Picture: Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Natchitoches
by Kim Long and Jessica Rinaudo
While many people are fortunate to take pilgrimages or visit Catholic locations around the globe, it’s not always a feasible option for everyone. Fortunately, the northern half of Louisiana boasts a wealth of Catholic history and sites that you can travel to for low to no cost in a short amount of time. The history of Catholicism in north and central Louisiana is rich and abundant and days could be spent faithfully wandering through each of them. Here we take a look at a handful of these places and their Catholic significance and roots.
St. Matthew Church, Monroe, Louisiana
The Diocese of Shreveport has a rich Catholic history that spans across the entire geographic landscape of the diocese. Monroe is home to St. Matthew Catholic Church, which has ties back to 1851 when a plot of land on Wood Street in Monroe was donated by Grammont Filhol for the erection of a church. At the time priests ministered to a small group of Catholics there and donations for building the church came slowly. Dubbed “the mission of the Ouachita,” the church project was eventually taken over by Fr. Louis Gergaud in 1856 and dedicated on June 9, 1858. The building was finally completed in February 1861.
With the yellow fever epidemic in Shreveport, Fr. Gergaud left to aid those in the city in 1873 and the church was pastored by Fr. Ludovic Enaut, who was instrumental in adding on to the priest’s residence and helping fund St. Francis Hospital, which still serves those in the Monroe area today (see pg. 16).
The church was eventually moved from Wood Street to the corner of Jackson and Grammont Streets where it resides today. The current St. Matthew Church building was dedicated by Bishop Van de Ven on December 27, 1905. This beautiful church continues to serve as a place of worship for many in the Monroe area.
St. Matthew Church is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest Catholic church in north Louisiana. To visit, call the church office at 318-323-8878, or attend a daily Mass. www.stmatthewofmonroe.com.
Holy Trinity Church, Shreveport, Louisiana
At the intersection of Fannin and Marshall in Shreveport is Holy Trinity Catholic Church, a beautiful, large red church built in 1856.
In the mid 1850’s Fr. J. Pierre, a priest serving in DeSoto Parish, visited Shreveport and recognized a need for serving the Catholic community in the area. Bishop A. M. Martin authorized Fr. Pierre to take up residence in Shreveport. By 1858, under Fr. Pierre, a brick building had replaced the original. Less than 10 years later, a yellow fever epidemic swept the city, claiming the life of Fr. Pierre and four others: Fr. Quemerais, Fr. LeBiler, Fr. Vezouet and Fr. Gergaud.
Fr. Joseph Gentille from Lake Providence succeeded Fr. Pierre and served for 22 years. It was he who made the plans for a new church. The cornerstone was laid a year after Fr. Gentille’s death.
The beauty of the Church is undeniable. The altar is Romanesque carved from Italian marble. The two side altars were originally in St. Vincent Academy. The church is home to 60 stained glass windows, including five dedicated to the priests who perished in the yellow fever epidemic. Sitting in the pews of Holy Trinity when the sun brings the colors of the stained glass windows to life as they splash over the white marble of the altar carved so long ago, one gets a sense of beauty many modern churches don’t have.
Weekday morning Mass is early, 7:25 a.m., to accommodate those early risers, many who work in the nearby downtown offices. Holy Trinity thanks the community each year in October with an outdoor Mass and an old fashioned street fair where there is lots of fun at no charge. This year mark your calendar for October 13 at 10:30. www.holytrinity-shreveport.com.
Rock Chapel, Carmel, Louisiana
Driving down into the southern deanery of the Diocese of Shreveport, you will see signs for a little town with a rich history called Carmel. There, tucked away off the road, back into the woods, resides a small rock chapel steeped in Catholic joy and sorrow.
This chapel was conceived by the Carmelite Brothers to assist African Americans in DeSoto parish in the late 1800’s during a time of extreme racial tension in the South. Dubbed the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, the small structure was built on monastery property in 1891, in what was then known as Bayou Pierre. The friars utilized the chapel to offer education to black children, and it was the first ever private school for black children in DeSoto parish. The success of this project spurred other stone chapels with similar missions to be built at Bayou Gloster and Cote d’ Afrique.
The friars also used the chapel for daily solitude, prayer and mediation and it later became a cemetery for the friars.
Despite outside racial pressures and sometimes violent actions from the surrounding community, the friars continued their ministry through 1897, until they departed the area.
In 1904 a fire destroyed the church, rectory, monastery and school in Carmel, and with it the sacramental records. The original rock chapel, however, still remains in a restored form and is a reminder of the history of the Carmelites in north Louisiana and their service to the poor African Americans in the late 1800’s.
Recently, local Catholic Scouts have done service projects to help maintain the small chapel, its grounds and the Stations of the Cross that reside there. To visit the small, beautiful chapel you must obtain a key to the gate before arriving. You can do so by contacting LaJuana at 318-872-3468.
