On an early spring day more than 80 years ago, a modest but unique boat first navigated the murky swamp waters of the Atchafalaya Basin.  

Only this was no ordinary maiden voyage as on April 21, 1936, Mary, Star of the Sea brought faith to the water. For the next five years the chapel boat was a fixture in places such as Belle River and Bayou Pigeon, ultimately covering three civil parishes and some 900 square miles. 

Piloted by Father Jules Toups, the chapel boat, which was considered a religious experiment at the time, brought Mass, holy Communion, other sacraments and rosaries to the poor along four mission posts. Father Toups would later say he recognized the urgency of having the boat to serve those who had been mostly neglected.  

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Students from St. Joseph the Worker Church in Pierre Part are shown on Mary, Star of the Sea chapel boat making their first Communion. The boat was piloted by Father Jules Toups in 1936 and navigated an area of nearly 900 square miles in areas such as Belle River, Pierre Part and Bayou Pigeon. The chapel boat operated for nearly five years. Photo provided by the Archives Department | Diocese of Baton Rouge 

 

At Bayou Pigeon, which was west of Pierre Part where the parish church was located, nearly 300 individuals were served by Mary, Star of the Sea.  

Southwest of Pierre Part in Belle River, 73 families totaling some 306 people were served and at 4-Mile Bayou on Lake Verret 33 families totaling 187 souls were able to receive the sacraments.  

An original fourth mission merged with the Belle River post. 

But how times have changed. On the original sail date in 1936, a trek from Pierre Part for Bayou Pigeon, which covered 12 miles, took approximately four hours, hampered by a strong current in Bay Natchez and Lower Grand River.  

When approaching a homestead or settlement, the ringing of a large bell alerted residents that Mary, Star of the Sea was near. Those residents would then line the levees or row their boats to get to the landing to get to the chapel boat.  

When the gangplank was lowered, the faithful rushed onto the boat, rapidly occupying available seats and filling the entire boat.  

Local catechists would present their prize students and by 8 p.m. families had returned home and all was quiet on board. However, by daybreak, the chapel was reopened and women and children would congregate for Mass.  

Confessions were heard and baptisms were performed after the Mass. Father Toups would also visit the sick in the area, and later in the afternoon provided counseling for those in need.  

Father Toups would then return to Pierre Part to celebrate Mass before casting off to another mission  

Through the chapel boat Mary, Star of the Sea Father Toups indeed lived out his mission as a “fisher of men.”