The Catholic Commentator

Edwin Octave has never left home

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The current church was completed in 1930, more than 1,000 feet away from the levee. The first Mass was celebrated July 6, 1930. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

 

Not has he ever had the desire.

 Bishop Robert W. Muench is joyful as he celebrates the 250th anniversary Mass at St. James Church in St. James on July 30. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

Home for Octave is St. James, a tiny hamlet nestled along one of the numerous elbows of the Mississippi River. At 95, he offers a unique snapshot into another era, a time when young people made their “Little Communion” and he and the rest of the African-American community attended what amounted to a school with one or two teachers through eighth grade before attending high school in New Orleans.

But through it all, Octave, even when commuting to New Orleans for a job, never left his beloved St. James. And always at the center of his life, along with generations of other Catholics, has been St. James Church.

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Bishop Robert W. Muench is joyful as he celebrates the 250th anniversary Mass at St. James Church in St. James on July 30. For the story and additional pictures, please turn to pages 10-11. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

 

“The parish means a lot to me and this church as a whole is very important to this community,” said Octave, who used to have to walk six miles one way to attend Sunday Mass. “It had to mean plenty to us to stay in the church that many years.”

Octave joined several hundred parishioners on July 30 to help St. James, one of the oldest church parishes in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, commemorate its 250th anniversary during a Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert W. Muench.

“This is a special day, a special day for you and for our parish,” pastor Father Matthew McCaughey said during his homily. “It’s such a momentous occasion.”

St. James has a rich history, having been the first landing site for Acadians exiled from Nova Scotia. Although there has been some question about the parish’s founding date, the first recorded sacrament in the area known as the First Acadian Coast, was the baptism of Maria Poirrier in 1767.

Establishment of St. James Church is credited to Jacques Centrelle, who moved from New Orleans to the French military post of Cabahanoce, which was taken from the Indian name meaning the roosting place of wild ducks. At the time, the Houma Indians, which belonged to the Choctaw nation, inhabited the area.

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The first stone of what would be third location where Mass was celebrated was laid on Feb. 23, 1840, and the church was consecrated on May 1, 1841 by Archbishop Antoine Blanc, who was the fifth bishop and the first archbishop for the Diocese of New Orleans. Photo courtesy of the Archives Department | The Diocese of Baton Rouge

 

Father Valentin, a French Capuchin priest, was appointed the first pastor in 1770 and one year later, the second of four churches or locations where Mass would be celebrated, was built. The first was the home of Louis Judice, who shared the position of commandant at Cabahanoce.

By 1769, the church was a part of the newly formed Diocese of Havana, Cuba, before eventually becoming part of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and then the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

In 1840, a new church was built but in the days preceding an advanced levee system, the constantly shifting Mississippi River would claim that building along with portions of the cemetery. In 1930, the current church was completed under the direction of pastor Father J.M. Barbe on land donated by St. James resident Emily Poche.

Throughout its history, the church has undergone seismic demographic shifts, from being predominantly white to a more integrated congregation to today, where the racial makeup is more than 90 percent African-American. Octave, who following a 31-year career working for a diesel fuel company in New Orleans spent the next 32 years working part-time at St. James, serving under nine pastors, has witnessed many of the those changes, remembering a time when African-Americans were only allowed to sit in the two rear pews of the church but “if the white (person) came we had to give them the pew.”

Through all of the changes, however, St. James has remained a spirit-filled church with dedicated parishioners who profess a deep love of their church.

 

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The St. James Choir provided an upbeat and inspirational tempo throughout the Mass.

 

“The church is my foundation,” said Joan Falgoust, who moved to the area with her family in 1931 at the age of one. “Just as a home means much to those living there, the church is that to me. All of my children (four) were baptized there, I was married there, I buried my spouse (of 62 years) there.”

“You go back to when black people stood on the outside of the church instead of coming in,” added Falgoust, who is white. “I’ve seen the faith grow. We are an integrated church; everybody is worshipping but we may worship a little different.”

Father McCaughey, who has been pastor at St. James and Our Lady of Peace Church and St. Philip Church, both in Vacherie, for the past year, appreciates the deep faith of his parishioners and said they are “definitely proud of their church.”

“It’s a testament to not only the community’s level of commitment, not only to their parish but to their worship,” he said in the week leading up to the anniversary Mass. “It’s not just showing up, it’s bringing everything to the Lord.”

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Bishop Robert W. Muench, left, listens intently to Daija Gibson as she reads her award-winning essay on what St. James Church means to her during the 250th anniversary celebration on July 30. The contest was sponsored by the church as part of the anniversary. “(St. James) is a huge part of what makes me me,” said Gibson, who graduated from St. James High School this past spring and is planning to attend Tuskegee University and major in chemical engineering.

 

He said he has been impressed by parishioners’ willing response to requests, including a generous outpouring of support for community events.

During his homily, Father McCaughey said the celebration was not about “any of us” but about the community. He acknowledged what he called the “sins of our fore bearers, but added “we are not defined by such mistakes, such sins.”

“God is greater than the sins of our past, than the sins of our parish,” he said.

While praising the dedication of parishioners, Father McCaughey also urged Catholics to pass along their faith for it will “mean nothing if we don’t hand on the faith. We have to live it and share it.”

Bishop Muench also commended the people for their faith, and joked that he “would not be here for the 300th anniversary. Likely, neither will Octave, but with 12 children, more than 100 grandchildren and an estimated 50 to 60 great grandchildren his legacy will certainly endure.

 

“I’ve seen a lot of history right here in St. James,” said Octave, who has been married for 76 years. “I would not leave here, I was born here, baptized, made Little Communion, confirmation. I’m going to leave here and (buried) right over there (in the cemetery across Louisiana Highway 18, buttressing the levee). I will be here forever.”

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The historic St. James cemetery sits among a stunning grove of live oak trees across LA Hwy. 18 from the church. The cemetery is the third burial ground at the site. Two older cemeteries were claimed by the Mississippi River. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

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The beautiful Stations of the Cross were commissioned in Rome in 1840 by sugar cane Valcour Aime, who was once considered one of the richest men in the south. The artist is unknown. The stations were originally placed in the church that opened in 1840 and later moved to the current church.

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Beautiful stained glass windows are prevalent throughout the church, adding a sense of sacredness.