Sunday, July 14, 2019

Oakley Plantation inspired artist J.J. Audubon to Greatness

Oakley Plantation inspired artist J.J. Audubon to Greatness
By Anne Butler
oakley 0467Established on a 1799 Spanish land grant of 600 acres to Ruffin Gray, Oakley Plantation is fascinating in its own right, not just because of its close associations with artist John James Audubon, who in 1821 was hired to tutor the 15-year-old daughter of the plantation in dancing, music, drawing, math and French, plus domestic skills like hair plaiting.
Gray’s wife Lucretia Alston was the daughter of John Alston. who had obtained large land grants from the British near Natchez. When the Spanish governor of Louisiana ousted the English, Alston led an unsuccessful revolt in 1781 and then fled for his life. Sending his wife and three small children overland to safety, Alston was captured and imprisoned. His wife was killed when her horse fell during the flight, but the children were hidden in a one-room cabin on a friend’s Pointe Coupee plantation, cared for by a faithful family retainer named Mammy Patt. At least that’s the family tradition, and in John Alston’s will there is grateful mention of Mammy Patt; other versions place Lucretia in a convent school in New Orleans until her father’s release.

koakleyThe Oakley house was planned as a simple, sensible structure of colonial architectural style as adapted to the southern climate; originally it had divided Spanish-style steps to the raised front gallery and predated the grand Greek Revival architecture of the mid-19th century. It was a splendid West Indies-style three-story-plus-attic structure, with double galleries shaded by jalousies to block the harsh hot sunlight while permitting cool breezes to blow through the rooms, all of which opened to the outside. Exterior stairways and an interior one on a back gallery long enclosed have such narrow treads that one resident family member called Oakley “a house for warm weather and little feet.”

Lots of live oaks were planted to eventually provide the shade which would make Louisiana summers bearable. But Ruffin Gray would not live to see the fruits of his labor. He died within a year, and in 1801 his widow married millwright James Pirrie of Scottish descent and moved into the Oakley house when it was completed.

It was the focal point of a plantation that was well established by the time Irish-born traveler Fortescue Cuming visited the area in 1809. In his travelogue “Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country,” Cuming records a visit to the Pirries’ fine plantation, with a hundred slaves “and the best garden I had yet seen in this country.” He was somewhat less enthralled by local culinary practices, finding gumbo “a most awkward dish for a stranger,” the okra making it “so ropy and slimy as to make it difficult with either knife, spoon or fork, to carry it to the mouth, without the plate and mouth being connected by a long string.”
oakley 0597By 1824, records show that the Pirries had 5,656 acres planted in cotton and owned 106 slaves. They could well afford to hire a live-in tutor for daughter Eliza. Feliciana planters and their families often travelled by steamboat to New Orleans--on business to check with cotton factors about the sale of crops, or for social events and carnival season, or purely for pleasure and shopping. It was on such a trip to the Crescent City that Lucretia Alston Pirrie came into contact with the struggling artist Audubon and offered him temporary employment at Oakley as tutor for young Eliza.

Like all early plantations, Oakley is illustrative of the interconnections of homes and families. Audubon’s pupil Eliza Pirrie would marry three times. Her first marriage was an 1823 elopement, encouraged by secret romantic correspondences like the following, written on May 7, 1823: “My dear Eliza, The situation in which we are both placed is a sufficient apology for my adopting this method of making a communication to you ...I have borne with much patience the many and constant attempts, and apparent incessant watchfulness, to prevent any intercourse between us...You know Eliza there is but one way of avoiding and defeating this opposition—Your own feelings are the best prompting, in your making a decision on that point. It becomes necessary that we should throw away all reserve in our feelings, and embrace every and any opportunity that offers, for a safe conveyance of our feelings...A Few words would be gratefully received by one whose heart and its affections are, Truly thine, Rob. H. Barrow.”

