It was halfway déjà vu as I drove north on I-49 beyond Alexandria, Louisiana and turned off at exit 119. But on the previous occasion, the day after Rickey Norman’s homegoing at Saint Charles Borromeo Church in Grand Coteau, Louisiana on Friday, December 12, 2014, with Our Mother of Mercy Church member Floyd Ware as chauffeur, we had turned right when 119 formed a T at Highway 1, heading for the black Creole enclave of Cloutierville, Lousiana with its bewildering mix of light-skinned black Creoles with some darker Creoles and whites thrown in for good measure. Cloutierville native, Matiel Boyd, a member of Our Mother of Mercy Church in Fort Worth, had motored there with her daughter Patsy Lewis to bury her 90-year-old, sole-remaining brother, Ednest Bayonne, on December 13, 2014.
This time, driving to the funeral Mass of my longtime friend Ernest Pichon on December 17, 2016, I turned left on Highway 1 toward Isle Brevelle, the home of another branch of Cane River black Creoles. After a mile or so, a right on 493 carried me to 484 at the foot of the Cane River bridge. Making another right on Highway 484, the venerable Saint Augustine Church loomed some 300 feet ahead. My heart quickened, for I had been reading about that church for over 20 years as a benign rival to Saint Augustine Church in Faubourg Treme of New Orleans.
On land donated by free man of color patriarch Augustin Metoyer, the original smallish Saint Augustine Church was designed and built by his brother Louis in 1803 primarily for their family’s use, but outsiders were welcome. Rebuilt in 1829, it was decreed to be a parish by Bishop Augustus Martin in 1856 – 14 years after Saint Augustine Church/Parish in New Orleans. Still actively calling the faithful to worship, the bell in the church tower is the only remnant of the first church.
Picturesque and then some, the church stands just off Highway 484 and some 220 feet from the Cane River. Onetime active main navigable bed of the powerful Red River between the 1760s and 1830s, Cane River is a 36-mile-long oxbow lake and a 30-mile-long river. Cradled among a bevy of wild pecan trees and a couple of live oaks, Saint Augustine Church with its cemetery in back stands proud in the Cane
River National Heritage area, is on the National Registry of Historic Places, and is on January 9, 2017 2 the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. Mildly put, it is of mixed ethnicity.
It was comforting to the Pichon family and all of us to be part of the overflow congregation in the historic 300-seat church. Ernest “Uncle Ernie” Pichon, at whose homegoing Mass I was concelebrating, was a native of Slidell, Louisiana where I became acquainted with his family in 1961 when I was sent from Saint Augustine Seminary in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi to celebrate weekend Masses at Saint Linus Church (merged with Saint Genevieve in the early 1970s). In a treasured extended family relationship to this day, the Pichons and I bonded from the very beginning.
Only 22 back then, Ernest had now gone home to God on his birthday at the age of 77. Eyeing the loud-white interior of venerable Saint Augustine Church in Isle Brevelle from stem to stern, I noticed that the presently renovated church is all wood with five arches on each side of the nave formed attractively by small, rounded 1-inch boards soldiered tightly together side by side. As a result of the loud-white walls, the whole church is constantly bathed in an abundance of light.
It is noteworthy that the church has so many useful rooms built into the south side of the church, with ample space for storage, the sacristy, the confessional, and a room for counseling or meetings. Unusual compared to the garden-variety, run-of-the-mill church, its sound system functions very well and pleasantly.
The celebration of Ernest’s homegoing was at once a sacred function and a living lesson on an historical venue and people. I could not believe that, at long last, I was in fabled Cane River in the midst of its people celebrating in Saint Augustine Church. It was the fulfillment of a dream fired by years of imagination and wonder.
Abutting the rear of Saint Augustine Church is its cemetery with historic names of Cane River Creoles such as Metoyer, Balthazar, Dubreuil and Rachal. With their cozy, exotic history, Cane River Creoles have been seared into my memory. Our SVD confrere of blessed memory, Brother James Balthazar, was from Cane River.
If you are wondering whence Isle Brevelle got its name, as I wondered for decades, note that Isle Brevelle is comprised of the area of land between Cane River and Bayou Brevelle, encompassing approximately 18,000 acres of land, 16,000 acres of which are still owned by descendants of the original black Creole families.
Rev. Jerome LeDoux, SVD
“God is love, and all who abide in love abide in God and God in them.” (1 John 4:16)