By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

Emotion tugged at Deacon Alfred Adams as he cast a forlorn eye at the rich St. James civil parish soil upon which he was standing, an area that was once plantation fields sprawling with slaves and the same site where corporate giant Formosa is hoping to build a mammoth $9.4 million plastics plant.  

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Father Joshua Johnson, pastor at Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant, delivers an emotional message during a prayer service Oct. 31 at the site of the proposed Formosa Plant in St. James Civil Parish.  Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator  

 

Deacon Adams could only wonder how many of his ancestors were buried in graves that lay below his feet.  

“That is why I was in tears,” he said. “All I could think about was that I could have some of my ancestors down in that ground and didn’t even know it.” 

Deacon Adams joined Bishop Michael G. Duca and several clergy members of the Diocese of Baton Rouge as well as St. James residents for a prayer service Oct. 31 at the site of the proposed plant, which stands in the shadow of the Sunshine Bridge. For Deacon Adams, the prayer service was personal not only because of his ancestral connection but because he was also raised in nearby Vacherie.  

“The prayer service was very, very moving for me,” Deacon Adams said. “I like the way everything was done.”  

Bishop Duca talked about how the slaves that were buried on the site, gravesites only recently discovered, were finally receiving a proper burial. Also during the sun-drenched morning service Father Joshua Johnson, pastor of Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant, spoke about how God knows the names of the slaves buried there because they are written in the Book of Life.  

“I’m glad I did not have to say anything because I would have probably teared up,” Deacon Adams said. “Most of my people are from (the area). I could just imagine I was standing on (the grave) of one of my great-great-great grandparents.”  

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Several clergy members from the Diocese of Baton Rouge were in attendance, including, from left, Father Matthew McCaughey, Deacon Alfred Adams, Father Vincent Dufresne, Father Tom Clark, Father Johnson and Deacon Chris Kellerman, who is scheduled to be ordained a Society of Jesus priest in 2021. 

 

As a homegrown native, he has a special affinity for the area and while he understands the need to generate much-needed revenue for the parish, he also questions when does money transcend human dignity and loss of life. St. James is already home to several petrochemical plants and if completed, the new Formosa facility would add up to 12 additional plants that would produce the foundational chemicals used in a number of plastic products. 

Community and environmental groups have protested construction of the plant since it was announced in 2018, citing evidence revealing an extraordinarily higher rate of cancer among residents living near plants that dot both sides of the Mississippi River stretching from Baton Rouge to the New Orleans area.  

The plant took another hit earlier this year when it was discovered slaves are buried where portions would be built.  

“We understand the company will offer this and offer that but most of the money they are going to make they are going to take back to (Formosa’s Taiwan headquarters),” Deacon Adams said. “It is not going to benefit St. James, or maybe benefit some, but to what extent if it will take our lives? You want to make money but if you are dead you can’t spend it.  

“We got enough (plants).”  

“We’ve seen already what (the chemical plants) have done,” he added. “You are taking our lives, making us sick. It’s mostly in the African American community and that is what makes it look real bad.”  

Deacon Adams, along with the community action group RISE St. James, which was founded by St. James Church parishioner Sharon Lavigne, were encouraged when it was announced days after the prayer service that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had suspended Formosa’s permit, potentially mothballing the entire project or at least delaying construction.  

“That is at least a step,” he said. “We are not against progress and bringing in jobs but it’s not worth it.  

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Bishop Michael G. Duca led the prayer service and before leaving spent a few moments in reflection and prayer in a nearby sugar cane field.  

 

“This is a community where most of the African Americans are dying and getting sick. Let’s put it in your (the neighborhoods where Formosa executives) area and you will look at it differently.”  

For now, Deacon Adams and others sit in and wait, hoping the 2,400-acre site will remain fertile ground, a sacred area where many of their ancestors are buried.  

“It was a good eye opener for me just to know some of my ancestors may be in there,” Deacon Adams said. 
living near plants that dot both sides of the Mississippi River stretching from Baton Rouge to the New Orleans area.  

The plant took another hit earlier this year when it was discovered slaves are buried where portions would be built.  

“We understand the company will offer this and offer that but most of the money they are going to make they are going to take back to (Formosa’s Taiwan headquarters),” Deacon Adams said. “It is not going to benefit St. James, or maybe benefit some, but to what extent if it will take our lives? You want to make money but if you are dead you can’t spend it.  “We got enough (plants).”  

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An estimated 50 people showed up to pray at a prayer service led by Bishop Michael G. Duca at the site of the proposed Formosa plant in St. James Civil Parish. Beneath the ground where the service was held are burial sites for slaves.  Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 

 

“We’ve seen already what (the chemical plants) have done,” he added. “You are taking our lives, making us sick. It’s mostly in the African American community and that is what makes it look real bad.”  

Deacon Adams, along with the community action group RISE St. James, which was founded by St. James Church parishioner Sharon Lavigne, were encouraged when it was announced days after the prayer service that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had suspended Formosa’s permit, potentially mothballing the entire project or at least delaying construction.  

“That is at least a step,” he said. “We are not against progress and bringing in jobs but it’s not worth it.  

“This is a community where most of the African Americans are dying and getting sick. Let’s put it in your (the neighborhoods where Formosa executives) area and you will look at it differently.”  

For now, Deacon Adams and others sit in wait, hoping the 2,400 acre site will remain fertile ground, a sacred area where many of their ancestors are buried.  

“It was a good eye opener for me just to know some of my ancestors may be in there,” Deacon Adams said.