And so, despite parental objections, Eliza eloped with her dashing 28-year-old cousin Robert Hilliard Barrow of Greenwood Plantation, who would not live to see 29; he contracted pneumonia, supposedly while carrying his young bride across the flooded Homochitto Bayou on their honeymoon, and died six weeks later; born posthumously, his son would carry on his name. Eliza’s last marriage was to an attorney disparaged by her friends as “a trifling sponge,” lured away by the Mexican War and the 1849 Gold Rush, and not even present when she died of childbed fever in 1851.

oakley studentsIt was Eliza’s second marriage in 1828, to the eminently respectable first rector of Grace Episcopal Church, which produced the descendants who were still struggling to keep both Rosedown and Oakley Plantations going into the 20th century. Her son James Pirrie Bowman married the beautiful Sarah Turnbull of Rosedown where they made their home and had a large family which included eight daughters, and Eliza’s daughter Isabelle Bowman married William Wilson Matthews and remained at Oakley.

It was in 1947 when a few determined dowagers of West Feliciana, namely the Misses Mamie and Sarah Butler along with Mrs. James Leake Stirling of the Alexander Stirling Chapter of the DAR, persuaded the state of Louisiana to purchase Oakley. Courtly longtime state representative Davis Folkes, called the Dean of the Legislature, pushed it through. The property was in dire need of attention, but its historic connections with Audubon cried out for preservation as a state property accessible to the travelling public.

There was no running water or electricity inside when the state acquired the house and 100 acres of land for $10,000 from the unmarried grandchildren of Eliza Pirrie through her daughter Isabelle. The last resident heirs, Ida and Lucy Matthews, had done the best they could, but massive restoration work was required. Garden clubs, Colonial Dames, Daughters of the American Revolution and other groups as well as interested individuals generously provided help with furnishings and landscaping.

oakley stairsMrs. Stirling served as the first curator, but longstanding disputes over park management led to her resignation at a time when the state auctioned off many of the home’s contents, property of the original Pirrie and Matthews generations, at very little profit. The Division of Administration noted the two auctions brought in little more than $1,000 for some 36 items of furniture. A half-tester bed went for $15, an armoire for $15.50, a piano for $25, a sideboard $15, 5 Eastlake chairs $26.25, and an entire bedroom suite of mahogany furniture including a tester bed for $186. A rocking chair was eventually sold for 50 cents.

Popular today as the central focus of the Audubon State Historic Site for more than half a century, Oakley has been beautifully restored and carefully furnished in the late Federal style of 1790-1830, reflecting the appearance of the home when Audubon was in residence. On the ground level is the brick-floored dining room, the second floor was the main living space with central parlor, and bedrooms took up the third floor.
Oakley was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The West Feliciana Historical Society sponsors an Audubon Pilgrimage celebrating the artist’s stay, and Oakley is always a popular part of this annual event, with visitors especially appreciating seeing the tiny bedroom where Audubon himself slept and worked during his summer sojourn in what he called his ornithological paradise, a significant period that altered the course of his life.

Within its hundred wooded acres are the detached plantation kitchen reconstructed on original foundations around the early chimney and containing a weaving room and wash room; a barn full of horse-drawn vehicles and farm implements; and several rustic slave cabins. These dependencies are periodically utilized to augment the house tour with demonstrations of old-time practical skills and fascinating living-history events, many catering to school groups. Oakley also has a picnic pavilion, hiking trails and extremely interesting visitor center/museum.

oakley supermarket 0608Old houses are bottomless pits, and there’s never enough funding for preservation. A lengthy lead-abatement project and general sprucing up have recently been completed at Oakley, but the current goal of the state parks hierarchy is for all state sites to be self-supporting, not entirely unreasonable but perhaps not entirely realistic either for some sites. Private-public partnerships are being explored in hopes cooperative endeavors might help.

Oakley’s sister state historic site, Rosedown Plantation, has higher head counts of visitors, being closer to town within easy reach of bus tours full of steamboat passengers, and has also leased unused fields for row-crop farming. Rosedown is open daily except holidays; Oakley, at one point in danger of being closed completely, is now open only five days weekly.

Possibilities being discussed for enhancing Oakley’s appeal include an on-site micro-distillery (in a non-historic storage building) that might convince Mississippi River boat tours to include the place on itineraries as passengers disembark to explore the historic Felicianas. Would this be appropriate? Audubon, of course, was not a drinker other than his morning grog, but recall his observation of Squire Pirrie as “when sober, a good man,” and he also records an occasion when he was awakened to accompany Mrs. Pirrie to the home of a dying neighbor: “We went, but arrived rather late, for Mr. James O’Connor was dead. I had the displeasure of keeping his body’s company the remainder of the night...the poor man had drunk himself literally into an everlasting sleep; peace to his soul.” Ever the artist, Audubon continued, “I made a good sketch of his head...”

