Dates mean so many things to different people. We hold dates to commemorate birthdays, anniversaries, the first day of our new beginnings and sadly, the last days of our earthly journeys. Dates have become the cornerstone of memory, relationships and humanity’s connection to the world. Think back on where you were during some of the most notable events in history—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King, or even where you were when President John Kennedy was assassinated. All of these have created an imprint on your mind and heart as it reminds us that the world is truly a small place. And humanity will always come back to what it knows—kindness, love and connection.
This story holds dates that remain close in the hearts of a given culture—the African American Catholic Community of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The story began in the early 1900s with a community’s desire to have their own place of worship, their own school and even their own religious community. Not only did it begin with the determination of African Americans, but it also began with the support of a few Caucasian clergy. Together, they created quite a history in this small Louisiana town.
To begin, it may be helpful to use this timeline of significant events and individuals within the church’s history.
The Little Red Schoolhouse
When visiting South Louisiana, one may frequent a couple of cities off Interstate I-10: Lake Charles and Lafayette. Both cities celebrate Mardi Gras in their own unique ways. Both have their own universities, great Cajun and Creole foods and their own unique styles in attire and dialects. In the early 1900s, these two cities came to be a great connector for faith, family and African American Catholics. These cities became a link between the resilience and strength of men and women—both lay and religious—and the foundation laid in the form and feel of the community.
The railroad created so many opportunities for towns and developing cities. It created jobs as men were able to find the labor in its construction and it also provided communities with the ability to trade. In Lake Charles, the railroad tracks became another source of aid to the city: migration. Many Creoles from the eastern part of the state came to Lake Charles at the turn of the 20th century. Once they arrived, their craftsmanship and strong work ethic became of great use in the railroad industry. Their ability to work within and around the tracks in a plethora of jobs, created much of what was known as the development of Lake Charles. The men also came with unbending and strong Catholic faith and they would use that to nurture their family and their community.
Work for the men in African American households was very challenging. Not only was job security an issue, but the actual labor was extremely intense. The work was outside in varying types of weather, depending on the season and it was physically exhausting. The men worked for basically no money, but they had their dignity of being able to put food on the table. During the week, the repetitive nature of this work was all that was held by the African American families. And on Sundays, there was great pride as they served God and their Catholic faith. While the faith held within the families was strong, they desired to have that faith laced throughout a school for their children. Mr. Louis Adams, the owner of a small pharmacy, was the voice that was heard throughout the Lake Charles community asking for a Catholic school to educate their children. He, along with Gilbert Rochon, Paul Lewis, Onezin Geyen, John Moore, James Olivier, Felix Henry, Jack Martin, J.A. Porche, Frank Perry and William Greene met with Father Hubert Cramers, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, to discuss and press for their need to have a Catholic school for their children. These men may have been referred to as “radical” in today’s times, but they knew what they wanted. And if by chance someone would listen and give them a place for a Catholic school of their own, all the better.
It’s interesting to note that Father Hubert Cramers was a Nederland who was ordained in 1898 so his “buy in” to the race relations of that time was met with a bit of resistance. He made his way to the Archdiocese of New Orleans and became the pastor in Houma, Louisiana. Subsequent to his pastorship there, he landed in Calcasieu Parish serving as a pastor in Cameron, LA and then became pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Lake Charles. He would remain there for a little over three decades until his death in 1935.
Father Cramers had to discuss this black Catholic school request with Father Teurlings of Lafayette, LA. He was a friend of Father Cramers and was now ordained as Monsignor Teurlings, meaning he had major position and power within the Diocese of Lafayette, which at that time encompassed Lake Charles. Monsignor Teurlings met with the Sisters of the Holy Family to ask for assistance in organizing a school. The Sisters recommended a recent St. Paul School graduate, Eleanor Figaro, as a teacher and leader for the school. Eleanor was thought to have a heart for the Catholic faith and for the gift of teaching. She was also a local woman who had roots in Lafayette, LA. The gift she brought to the idea of a school in Lake Charles, LA was the confirmation of saying, “Yes.” She would be the first teacher.
The band of organizers made one more contact to help get this desire off the ground—they enlisted Mother Katharine Drexel for financial assistance. With hope, prayers, carpentry skills of the men in the parish and the support of a few white clergymen during that segregated time, Sacred Heart Catholic School sat as the little red schoolhouse for black kids on Louisiana Avenue and the surrounding areas for the first time in 1908. It was more than just a school. It was their school. Ms. Figaro spent forty-three years teaching in the Sacred Heart School. She created the initial standard that all others would follow. She gave of herself and her time to the students enrolled in Sacred Heart School. She had a unique and endearing term for her students. She called them, “My Brown.” I can only imagine that if asked what she meant, she would reference the pride and the strength that the black people then had to work, study and build their community of achievers…and those achievers walked through the same halls she walked.
