Gertrude Rome Guidry and her late husband Francis were pros when it came to housing and feeding eight sons and two daughters in their four-bedroom Reserve farmhouse, built on 1,000 acres of sugar cane fields between Airline Highway and River Road.
Dinner meant the preparation of plate-stretching mounds of jambalaya or spaghetti, while breakfast entailed the scrambling of two dozen eggs – culled from chicken coops – and the toasting of an entire loaf of bread.
A second daily loaf was dedicated to the Guidry children’s school lunch: sandwiches laced with peanut butter and Gertrude’s homemade preserves.
Being a farming family, they also kept a prolific kitchen garden and cows for milking.
“My husband converted our front porch into a big closet for the boys. It had hanging space on the bottom and top and two chests of drawers,” reminisced Guidry, now 83. “When other kids came to play at our house, they said the closet looked like a department store.”
For these exponential acts of love and much more, Guidry, a 62-year parishioner of St. Peter Church in Reserve, has been named the 2017 Regina Matrum by the Council of Catholic School Cooperative Clubs. The award, which honors outstanding role models of Catholic motherhood, will be formally bestowed on Guidry at St. Peter Church on May 15, at a 7 p.m. Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think of myself in that role of receiving this award,” said Guidry, who was informed during announcements at Mass the weekend of Palm Sunday. “I was just overwhelmed,” Guidry said. “I had always read about the ladies who received that award in the Clarion and even earlier in the Catholic Action (newspaper). Each one was so unique!”
Guidry’s 10 children are Michelle G. Thames, 62; Francis Jr., 60; Edwin “E.J.”, 59; Stephen, 58; David, 56; Christopher, 54; Francine G. Schexnayder, 53; Barry, 51; Gregory, 47; and Leon, 43.
Rounding out the family are 31 grandchildren, 19 great grandchildren and an army of nieces and nephews – the result of Guidry and her husband each being one of 12 children themselves.
Prayed nightly family rosary
Born in the St. James civil parish community of Paulina, Guidry and her 11 siblings would gather around their parents’ bed every night to say the rosary before turning in.
“It made an impression on me, but it was just a natural thing for us to kneel down and say that rosary. There weren’t any extra fixtures around,” Guidry recalled. “It’s hard for kids to understand today, but back then, we walked on the levee as entertainment. Every evening all the neighbors came, and we would sit on the levee.”
Although educated in public schools, Guidry and her schoolmates received weekly religious instruction from a visiting priest.
“Our teachers were all Catholic and very devout, so every morning we would stand up and say our prayers,” Guidry said. “We were able to walk to church from school and we would be sent to confession once a month. We were a very Catholic community.”
Love and sugar cane
After high school graduation, Guidry, then living with her family in Gramercy, was working as a teller at a Kenner bank when she met her future husband, Francis, in a dance hall. They married in 1954 and were happily united through Francis Guidry’s death in 2012.
“He came in and asked me to dance, and first thing you know he came around. Our first date was an LSU game, and the rest is history,” said Guidry, who accompanied her new husband to Killeen, Texas, so he could complete his army service at Fort Hood.
Upon their return to Louisiana, the couple, with their firstborn child in tow, began the work that would constitute their livelihood through the mid-1990s: working on Francis Guidry’s third-generation sugar cane farm.
“(My husband) woke up at 4:30 and was out in the fields for 5. It was back (home) for breakfast, back for lunch and then he would come home around 6 p.m.,” Guidry said, noting that during the busy October-to-December harvest season she would pile all her children into the car to take meals to the fields.
“If it was raining and he couldn’t work, one of us would go to Mass that day while the other stayed with the kids. There was always a baby – two or three,” Guidry said, smiling. “(Sugar cane farming) was a very hard life with little compensation. There was the worry of not being able to harvest your crop. If the freeze came early, the whole crop was destroyed because sugar cane cannot take freezing weather. If you were lucky you were finished before Christmas. If not, you had to work Christmas Day, through New Year’s, until you finished.”
Faith in God sustains family
Through it all, Guidrys were able to educate their children in Catholic elementary and high schools, armed with the faith that “everything was gonna turn out well and that we were gonna be able to take care of our family,” Guidry said. To supplement their income, the Guidrys operated a crawfish farm and charged dove enthusiasts to use their property as hunting grounds after the winter harvest.
“Some years it was very good, and some years it was very bad. One year, the freeze came early and we lost a lot of sugar cane,” Guidry said. “We just had to be sure that we saved enough money to sustain us when we would have a bad year.”
Accident changed son’s life
In June 1983, the happy regimentation of farm and family was shattered when Gertrude Guidry received the worst phone call of her life: Her son, David, then 21, had been struck by a car as he was crossing a road in St. Amant, Louisiana.
“David was walking with a group of people after dinner and everybody waited (to cross) except him. He dashed out thinking he could make it,” relates Guidry.
Although he didn’t suffer a single broken bone, the accident left David with permanent brain damage. After four months in a Baton Rouge hospital and other rehab facilities, a doctor told Gertrude and Francis Guidry they had three options: to continue to have David rehabilitated, with the odds of his improvement slim to none; to institutionalize their son; or to care for him at home.
The Guidrys immediately chose the third option, hoping David’s daily interaction with his siblings – the youngest who was 9 – would do him some good.
“He never improved, but he is still alive. Everybody tells me it’s because of the care he gets at home,” said Guidry, who continues to care for her wheelchair-bound son in a specially outfitted home in Reserve purchased in 1991. Although David can no longer eat on his own, Guidry is convinced he recognizes his family members and finds joy in his one-word answers to some questions.
Embracing her crosses
“It was very difficult to accept. I just knew that I had to keep my faith and not let it waver because David needed it,” said Guidry, who cares for her son with the help of three rotating caregivers.
“A priest asked me about this and I said, ‘Father, maybe David is going to take us all to heaven. Maybe we have been given this cross because it’s the only way we’re going get to heaven,’” she said.
Fortifying her is the rosary, a daily practice from her childhood on which she raised her own 10 children.
Although all her children except for David have left the nest, Guidry continues to hold a weekly rosary in her home.
“It just really brings me peace and I know my prayers are being answered from that rosary,” she said. “How could I have done what I’ve done all those years without that? It’s not me!
“I’ve been so fortunate, even with my two tragedies – I call my husband’s death my second tragedy. It helped me to accept all that,” she said.
“Nobody has an idea of what it is to raise 10 children. It’s not a burden, but it’s a very hard job,” added Guidry offering the following advice to parents of all sizes of families: “Know that God will take care of you. He’s not going bring you any more than you can handle.”
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.