This history of St. Jane de Chantal Parish was written by Fr. Francis Sanders, O.S.B., in 1987, for the 100th Anniversary of our founding as a Mission Church of St. Theresa Parish, which is now Our Lady of the Lake.
EARLY HISTORY OF ST. TAMMANY
The first white man to set foot on what is now St. Tammany Parish was Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur d’Iberville. Exploring a short cut by canoe from the Mississippi River to the Gulf, he crossed over (-and named them-) Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain. He landed at Goose Point, which is south-west of today’s Lacombe, on March 27, 1699. Finding the mosquitoes intolerable, and the land too marshy, he scored the area unfit for settlement, leaving it to the Indians.
As early as 1725 the lake became a trade route between the Indians on the north shore and New Orleans, on the south. Some white people began to settle on the north shore. Early settlement by whites in the parish took place mostly along the rivers and bayous running into the lake.
Here are some dates and places:
1748 – Lacombe (Bayou Lacombe)
17– – Madisonville (Tchefuncta River)
1813 – Covington (Bogue Falaya River)
1834 – Mandeville (Bayou Castine)
1850’s – Abita Springs (no navigable water)
1852 – (Bayou Bonfouca)
1888 – Slidell (Bayou Vincent)
St. Tammany Parish, as a political entity, was established by Governor Claiborne in 1811. (The Catholic Church has no ‘Saint Tammany’! The name ‘Tammany’ is generally thought to come from Tamanend, a Delaware Chief of the 17th century, who befriended the white man in the early days of colonization. Since many of the civil parishes in Louisiana are named after saints (Saint Bernard, Saint John, Saint Charles, etc.). The prefix ‘saint’ was tagged onto Tammany also. Hence, “Saint” Tammany).
THE ‘MISSION OF SAINT TAMMANY’
Catholic churches were early established in Madisonville, Mandeville and Covington. All the rest of St. Tammany was designated as the “Mission of St. Tammany”. The Bishops and Archbishops of New Orleans (-it became an Archdiocese on July 19, 1850-) would appoint “Missionaries of St. Tammany” to tend to the spiritual needs of the settlers. A census of 1860 showed only 5406 white people in all of St. Tammany Parish. The most famous of these missionaries is Pere Adrien Rouquette, of course. Eventually he worked mostly with the Choctaw Indians, and became so close to them, they gave him the name ‘Chata-Ima’, which means ‘Like Choctaw’.
Other priests were as sacrificing as he, such as Fathers (Canon) Hyacinth Mignot, George Lamy, Joachim Manoritta, Lavaquery, G. M. Geraud and others. Father Lamy wrote to the Vicar-General (second in charge of the Archdiocese) in 1857, begging him to send a few bottles of valid wine for Mass. His letter gives a good idea of what the missionary had to undergo.
“I am pretty well satisfied”, he wrote, “with my mission which I have almost entirely visited. I have been kindly and well received. But my difficulty is to know if I can live there. Up to now I had for my support the few Mass intentions which were given me at my last coming to the city and a few dollars thrown into the collection basket. My horse costs me more than my own person. Never the less, everything makes me hope that the parish of St. Tammany will be one of the good ones of the diocese. Madisonville is repairing the church; Bayou Bonfouca asks for a chalice and vestments; Covington is starting out of its sleep and talks about repairing the church roof and the rectory which is seriously damaged. Madisonville alone remains what it is – a desert where the missionary stops only to rest himself and his horse… I leave for a journey of 30 or 35 miles, and people ask for me from one end of the parish to the other.”
CHURCH IN ABITA
Abita Springs was part of the ‘Mission of St. Tammany’. Lawrence Flot (a parishioner, who died in 1979, at the age of 81) recalled that around 1825 his grandfather built a chapel on his property (now the Dirmann propety on Level St.), and Mass was offered there a few times a year when a missionary came around. He would also baptise, marry, hear confessions and bless graves. Lawrence recalled the names of only two of these missionaries: Canon Mignot and Pere Rouquette.
In the mid-1800’s Captain Joseph Bossier owned a large track of land in the Abita area. He and Colonel William Christy began promoting the area as a health and recreational resort because of its mineral springs, the ozone air, and beautiful terrain. But the difficulty of access made the response slow. After crossing Lake Pontchartrain, one journeyed from Madisonville up the Tchefuncta to Covington by boat, and from there took a rough 3-mile overland trip in a 6-person buggy wagon to Abita.