Perhaps straight history is no longer sufficient to command the interest of tourists, so that plantations must now become commercial resorts embellished with restaurants and spirits, even thousands of inmates at the former plantation now serving as the state penitentiary which has become the most unlikely of tourist attractions. But there are also properties of such incredible historic significance that care must be taken not to detract from what they have to teach us.

galaHighlight of the summer social season in St. Francisville is the seventh annual Wags & Whiskers Gala at Hemingbough on Saturday, July 27, 2019, from 6 to 9 p.m. This is the West Feliciana Animal Humane Society’s primary fundraiser for the local animal shelter, offering finger foods and cash bar, dancing to the Delta Drifters, silent auction, bargains on gift cards and wine, kissing booth, and a parade of prospective pets from the shelter. Tickets are available at bontempstix.com or at the Bank of St. Francisville.

The James L. “Bo” Bryant Animal Shelter opened in 2012 and is as close to no-kill as you can get. The dedicated volunteers and staff have cared for a total of 2,055 dogs and cats (plus the occasional horse or pig) since computerized record-keeping began in 2014, and of that number, permanent homes were found for 1,573, over 90%. Many lost pets are reunited with owners, sometimes years later thanks to implanted chips. The shelter also has some crackerjack volunteer photographers, whose appealing portraits led a California couple to adopt homely hounddog Ole Red and fly all the way to Louisiana to get him. And then there is Rowdy, Catahoula mix turned school therapy dog and unlikely current “cover girl” for the “Dog Days of Summer” issue of Baton Rouge’s social commentator In-Register magazine!

ameilaLocated on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. Severa; splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

batmanThe nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

St. Francisville’s Amazing Grace

St. Francisville’s Amazing Grace
By Anne Butler

graceSt. Francisville is a beautiful little island of English reserve and decorum in the midst of a state filled with Mardi Gras madness and Catholic confessions. It’s not French. It’s not Creole. It’s not Cajun. So it’s no wonder that the early church in St. Francisville proper, claimed by the French and settled under Spanish rule, would actually be Episcopal, Anglican Protestant to the core.
The area’s Anglo settlers in the opening years of the 1800s established extensive agricultural properties, planting first indigo and then cotton and cane. As they prospered, they chafed under what they considered corrupt Spanish rule even after the Louisiana Purchase. In the fall of 1810 they threw out the Spanish and audaciously established an independent republic, which lasted a grand total of 74 days before the area was added to the United States.

By 1827 a number of the St. Francisville area’s most prominent residents, feeling the need for organized religious guidance, came together to draft a resolution to establish an Episcopal church, which would be the second one in the state. Some had been leaders of the West Florida Rebellion; even more were just a generation down from the Revolutionary War, their fathers having participated as Tories supporting the English or fighting for independence with George Washington on the American side, and a few were even Quakers. Now they would all come together as staunch Episcopalians.

“Whereas a number of citizens of the Parish of West Feliciana and State of Louisiana, being desirous to establish a church in connection with the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, and being desirous to call a clergyman of that denomination of Christians to officiate in said church, have associated themselves together for that purpose; and on the 15th day of March, 1827, at the town of St. Francisville, in said Parish, did organize themselves into an Association for that purpose.”

Grace churchNamed wardens at that meeting were Thomas Butler and William Flower; the vestry was made up of Dr. Ira Smith, Edward H. Barton, Henry Flower, Francis Dabney, Robert Young, Lewis Stirling, John Mulholland, Benjamin Muse House, Levi Blunt and John L. Lobdell. They were assessed $25 for the support of a minister, the name Grace was chosen for the new church, and a committee was appointed to collect subscriptions for buying a suitable property on which to erect a building.

By March 30th the Vestry called the Reverend William R. Bowman of Pennsylvania, age 27 and only recently ordained as a priest, as first rector of Grace Church. He’d come to the area to visit his sister Mary Bowman, who was married to Henry Stirling of Wakefield Plantation, brother of vestry member Lewis Stirling. Rev. Bowman was described in church records as a man of “commanding appearance, pleasing address, a correct reader, an eloquent preacher, and a fine theologian. All of his parishioners speak of him in the highest terms both as an agreeable gentleman and a christian minister.” By December 1828 he had married beautiful young Eliza Pirrie Barrow, pupil of John James Audubon at Oakley, widowed when her first husband supposedly perished of pneumonia contracted when he carried her across a flooded Homochitto River on the way to their elopement honeymoon in Natchez.

