By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Fire, floods, yellow fever and a triple murder are all part of the history of St. John the Baptist Church in Edgard, just west of New Orleans on the Mississippi River’s west bank.
A chapel named St. John the Baptist first appeared as early as 1723-24 in a farming area on the second Cote des Allemands (German Coast, named for those of German descent who settled here on high ground), according to a 1970s history written by parishioner Warren F. Caire, Ed.D., and also in “The Catholic Church in Louisiana,” written by Roger Baudier.
St. John the Baptist (1772) is the third-oldest Catholic church parish in the archdiocese; St. Louis Cathedral (1718) is the first, and St. Charles Borromeo, Destrehan (1723), is the second.
St. John’s first permanent church, made of cypress, opened in 1772 on four arpents (about four acres) of property expropriated from bachelor Jacques DuBroc by the Spanish authorities when Louisiana was a Spanish colony. Spanish Capuchin Father Bernardo de Limpach was its first pastor. The first church records indicate a marriage between Antoine Manz and Sibylla Bischof in 1772.
Capuchin Father Cirilo de Barcelona was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Santiago (Cuba) and became the first resident Louisiana bishop. Caire wrote he left Havana and visited here in December 1785.
Bishop sees restored church
The Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas was established in 1793. In 1795, extensive repairs costing $900 were made to St. John the Baptist Church, and the following year, Bishop Luis Peñalver y Cárdenas made a pastoral visit.
In 1819, a flood swept the area near Taft and destroyed the early church. A new church constructed of homemade brick was built on the same spot for $146,000, with the cornerstone blessed by Father Louis Sibourd, vicar general, in 1820. The church was consecrated in March 1822 by Bishop Louis DuBourg, assisted by St. John the Baptist pastor, Oratorian Father Vito Modestus Mina, a native of Turin, Italy, who spoke fluent French.
Yellow fever peril
A yellow fever epidemic in 1853 decimated the area, killing one in 13 people, Caire said, including St. John’s associate pastor, Father Edward Legendre. That left Father Mina to help surviving parishioners. Father Mina was pastor for 47 years, beginning in 1817, and was buried near the church altar in 1864.
Another interesting piece of parish history – similar to the dispute between the wardens of St. Louis Cathedral with Bishop Antoine Blanc in 1844 – was the clash of church lay trustees (marguilliers) with its pastor, Father Alexander Juille.
The trustees took control of the church and had Father Juille arrested sometime between 1899-1904. The Archdiocese of New Orleans closed the church for a time, with no services, sacraments or even funerals allowed. St. John the Baptist reopened in 1904, according to Caire’s second written history. Differing accounts further a legend that Father Juille put a 100-year curse on the church, while others show he forgave the trustees.
New church built
On March 19, 1918, fire destroyed the church, and a new Roman Renaissance-style, 500-seat church was built, incorporating the surviving church bells. Rich farmers and nearby plantation owners helped build it “debt-free,” Caire said.
Archbishop John Shaw consecrated the church on Oct. 28, 1920. It is 143 feet long, 60 feet wide, 55 feet tall and has twin towers, 85 feet high.
Caire pointed out special church features including an altar and Communion rails made of Italian Carrara marble. German-made stained glass represent the mysteries of the rosary, St. Francis of Assisi, active parish groups such as St. Vincent de Paul and St. Margaret Mary (Sacred Heart devotion) and the parish’s French influence with St. Joan of Arc.
Father Theophile Stenmans, pastor from 1917-33, established the Knights of Peter Claver and its women’s auxiliary for African Americans and erected a school for black children.
In 1954, Father Gerard Pelletier conducted a church census, revealing 164 white Catholic families with 685 persons; and 306 black Catholic families with 1,367 people. He developed a “modus vivendi” – an agreement allowing parties in conflict to peacefully coexist – in which St. John the Baptist had a second congregation called St. Peter Claver to accommodate black parishioners.
“We still have a Mass on the feast day of St. Peter Claver,” Caire said.
In 1962, Coadjutor Archbishop John Cody declared having two congregations in one parish was not acceptable, and St. John the Baptist was again united. Caire said the records show that the Ushers’ Society of the parish held its first integrated meeting a week later. By 1965, Father James Caillouet, pastor, said the church was totally integrated.
Father Pelletier catalogued and microfilmed church records in 1952-54. Father Dudley Darbonne redesigned the church sanctuary after Vatican II, and parishioner Louis Tassin built a wood altar still in use today.
The 1975 murders of three people – Father J. Alcide Clement, Sister Mary Patrick Harrington and housekeeper Leah LeJeune – shocked the parish and Edgard community. Church sexton Leopold St. Pierre was pistol-whipped inside the church but recovered.
Archbishop Philip Hannan celebrated a Funeral Mass for Father Clement and Sister Mary Patrick on May 9, 1975, and LeJeune’s funeral was celebrated in Kenner. A memorial plaque is inside the church, and money was donated for burses to educate priests and nuns.
Today, the parish has about 425 families, an active Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver, a Ladies’ Altar Society and a strong catechism program up to 11th grade. Religious education coordinator and synod representative Veronica Alexander said religious education has always been a parish priority, with approximately 100 students annually in its catechetical program led by volunteer catechists with five to 25 years or more of experience, many whose parents were catechists.
“The influence of religion is so deeply rooted in the lives of our parishioners because of the richness of faith and the values passed down from generation to generation,” Alexander said. “Many who serve in the church ministries today share experiences and stories of times shared with elders. They encourage today’s youth to stay involved, so they’ll have their own stories of faith and evangelization to pass along.”
Caire also mentioned the community-oriented nature of St. John the Baptist and its long-standing tradition of parish suppers for needy families, with the best cooks participating.
“It’s a special place in the archdiocese,” Caire said. “Msgr. (Winus) Roeten talked about it as having a special charism where the faith is alive and strong. Even when times are difficult – like the yellow fever, priest’s killing and integration – the faith was there and strong, and it was passed on through strong family life. You see that at church – mothers, fathers and families together.”
Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.