Around 1900 trains provided a much easier means of transportation from New Orleans, and Abita entered its golden era as a famous health resort and recreational area. Often two trains at a time, each with 8 to 10 passenger cars, regularly brought hundreds of people to Abita. At its peak, Abita had about 450 permanent residents and 2,000 summer residents. Hotels and boarding houses were plentiful, and cottages everywhere. It was not unusual for the Mutti Hotel to prepare for 200 or 250 people each meal, Access to Abita from Mandeville was improved with the laying of rail tracks around 1910. A motor car similar to the New Orleans streetcar traveled on it for about five years, and then an electric car used the tracks for a few years. Fare from Mandeville to Abita – 15cents, from Abita to Covington – 5 cents. The tracks went along what is now St. Mary Street, and the depot was near Morgan’s swimming pool.
But just as the trains brought many here, so the advent of better roads and cars lured people to other areas. And Abita’s boom was soon over. It dwindled to its present status of a quiet, small town – no longer famous, but still enjoying its healthful water, fresh air and beautiful surroundings.
ABITA CHURCH BECOMES A MISSION
In 1884 the Abita area became a mission of the church in Mandeville, then known as St. Theresa Church, and now as Our Lady of the Lake. Father Eugene Aveilhe was pastor then. He entered the first baptism in the mission’s registry on August 12, 1884.
He labeled the registry simply as ‘Ecclesia in Abita Springs’ (‘the Church in Abita Springs’), since the mission had not yet been given a name.
MISSION NAMED ST. JANE—FIRST CHURCH
The ST. TAMMANY FARMER issue of September 10, 1887 (volume xiii, /’37, page 2) reported that Abita’s first church was erected and dedicated on September 7, 1887, and given the name ST. JANE DE CHANTAL MISSION. It was located on Keller St. at Second St., one block from the present library. (Because of this, the year 1887 was chosen as the centennial year of the St. Jane community. The centennial celebration was delayed to October 18, 1987, so as not to interfere with Pope John Paul II ‘s visit to New Orleans on September 12th). Father Aveilhe and Canon Mignot officiated at the dedication. The church bell was blessed by Father Aveilhe on Sunday, September 16, 1887. He performed the first sixteen baptisms in the new mission, the last being in 1890.
MISSION OF ST. PETER, COVINGTON
In 1889 St. Jane Mission was transferred to the care of St. Peter Church, Covington. The Pastor was Father Joseph Koegerl, a secular priest. This amazing priest, semi-retired, zealously cared for Abita, Madisonville, and Bedico while pastor of Covington. He did this all while traveling by horse and buggy — and he was punctual!
He obtained help from the priests of the new Benedictine St. Joseph Abbey, established near Ramsay (now St. Benedict) in 1902. They alternated with him saying Masses at his missions on weekends. On retiring in 1916, he recommended to the Archbishop that the Benedictines be assigned in his place.
He died at the Abbey in 1925* Father John Burger, O.S.B. succeeded Father Koegerl as pastor of St. Peter, with Abita still its mission, from 1916 until 1920.
In 1920, St. Jane Church became independent of St. Peter, Covington, and Father Martin Barre, O.S.B. became the first Administrator of the new quasi-parish (quasi = as if it were). Father Martin signed the baptismal registry as ‘pastor’, but more properly he should have signed as ‘administrator’. It was he who acquired all of the property now comprising our present church property, excepting the two lots on which the CCD building stands.
By 1912 he had acquired the three lots closest to the corner of Maple and Main Streets (on which the present church and rectory-are). In 1923 he erected the new St. Jane’s Church, the first brick church in St. Tammany. Lawrence Flot constructed its ceiling.
The cornerstone, dated 1924, was laid by Archbishop Shaw. Cost of the building was $35,000. Father Martin acquired two more lots on Maple St. adjourning the church, and had the old (first) church moved onto them to serve as a hall. He lived in the tiny room above the new church’s baptistry (now the confession room) and used one of the sacristies for an office. Shortly
before leaving St. Jane, he acquired the two lots at Main and Hickory Streets, and the house that was there became the first rectory. (it was sold and moved away in 1971).
Father Martin’s pastorate extended from 1920 to 1930. He died in 1951. His successor was Father James Erickson, O.S.B. These were the depression years, felt much by the people. Often the Sunday collection was about $5- The Abbey furnished him with food and gas. In return, he taught a class at the seminary. It is to his credit that the debt incurred to build the church was paid off during his administration. An avid tennis fan, he built a clay tennis court and soon just about every kid in town was lined up, awaiting their turn to play.