Mother Katharine Drexel is a significant part of the establishment and operation of Sacred Heart School. If you are unfamiliar with Sr. Katharine, she is a critical figure in the education of African Americans and the Native American people. Katharine and her three sisters inherited their father’s fortune, which was approximately $14 million among the three of them. Katharine did not spend it on herself, but rather, she gave money to the salaries of teachers who educated blacks and Native Americans and she also built schools and churches in areas throughout the United States. Katharine went on later to form the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Order, outfitting rural African American and Native Americans communities with this holy order that could offer them financial assistance and the church’s teachings.
To put this back in perspective, it was the beginning of the 20th century in the southern region of the United States. Race relations between blacks and whites had made no progress. There was an understanding of the south since Jim Crow had not yet entered the court’s ruling and so blacks at that time never saw any logical difference in treatment that could be envisioned. But there was a turn with this little town of Lake Charles—they had gotten a school of their own and it was supported by a white priest. Blacks, particularly black Catholics, were excited to have a Catholic school where their children could be educated and trained in a religious environment. But they had another request to figure: a church parish of their own since they were holding church in the school on the weekends. Once again, Father Cramers, now Monsignor Cramers, deferred to Monsignor Teurlings. Monsignor Teurlings was now pastor of St. John’s Cathedral in Lafayette, LA and they hoped they could convince him of the need to have a church parish. What started off as just a little red schoolhouse, would later become both a school and church for the black Catholics of Lake Charles.
We Need a Church of Our Own!
There were no nearby black churches in that area and no white Catholic Churches had enough courage to welcome black Catholics in. They already had their own school and so it would just seem like the natural order of things to have a church parish. And again, where else could they worship if not in their own church. As difficult as it was to find a place to worship, the community understood that they needed to have someone behind them that would carry their torch in front of the religious deity of that time…and that would not be easy. The luck came when Father Cramers made his way to Lake Charles.
As the pastor of a large parish, Father Cramers was not shy in creating and establishing educational and religious establishments throughout his vocation. He created and established St. Patrick Hospital and St. Charles Academy (now called St. Louis Catholic High School), both of which are still viable places for the Lake Charles community. Father Cramers was obviously very influential and had the ear and relationship with many people within Lake Charles and its surrounding cities, such as Lafayette.
Father Cramers met again with Father William Joseph Teurlings—also from the Netherlands–a noted missionary priest who traveled on horseback and happily moved to Louisiana in 1895 starting his tenure in Abbeville, Louisiana. From Abbeville, he then moved to Cameron Parish and struggled to find “right” within the separation of the races. What was unique about Father Teurlings was his feelings about Christ’s teachings and the intersection of race within the Catholic Church. He was not familiar with the ways of the south and so in order to move around the specific disregard for blacks at that time, he became very clever in how he created this religious integration for all of God’s children. In the town of Washington, Louisiana, Father Teurlings solicited the help of parishioners of the white church to help build a wing for blacks to worship. Because of the love they had for Father Teurlings, parishioners worked and donated their skill, creating this area off the white church for blacks to worship. It wasn’t long after that the two races began to merge themselves into one church, where their children began attending catechism together, making their sacraments together and everyone—blacks and whites–began practicing their faith together.
Father Teurlings eventually landed the pastorship of St. John the Evangelist in 1906. It was then that he began working to assist the African Americans as they pleaded for a church of their own. He understood that the African Americans of that time wanted their own place of worship and he began working hard to secure materials to assist with their building. During that time in the south, there was so much turmoil and Father Teurlings wanted to see a more united and universal display of church within the congregations. As he pressed on with God’s teaching and the momentous plans of building church and community, he, along with other key stakeholders, established St. Paul the Apostle Church (est. 1911). St. Paul was the first African American church in the Lafayette area. A church for blacks could be done…it just needed the right individuals to start the conversation, the right priest to share the conversation and the hand of God to make it happen.
To its credit, the Archdiocese of New Orleans had given the black community and the area of Lafayette, LA a bit of hope and possibility. If it could happen in Lafayette, it could possibly happen in Lake Charles. In 1918, the Diocese of Lafayette was officially created and broke away from the Archdiocese of New Orleans. This was a huge step in the attempt to get a church created that was strictly for the black Catholics of Lake Charles. There were approximately a little over 40 church parishes in the surrounding Lafayette/Acadiana area, but none were parishes strictly for the black Catholics.
