Frontier Mission Beginnings: Fr. Jean Pierre and the Bayou Pierre Community

by Dr. Cheryl White

The small community of Carmel, Louisiana is home to a rich cultural inheritance that resonates even today as an important and easily identifiable chapter of our Catholic history. Many will recognize its name as the home of a true historical jewel of the Diocese of Shreveport, the Rock Chapel, which is all that remains of a late nineteenth century Carmelite monastic community. Yet, the significance of Carmel pre-dates even that impressive marker of the past, and reaches back to the earliest days of the newly created Diocese of Natchitoches in 1853. In its beginnings are found the story of a remarkable priest, destined to become the first pastor of Holy Trinity in Shreveport, and destined to become one of the five “martyrs of their charity,” who gave their lives in the Shreveport Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873.

Natchitoches, as the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase (established 1713) and its surrounding region, grew so much in population that Pope Pius IX created the Diocese of Natchitoches in 1853. The first bishop of the new frontier diocese was Auguste Marie Martin from the seaside village of St. Malo in the Brittany region of France, who was tasked with finding priests to serve in a remote area that still had many characteristics of the western American frontier. From a recruiting trip through the villages and seminaries of his native Brittany in 1854, Bishop Martin returned to the Diocese of Natchitoches with Fr. Louis Gergaud, already ordained in the Diocese of Nantes, and two young seminarians from

St. Brieuc, Francois Le Vezouet and Jean Pierre. Bishop Martin sent Fr. Gergaud to Monroe, where he became the pastor of St. Matthew’s. Following their ordinations in Natchitoches,

Fr. Le Vezouet and Fr. Pierre also received their first assignments:  Fr. Le Vezouet to the settlement of Many, Louisiana, and Fr. Pierre to the tiny community of Bayou Pierre (today known as Carmel).

Fr. Jean Pierre

Fr. Pierre went immediately to work to construct the community’s first Catholic church, dedicated to the Holy Apostles of St. Peter and St. Paul, as well as an adjoining rectory. In his letters and memoirs, Bishop Martin provided an appreciative account of the success of Fr. Pierre’s labor in the Bayou Pierre community, noting the growing Catholic population there, as well as Fr. Pierre’s regular visits northward to Shreveport. In the following year of 1856, Fr. Pierre was assigned exclusively with the task of a new church in Shreveport, a project which culminated in the construction of the first Holy Trinity Church. From 1856 until his death in 1873 from Yellow Fever, Fr. Pierre worked tirelessly and selflessly as Holy Trinity’s first pastor, a period that is also well-documented in the available historical record.

Visiting Carmel today, one can see the vestiges of that community’s Catholic past – Immaculate Conception Church, its adjacent cemetery, and of course, the Rock Chapel. What is not evident to the visitor is the location of Fr. Pierre’s first church – Holy Apostles, which is long gone. However, its location can be approximated based on important known historical indicators. First, the location of the cemetery, with graves that pre-date the current church structure, provides an important clue as to the location of the original church. Also, a Confederate defense map from 1862 clearly shows the location of a church on the Smithport Road (as it was known even in 1862), and this structure so noted by the Confederate surveyors must have been Holy Apostles. The land transaction between the Laffitte family and Fr. Jean Pierre, acting on behalf of Bishop Martin, is also historically documented. Finally, of course, there is always the rich and enduring oral tradition of any given community, which although not considered history in its strictest interpretation, is yet another important component of piecing together the location of a structure no longer in existence.

Because of the historical significance of Fr. Jean Pierre and the other four priests of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873, there is a plan to place a Louisiana state historical marker at the site of Holy Apostles Church. This will honor both the first mission of this martyr-priest as well as the importance of the Bayou Pierre Community (Carmel) in the overall history of the region. The cultural and historical contributions of this community go far beyond its interesting outgrowth from the Natchitoches settlement, and touch upon the single most transformative event in Shreveport history. It was the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873 that determined the fate of a fledgling river-port, and yet the city survived, stronger than ever. The epidemic and its legacy will forever bear the memory of those who sacrificed all. Among them is Fr. Jean Pierre, and it is therefore more than fitting to permanently mark his first church for future generations of visitors and pilgrims.

A Confederate defense map from 1862 (LSU-S Archives).

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