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Lacombe, Louisiana – All Saint’s Day – La Toussaint

10 Nov

Cleaned and Painted Graves, Flowers, and Candles are All Part of the All Saint's Day Observance in Cemeteries in Lacombe, Louisiana

Louisiana is a place of contradictions – or at least it may appear that way to the outsider.  Many of us that live here even have a hard time figuring it all out but as time goes on we learn.  The great river, The Mississippi River, has sculpted and shaped our landscape but is also responsible for shaping our culture and even our lives.  The river brought many cultures together along its banks.  These diverse cultures found a way to live together and to create a unique common culture.  This blended culture at times appears to be contradictory in many respects but in fact it is the glue that keeps us together.

In Louisiana we have a hedonistic celebration called Mardi Gras but then we also have observances that I would classify as very spiritual. New Orleans, and south Louisiana, have become the cradle of Mardi Gras but this location is also famous for its All Saint’s Day observance.  Louisiana is a very spiritual place and these roots run deep among most of the cultures that call this place home.  So, many people and cultures that have come to this place have seen their customs and traditions blended over time.  Many of those cultural traditions are expressed through religious venues.

A religious tradition associated with south Louisiana is the observance of All Saint’s Day.  November 1st finds many cemeteries clean and sparkling and filled with beautiful flowers and with people.  Some communities even have night-time observances, with the lighting of candles, in their cemeteries.

Priests Prepare to Bless the Graves

In the community of Lacombe, Louisiana, the newly cleaned and painted and whitewashed tombs welcome visitors on the first of November.  Most of the graves have also been decorated with lovely flowers and other expressions of love.  However, as dusk approaches more solemnity comes over the people and it is not long before the priests are there with robes and water and are walking through the cemetery blessing the graves.  After the procession of the priests through the rows of pretty graves it is time for the candles. White candles are placed around most of the graves and are lit.  As evening and night become established the cemeteries take on a beautiful glow from the many candles.  Children, usually relatives of the deceased, hurry to light the candles at some plots.  At others it is more of a ritual.

Although many of those that come to the cemeteries on November 1 are observers, the occasion is for the living family members that have relatives buried there.  They perform their rituals, or observances, and it matters not if people are there to watch.  What is done is between the relatives, the living and the dead, others are welcome to watch but those participating pay them little mind until the proper time.

At LaFontaine Cemetery, in Lacombe, the relatives of the dead tell the stories of their family members that have died.  They relate the hardships and joys that their families have experienced through the generations.  They young children listen intently.  The children also have participated in preparing for this day and they look eager to help when the candle lighting starts.  In a few years some of them will be standing where their parents and grandparents are now standing and telling the same stories about their families.  They will become the guardians of a great tradition and of family knowledge.  It is a wonderful thing to see those that are living honor the lives of those that have died.

Woman Relates Family History, and Some Personal Notes, About Her Relatives in LaFiontaine Cemetery in Lacombe, Louisiana

I guess in some respects many people think that this night is an observance of the dead.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The night is to honor and to remember the lives of family members that have departed – what a great way to honor the memory or relatives and to pass on that memory and respect to future generations.   Those in attendance, just to observe, learn of the things that are important to the families from this region.  Things like what brought their relatives to this place, and the hardships and triumphs that the family has faced.  After listening to many stories and looking at the decorated graves it seems somewhat odd to me that World War 2 has now become a part of the past.  It was so real to my generation.  Many of the graves have pictures of the deceased placed on them and the pictures are of soldiers that are wearing the uniforms of the  United States Military.

Many of the men and women in the cemeteries served in the United States armed forces and all seem to have been honored to serve and many are still honored for their service on this occasion.   If one listens carefully they will understand that most that came to this place had different backgrounds and cultures.  However, they blended into one culture over time but at the same time retained elements of their own family’s cultural heritage.

The cultural heritage of south Louisiana is unique in many respects.  The Mississippi River attracted people from all over the world yet the people lived among each other.  In New Orleans there weren’t strictly Italian neighborhoods, or German neighborhoods, or French neighborhoods among the immigrants.  They lived among each other. There was a gradual blending of the cultures but at the same time families of different cultures maintained some of their own cultural expressions.  There was cultural give and take.  That explanation is a little simplistic and leaves out the problems and hardships that took place among different groups but in the end it resulted in a common blended  culture, sort of like a gumbo, with all the ingredients mixed but at the same time separate.  In a good seafood gumbo the oysters and shrimp and the crabs all retain their distinct identify but they are in that gumbo together.

