Holy Ghost Parish/ Opelousas, LA

This post was contributed by Mr. James Guidry. Mr. Guidry was born and raised in Opelousas, Louisiana. Although he attended college in New Orleans and lived in Illinois, he is very proud of his heritage and link to his home town. As you read, you will experience the genuine passion he feels for the history, people and church community of Opelousas. We, at CreoleGen, are proud to publish his article and welcome  readers from other parishes outside New Orleans to do the same.

Holy Ghost Church Opelousas 1        History and Reflection

Holy Ghost was my home church growing up. It has witnessed the faith of thousands of African American Catholics. We have been bound through the years by a shared history and similar dreams. Holy Ghost Parish was created in 1921. According to the 1920 census my father shared the same address as his grandfather, grandmother, mother, an uncle, brother, sister, and a cousin. Three generations shared the same address. My great-grandfather was born in 1855 and lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction. The cousin of that 1920 address lived long enough to watch the inauguration of President Obama on television. My family was not unique. Many parish members alive at the inception of Holy Ghost had a family connection that would span years of slavery to the election of the first black president.

The perseverance of faith was the catalyst that transferred dreams deferred at the front end of the connection to dreams realized at the back end. The transformation process has always been volatile and faith alone could not stabilize it. My great-grandfather was only 10 when the Civil War ended. In its aftermath the white citizens of Opelousas immediately enacted laws to restrict the movement of blacks. They could not enter the city without a pass and had to state the duration of their presence. They could not be seen on the streets after 10 PM and 3 PM on Sunday. They could not live within city limits or own a home unless they worked for a white employee.

My grandfather was 13 when the Opelousas Massacre occurred in 1868. White southerners were overwhelmingly democrats at the end of the Civil War. They retaliated against black republicans over voting rights. The majority of the whites were also members of the Knights of Camelia. The Knights of Camelia was a white supremacist organization that in many ways served as a precursor to the KKK. Whites and blacks faced off on September 28. The white democrats had a huge weapons advantage. The result was the death of more than 200 black citizens. Those not killed outright and captured or surrendered were summarily executed. Survivors were driven into the swamps.

FrJamesHyland

Father  James Hyland (Passport photo 1920)

It was against this kind of backdrop that Father James Hyland established Holy Ghost Parish. He was a 34 year old Irish born Holy Ghost priest. The Holy Ghost Fathers had an excellent reputation for work with French-speaking blacks in the Caribbean. It therefore seemed fitting they be invited to work with the French Creole speaking blacks in St. Landry Parish. Father Hyland worked tirelessly and courageously for 14 years to establish permanent venues for black Catholic worship and education in Opelousas. He constantly faced opposition to his plans from the white establishment and frequently compromised to achieve the important parts of his objectives. For example, the original church was built at the rear of property that Father Hyland acquired so that it would be more distant from buildings owned by a prominent white citizen. Black Catholics donated a significant part of their meager incomes to make their dreams of a church that they would own come true.

My mother was born in June 1927, a few weeks after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. More than 200,000 blacks were displaced along the lower Mississippi. They spent weeks in refugee camps and were poorly treated. Refugees from Melville, New Iberia, Loreauville, St. Martinsville and Port Barre fled to the higher grounds of Opelousas and Lafayette. At one point more than 60,000 people lived in tents surrounding Opelousas and Lafayette. The flood exacerbated racial tensions in Acadiana. A black man was shot and killed for refusing conscription to unload a boat. This was the beginning of the migration to find the “warmth of other suns”. A return to an agriculture economy in which blacks provided the back breaking labor was not attractive. Blacks from Mississippi and Arkansas tended to move to midwestern and northern cities. My people headed west to the Texas oilfields: to Orange, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Houston. The migration accelerated after WWII. Aspirations then, took our people even farther west: to Arizona, Colorado, and California. The western migration gave birth to black Catholic enclaves in these states. Sundays in Beaumont, Houston, Los Angeles and the Bay Area were like Sundays in Opelousas, the same feelings in different states.