Outdoor Altar, Chopin, Louisiana
Crossing into the Diocese of Alexandria, just past Natchitoches, near I-49 is an unexpected oasis. If you take the Chopin exit and make an immediate right hand turn you will be rewarded. Holy Rosary Chapel is on the left, and as you drive in past it at the top the hill, a scene unfolds that is as beautiful in its simplicity as it is powerful in its spirituality; a prayer garden that is unlike any I have seen before. Unobtrusive, it seems to rise up from the setting as though it grew there.
And while this outdoor altar and prayer garden might not have sprung from the ground literally, it definitely grew from the faith and vision of some nearby families. In 1985, under the pastorate of Fr. John Cunningham, the project to utilize the hill behind the chapel began to take shape and become the beautiful altar space it is today. Permission was granted to cut down some of the trees behind the altar in order to provide a clear view of the valley below. Upon completion in 1987, a Mass at sunrise was held there on Easter Sunday.
The outdoor altar is a place for peaceful meditation, prayer and Mass. The furnishings are made of concrete. There are tables and benches and even a sink to serve as a sacristy. Behind the altar is a large crucifix complete with a statue of the Blessed Mother keeping watch at the foot. The atmosphere is serene and looking out over the valley it is easy to believe your feet are not in Louisiana, but in another state with a higher elevation… perhaps making this oasis, this garden, a bit closer to heaven.
Leading to the Prayer Garden are tall white crosses where many people “make the stations” during the Lenten season. These crosses are 12 feet tall and seem to serve as sentries, supporting the many prayers offered by those who take the time to pray in their shadow.
Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Natchitoches, Louisiana
In the city of Natchitoches lies a Louisiana treasure in the form of a minor basilica. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was designated a minor basilica on January 10, 2010. Only the second minor basilica in Louisiana (the other is St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans), this special church designation is not easily obtained. According to basilica rector Fr. Ryan Humphries, the church must meet a number of criteria to become a minor basilica. Some of those things include: the church must have historical value (in this case it was formerly a cathedral), must have a vibrant faith community and must be able to fulfill liturgical and adult education requirements after it is designated. Additionally many pages of paperwork must be completed and it’s best to have an advocate or two in Rome to help the church obtain its designation.
One of the many special things about a minor basilica is the ability to obtain an indulgence on certain days in connection with the church. At this particular basilica, there are four established days when you can go and obtain a plenary indulgence – January 5, the basilica’s anniversary; August 5, the feast day of the basilica’s sister church in Rome; December 8, the feast day of the church; and May 13, a special day assigned by the rector of the basilica. This aspect of the basilica makes it ideal for being included in a pilgrimage.
The church’s history dates back to the early 1700’s, but the present structure was completed in 1892. Over the years it has seen additions and restoration and was re-dedicated in 1996. Formerly the Cathedral for the Diocese of Natchitoches, it was made a regular parish again when the See City was moved to Alexandria.
Rich in historical value and situated in a town that draws thousands each year to its Christmas festivals, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception has many tourists. It is open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on weekdays, and the Parish Gift Shop is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. The Bishop Martin museum, across the street from the Basilica, is open by appointment only. www.minorbasilica.org
Radio Maria: Alexandria
Radio Maria was born as a parish radio in 1983 in the diocese of Milan, Italy. Its purpose was to keep parishioners informed and to help them through prayer by broadcasting daily Mass and the rosary. In 1987, the Radio Maria Association was formed by laymen and priests with hopes to give the station independence from the parish and broadcast on a larger scale. Within three years Radio Maria Italia was a National Broadcasting Station. Enter the World Family, established in 1988, to bring this medium to the rest of us! Currently Radio Maria operates in over 30 countries, spreading the Gospel to millions of listeners in more than a dozen languages. Radio Maria began broadcasting from its first English-speaking station on May 25, 2000 in Alexandria, Louisiana where its national American headquarters reside.
Entering the lobby of Radio Maria headquarters, a lovely statue of the Blessed Mother was the first thing I saw. I couldn’t help but think how calm and peaceful her face was. Moments later we were warmly greeted by Frank Hare, the Production Manager. The station’s chapel is a pint-sized room with just a few pews. He gave us a quick run down of the station whose call letters are perfect KJMJ (Jesus, Mary, Joseph). Then took us “behind the scenes” to a sound booth. We had a bird’s eye view of the opposite room where there was a live show being broadcast.
Radio Maria has a lot to offer listeners including a variety of programming, (100 percent listener funded) and Mass broadcast daily from different local parishes. Programming is a combination of local and national speakers. In addition to the radio, Radio Maria broadcasts are available via Internet and an app for smart phone users. Their website also offers an e-newsletter.
Visitors are welcome to attend the daily Masses at the station, as well as volunteer to help as needed. www.radiomaria.us