Both Flat and Tapered Candles Adorn This Grave

The observance of All Saints has changed down through the years.  I have read and heard stories of how great and important the observance was in New Orleans and yet I am not sure what goes on during All Saints in the city these days.  The lighting of candles, in New Orleans, has been forbidden because of the threat of fire.  At one time it was a great religious and social tradition.  So many people were going to the cemeteries that vendors offered special foods and treats and had carts outside many of the cemeteries. Women gathered and prayed and talked and of course there was plenty of peer pressure to keep the family cemetery plot clean and decorated.

A Cleaned and Decorated Plot is Ready for a Night of Candle Light

In the region around New Orleans, and in French influenced areas, All Saints is also called Le Toussaint.  Le Toussaint and/or All Saints has been observed in Louisiana for over 200 years.  It is still with us.  Much of the drama and the tremendous throngs of people in the cemetery has slipped into the past.  In New Orleans it was not uncommon to have thousands of people in one cemetery.  In Lacombe the crowds in some of the cemeteries may approach 100. In the areas outside of Lacombe there are tens or maybe dozens of people. Small scale stuff compared to the past. I have to remind myself that this is an important family observance for the local people and not for me – the outsider. This observance would take place regardless if outsiders attended or not.

Although All Saint’s Day is not the social occasion that it once was in south Louisiana it is still an important ritual and observance.  In my opinion the candle lighting will go on for more generations in Lacombe and other areas around the state.  Mums will continue to decorate many graves on November 1st.  As mentioned earlier many things in Louisiana are spiritual in nature and that spirit is alive and well for the time being in Lacombe, Louisiana.

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Jackson, Louisiana – Old Centenary College

14 Sep

The West Wing Dormitory of Old Centenary College in Jackson, Louisiana.

The towns of Jackson, Clinton, and St. Francisville no longer reflect their past glory but still there are many clues to that heritage that can be found in both East and West Feliciana Parishes.  Thankfully the residents of these small towns have pride in their heritage and have taken the lead to preserve those elements that have linked each generation of people who have lived there.

One of the most enduring structures is the west wing dormitory of Old Centenary College  in Jackson, Louisiana.  Many that grew up in the recent past near Jackson may remember this structure as an old ghostly looking building.  It was the old spooky building out by the baseball fields.  Today it has been restored to its 1837 condition.

The west wing dormitory is all that survives of the original 3 room educational complex  There was an east wing dormitory and a magnificent center building in which classes were held.

The main or center building and the east wing dormitory have been lost to time.  The remaining west wing dormitory is two stories high and one room deep with a free-standing colonnade encompassing the long south front and east and west ends.  The second story rooms are reached by means of a continuous balcony with three sets of exterior stars along the front.

The college first began as the College of Louisiana in 1937 but it came into the hands of a Methodist College in 1845.  Centenary College, previously located in Mississippi, moved to the grounds in 1845.  Centenary had been founded in Mississippi in 1839 on the 100th anniversary (or centenary) of the founding of the Methodist society by John Wesley.

Centenary grew rapidly and reached its peak enrollment of 260 just prior to the Civil War. The war not only took all of the students but it also took a toll on the buildings and grounds.  After the war Centenary was in constant repair and the student body did not regain its previous numbers. Jackson could not regain its former vitality. The college survived until 1900 when at that time a new home was sought.  A 40 acre site in Shreveport was offered and in 1906 Centenary moved to its present location.

After the college’s departure, the campus sat unused for fifteen years. In the mid 1920s it was used as a tuberculosis hospital. But by 1935, the campus was in a state of extreme disrepair, and on the brink of condemnation. The three buildings had three different owners, two of whom chose to sell the rights for demolition. The East Wing and Center Building were both demolished, and the salvageable materials from them sold for scrap. There were many buildings constructed in that time from Jackson to New Orleans whose materials included those of the Main Academic Building.

The West Wing remained standing because its owners had come up with a way to make it far more lucrative than just knocking it down. From 1938 to 1965, the West Wing Dormitory was low-income housing. The campus itself was used as a trailer park. To this day, there are visible remnants of the residences that were there during that time.

In the 1970s, the only use the campus saw was a baseball field, which happened to be on the site of the College’s baseball field more than 80 years earlier. In 1977, not long before it was to be demolished, the West Wing was saved due to the efforts of many influential citizens in and around Jackson. The State of Louisiana purchased and restored the West Wing, Professor’s Cottage, and surrounding 43 acres. The West Wing was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, and Centenary State Historic Site was born.