1927 Flood --in-Melville-Louisiana-

Melville, LA refugees (1927)

Those that stayed persevered and kept the faith. They returned to the dawn till dusk work in cotton fields. They cut cane and dug sweet potatoes. They logged timber. They aged beyond their years. Some became share croppers earning nothing but debt. Some provided day labor for agriculture. As a child during the 1950s, I heard the early morning roar of trucks picking up day laborers to earn $3-$4 for every hundred pounds of cotton they picked. At corner stores, I saw grown men buying bologna and bread for lunch the next day in the fields. I spent my first two years of schooling in a one room school, attending half days. One of my classmates from this period quit school to work in the fields. During my freshman year of college, I saw his sister at the Greyhound bus station in New Orleans. I was going home for Thanksgiving. She told me that he had just died, at Charity Hospital, from injuries sustained in an agricultural bus accident.

Holy Ghost Church Opelousas 2

Holy Ghost Elementary School 1956-2016

Holy Ghost Parish continued to make progress despite the unrelenting horrors of Jim Crow. The current brick structure was completed in 1948. A modern 12 grade brick school was completed in 1956. The construction of both buildings relied on the generosity and skills of parishioners who were brick masons, carpenters and electricians. Our parents made sweet potato pies for bake sales. They raised money with dinners and dances. And through it all we had the Sisters of the Holy Family to provide many of the things that faith alone could not. The sisters provided education for black Catholics in St. Landry Parish even before the inception of Holy Ghost. They provided the majority of teaching staff for our school. Some of them remained my favorite teachers even after graduate school. They provided the love and tenderness that some of us from large families could not receive at home. The school produced brilliant students that became nurses, doctors and deans of medical schools; lawyers and federal judges; college professors and teachers that returned to the community; sisters and priests.

Holy Ghost Church Opelousas 3

Holy Family Nuns (Convent)

The 1950s were heady times for Holy Ghost Church. There were a half dozen masses on the Sunday schedule with the first beginning at 5:30 AM. Catholic fervor extended throughout St Landry Parish. The black public high school even dismissed Catholic students early to attend Stations of the Cross on Lenten Fridays. Vocations were encouraged: Bishops Domenic Carmon and Curtis Guillory are from St. Landry Parish. Schoolmates joined the Sisters of the Holy Family. A half dozen boys from my 8th grade class left to join the seminary in Bay St. Louis.

I officially left the parish after graduating from college. I attended services in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Illinois in succession. Time and distance gave me a new perspective on Holy Ghost Church. It was essentially a traditional Irish parish with black parishioners. You would see pictures of the “holy trinity” in most Holy Ghost parishioners’ homes during the 1970s: JFK, the first Catholic president; MLK, our black martyr; and a blond blue-eyed Jesus.

Albert McKnight, a black Holy Ghost priest, was appointed pastor in 1982. His objective was to make Holy Ghost a model black parish for the nation. Towards this end he morphed the images in the church from European to African American. About 100 parishioners took offense and joined predominantly white parishes. Looking from the outside, I liked what Father McKnight did. I hold the notion that the spirit of God residing in us is influenced not only by a common humanity but also by cultural group and even individual differences. It is entirely fitting and proper that the images in the church of a group reflect the common spirituality of that group. The importance does not exist in the differences of the images but in the recognition that we have different spirits that are valid. This recognition is necessary for the evolution of our spirits just as DNA variation is necessary for the evolution of a species. We improve by learning from each other.

Father McKnight was an activist and led several protests to improve the lives of the poor in St. Landry Parish. He was a constant irritant to the establishment. Influential citizens petitioned the bishop for his removal. The bishop gave into the requests and Father McKnight was fired in 1988. The Holy Ghost Fathers did not agree with the dismissal and ceded parish authority to the Divine Word Priests. Father McKnight was, in general, beloved by the parishioners. But they remained loyal to the church. This is reflected in a conversation that I had with a lifelong friend. I was going down the list of grievances I had with the church. She admonished with, “Mais cher, I would not talk like that.” She sent me on my way with a rosary and a reminder to have it blessed.

