By Anne Butler
St. 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.”
Named 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.”
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.”
In 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.
Commander 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).