Historic Dig: Artifacts of St. John’s Church & College Unearthed in Shreveport

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by Jessica Rinaudo

The Cathedral of St. John Berchmans has garnered much attention in recent months for the archeological dig they are conducting on Texas Avenue in Shreveport. There the dig team has unearthed, among other things, the old foundation of the original St. John’s Church and College, built in 1902.

Fr. Peter Mangum, Rector of the Cathedral, has posted videos from their digs to the parish’s Facebook page, drawing tens of thousands of views and lots of local media attention. People, it seems, are fascinated by this delve into Shreveport and Catholic history.

The project began when Cathedral staff and parishioners were working on a book about the church’s history. Naturally, the old church and school were discussed when compiling this information. During their conversation, they had the idea to apply to have a state historical marker placed at the old church and school site.

Dr. Cheryl White, history professor at LSU-S and parishioner at the Cathedral, has been instrumental in getting historical markers for sites in the Shreveport area, so she was the natural choice to help lead this project.  To get started, she wanted to visit the site of the old church and college.

“When I got out there, I wasn’t quite sure of the location,” said Dr. White. “I went back to the university and took an old 1908 city map, and using software we infused it with a current city map so I could get the exact location of the church and college.”

She added, “We went from having a conversation about a marker to finding the site to the next thing asking, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to see if we could find the foundation of the church?’ And that’s really all I thought we were going to do; we were going to go out there, dig a little bit of the foundation and we’d be done.”

Fr. Mangum added, “Within a few times of going there, we knew we had the site. .. We weren’t anticipating finding anything!”

But they didn’t just find the church foundation. As the team, composed of Fr. Mangum, Dr. White, excavationer John Michael Giglio, and two trained archeologists – Jason Brown and Marty Loschen, continued to dig, they also unearthed pillars, foundational walls that supported the church steps, a 6-foot long piece of limestone that they believe was the threshold to the front door, and the church’s original corner supports.Additionally, smaller artifacts have been found in the surrounding dirt, such as ink bottles, quills and a flask.

Ink bottle unearted at the dig site

The dig site is a treasure for archeologists because it was uniquely and unconventionally preserved.

St. John’s Church and College were originally built in 1902 with the intention of being temporary structures. Eventually both were moved to the property on Jordan Street in 1929 – where they reside now as the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans and the renamed Loyola College Prep. The St. John Berchmans elementary and middle school also resides there, honoring the name of the original college. After the church and college were relocated, the buildings at the original site were raised in the late 1930’s. Shortly thereafter, a parking lot was built over the site.

“That’s really great,” said Dr. White, “because once you peel back that layer of asphalt – what it did was encapsulate everything, and we know everything below the asphalt belongs to our church.”
“The most exciting thing to me has been finding the actual foundational walls and the clear evidence of where people would have entered the church,” said Fr. Mangum. “And we have absolute certitude of where the front doors would have been. For me, that’s been exciting to know… and now we can use the pictures of the old church and college to help our imagination.”

The original St. John's Church

The property that once housed St. John’s Church and College is divided over private property and state-owned property. The Cathedral team has been granted permission to dig on the private property, but part of where the church and high altar would have resided fall on the state side. And while the team could seek dig permissions to continue, they had a conversation about how far they would go.  Dr. White said, “We wanted to be able to say that we did what we set out to do, and I think we’ve done that.”

The team has completed Phase 1, which was exposing the old church’s foundation. Now they are preparing to move to Phase 2 – where they will move much of the dirt off the foundational site and get volunteer crews to begin sifting through it for artifacts.

As part of Phase 2, St. John Berchmans middle school students have the opportunity to visit the site, sift through the dirt and learn how an archeological site works, including grids, caring for found artifacts and labeling their location. “This springboards easily to real archeological sites like Rome and Greece. Hopefully they’ll find something,” said Fr. Mangum.

The final phases will be lifting the foundational supports out of the ground, covering the dig site, laying fresh sod and grass, and having the historical marker installed. In regards to the historical marker, Dr. White said, “We’re hoping maybe we can get it sometime around the feast of St. John Berchmans [on the new calendar] in November and do some sort of blessing.”

First page of Fr. John O'Connor's diary

As part of their research into the site and history of the church, Dr. White and Cathedral staff member, Carol Gates, traveled to Loyola University in New Orleans to visit the Jesuit archives. There they viewed the diary of founding pastor, Fr. John F. O’Connor, CSJ. On its first page, the opening line reads, “Today, by God’s grace, we begin the work with the Jesuits in Shreveport.” In the journal, he talks about the challenges of building the church and its location.

Reflecting, Fr. Mangum said, “Maybe the ink that we’ve read in Fr. O’Connor’s journal is from the ink bottle and quill we’ve found. It’s neat to think back – and of course we can’t help but think about the future and how it’s our responsibility to pass things down to the next generation.”

Dr. White lights up when she talks about the amazing experiences the Cathedral has had in the past year.  “Looking at the supernatural aspect of this, I believe it’s all because the heart of St. John Berchmans was here for eight days in December. I don’t think it’s an accident that we were led to do this and then to find everything so easily.”

And indeed, St. John’s Church was one of the first, if not THE first church named in St. John Berchmans honor.

“St. John Berchmans’ miracle for his canonization took place in our state,” said Fr. Mangum. “They needed a new church in the Shreveport area because Holy Trinity, the first church, was getting too small … the Jesuit community from South Louisiana came up to help. They had a connection to their most recently canonized saint, and so they named the church after him.”

As the dig continues into its next phases, recovered artifacts are being stored and cared for in the Spring Street Museum. Fr. Mangum will continue to post updates on the dig’s progress and their finds on the Cathedral’s Facebook page. Follow along to keep track of their historical findings.

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