Alfred (Fred) Guidry-my dad

Alfred (Fred) Guidry/ my dad

I am awed by the loyalty of Louisiana black Catholics to the church. That loyalty has not been consistently rewarded. Priests sold us into slavery to erase the debts of a university. Our parochial schools were given used books from the white schools during the segregation years. Bishops have not recognized the validity of our different spiritual needs. Anachronistic dogma has superseded the importance of improving living conditions on the planet. The constant attacks on President Obama by conservative Catholics are frequently disrespectful of black Catholics and fail to acknowledge that his election is as symbolically meaningful to us as JFK’s election was to them. I am reminded that the Archbishop of New Orleans did not attend Obama’s 2010 address at Xavier University commemorating the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Xavier is the only Catholic HBCU in the US. It is renowned for producing education, health, legal, civil service and business professionals. Norman Francis, the Xavier president at that time, was nationally admired for his contributions to Xavier and to Katrina relief efforts. The archbishop said that he was not consulted about the visit.

The years of living in Catholic parishes away from Louisiana have taught me that like politics, Catholicism is local. Awareness is, in fact, parochial. No pun intended. The midwestern city in which I lived a significant part of my life did not have many black Catholics. I was frequently asked when did I convert. I wanted to shout that I descended from several generations of Catholics; that I was an altar boy; that I attended a parochial school staffed by black nuns; that I attended the only Catholic HBCU in the US; that the people in my home parish kept the faith despite unrelenting racism, frequently from fellow Catholics. African Americans are perceived as a monolithic wall from the safety of distance. If the risk of intimacy is taken, you will discover that the wall is actually covered with wonderful mosaics. I cannot say that the mosaic telling the story of Holy Ghost Church is the most beautiful. I daresay it is as beautiful  and as powerful as any.

James Guidry/ Baton Rouge, LA

 

 

29 thoughts on “Holy Ghost Parish/ Opelousas, LA

  1. My aunt Sister Theresa Vincent taught at Holy Ghost School. Our family drove over to visit her about 1950 or so.

  2. James, a superbly presented article. It reveals the multi-faceted culture that permeates the Deep South, especially Louisiana. Your statement “It was essentially a traditional Irish parish with black parishioners” perfectly captures the coalescence of cultural practices. It also comes full circle when Father McKnight, surely being informed by western knowledge, finds the courage to promote the African-American perspective in the parish. I could say more but I’d just be rewriting your article.

  3. I graduated from Xavier with James and thoroughly enjoyed reading this history. Although I am a native New Orleanian my mom was from New Iberia. Growing up as a Black Catholic I experienced Black Catholic life from both perspectives. Thank You James for this wonderful lesson.

  4. This is a great testimony to your family, the church, and Louisiana. My great-grandfather was the first educator in Vermilion Parish under the Freedmen’s Bureau. I’ve written his legacy. The history of the people of color in Louisiana is the most significant in the country! Only we can yell the real stories. Thanks for sharing!!

  5. What a fantastic personal record of history and the evolution of the progress of black people. I am awed by the continued faith and loyalty Catholics demonstrate. I am touched by this family’s part in significant events like the massacre, the 1927 flood, migration and Obama’ s relevance as the first African American president.

  6. Very good article, James Guidry. This is a rich historical account, as many of the articles in CreoleGen which, should be included in the text of history courses in public and private schools. James, I was hoping that you would have posted your father’s nickname. Great work, Lolita! Great article James!

  7. Great article! I was born and raised in Opelousas and Holy Ghost parish. I am still an active member of Holy Ghost Parish today. In the words of our Associate Pastor, Father Rofinus Jas: ” I am Catholic. I was raised Catholic. I live Catholic. I will die Catholic.” We here at Holy Ghost do not even realize how Blessed we are to be able to worship here and grow in our Catholic faith.

