotten the gentle girl who, then buddiing
into beauteous womanhood, faltered and left us by the way.
Near here is the beautiful Bethancourt tomb, recently enlarged and improved. A
shaft of white marble has been erected, and four urns, one at each corner of the
burial plot. At the foot of the stone a tiny cross appears, ” Erected to the memory of
Little Arthur,” a nephew of the gentleman who had these lovely testimonials placed in
position-Mr. L. S. Bethancourt, for many years a resident of Panama, who visited his
native land not long ago.
Many imposing tombs are situated in this vicinity. That of Jean Baptiste Gaudin, a
large granite structure, is very conspicuous, and so are two of similar device bearing the
names of Aristide Landry and D’Ignace Dugas. The tomb of H. S. Boudreaux and
his little daughter Adele was tastefully decorated as also was that of Michael Keating. Both were freshly whitewashed and covered with natural flowers.
Near the upper end of the front cross avenue, to the right of the entrance, are several handsome tombs, notably that of the Seyfried family, in which repose the remains of Gottlieb Seyfried, Mrs. Baptiste Walker and Mrs. Patrick Reddington, the last named of whom but a few short weeks ago crossed the shadowy path which separates time from eternity.
All through the cemetery the eye is met by old tombs fast falling into decay; the.
bricks, green and dank with age, are covered with a tangle of wild verdure, as if nature’s tender hand had sought to hide the touch of time. Some bear, in letters that are fast passing away, inscriptions dated as far back as 1836; others have faded, decaying decorations, dried and withered flowers that crack and crumble at the touch,
but too plainly indicating that the gentle hands which placed them there have long
since fallen to dust. On one such Mecca of earthly hopes appears the legend, ” Une
epouse et une mere inconsolable.”
Almost all the decorations were of natural flowers, though a few clung to the old
style of paper and bead wreaths. Some tiny mounds simply bore branches of evergreen
laid across the top, showing that mothers still lived and cherished the memory of
these “babes that never grow old.”
The quaint, curious custom of burning candles before the graves was observed in many instances, and very gruesome these flickering points of light looked, shining out in the gathering twilight. The huge cross threw heavy shadows, touching with wavering fingers the last homes of those “gathered within the fold;” and the sweet tones of the Angelus bells broke musically upon the evening air, ringing la Toussand of 1885 into the annals of the past.”
My husband’s family hails from the Grand Coteau area. It’s a beautiful town with an absolutely gorgeous church and homes. We visited the graveyard to see the stones for my husband’s grandfather and assorted relatives.
Here’s my modest list of just a fraction of the graves:
Adolph Guilbeau, March 8, 1900-Jan. 3, 1984
Laura B. Guilbeau, May 20, 1900-Dec. 11, 1974
Onesiphore Broussard, died Jan. 31, 1881, age 40
Nita Guilbeau Dugas, Jan. 14, 1881-Oct. 14, 1978
Zenon J. Dugas, July 24, 1888-Nov. 17, 1928
Lionel Guilbeau, Aug. 7, 1891-July 1, 1946
Dr. Ben Joseph Guilbeau, Sept. 3, 1860-Aug. 4, 1935
Natolia Castille Guilbeau, April 16, 1891-March 18, 1994
Saul Guilbeau, June 25, 1873-April 13, 1916
Dr. Felix C. Guilbeau, Aug. 29, 1877-July 13, 1931
Edmond C. Guilbeau, died Aug. 14, 1931
Ernest Guilbeaux, June 19, 1860-Feb. 17, 1925
Marie Thelma Durden, 1928-1962
Mrs. Oge Guilbeau, 1898-1996 (mother of Marie Thelma Durden)