Four lots were purchased in April 1828 from Judge Thomas Chinn, first parish judge, for $200, for which he accepted a personal note from Dr. Ira Smith. A contract was entered into with Willis Thornton to “erect, build, and construct a church of brick in good substantial manner, with a solid foundation for such building, the church to be 20 feet in height to the square, walls 18 inches thick, 50 feet long and 38 feet wide, with Vestry room in the rear of brick, balcony in front 18 feet high, the front to be of brick, the remainder of wood…The organ gallery to be finished with plain facing and seats, and after same is completed, which shall be on or before the 25th day of December, 1828, the sum of $3,217 to be paid to said Thornton.”

This simple church of Georgian design was completed and was used by the congregation during the winter of 1828 in spite of not being plastered, painted or ceiled; only a bishop’s visitation in 1830 inspired the faithful to raise funds for its completion. In the early years of settlement, the faithful often moved from one church and denomination to another at will, and in January 1835 Rev. Bowman made this report to a convention in New Orleans: “Owing to the heterogeneous character of this congregation it is difficult to say what number of communicants are really attached to the Protestant Episcopal Church---they do not probably exceed eight or ten; there have been three Baptisms during the present year.”

Rev. Bowman succumbed to a “short but painful attack of congestive fever” in August of that same year. Grace Church would have several rectors over the next few years, with yellow fever rampant and hard times brought about by the depression and panic of 1837. One visiting clergyman was aghast to find “the doors wide open, the windows broken, the organ gone, the few prayer books torn in pieces, playing cards strewed about, and everything looking like sin and desolation.”
Grace Church in St. Francisville, La. But Grace Church once again flourished under the Reverend Daniel Smith Lewis, originally from Massachusetts. Accepting the call to serve in the summer of 1839, within a year and a half he would report “Sunday Scholars 50; Teachers 8…the spiritual prospects of the Parish are encouraging. The attendance on Public Worship is constantly increasing and its happy influence marked and felt among this community. Our church has been greatly improved in the past year…” The church’s first parochial report to the annual convention reported “14 white and 31 colored infant baptisms, 7 white and 21 colored adult baptisms, 2 marriages, 14 funerals, and 14 Episcopal Communicants, 12 white and 2 colored, with 15 communicants belonging to other denominations.”


Its members were instrumental in forming a recognized Diocese in Louisiana and naming Leonidas Polk its bishop. Polk would serve for 23 years, until he resigned his duties to become the Fighting Bishop of the Confederacy. Beloved by his men, not so much by officers with more military experience, he was killed in the Battle of Pine Mountain in Georgia in 1864.

By 1845 there were 26 communicants. Rev. Lewis was not only responsible for several mission churches, St. Mary’s in the Weyanoke community and St. John’s at Laurel Hill, but also for several colored congregations of slaves on Troy and (Butler) Greenwood Plantations. He also was more or less in charge of St. Francisville schools, though they were not strictly parochial. For all this, Dr. Lewis received a salary of $1,200 a year.
In June of 1858 Bishop Leonidas Polk laid the cornerstone for a fine new church, Gothic in design with an off-center bell tower, “simple, chaste and dignified,” built directly in front of the site of the first structure but on greatly expanded grounds. Some of the added lots were acquired over the years from a family of Chews, called “free men of color.” The church was built of brick by Charles Nevitt Gibbons in a style reminiscent of English country churches remembered from his childhood. Gibbons had come to St. Francisville with his friend Robert Wickliffe, who would become the state’s sixteenth governor. An expert woodcarver, Gibbons produced all of Grace’s interior woodwork and also supervised the erection of the nearby Catholic Church. When he died an insolvent boarder in a Bayou Sara hotel in 1881, his estate, besides land sold for debts, listed “a lot of old books, a square, 2 old wrenches, a dozen assorted planes, a tri-square, 2 compasses, 1 chisel, a slate, and a small box of paints.”

day the war stoppedIn Grace Church exceptional early American leaded stained glass windows filter the sunlight across carved faux bois oak pews, while the top of the altar window and the rose window above the entrance door are European stained glass. In the south transept by the organ is a door with four red Bohemian glass panels, supposedly purchased at a later date with a gift from a “repentant Union Naval gunman” who helped shell the town during the Civil War.