Already, Father Cramers had made a name for himself along with his friend, Father Teurlings. Father Teurlings was also a mover and shaker that began weaving blacks and whites together within a church congregation. The two of them worked and prayed together to open greater avenues for the diocese. Depending on how you look at it, their prayers resulted in having a unique and local individual appointed as the first bishop of Lafayette: Bishop Jules Jeanmard. Bishop Jeanmard understood that community strengthens when there is active involvement and trust within it. He understood the desire of black Catholics to have a place all their own. He had heard of the black Catholics in Lake Charles, Louisiana with the little red schoolhouse that had been holding mass in their school building. Bishop Jeanmard began planning, securing funds (along with Mother Katharine Drexel) and soliciting the carpentry skills of parishioners to help build churches for black Catholics, with one in particular, in Lake Charles, LA. Finally, in 1919, Sacred Heart parish was created. The establishment of the church and the church parish started over a decade prior with the voices of a community, the prayers and fortitude of a few priests and the support of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament Order that worked to secure space, land and funds for a community of Catholics.
The Uniqueness of Sacred Heart Church
At the time Sacred Heart Church was established, Father Anthony Hackett was appointed as pastor of the church. Father Anthony Hackett was a Holy Ghost Priest and he recruited other Holy Ghost Priests to come to Sacred Heart. At one point in time, there were six Holy Ghost Priests in residence at Sacred Heart and they worked hard to stabilize the parish, offer spiritual guidance and become the only church that welcomed black people of the local and surrounding areas.
Sacred Heart Church set an example of promise with strong priests that worked to preserve and grow black Catholics of the time. Within its congregation, there were many skilled artisans. There were men and women within the parish that were carpenters, electricians and construction masters. To date within the parish, the parishioners built all the buildings on the church parish lot, until Hurricane Rita in 2005. Hurricane Rita destroyed the school, gym and church and because of the type of damage, it was the first time since its establishment that contractors were used to remodel.
Spiritually, Sacred Heart fostered a number of vocations from within the parish. Two bishops, Bishop Harold Perry and Bishop Leonard Olivier, were members of the church parish, both born and raised in Lake Charles, LA. Bishop Olivier was a priest for more than 60 years and was appointed by Pope John Paul II as the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
Bishop Perry was the first black bishop listed in the registry and made national news because of this. At that time in history, the Klu Klux Klan was in its glory and they protested Bishop Perry’s religious celebrations. Once at a New Orleans’ confirmation, a white woman spat on him as he walked down the church aisle. He wiped the spit off his face with a handkerchief and kept walking toward the front of the altar. He was humble and unafraid.
There have been a host of those of the faith that were members of Sacred Heart Church parish—Father Verlin LeDoux, Father Jerome LeDoux and Father Robert Boxie, III. There have been nine Holy Family nuns and one Sister of the Blessed Sacrament that came from Sacred Heart Church. Two additional parishes came out of Sacred Heart Church—Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Martin de Porres– both still active churches today.
So how does this story end? It doesn’t, it just keeps ongoing. And this year, it closes 2019 with a centennial celebration for the church’s 100th Anniversary, but it didn’t come without some heartache. In 2012, Sacred Heart Catholic School closed its doors and said goodbye to a history and litany of educating young boys and girls that have contributed to the fields of education, science, medicine and technology. The history of educating young African American boys and girls at the hands of the Holy Ghost Priests ultimately translated to tremendous growth for families and the middle class of Lake Charles. Because of the push for education by the priests, many of these young men and women went to college and came back to Lake Charles and started the middle class within the African American community. Hurricane damage through a natural act of God created a hardship for the school and parish, but the parish is strong. The damage was intense, but the parishioners have unending faith and while there have been many changes and acts within the history of Sacred Heart Church, there have also been thousands of reasons to celebrate. As it commemorates it’s100 years as a church parish this October, there will be a host of activities celebrating what was then and what is now–much of it is rooted in courage, determination, education and the Catholic faith. The people within the community met two religious men who supported them in their quest to create a place of worship that was not only open to them, but to everyone. Color didn’t matter to this parish. Education level didn’t matter nor did financial contribution. What mattered was strengthened through the four walls of the church, the school and the space within the entire parish community.
Many have seen many changes in the parish…there have been those that have walked in Miss Figaro’s shoes and have educated and preached like the Father Hackett’s or Bishop Jeanmard’s and they have all been unique in their own way. What hasn’t changed has been the love of the people of that parish. Whether there was a church or school dance, basketball game where some of the women of the parish were selling their homemade popcorn balls, weekend retreats, weekend bazar or the celebration of Martin Luther King weekend, this parish loves its people…and always, above all, their God.