CONVENT TO RESERVE (ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH)
We arrived in Reserve at Our Lady of Grace Church, a historic Catholic Church Sanctuary now used as to house Historic Riverlands, a nondenominational Church which also offers tours focused on the Church’s history in African American life in Southern Louisiana as well as tours on the “Soul River Musical Journey,” chronicling the history of African American music which we would learn more about later in the day. Robin greeted us as she shuttled some young children over to the adjacent preschool center for photo day. We received our instructions for our first interaction—it would be at the Garyville Timbermill Museum just up the river.
Carl Monica was waiting for us in Garyville, Louisiana. His family arrived here from Sicily, and there was a strong contingent of Sicilian families in the area. He’s used the museum to chronicle that story, including the tradition of St. Joseph’s alter that many people only think of in New Orleans. He also showed us the photos and artifacts chronicling the history of cypress logging and milling in Garyville. It was the biggest town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, he said. Lyon Cypress Lumber Company, later Lyon Lumber Company (when they began logging pine also), operated in the town for many years.
Now the town is very small. There is no lumber concern anymore. However, Carl has a bed and breakfast in town; he’s interested in historical preservation. Carl has experience in the commercial real estate business in downtown New Orleans, and is bringing that know-how to bear in the work he’s doing in Garyville. He has a lot of hope and vision for the community.
As we walked from the front of the museum, which still needs a lot of work, to the back building, which has been fully restored, we were joined by Willma Harvey from the River Parish Tourism Commission. She brought us lunch!—jambalaya for all. We decided to take our lunch to go, but before we journeyed on, Carl impressed upon us that the “sugar age” is known, but the “lumber age” is not. He feels the museum needs more support—right now it’s not even open to the public, but it’s a history that needs to be told.
We left Carl with a lot to think about, a museum neglected, abandoned as Carl tells it—a history locked away in the archives in Baton Rouge. We then arrived at another historical site that was being injected with care and cash, The Godchaux House in Reserve, Louisiana. This place, clearly under construction and not open for business, was ready with brochures and flyers to promote its story and architecture. We walked up to the front and were greeted by Stephen Guidry, the director of the historical society and a lifelong resident of the area having grown up just upriver at Terre Haute Plantation..
Shortly after this introduction, Julia Remondet, also with the historical society, walked up and joined the conversation. They were both excited to share with us that some free people of color had owned and operated this plantation and resided in the house. This free black couple also apparently bought and operated other plantations up and down the river, they said. Eventually this plantation and others were bought out by the Godchaux family, a name many people would first associate with the department store.
Stephen and Julia spoke of a man named David Fennelly who came to Reserve and started a successful business. Stephen was the first friend he encountered and they remain good friends today. This businessman is a benefactor to the town and to this project. David Fennelly founded Associated Terminals in 1990, and they operate floating cranes and other machinery up and down the Gulf South region. Other good partners to the Godchaux House have been the sugar industry, according to Stephen and Julia, whereas the chemical industry is not as connected to the community on the whole.
Both of them call this place home because it feels like their place. They get a feeling of home here. Stephen says Louisiana history is coming alive, and the Mississippi River had a lot to do with the history of our country. For example, Edward Jones investments started here, Stephen offers, and Disney once bought a train here which is still operational at Disney Land. Apparently Walt Disney came here himself.
The way they see their stories is maybe different than others would paint it. Stephen says he grew up poor on the river. He fished, shrimped, and swam in the river. Julia, too. These big homes with farmland are not plantations, to them, they are sugar cane farms. We talked about the west bank being “behind,” but that also means they have historic properties that still can be saved.
Stephen and Julia have a long road ahead of them to finish work on the Godchaux house—not only the manual labor but also the raising of funds. And yet, they’ve done a great job so far in garnering support and seem to be going at a realistic pace. Louisiana’s River Parishes seem chock full of these historic structures that need saving, often nestled next to a chemical plant or some such refinery equipment, preserving the past as we plow ahead with the future.
From the River Road to the bypass, we find our way back to Our Lady of Grace Church and Soul River Tours. Pastor Stephen Perrilloux was there to meet with us. We all sat down together in the sanctuary and we quickly learned that he came back to Reserve from California some years ago to start this church. Someone offered this church building to him, and he believes that it was God who made that happen. The building was moved from River Road to this location on 3rd Street. The move stalled out for 18 months along the way, waylaid at the Dupont property, but eventually the church made it.
We sat down to watch a video to begin with—he wanted us to experience the Soul River Tour, but not the whole thing, just a flavor of it. As we watched, he kept interrupting with some more of his personal narrative. While he grew up in Reserve, he left this place for Los Angeles at 23 years old. He already had his degree from Southern University, but he wanted to pursue a career as a musician in LA.
He got onto the wrong path at one point, but luckily Jesus revealed himself to Stephen, calling him to ministry. He needed more than Catholicism (which is how he was raised), and he found a church and training in LA. His music also was a party of his prayer. Stephen started buying musical equipment. All music is spiritual, he says. God created music, and the ministry was the music for Stephen.
Sylvia Clayton, Stephen’s sister, also joined us that afternoon in the sanctuary. She has the gift of music we were told, a great singing voice, and she now shares that gift in Stephen’s church. However, it took her some time to transition away from her Catholic roots. She feels at home in Reserve because everybody knows each other.
In addition to the ministry at the church, Stephen ministers to hospitals and sick people in the area. The tours at the church have really grown thanks to the internet. We walked around the back of the building to the “Boulevard”—a sort of annex which started as a freedom school and now is a museum as part of the Soul River Tour.
We hoped to get back to the sanctuary to watch the whole Soul River video that Stephen had started us on—it was so engaging! But it seemed like this was the end of our stay at the Historic Riverlands. We’d have to come back another time. We did get some Reverend Stephen Perrilloux CD’s for the road!