Live oaks were planted in the church yard from the plantation of Mrs. Harriet Flower Mathews in 1855, making the cemetery a peaceful resting spot for generations of worshipers, and in that year it was partially enclosed by a wrought and cast-iron fence. Among the earliest of burials in the 1840s was that of baby Edward Baldwin, whose cause of death, no doubt a common one in those days of runaway horses and rutted roads and open carriages, was recorded as “flung from buggy.” Mrs. Mathews also gave the exceptional Pilcher pipe organ built into the south transcept in memory of her husband, Louisiana Supreme Court justice Judge George Mathews; shipped downriver from St. Louis in 1858, it is the oldest two-manual tracker-action organ still in use in the country. Playing this organ is not for the fainthearted nor the feeble, and at one point it had to be manually operated by hand bellows pumped by the sexton, who often fell asleep at the post, causing the organist to have to dismount from her bench to arouse him.

The church was completed by Easter Sunday of 1860. And then came the Civil War.
In the late summer of 1862, in retaliation for Confederate guerilla attacks, the Union gunboat Essex burned all houses and the markethouse along the levee in Bayou Sara, and St. Francisville suffered bombardments as well, with U.S. Naval records calling the town “a perfect hotbed of secession…the constant resort of Confederates.”

The following year, the bloody Siege of Port Hudson was pitting 30,000 Union troops against 6,800 weary Confederates fighting over the all-important control of traffic on the Mississippi River. Admiral David Farragut attempted to run the blockade at Port Hudson, but of his seven ships, only his flagship and the USS Albatross passed upriver safely, The Albatross was patrolling the Mississippi River off Bayou Sara just below St. Francisville when a shot rang out from the captain’s stateroom. It was 4:15 p.m. on June 11, and the vessel’s commander, John Elliot Hart of Schenectady, New York, had shot himself.

Day the War StoppedCommander Hart was a Mason. Living near the river were several helpful brothers named White who were also Masons; and in St. Francisville was Feliciana Lodge No. 31 F&AM, the second oldest Masonic Lodge in the state. Its senior warden, William Walter Leake, a captain in the First Louisiana Cavalry, was at home on furlough. It would be his duty, he felt, to afford a decent burial to a fellow Mason and fellow military officer, regardless of politics. And so the war stopped, if only for a few mournful moments, and Commander Hart was laid to rest in the cemetery around Grace Episcopal Church, with Union and Confederate Masons participating in the burial services along with the Episcopal rector, the Reverend Daniel Lewis.

An article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1937 called this event “one of the strangest born of the War Between the States, when fighting men could battle to the death and yet know chivalry, when war had not become the cold-blooded butchery of today.” The article also referred to Hart’s grave in Grace Church cemetery’s Masonic plot as “a Yankee grave that Dixie decorates,” for every year on Memorial Day and All Saint’s Day, fresh flowers were placed, initially by Confederate Mason William Walter Leake whose intervention facilitated the burial. This unlikely event is observed each year in St. Francisville (this year June 15, from 9 to 5, all free), with re-enactors in blue and grey joining Masons recreating the burial, plus vintage presentations, Masonic programs and evening socials to celebrate not a battle but the bonds of brotherhood that proved stronger even than the divisiveness of a bitter civil conflict.

Then in January 1864 St. Francisville was shelled for hours by the USS Lafayette. Lieutenant Commander James P. Foster reported “one hundred and eight shots were fired slowly and with great accuracy, each one telling.” The bell tower of Grace Church was a tempting target. Church records note that “one shell entering at the front corner and dislodging large masses of brick, spent its force in the chancel and lay there unexploded, and another passed through the organ.” The rector of Grace was said to have sent a servant down to the river under a flag of truce to inform the gunners that “to fire upon God’s House is unthinkable.”

One story relates how old Aunt Silvia Chew, free woman of color whose family had originally owned much of the land purchased by Grace Church, sought protection inside the church until a cannon ball whistled over her head and crashed through the window. She fled in terror and hid behind the substantial tomb of Dr. Ira Smith, founding vestry member, whose unusual pyramidal tomb of Egyptian Revival design was originally intended for multiple burials (but not anymore; one of his descendants supposedly threw the key into the Mississippi River). At least Aunt Silvia Chew lived to tell the tale.