But Abita was ‘open range’ then, end especially after a rain, cows would sink holes in the court as they walked over it. So, he decided to cement the court. He asked a contractor how much it would cost, saved that much, and told him to start the work. But halfway through, the contractor told him he underestimated, and the money ran out. So, Father James had to borrow the rest from the Abbey. His pastorate was a long one, from 1930 to 1942.
Father Augustine Bloyin, G.S.F. followed with a short pastorate, from 1942 to 1943. He left to join the Trappist Monks.
Father Thomas Schwickert, a Cistercian Monk from Germany, but residing at our Abbey, was the next pastor. In September 1945, a wire in his car shorted, setting fire to the garage, which set the old (first) church afire, burning it to the ground. The day before, Abita had just finished putting in the water lines for fire hydrants – but they were not yet hooked into the water source! Father Thomas was the pastor until 1949. He died the following year.
ST. JANE BECOMES A PARISH
Father Athanasius Brugger, C.S.B. was the next administrator. During his ministry, the Archdiocese held its Seventh Synod in June 1949, to determine the policy of the Archdiocese on doctrine, discipline, and liturgy. The proceeds of that Synod were promulgated in October 1949.
In it, it declared that, as of that day (the promulgation), St. Jane de Chantel Church in Abita Springs was elevated to the status of a parish. Thus, Father Athanasius became the first pastor of the new parish. He left St. Jane the following year and died in 1967.
From St. Meinrad Abbey (which had sent monks to Louisiana to start St. Joseph Abbey) came Father Aloysius Fischer, 0. S. E. to become the next pastor. He acquired the final two lots of our property on Hickory St., and built a parish hall (now the CCD building) on them. He was the pastor from 1950 until 1962, when he returned to St. Meinrad.
Father Alphonse Fock, O.S.H. followed, serving from 1962 to 1965. He air-conditioned the church, putting in the two units in the sanctuary. They are still working! [Editor’s note – at least they were working at the time Fr. Sanders wrote the history.] He died in 1976.
Father Justin Faler, O.S.B. took over in 1965. He installed the metal doors and canopy in front of the church, and adopted the sanctuary to better serve the new liturgy. With the help of parishioners and friends, especially Vayne Kunes, he erected the present rectory in 1971, costing only $10,000. He also air-conditioned the parish hall. He left St. Jane’s in 1972. He died in 1979.
Your present pastor, Father Francis Sander, 0. S. B., arrived June 1, 1972, after serving 5 years at St. Peter, in Covington. With the help of the Lord, good parishioners, and friends, the following were accomplished: The church’s interior was renovated, and thankfully its prayerful atmosphere preserved. Two new air-conditioners were added to the church, which were placed in the choir loft, and ceiling fans were installed. A new organ was purchased, and we are happy with our good organist and choir.
The stained glass windows have added greatly to the church’s atmosphere, thanks to the kind donors, Father Methodius the artist
and fabricator, and his Trappist confreres who gave us the windows for such a reasonable price.
Our parish contains some 200 square miles, with Abita located in the southeast corner of it. The northwest corner, where Bush, Sun and Talisheek are located, is some 20 miles away. With the approval of the Archdiocese, a Mission was begun on August 2, 1981, being placed under the patronage of St. Michael the Archangel.
For a year Mass was offered weekly in the Bush United Methodist Church. We
obtained our first building a year later, which was used for Mass, CCD, dinners, fund-raising, etc. In January 1986, we were donated a geodesic dome church, allowing us to separate our worship services from the other activities. With good helpers at both places, I am able to serve both. The last construction done was remodeling St. Jane Hall to classrooms for CCD classes, and adding a small structure to it for restrooms, small meetings, and office.
The parish has grown considerably these last years. Attendance at church has increased. A check through the Baptismal registry shows that almost as many baptisms have been performed as in the previous 85 years. Recently an electronic carillon system was installed, courtesy of the Stella Roman Foundation, and their sweet sounds have even strangers telling me how pleasing they are.
I, and I’m sure I’m speaking for all the priests who served here, am most grateful for the kindnesses and cooperation we have received from so many during these hundred years. Without it, nothing would have been accomplished. God bless all!
In conclusion, most happily do I note a real spiritual fervor in many of you. I attribute this, especially, to our Heavenly Mother. Let us pray that more will experience this and that all of us will go from grace to grace!.
Father Francis Sander, O.S.B.