By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator 

On Feb. 2, people gathered during a picturesque, sun-drenched day at St. Gabriel Church in the hamlet of St. Gabriel and celebrated the fact that they and their ancestors have been living “his-story” for 250 years along the banks of the Mississippi River.  

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 Bishop Michael G. Duca, priests from around the Diocese of Baton Rouge and others who served at the altar gathered for prayer before a standing-room only Mass celebrating the 250th anniversary of St. Gabriel Church in St. Gabriel on Feb. 2. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 

 

The community of St. Gabriel was founded in 1768 by Acadian exiles sent by the Spanish Governor Dan Ontonio DeUlloa to settle on the Coast of Iberville, known as Manchac.  

“The Acadians left because they wanted to freely live their religion without conflict and they wanted to freely worship God,” said Father Charlie Landry, pastor of St. Gabriel.  

The Acadians, a traditionally community-oriented and religious people, built a church to express their faith.  

“The beauty of the old church symbolizes the generations that have gone before us … it’s all about the history of salvation,” said Father Landry.  

Made out of cypress from nearby swamps, the old St. Gabriel Church was built sturdy and solid, simple in design, but impressive. It is one of the oldest churches in the state and perhaps one of the oldest surviving church structures of the entire Mississippi River Valley.  

The church, believed to have been built upriver from its present site, was moved several times because of the flooding of the Mississippi River.  

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Renee Richard, of the Archives Department of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, speaks with long-time parishioner Eugene LeBlanc about the history of the old St. Gabriel Church. 

 

In 1772, the church was dismantled, moved onto a Spanish land grant and dedicated to St. Gabriel the Archangel. French and Spanish priests served the parish.  

In December 1887 the church was again moved to its present site. At that time, its timbers were found </span id=”9″>to be in perfect condition.  

The original bell of the parish, which was cast in Spain and donated to St. Gabriel in 1771, bears the inscription “Sancta Maria de la Merced,” or “Pro Nobis ( Holy Mary of Mercy pray for us).”  

The church parish was incorporated under the laws of the State of Louisiana on Aug. 7, 1895 during the administration of Father John Francois Raymond under the title of “The Congregation of Saint Gabriel Roman Catholic Church.”  

Respect and fondness for the church prevented any further movement that involved its destruction. Instead, it was decided to preserve the church and build a new church for the congregation. In 1953, a new church was built on the property overlooking the old St. Gabriel Church. The bell from the old church was moved to the bell tower of the new church and is still used.  

After marking St. Gabriel’s historic milestone with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Michael G. Duca and several priests of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, attendees enjoyed a meal prepared by chef John Folse and strolled through the old church and revisited the faith community’s history via a display set up by the Archives Department of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. The display included geographic information about the area, clergy and religious who served them, and key points in its development. 

For Kim Bonnette, a life-long member of St. Gabriel, the old church has a special meaning to her because it is where her grandparents were married. She was baptized in the new church and she and her husband married there as well.  

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 People held hands while praying the Our Father during Mass.  

 

Noting there are new people attending every Sunday Mass, Bonnette’s dream for St. Gabriel’s future is that it will continue to cherish the experience and long-term support of its older members while embracing the gifts and talents new members bring.  

“The church is a living and breathing organization,” said Bonnette.  

Her comments reflected the sentiments of the attendees that the beauty of St. Gabriel is in its faith community.  

Laverne Bajoie, who has been a member of St. Gabriel for 24 years and whose great-granddaughter recently received first Communion there, agreed.  

“I would like to see us continue that family atmosphere and the togetherness,” Bajoie.  

When first attending St. Gabriel five years ago, it was like finding a “treasure in their own back yard” for Michelle and Michael Tubre. They lived in St. Gabriel but had been attending a larger church parish. Deciding to make a change, they came to St. Gabriel and now call it home.  

“We’ve made a lot of friends in a short time,” said Michelle Tubre, who plays flute for the choir … We’d love for young people to build families here, because it’s a great place to raise a family.”  

“Our faith has grown since we’ve been a member here,” said Michael Tubre, a member of the Knights of Columbus.  

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 Bishop Duca encouraged attendees of the St. Gabriel Church to pass on their history, heritage and faith to the next generation during his homily.  

 

Bishop Duca commended the parish in his homily for carrying on the legacy of faith in the area while urging them to look to the future.  

He noted a church is more than a building, it is a place where the people of God come around the altar to hear the word of God and to be nourished by the Eucharist.  

Bishop Duca urged attendees to build upon the foundation laid by Christ and carried forth by the early apostles by evangelizing and passing on, with joy and love, the history and traditions of their faith to the next generation. This should be accompanied by the call to ministry and service.  

Among the next generation who answered this call is Kade Spedale, 19, a freshman at LSU majoring in mechanical engineering, who serves St. Gabriel as an usher and lector and in several other capacities. He finds a deep connection with his faith during the Masses at St. Gabriel.  

“I’d like to see more people serving and getting involved in any way they can. Take up the torch and run with it,” Spedale said.  

Bishop Duca noted that it is through perseverance the Acadian ancestors formed a faith community and built the church in St. Gabriel, and it will be through the determination of current members the legacy will be carried on.  

“Let us rejoice and be glad we’ve had 250 years,” said Bishop Duca, adding that through endurance “no matter how big the storm, no matter what happens around us, the Eucharist will still be celebrated, Christ will be proclaimed.” 

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Father Charlie Landry, pastor of St. Gabriel Church in St. Gabriel, greeted people as they walked out of church following the anniversary Mass.  

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The altar in the old St. Gabriel Church  

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People enjoyed looking at past and present history of St. Gabriel through a display set up in the old church by the Archives Department of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.  

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A model of the old St. Gabriel Church

 

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Father Landry visited with many people as they enjoyed lunch prepared by Chef John Folse and toured the old St. Gabriel Church. 
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A display containing the architectural and Creole history of St. Gabriel was set up in the old St. Gabriel Church.