The church was a shattered wreck, its surviving congregation suffering and scattered. Of 72 white and 27 colored communicants on the rolls in 1861, only 32 white and 2 colored remained in 1866. But these hardy souls gathered in the damaged church for Easter services that year. Times had changed. Where there had been 493 white registered voters in the parish in 1860, now there would be 173 white and 1,630 newly registered black voters.

There was little money available for repairs to the church, and Rev. Daniel S. Lewis, after serving God in Grace Church for 27 years, left for New Orleans. The year 1872 saw a new minister arrive, Rev. Alexander Gordon Bakewell, who worked for 12 years leading and rebuilding, adding a rectory, completing the beautiful wrought iron fence around the churchyard. By the late 1850s, the cemetery’s tombstones and grave markers, originally simple memorial stones, began to be highly ornate Victorian Gothic styles, carved pillars covered with stone ivy or Grecian drapes, statuary and elaborate floral carvings and flowing epitaphs. Improving finances among congregation members brought many donations, but it was the generous 1883 gift of $12,000 from Mrs. Sarah P. Lawrason that allowed restoration of the church building.

In 1886 the Reverend William Kirkland Douglas came to Grace; one church history says, “Originally from Connecticut, he was yet understanding and kind. His gentle piety became known to all, and he grew to be a Southerner in life and purpose.” His tenure was marked by improvements including the establishment of a Woman’s Auxiliary, which supported missions and presented the rector with a new horse, saddle and buggy. By 1893 the church was reconsecrated and free of debt. A rectory built in 1895 was called by one occupant “Vicious Victorian architecture” for its freezing rooms, steep stairs and lack of proper plumbing. Next to the rectory was the church’s parish hall, Jackson Hall, dating from 1896; its upstairs was originally used as a lodge room of the fraternal and benevolent society known as the Knights of Pythias, and the lower floor a community opera house that held everything from weddings and wakes to dances, graduations and boxing matches.

Others were called to Grace over the years, with some staying a number of years and leaving indelible marks upon church and congregation, most notably Rev. J. Arthur Klein who came in 1950, Rev. John Senette, Father Kenneth Dimmick, and the current rector, Father Roman Roldan, born in Columbia, whose background as a social worker has surely encouraged the church’s valiant response in times of disasters like hurricanes and floods. Each has contributed in unique ways to assure that Grace Church retains its ministry not only to its congregants but to its many visitors. Said Father Kenneth Dimmick, “The reaching limbs of our ancient oaks provide for even the most casual visitor a place of silence and restfulness, where many find they can hear the voice of God. To kneel and pray in our historic church offers the chance to meditate on the changelessness of God’s love.”

For several decades Grace has provided a wonderful community-wide preschool begun onsite in 1982, plus nursing home ministry, youth activities, choirs and community outreach not just locally but around the globe, thanks to nuclear power and energy exploration propelling this little country church into a position of world responsibility and Christian stewardship.

When River Bend Nuclear Plant was constructed in the 1970s south of St. Francisville, the property left to the church by widowed longtime parishioner Ada Z. Mackie was purchased by Entergy for a considerable sum and the proceeds were used to acquire a historic structure on Royal St. When in 1980, as oil and gas activity in the parish accelerated because of nearby finds in the Tuscaloosa Trend, Amoco Oil leased and then purchased half the royalty rights of the extensive Lavergne property, given to the church in 1929 by an old bachelor who had served in the Confederacy, whose family was all buried in Grace churchyard, and whose will consisted of one lone statement: “I will all I die possessed of to the Grace Episcopal Church, West Feliciana.”

Then–rector Rev. John Senette thoughtfully considered this new bounty for a church that had faced financial struggles in different periods of its history, “I wanted us to be responsible in using the money wisely, not only for ourselves but for worthwhile purposes outside the community,” he said as he guided the long process of meetings, arguments, compromise. “There developed a growing awareness that the bounty so generously given us was being seen as not ours alone. There was a feeling of receiving it in trust, not only for the benefit of our spiritual family and descendants, but for a broken and suffering humanity. The generosity of Grace Church since 1980 has been felt in this area, the nation and the world.” Thus the feeling that it was the responsibility of the current parishioners to support the church; said Libby Dart, parish historian and longtime Grace worker, “It is the obligation and the privilege of the living to support the church.” Added Father Senette: “These stewards seem determined not to allow the generous dead to usurp the joyful privilege of the living.” So the Lavergne Charitable Fund was established by the vestry and authorized to use not less than 10% of the trust funds “as a vehicle through which Grace Church can exert a Christian influence and extend a helping hand in and outside the community.”

