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back to index A Brief Ethnography of Magnolia Plantation: Planning for Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Chapter 8: Religion

In northwest Louisiana, Catholicism and Protestantism, including Baptist, Methodist, and African Methodist Episcopal denominations, co-existed since at least the early 19th century. At that time, a minister, a “mulatto” according to Sobel (1988:193), established the first Baptist church about 35 miles south of Alexandria. People of French heritage, the Hertzogs and families of Creoles of color, and a number of blacks traditionally have been Catholic at Magnolia. The plantation became more ideologically diverse by the late 19th century with the introduction of Baptist and AME churches. Additionally, a Masonic Lodge might have been established in Derry just before the Civil War. It would have provided another organizational basis, a fraternal order, for civic action within the context of spiritual beliefs. It extended the social support available to black communities by functioning primarily as a burial society that helped black members inter their deceased kin. Early this century, the lodge reportedly relocated to Natchitoches.

Baptist and Methodist Churches

Two churches closely identified with Magnolia’s black community are St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church and St. James AME. Members of St. Andrew’s congregation, especially the deacons, who also served as traditional church historians, described the 1875 establishment of the church with encouragement from Natchitoches’ First and Second Baptist Churches (Baptiste n.d.). Originally constructed on Upper Cat Island in Derry at Hypolite Hertzog’s plantation, the first building was leveled by a storm sometime around 1903. The congregation reconstructed it with some of the original lumber on newly purchased land at its present Cat Island site. About the same time, at the turn of the century, the St. James AME congregation was taking shape at Magnolia. One black elder recalled that services were initially held at the quarters in one of the two-room cabins temporarily occupied by the visiting pastor and his wife. The couple would come from Natchitoches and remain for brief periods, ministering to the black community and sometimes accepting compensation in the form of foodstuffs. The AME church was built for the first time, probably around 1910, with land and timber donated by Mr. Matt near the bend on the banks of Cane River, down an old dirt road. Later, after Highway 119 was graveled and blacktopped, the congregation moved the church up from the banks and closer to the road, to another site donated by the plantation. The new location was still opposite St. Andrew. Mr. Matt did not provide for a cemetery at either AME site.

People remember that throughout the history of St. Andrew and St. James as co-existing structures, the two churches were partners in many, if not most, events. Both were located near the riverbanks almost directly opposite each other. Using boats or the footbridge in existence until the 1940s, congregants regularly crossed the easily forded Cane River to participate in each other’s services and special events. Some people recalled even fording the river on foot when the waters were low. From weddings, funerals, and river baptisms to church gumbo suppers, box suppers, fish frys, and June 19th emancipation or freedom celebrations, the church-sponsored activities drew participants from both sides of the river. Additionally, without a cemetery, St. James AME congregants would hold funeral services at their church, then transport the deceased by barge, over the bridge, or around Highway 119 and Highway 1 to St. Andrew for the burial in its cemetery. The practice is reflected in the headstones at St. Andrew’s cemetery; about half of them bear surnames identified with Magnolia. Ritual or ideological differences between the two churches created “no hard and fast separations” between the members in life or death.

Members recall church suppers as busy and well-attended cooperative community events that occurred at least once a month. Dunn’s 1940 description of the AME “camp meeting” describes the celebrants construction of temporary brush arbors or “brush harvests” to shade themselves and their foods. The arbor was built by driving forked saplings into the ground and placing poles in the forks in order to form a roof. Willow branches were tossed over the frame as cover for the roof. At night, the arbor was ablaze with every available lamp, candle, lantern, and homemade light. One customary light was made with a wick of twisted “grass sack” or burlap sack, which was squeezed into a beer bottle filled with kerosene, or “coal oil.” When lit, it cast a light as bright as a large candle, an observer remarked. Former residents recall the good times sitting with friends and family on the many benches under the arbor and busily preparing meals in the small kitchen constructed alongside St. James. The ruts of the old parking lot adjacent to the AME church site give clear evidence of a well-trafficked area.

The churches might have frowned on dancing, but members of both churches adapted to the restrictions by organizing suppers under church auspices, for the benefit of the church, but at their own homes. Rotating the event and its associated responsibilities among different homes throughout the year, people made and sold gumbos, fried fish, popcorn, meat pies, and other favorites to raise funds. The Creole band that played at the store and in the Big House sometimes entertained at church suppers too. The churches were venues for community social services as well. For example, St. Andrew served as a Relief Center during the depression, distributing commodities to people working on a Works Progress Administration (WPA) road crew. St. Andrew, as we noted, also briefly housed the black public school, and St. James likewise had a school, although it might have been a Sunday school. One former resident of the quarters recalls tutoring children with their alphabets at St. James.

Residents in the quarters also relied on several other churches for access to religious support systems and cemeteries. Some joined St. Matthew Baptist Church north of Melrose. Another Baptist church located at a considerable distance from Cloutierville’s center, St. Davis Lane, where the kin of former Magnolia residents are buried, occasionally drew members from Magnolia and the surrounding countryside. Burials of deceased former Magnolia residents still occur at these two churches if parents or a parent had been buried there. Burying the deceased in the cemetery with their mother’s grave has meant separating longtime partners at death, if parents are buried in two different cemeteries. However, this practice asserts the lineal relationship to a parent.

