St. Martin de Tours Parish Celebrates 250 Years
What follows is a story that has been more than two centuries in the making, but its telling will never get old.
It begins in the early 1700s, with a settlement called Acadia in Canada, near Nova Scotia, where many of the people had ancestral roots traceable to France.
When the British began to occupy the territory later that century, some of these Acadians resisted increasing pressure to commit to an oath of allegiance to the country of Britain. In 1755, fearing the military threat they felt the Acadians represented to them unless such an oath was made, the British exiled the Acadians from their homes in a movement known as Le Grand Dérangement (“The Great Expulsion”).
By 1765, some of those exiles began to make their way to Louisiana. They were led to what is now the city of St. Martinville and were awarded certain provisions by the acting governor, who also sent a French-Catholic priest along with them to further aid in their resettlement endeavors.
In his records, Father Jean Louis Civrey referred to the settlement as La Nouvelle Acadie (“The New Acadia”), where he and the Acadians soon established l’Église St. Martin de Tours (“St. Martin de Tours Church”).
That church parish is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.
“I received all of my sacraments there — baptism, first penance, first holy Communion, confirmation and holy matrimony,” reminisced Celeste Daspit Bourque, former parishioner. “I also received my 12 years of Catholic education from the devoted and loving Sisters of Mercy.”
Dalton “Buddy” Hebert, a parishioner of St. Martin de Tours, also recalls many fond memories of the church from his childhood: “During Sunday morning Mass, the windows were opened, and the smell of pastries from Oubre’s Bakery made the celebration even more special. There were rehearsals of Marian songs on the church grounds weeks before preparing for May Day celebrations to Evangeline State Park. There were wonderful priests who ministered to us and the Sisters of Mercy nuns, who were a wonderful example of faith, devotion and love for God’s Church and his people. It was always a wonderful place for family enrichment!”
Memories such as these only add to the rich and ongoing legacy of St. Martin de Tours, which has always served as a crucial cornerstone of St. Martinville and its Acadian descendants.
The historical sign on display outside the front of the church documents that the “city developed c.1795-c.1890 through [an] unusual semi-feudal arrangement where town property holders paid an ‘annual and perpetual’ rent to the congregation of St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church.” This arrangement stemmed from an 1814 decision in which the church’s parish council initiated a unique lease-purchase agreement with commission merchants and tradesmen that was practiced until 1889 and credited with generating enough growth to lead to St. Martinville’s incorporation in 1817 as the sixth community to be named a city under the laws of the new state of Louisiana.
St. Martin de Tours Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 10, 1972. Then and now, visitors from the world over have always flocked to the city and this distinct church.
“They just come,” said Father Rusty Richard, current pastor. “They come on their own, or they come in big groups on tour buses. The church is open to them, and people come through it all the time.”
It’s certainly one way to evangelize and introduce people to the traditions of the Catholic faith; stepping inside St. Martin de Tours is like stepping back in time to experience how St. Martinville’s founders used to pray.
Although the church is not the original one built upon the establishment of the parish in 1765, it is the oldest church structure in the Diocese of Lafayette. Parish records indicate that it was dedicated on June 2, 1844, and it was recently rededicated on June 2, 2015, following an extensive renovation process to help preserve the building.
The pews are one of the first unique things visitors may notice. Referred to as colonial box pews, they are enclosed on one end and accessible only by a door at the other. This style was influenced by an old practice by which parishioners used to offer financial support for their church by renting pews for their families to sit in during Mass.
Another eye-catching rarity is the raised pulpit, very few of which can still be found. Although more reliable sound systems have replaced the practicality for them today, once upon a time, they were needed to help pastors project their voices loudly enough for the entire congregation to hear.
The Stations of the Cross, the gold-and-silver sanctuary lamp and the baroque baptismal font were all shipped from France. It is even believed that the baptismal font was actually a gift from the king of France.
Various renovation projects on St. Martin de Tours began in 2012, with all of the necessary work being contracted as locally as possible to complete it.
“Things needed attention,” Father Richard acknowledged when asked about the details. “In a building that dates back as far as this one does, things do start breaking. A lot of what’s been done came about as a need to address structural repairs.”
Last but not least is the church’s replica of the Grotto of Lourdes. It was built in the late 1870s by Pierre Martinet, a freed slave who used bousillage — a relatively innovative building material, used mostly for constructing walls, which was very popular in south Louisiana during colonial times; the moss and mud from which it was made was much more accessible to the settlers than stone or bricks — from Bayou Teche.
The French words that form a halo around the head of the Blessed Mother’s statue read Je Suis l’Immaculée Conception (“I Am the Immaculate Conception”) — the words the Blessed Mother spoke to St. Bernadette Soubirous so long ago in France.
This is exceptionally fitting since, nearly 50 years after the grotto was constructed, Bishop Jules Jeanmard would be consecrated as the first bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Lafayette on Dec. 8, 1918, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
As Dalton Hebert said of his parish’s faithful legacy: “It’s another important ‘link’ in the ‘chain of events’ of the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ.”
Stephanie R. Martin is the managing editor of Acadiana Catholic magazine of the Diocese of Lafayette, La.
This story was adapted from articles that first appeared in the Acadiana Catholic.
Eucharistic Procession Down Bayou Teche
“The Assumption is the feast of the Acadians,” said Father Michael Champagne, native son of the Diocese of Lafayette.
“They sailed under the Acadian flag, which has the star representing Our Lady of the Assumption.”
In recognition of that connection, Bishop Michael Jarrell approved an all-day Eucharistic procession down the Bayou Teche on Aug. 15 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Acadians, by tracing the same waterway they used to travel to St. Martinville, where they established their first settlement in this area.
“Traveling down the Teche is highly symbolic, because it replicates what our ancestors did,” observed Bishop Glen John Provost of the Diocese of Lake Charles, La., who celebrated the Mass of the Assumption at St. Leo the Great Church in Leonville to begin the day.
“All of my ancestors either came directly from France or were part of this Acadian exile in the 18th century,” said Bishop Provost, “and I am delighted to give recognition to their faith, sacrifice and perseverance in time of struggle and suffering.”
After Mass, the boat procession embarked with the Blessed Sacrament in a special monstrance built for the occasion. The procession paused at four Catholic churches along the way — in the towns of Arnaudville, Cecilia, Breaux Bridge and Parks — for recitation of the Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, before continuing down the bayou to St. Martinville.
Our Lady, pray for us!
- Sept. 6-19, 2015