Exploring the History of St. Matthew Church

By John Mark Willcox

Exiting I-20 in downtown Monroe on Jackson Street you are met with a beautiful sight….the majestic spire of St. Matthew Church which has stood in downtown Monroe for nearly 120 years.  Close observation reveals that all four of the clock faces of the spire are new.  “They are working and tell perfect time,” comments Pastor Rev. Mark Franklin.  “We refurbished every one and we have a man that comes twice a year to keep them oiled and in good working condition.”  Spoken like a priest who loves his parish, and that has always been the case with St. Matthew Church and the generations of Catholics who have worshipped at the second oldest parish in the diocese.  Walking through the Sanctuary with Fr. Mark as your guide takes one back to a former time and place, when North Louisiana was beginning to grow while facing the formidable challenges of frontier living.

During the mid 1800’s, Monroe was the principal city of Northern Louisiana and Shreveport was referred to as “that small village in the Northwest.”  The Ouachita River was navigable and many times steam paddle wheelers counted the city of Monroe as their final destination northward in Louisiana.

Railroads had roared in from the East and Monroe was fast becoming a commerce center and the gateway to the northern reaches of a region that Spanish missionaries and explorers had been visiting for several centuries.  Shreveport suffered with a useless main water artery in the Red River which was choked with logs and debris (the great raft) for many miles, heading into Natchitoches.

Fr. Patrick Canavan received the assignment to provide the faithful of the Monroe area a place to gather and worship in 1851.  By 1856, St. Matthew had become an established parish and was pastored by now legendary Fr. Louis Gergaud who had migrated to the area from Britanny, France. Fr. Gergaud witnessed the arrival of steam ships on the Ouachita and the rapid growth of the rail industry while he shepherded his flock through the tragedy of America’s Civil War. He spent much of his waking hours tending to the wounded in makeshift hospitals and it is said that he brought over fifty soldiers into the Church as they lay on their deathbeds.   In addition, Fr. Gergaud established a Catholic school for the parish in 1863 with a beginning roster of sixty pupils.  The impact that Fr. Gergaud had on the foundational formation of St. Matthew’s faith community cannot be overstated as his tireless efforts produced a healthy, active parish.

 In 1873, Fr. Gergaud answered the call for help from Shreveport which was mired in a devastating Yellow Fever epidemic which had already taken scores of lives on a daily basis.  He knew he was going to his death and shared that feeling with the faithful before his departure from St. Matthew.  Just five days after his arrival in Shreveport, Fr. Gergaud contracted Yellow Fever tending to the victims and died on October 1, 1873.  After one year, his body was finally returned to his beloved  Monroe where he was laid to rest in St. Matthew’s Cemetery.  “He gave everything he had to God’s people including his life,” comments Fr. Franklin as he gazes on Fr. Gergaud’s crystal white grave marker.  “The people of St. Matthew have always been proud that his grave is in our cemetery.”  Fr. Gergaud was one of five Catholic priests and two women religious who lost their lives heroically caring for the stricken people of Shreveport during the famous Yellow Fever epidemic which took the lives of a quarter of Shreveport’s residents.As the faith community increased in size, the earlier wooden structure that had served as the Church was replaced with the present sanctuary that was consecrated on December 27, 1905.  A succession of dynamic pastors lead the faithful of St. Matthew through the next century beginning with Fr. N. F. Vandegaer who grew the number of families served by the parish to over one thousand by 1919.  With the help of Bishop Charles P. Greco, Rev. John C. Marsh guided St. Matthew to the completed  construction of a school gymnasium and rectory in 1950.  There is no more beloved priest of the Eastern Deanery than the legendary Msgr. George Martinez who served St. Matthew as Pastor from 1976 to 1990 before his retirement but he never severed his close connections to a parish he first began serving in 1948, with the St. Vincent de Paul Pharmacy just down the street named in his memory.

Older structures require plenty of care, refurbishment and maintenance and St. Matthew  Church is certainly no exception.  It was only fitting that Fr. Joseph Puthuppally assumed the role of Pastor in 1997.  It was Fr. Joe who led the way to renovate the exterior and interior of the church, including the now famous cobalt blue ceiling f of the nave apse ceiling.  “People use to draw a quick breath when they first saw the roof,” comments Fr. Mark.  “But now, it seems like it has always been there.”

The parish  has also recently reacquired its former school gymnasium and now has a large gathering space for parish and community events.  When he is not using the space to build additional sacramental furniture for the church sanctuary, Fr. Mark is assessing what will be needed to make the space functional once more.  “We have over 6,000 square feet in this structure,” comments Fr. Mark.  “We are going to make it serve the parish effectively in the near future.”

The future looks bright for the faithful of St. Matthew as Mass attendance is strong and there is the benefit of new members joining the parish meaning that this beacon of the faith on Jackson Street will continue to share the light of Christ to the faithful of the region.  “We have a beautiful worship space and a fine congregation of good Catholic people,” reminds Fr. Mark.  “What more could you ask for at your place of worship!”

 

*Many thanks to Chase E. Machen for his detailed history of St. Matthew Church in his 2001 book of the same name which chronicles the remarkable story of this unique faith community.


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