More than places of worship and sources of spiritual and social support, or as a dimension of them, churches offered Magnolia’s black residents opportunities to develop and demonstrate political leadership and responsibility beyond the boundaries of their own families. Earlier, this might have been the only public context within which men and women community members could aspire to visible roles, such as deacons, mothers of the church, or members in women’s support groups, roles that gave them responsibility for decisions or influence within the black community or congregation as a whole. In this sense, the church was not only the principal vehicle for otherwise unavailable opportunities for advancement in the community but, as we know from other situations, a training ground too for effectively mobilizing public sentiment and performing civic roles.

Catholic Churches

(painting) Augustin Metoyer
Figure 17: Portrait of Augustin Metoyer in St. Augustine Catholic Church. Photo: M. Crespi.

The Magnolia plantation had no Catholic church within its borders, but Catholic events and practices were well represented in the Big House and at a nearby chapel and church. In 1910, the Hertzog family built a small private chapel in the back gallery of the Big House to accommodate Mr. Matt’s ailing mother. Christmas and other holidays brought Father Becker of St. John’s Catholic Church, in Cloutierville, to give mass there, and the Hertzogs still use it for special family celebrations. A religious physical presence was also evident in the fields in the statue of St. Isadore, known as the farmers’ patron saint, that Mr. Matt had suspended on a pole across a field “gate” near the Big House. Annually, before planting started and rains were needed, Father Becker would come to bless the plantation and its fields. Compensating for the absence of a plantation church, a small Catholic Chapel had been constructed near the Derry Bridge, on the Derry, not the Magnolia, side. Public mass was held for local people from time-to-time, especially when the lumber towns were thriving. One Magnolia Creole of color recalls going to the Derry chapel occasionally, although she regarded the Cloutierville Church as her own. People also recalled Mr. Matt urging them to attend church on Sundays and even parking his truck at the store, offering congregants rides to Cloutierville, to St. John’s Catholic Church.

Most Magnolia sharecroppers, who were Creoles of color, probably belonged to St Augustine Catholic Church on Isle Brevelle. First constructed in 1803 with an adjoining cemetery, then replaced in 1916 by the present structure, St. Augustine was started by Augustin Metoyer, son of Marie Thereze Coincoin and a principal progenitor of the Metoyer line of Creoles of color (Figure 17). A full-length painting of him hangs in the church entryway. St. Augustine is an active center that serves the spiritual and community needs of its primarily, but not exclusively, Creole congregation from Isle Brevelle and the surrounding area. Residents who had relocated to Natchitoches still regularly return to St. Augustine.

The Catholic churches drew support from the congregation’s donations after regular services or at special celebrations during the year. Additional help came with the annual tithe planters paid after the cotton harvest. Ms. Betty Hertzog recalled that each local planter contributed enough cotton to make up a bale, which churches would have ginned and then sold for the upkeep of the buildings and their clergy.

African/Christian Systems

This brief study found no obvious evidence of the syncretic religion known as vodun or voodoo. A dynamic religious system, vodun had developed in the New World, the Americas, among people of African heritage who adapted African beliefs, practices, and paraphernalia to the new environment and integrated them with Christian features. At most, we learned that someone in the quarters may have been expert with “hoodoo,” the techniques, such as cutting cards, associated with soothsaying or fortune-telling, and people mentioned a knowledgeable Upper Cane River woman who might have ministered to Magnolia people in the quarters.

Mechanization, Rural Exodus, and the Church

One black elder observed that: “... after they got big cotton pickers, they didn’t need anyone to pick cotton. And those plowers broke up the land. When my husband and I farmed we had to plow our own land. And we had to hoe it. But those big machines plowed land and planted it.” Unneeded, the family, like others, vacated Magnolia and found new homes and places of worship.

Out-migration necessarily diminished the size of the rural congregation, but even before emigrating, Magnolia residents were becoming dependent on cars or trucks to reach churches outside the immediate vicinity. Sometimes, one former resident explained, rural people continued as members of the AME church but attended one in Natchitoches where they were served by the same preacher who had periodically ministered at St. James AME. By the time the Second World War started, St. James might have been used only once a month, and by the time it ended, the shift to mechanization and the related exodus had intensified, leaving few rural church members. The last remaining deacon died in the 1960s. About that time, vandals began attacking the building and stealing its trappings. Eventually the congregation abandoned the church. It was still standing in 1974 when a drunken driver hit it, knocking the weakened structure off its foundation. Efforts to repair it ended when problems created by severe termite infestation so complicated other structural problems that the Magnolia management decided to level the building. St. Andrew drew some of the previous St. James congregants and St. James became a ghost on the landscape, serving as a place marker of former activities and ways of life.

People who relocated to Natchitoches often remained bound to their home churches and periodically returned to the countryside to participate in major events. Those events no longer regularly include river baptisms because, people noted sadly, urbanization in Natchitoches and new industries have been polluting the waters. Still, rural churches became mechanisms for linking city and country residents. More than that, the church also became a venue to celebrate homecomings, when people return periodically from Texas, Illinois, and elsewhere to renew family ties and introduce, as well as meet, newcomers to the group. Although small, the St. Andrew’s congregation remains active even today and still meets in Derry. St. Augustine continues its central role for Creole communities in the countryside on Isle Brevelle, Cat Island, and in Natchitoches. Religious study groups, various cultural heritage events throughout the year, and a flourishing membership help keep St. Augustine viable.

Relocation did not necessarily terminate all relationships among former residents of the quarters or between them, sharecropper families, and the Hertzog family in the Big House. Former residents might continue to do occasional small jobs for the Hertzogs, see and greet the Hertzogs in the local bank, or greet the Hertzogs on the streets of Natchitoches.

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