Other than times when weddings or funerals are scheduled, Grace Church welcomes visitors and is certainly one of the little rivertown’s most visited historic attractions.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season and is spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Friday, April 26, 2019

Wedding Bells Ring in St. Francisville, La.

Wedding Bells Ring in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler


weddingDreaming of a destination wedding? There’s no need to travel too far away; St. Francisville offers all the conveniences of home, but guarantees you’ll feel a million miles away.
Back in the day, weddings were mostly formal affairs, held in churches with elaborate floral arrangements and guests dressed fit to kill, the bride wearing white and her attendants in outfits that would never come out of the closet again. That was then.

This is now: Many ceremonies these days are second (or maybe even third) weddings, the couples having been there and done that formally the first time. It’s not their first rodeo, and they want something casual, more relaxed, hopefully even enjoyable this time around.

Destination weddings at the beach or on a mountaintop in Colorado, the bride barefoot in the sand in a billowing maxi dress or wearing hiking boots clutching a bouquet of wildflowers, have become the “in” thing, and St. Francisville has become one of the state’s most popular wedding destinations.
 The area can provide the perfect place to fulfill any bride’s heart’s desires, be it her first wedding or (heaven forbid) her fourth, from glorious garden settings to charming chapels, from lakeside amphitheaters to oak-shaded plantation properties and pastoral pastures. And yes, there are beautiful historic churches as well. Not only does St. Francisville offer the ideal site; there are also professional services available locally…caterers, officiants, florists, wedding coordinators, photographers, musicians, rental tents and tables, romantic overnight accommodations for honeymooners and wedding guests as well.
butterSeveral of the historic plantations host only small weddings. Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site offers beautiful backdrops in the 28-acre formal gardens or oak allee for 15 or 20 guests, only before dark, with hourly rates and requirements for the private purchase of liability insurance; nothing is permitted inside the 1830s home (phone 225-635-3332). Butler Greenwood, an even earlier plantation, does not have parking or restroom facilities to accommodate large groups, but does offer beautiful moss-draped oak trees and a lane of 19th-century cast-iron urns leading to a vine-covered pergola complete with hitching post (a favorite spot of the local Justice of the Peace). Only wedding parties of 15 or fewer are permitted and only on the grounds, but very reasonably priced and with romantic private cottages for honeymooners (phone 225-635-6312). Other plantations like The Cottage and The Myrtles provide honeymoon accommodations but do not currently host weddings, though the new restaurant at The Myrtles has all sorts of possibilities for rehearsal dinners and receptions.

Afton Villa Gardens offers glorious 19th-century garden settings in spite of the elaborate plantation house having burned in the 1960s, with lengthy oak alley, terraced grounds, formal parterres, marble statuary and a ruins garden room filled with blooms in season (phone 225-635-6773; for bridal photos 225-721-2269; for weddings 703-508-5073).

Greenwood Plantation also provides a spectacular site for weddings of all sizes, with all-inclusive wedding packages that can include the first floor of the 1830s mansion, the grounds with majestic live oaks and reflecting pond, bricked patio and outside kitchen building, even a small chapel that seats 50 and was constructed as the overseer’s house during the filming of a movie. Also available are dressing rooms for bride and groom, overnight B&B stay, setup and cleanup, plus bridal portraits, rehearsal dinners, caterers and vendors for receptions, bridal luncheons and showers…this is the full scope of wedding services, priced accordingly, and wedding coordinators work with bridal couples to ensure complete satisfaction (phone 225-655-4475).

hemingbouhAnother popular setting that can accommodate large weddings both indoors and out is Hemingbough, and its new Marketing and Events Director can work with couples to customize the perfect package plan. Breathtakingly beautiful ceremonies are held in the Greek amphitheater that seats hundreds overlooking Audubon Lake (setting for an annual Easter sunrise service), while indoor spaces include a memorial chapel with beautiful stained glass windows and pipe organ. On-site catering is available, as are overnight accommodations in the 8-room Guest House replica of Uncle Sam Plantation’s garconnier. For receptions, the ballroom at Hemstead Hall holds large groups, while the stately Audubon Room is ideal for smaller parties (phone 225-635-6617 or 225-978-7557).