Convent, Louisiana – Old Jefferson College and the President’s Home – Manresa Retreat and Ignatius House

22 Aug

Manresa Retreat (Old Jefferson College) Commands the View From Historic River Road

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.

Ignatius House (President's Home Jefferson College) Dates to 1836

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.

Vicksburg, Mississippi – Margaret’s Grocery & Bible Class

17 Jun

The Reverend H.D. Dennis "God Sent You Here Today!"

“God sent you here today” said Reverend Dennis as he looked at me directly in the eyes with a peaceful and confident stare.  He then looked over to my friend Paul to include him. Margaret stood behind the counter and smiled at us.  She knew that she would have to remain there and interpret as the Reverend began to talk.  Rev. Dennis could not hear well at all, and I was convinced that the battery was always dead in his hearing aid.  It was not long before he was obtaining some loud Amens from Paul and me.  We had to almost yell for him to hear us but he knew he was getting a response and that was invigorating to him.  Since the Rev. could not hear hardly at all his speech was somewhat, okay mostly, garbled.  This is when Margaret would interject her interpretations of his speech.

Margaret was one of the most kind a gentle people that I have ever met.  Her gentle voice was soothing and always pleasant.  Occasionally she was humorous.  On a previous visit with another friend she told me how enjoyable it was to have some country folks to talk to.  She said that even though she loved the many people that stopped most of them were from the city and she felt that country people had a unique richness about them because they were close to the land to other people that worked the land.  I guess she could tell both of us were piney-woods bumpkins from our speech and the things about which we talked.

As the Rev. carried on with his mostly incomprehensible sermon Margaret showed us some items around her place and took particular pleasure in showing us some pictures of her mother.  We did not ignore Rev. Dennis because he did say something we understood every once in a while and we acknowledged that he indeed was correct and that we agreed with him totally.

He told us how the City of Vicksburg had given him an old school bus and that he had turned it into a sanctuary in order to preach the gospel.  I am hesitant to call the bus a church but the Rev. would place people in the seats of the bus and deliver a short sermon to them.  he stood near the drivers seat and left no doubt he was in charge of the occasion.  He was the driver and those in the seats were the students. In fact his whole place along old US Highway 61 was the Church and the bus served its duty as he needed it.

Main Sanctuary at Margaret's

A Typical Southern Grocery and Bible Class Place

As he showed us around his wondrous place he talked that day mainly about the colors of his creation.  His “place” had grown to be world known and everyday people from all around the world would stop and visit.  “Just like those people, said Rev. Dennis, that come here from all over they are of different colors.  The Lord made it that way”.  He talked about the many beautiful colors that God had used in his creation.  “That is why there are different colors here at this place, they are to show that God likes things of different colors and that there is no difference between the black man and the white man and there is no difference between the Jew and the Gentile.”  In fact Reverend Dennis encourage all people to drop by his place and take a visit and to hear a little of the Gospel.

Margaret was always near with her loving smile and gentle voice.  Her voice always had a tone of encouragement and love for all who would listen.  Despite their trials in life the Dennis’ were filled with love for other people.

Margaret was first married to another man.  I think she loved him very much and he was married to her when she started with the grocery business.  She said that he had gone through World War Two without a scratch but had come back home and was murdered during a robbery.  The Reverend Dennis was her second husband.

Margaret told us that the parents of Rev. Dennis had died when he was young and that he had to live with a close relative.  She said either a grandfather or an uncle I think.  In any case the man treated Rev. Dennis badly and when he had all that he could stand he sneaked a ride on a train to escape.  He had ridden on the front of the train on top of the “cow catcher” and that he always remembered that ride of 19 miles because it was very cold that night.

Margaret died last year at the age of 94.  She lived a full life and had seen the extremes of sacrifice and the joys of love.  The Rev. Dennis is now in a care facility in Vicksburg.  I have read that a church is supposed to preserve the Dennis place but I do not know if that is possible. It takes a special person to keep a place like that up.  Once his spirit is removed there will be nothing there to keep things in order.

Beautiful Margaret Waved Good Bye As We Left

There are some things I will never forget about Margaret and the Rev. Dennis.  Margaret would never let us leave without a hug and a kiss and a kind comment.  I have to smile though when I remember one thing that the Rev. talked about.  Once he spoke you understood fully why Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans with such fury.  I will not tell you why but my guess is that he thinks that the terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is for the same reason!.

I am thankful for the times that I stopped and visited with Margaret and the Reverend.  Things do not stay the same forever and now I know that a colorful part of our Southern heritage has gently faded into the past.