Catholicism has played a central role throughout the history of the Cane River region, with its emergence rooted in French and Spanish Colonial-era claims to the territory. Although many other religions have flourished in the area over the years, the legacy of the early Catholic settlers has been preserved through the establishment of several Catholic churches and a Catholic school that like at the heart of the Cane River National Heritage Area today.
Rise of Catholicism
The establishment of Fort St. Jean Baptiste in 1716 as a French military outpost led to the establishment of a Catholic presence in the area. Also in 1716, the Spanish constructed the mission of San Miguel de los Adaes 15 miles to the west with the intention of converting the Caddo Adai Indians to Christianity. Records show an early intertwining of the French and Spanish Catholic faith in 1717 when a Franciscan, Father Antonio Margil de Jesus, traveled from the Spanish mission to say Mass at the Natchitoches Post.
After transition to Spanish rule in 1763, the town of Natchitoches moved away from the French fort and a new town center emerged around the Church of St. Francis located at what is known today as the corner of Front Street and Church Street. Several other churches were built in town during the years to come, two of which were
destroyed by fire.
In 1857, the congregation built Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which remains today. The building was completed in 1892 when Bishop Durier added a dome on the tower along with a new sanctuary and sacristics, an altar, and tile floor.
Interior fittings were imported from France and included the main altar, hand-painted Stations of the Cross, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, chandeliers, and the hand-carved wooden baptismal font. The church founded St. Mary's Academy in 1888, establishing a tradition of Catholic education in the area. The school was originally located on Rue Touline, but moved to its current location on the east side of Natchitoches in 1967 to accommodate continued growth.
Isle Brevelle Community
The colonial settlers instilled their passion for the Catholic faith into many of the area's Native Americans and enslaved African plantation workers. In time, the descendants of the French, African, and native Americans developed a distinctive Creole culture rooted in Catholicism. In 1803, under the auspice of Augustine Metoyer, the area's gens de couleur libres - free people of color - established St. Augustine Catholic Church and Cemetery in the Creole community of Isle Brevelle. This church is believed to be the first Roman Catholic Church founded by and for people of color
in the United States.
In 1992, a renovation of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church was undertaken to restore the church to its original grandeur, culminating in a re-dedication in 1996. The church's adjoining seminary, built in 1855, has also been restored and turned into the Bishop Martin Museum, housing artifacts detailing the history of the Roman Catholic Church in North Louisiana. In 2008, St. Mary's School restored the original Blessed Virgin Mary statue from the old school site on Rue Touline and relocated it to the grounds of the current East Fifth Street campus.
(Photo captions left to right)
Reconstructed chapel on the grounds of Fort S.t Jean Baptiste State Historical Site. The original chapel was constructed ca. 1732 by French Catholic settlers stationed at the fort.
Nuns and students of St. Mary's Academy in Natchitoches participating in the annual "May Processional" to hone the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Mary's School continues the tradition of the "May Processional" today, marching from the current East Fifth Street campus to the grounds of the original school on Rue Tueline.
Depiction of Father Marquette bringing faith to the Indians.
Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. The church was originally named the Church of St. Francis, but it was changed
to Immaculate Conception by Bishop Martin, who built the current church as the cathedral for the Diocese of Natchitoches in 1857.
Interior of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. The beauty of the interior French fittings, including the tile floor, hand-painted Stations of the Cross, and chandeliers, make the church a popular setting for local weddings.
First St. Mary's Academy Class in 1888.
View of St. Augustine Catholic Church and Cemetery. The first Roman Catholic Church founded by and for people of color in the United States, St. Augustine is a pillar of the Creole community of Isle Brevelle