When I first took a job in Convent, Louisiana, I did not know how much history and surprises that I would be exposed to just by going to work. My first trip down the River Road from the Sunshine Bridge to the Courthouse in Convent was unbelievable.
Things were different then. There were small stores and homes all along the way of the Mississippi River and though many of them were old they had a “charm” about them that is unique to St. James Parish. This “charm” is not apparent on the first visit. After living or working there a while one begins to understand – it is not something written in books but in the heart and mind. It is developed over time.
Things have now changed over the years and on a recent visit I found it hard to recognize what I thought would be familiar sights. Some of the old had been replaced and the new was foreign. Hymel’s was still there. Every Wednesday a group of us from the courthouse would travel here to eat lunch. It was usually a large hamburger steak and most of us would get the large gold fish bowl looking mug of cold beer.
Life was different here. It was a hard choice to go to Hymel’s. That meant we had to miss the lunch time Bourée game. Every day at lunch we ate our sandwiches in a few bites and then placed the tables together for our daily game of Bourée. What great fun and relaxation. The rules were rigged at a nickel a pot and a quarter if you booed. You couldn’t get rich or go broke with that – only have fun. The third floor lounge was filled with friends and laughter every day. Back during that time there were several large Live Oak Trees that graced the courthouse. Beautiful is all that comes to mind. The courthouse also had an amazing neighbor. A wonderful building with Doric columns that commanded the view from the River Road that passed in front. This was the Manresa Retreat.
When I first drove to Convent I was certainly enjoying the many Creole influenced homes and barns and whatever kind of structures along the way. Then all of sudden and unexpectedly, a tremendous three story building with the front lined in white columns grabbed all my attention. What is this, I thought? It was so majestic and beautiful that I just gazed at it without thinking. Many of the things in St. James were like that. You knew that just about everything was historical but that rarely entered your mind. The beauty of things occupied the mind. These special places were very much appreciated. They were part of the here and now and were a part of everyday life as far back as one could remember.
However, this large majestic building was a complete surprise. I soon learned that Manresa was a Catholic Retreat and that men could come there to mediate and be rejuvenated spiritually. I had never heard of such a thing. Later I learned that Manresa was not constructed as a retreat but once was a college. Jefferson College was its name. It would be years after I had left Convent before I really understood the history and significance of Manresa or Jefferson College.
Manresa was chartered in 1831 as the College of Jefferson. The present main building was constructed in 1842. On the front end of the property (nearest River Road) is the former Presidents home. It was built in 1836. Today it is known as Ignatius House. It is a reduced scale version of a Great River Road plantation home of the period. There is a difference in dates of the two structures because a fire destroyed the original Jefferson College building in 1841.
The main building is a three story English bond brick structure with a colossal Roman Doric order form gallery of twenty-one bays.Of course the main building was occupied from 1862 to 1864 by the Union forces during the War Between the States. In 1864 Valcour Aime, the owner of the property, transferred Jefferson College to Marist Fathers and the U.S. Government withdrew its troops. In 1864 Marist Fathers reestablished the college as “St. Mary’s Jefferson College.” St. Mary’s Jefferson College operated until 1927 at which time it was closed. In 1931 the Jesuit Fathers of New Orleans purchase Jefferson College and it was renamed “Manresa House of Retreats.” February 25 – March 2, 1931, the first retreat was held at Manresa under the direction of the Fathers of the Society of Jesus.
I guess we need to know some of the history of the place to gain a full appreciation of the buildings and property. However, when riding down River Road one need not know a thing about the place to be awed by the sight of this beautiful place along a section of what I would call a “Sleepy Section” of River Road.