Daughters of the Cross: Mothers of the Church in North Louisiana

The 10 original Daughts of the Cross sisters, inclusing Mother Hyacinthe

by Patti Underwood

When Fr. Auguste Marie Aloysius Martin was made bishop of the newly created Diocese of Natchitoches in 1853, he faced a daunting challenge. In a mostly rural, mostly Protestant area of 22,212 square miles, there were 25,000 Catholics and just four priests, seven parishes, and one Catholic school. In dire need of priests, Bishop Martin journeyed to his native France in 1854 to recruit priests for his mission.

Bishop Martin’s trip was a success. In addition to finding several priests and seminarians, he netted an offer from an order of nuns to establish schools in Louisiana. The Daughters of the Cross learned of the Louisiana mission from a young seminarian, Jean Pierre (future founder of Holy Trinity in Shreveport), who came to them to request boarding and education for his niece while he was away in America. Mother Marie Hyacinthe le Conniat, the convent’s superior, sent word to Bishop Martin that she would gladly send teaching Sisters for his mission.

Bishop Martin began correspondence to make the arrangements, which took over a year. The Sisters crossed the ocean by steamer, arriving earlier than expected. After a grueling 43-day journey, Mother Hyacinthe arrived in New Orleans with nine Sisters on November 21, 1855, the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was a beautiful moonlit night when they arrived, five days later, at their new home in Cocoville, between Marksville and Mansura. Unfortunately, the property the bishop had proposed for them was sold before he could make the deal, and he had to settle for the former residence of a butcher. Although the local people had started to clean it up, the place was in terrible condition, still littered with evidence of the butcher’s trade; not the lovely place they were expecting to find. But they were determined to make their mission a success, and they rolled up their sleeves and got to work cleaning and repairing the premises (and studying English). Two more buildings were added, and Presentation Academy, named for the day of their arrival in New Orleans, opened on February 2, 1856. By March 13, they had 15 day pupils and four boarders.

Bishop Auguste Marie Aloysius Martin, made first bishop of the Diocese of Natchitoches in 1853.

Under Mother Hyacinthe’s able leadership, the American Foundation survived when others did not; and it not only survived, it prospered. In a letter to her parents dated August 19, 1857, she reported that Presentation Academy* had 30 boarders and 14 day pupils. Furthermore, there were 115 First Communions and Confirmations, mostly parents and other local families of all stations—in addition to the students who had received the sacraments earlier. Bishop Martin was so pleased that he established a second school at Ile Breville that same year. By 1870, the Daughters of the Cross had six schools, extending their range to Alexandria, Shreveport and Monroe.

Over the years, the Sisters established 21 schools across North Louisiana, in addition to conducting summer classes in communities where there was no Catholic school. They overcame many difficulties: lack of funds, arduous labors and travels, privation, war, fires, tornadoes, illness and epidemic.

Today, only two Daughters of the Cross remain, Sr. Maria Smith and Sr. Lucy Scallan. With Sr. Maria’s retirement in 1997, the era of the Daughters of the Cross teaching in Louisiana schools came to a close. However, their influence permeates North Louisiana. A 1955 Centennial booklet lists 44 priests/seminarians and 103 sisters who were students of the Daughters of the Cross, and others have followed. Schools they founded which are still in operation include St. Frederick and Jesus the Good Shepherd in Monroe, Sacred Heart in Moreauville, and St. John Berchmans in Shreveport.

Mother Hyacinthe and her Daughters of the Cross are surely the mothers of the Church in north Louisiana, and Bishop Martin is surely the father. Bishop Martin’s tomb is in the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Natchitoches. Mother Hyacinthe is buried in Treguier, France. Most of the other Daughters of the Cross are interred at Forest Park Cemetery in Shreveport, although a few are in Monroe, Marksville and France. As the beneficiaries of their labors, we should strive to remember to pray for the repose of their souls, for their intercession in our needs, and for the grace to honor their sacrifices and extend their legacies in our lives.

The Daughters of the Cross:

• Founded in 1640 in Paris, France, by Mother Marie l’Huillier de Villeneuve

• Rule written by St. Francis de Sales

• Advised by St. Jane Frances de Chantal

• Guided through early trials by St. Vincent de Paul

• Came to Cocoville, Louisiana from Treguier, France in 1855

• Motherhouse moved to St. Vincent’s in Shreveport in 1869. •

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