Noted for its elegant simplicity is the small chapel available for weddings at The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, resort complete with spectacular Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, overnight accommodations in one- and two-bedroom suites in The Lodge and several restaurant options (phone 225-634-6400 or 634-5222).

churchIn St. Francisville’s National Register-listed historic district is Temple Sinai, turn-of-the-century Jewish temple overlooking the Mississippi River, recently restored by the non-profit Freyhan Foundation as a non-denominational event center and indoor site for weddings. It can accommodate up to 100 guests, with restroom facilities and small kitchenette, plus perfect acoustics, stained glass windows and rows of comfortable pews. Reasonably priced with damage deposit required; reservations may be made through the West Feliciana Historical Society’s director at 225-635-6330, who can also furnish information on reserving 1819 Audubon Market Hall, another historic indoor venue downtown with a capacity of 40-50 guests.

Just down Royal Street, Shadetree Inn hosts small outdoor weddings on its picturesque hilltop setting and provides three eclectic suites for honeymoon overnights (phone 225-635-6116).
gazebo next to the innAlso in the historic district next to Parker Memorial Park is the St. Francisville Inn, which recently underwent an ambitious renovation and now offers craft cocktails in The Saint bar, a catering kitchen (elegant breakfast/brunch daily, plus group lunches and dinners by reservation), and small weddings of fewer than 25 guests on the front lawn or in the bricked courtyard; for larger groups, rental of all 11 guest rooms is required. If the new owners of this boutique property can pull off an outside tented sit-down dinner for 180 guests in the midst of wild winds and tornado warnings mere days after opening as handily as they did, our hats are off to them! Phone 225-635-6502.

Local caterers include popular Heirloom Cuisine for elegant refreshments (225-784-0535) and Tip’s Catering Connection (from Black Tie to Backyard Barbeque plus rental tables, chairs, tents, fans and heaters) (225-921-7785). Temple Design offers creative custom services for wedding invitations and other print materials (225-635-9454), while Tara Marie Photography takes excellent photos (225-634-7229) as does Lilly Belle Photo (225-721-3636); Stacey Foretich Photography does not shoot weddings but does amazing engagement photos (225-505-7906). Mia Sophia Florist, whose head designer/owner has three decades of experience, provides fresh flowers from growers across the United States, custom bouquets, tablescapes, rental plants, arches and backdrops (phone 225-635-3339). To contact retired Justice of the Peace Kevin Dreher regarding officiating, phone 225-721-1120. Information on all of these services may be found online at www.stfrancisville.us.

On May 5 from 7 to 10 p.m., Temple Sinai is the setting for an Arts For All concert featuring acclaimed guitarist Arnold Cardon, plus Nancy Roppolo with harmonica virtuoso husband Joe and Susan Aysen.

Besides weddings and concerts, fans of fine literature flock to St. Francisville in May for two popular festivals, the West Feliciana Children’s Book Festival in Parker Park on May 4th, and the Walker Percy Weekend May 31 through June 2nd. “Reading Gives You Wings” is the theme of the third annual children’s literary festival, featuring storytelling tent, crafts, sidewalk chalk art contests, and authors of children’s, middle and young adult books performing, reading and discussing their works. It’s fun, and it’s free, and it goes on from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Friday, May 31, the Walker Percy Weekend kicks off with a reception and cocktails under the majestic oaks. This will be followed on Saturday, June 1, by lectures and panel discussions as experts expound on themes in Percy’s fiction, much of it set in south Louisiana as the author explored “the search for meaning in an increasingly materialistic society via masterfully wrought tales delivered with a poetic Southern sensibility and informed by the author’s deep Catholic faith.” Saturday afternoon highlight is the Progressive Front Porch Tour and Bourbon Tasting, and the evening culminates with the popular crawfish boil and craft beer celebration. Among the acclaimed speakers are New York Times columnist/author David Brooks, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, and Walter Isaacson, noted for his astute biographies of Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. This popular event benefits the sponsoring non-profit Julius Freyhan Foundation. For additional information and tickets, see www.walkerpercyweekend.org.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season and is spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).