  8. Great article! I remember a Latvian roommate I had at the University of Michigan who would brag about driving two hours with his Latvian buddies to go to a dance that had Latvian women. I told him that in the early 1950s before the Brown Decision of 1954, that young Creole men drove over 3 hours from New Orleans to a dance in Opelousas just to meet beautiful Creole women, and drive back the same night after the dance to Anybody’s Place in New Orleans to quaff a few cold ones (beers)

  9. Enjoyed this history. A beautiful story of more info on the Catholic story in Louisiana. One comment I must make–I can understand why the archbishop did not attend President Obama’s visit to Xavier. I was surprised he was even invited. Obama, in spite of being the first black president has not been a friend of the Catholic Church, it’s principles or Christian principles in general.

  10. My mother was from Opelousas and graduated from Holy Ghost school. She was taught by the Sisters of the Holy Family. I remember attending this church but it was very different in appearance 60 years ago. I spent many summer vacations there with my grand parents and still have many vivid memories of them, their country home, farm, and livestock. Also rode Popa’s white stallion horse whenever I visited. Their last name was Landry. They had three daughters and two
    sons. Mom’s sister Alma, married Walden Guidry and Ya married Darrel Auzene. Her brothers moved to Houston.

    • Melvin, your mother and my grandmother were 1st cousins, I believe. My great-grandmother was Aimee Landry Breaux. I was raised by my grandparents in Opelousas and remember your aunt, Ya, very well. I grew up in Holy Ghost Parish and attended school there. Actually, the very eloquent James Guidry had a younger brother (Larry) in my grade. I have an elderly great-uncle (your mom’s 1st cousin) who recently asked if I knew of anyone who had some Landry genealogy.

      • Great hearing from you. I also recently had phone call from Raymond Breaux who I believe is a relative of yours. I would very much like to learn more about my ancestors as my memory of them and Opelousas are at least 50+ years ago. I am on facebook and have many photos of my family and I. Ibelieve I have your phone# and I will give you a call soon.

  11. James, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. It brought back many memories of growing up in Grand Coteau, St Landry Parish and, having family in Opelousas and attending Xavier University. Our family’s lives centered around the Catholic Church and was so important to us. Thank you for reminding me of this.

    • Thanks. I remember my Holy Ghost days with great fondness. It was a pleasure to see you again and to meet your husband. Your cousin Joe and I have been friends forever.

  12. Very inspiring yet saddening essay and history. My Great-grand father Pierre Martinet built a replica of the Lourdes grotto at St. Martin church in St Martinville LA. He was the brother of Louis A. Martinet who organized the Citoyen de Comite’ support of Homer Plessy in the Plessy vs Ferguson Supreme Court decision – “Separate but Equal.” Our family moved to CA in the early 1900’s and mostly remained Catholic. Who can say their families are ardent members of a Catholic community these days? My grandfather Edouard D. Martinet built some of the church buildings at St Columkille’s parish in So. Los Angeles. I was baptized there. In the 20’s, his brother, Hippolite, began in Seattle to walk around the world going east for “world peace” but died just 1,000 miles short in rural China. I’m sure Pope Francis would approve of his missionary trek and would also welcome President Obama to speak at Xavier. If you get a chance, find some works by C. Vanessa White, a Catholic theologian who teaches at the Theological Union in Chicago and also at a NO Catholic University. Her work is in the diversity of of our Catholic culture, especially black Catholics. She is a leader in the cause for the canonization of Fr AugususTolton, the first black ordained Catholic priest in America.

  13. My grandather Joseph Landry and Uncle Paul Landry played accordian instruments in a Zydeco band and would play for us when we visited. They all spoke French and sang Zydeco songs in both French and English. Also enjoyed attending dances in the church hall in Frilot Cove which was a short distance from Opelousas. The girls were all beautiful and the families all knew each other.
    Wish my kids and grand kids could have experienced this simple and gracious way of life in the 1950’s. I even had the pleasure of slopping the hogs, milking the cows, feeding the chickens, picking cotton, and plowing the fields with mule drawn plows. Also, can’t forget about using the outhouse in the middle of winter and my once a week bath in a galvanized tub in a closed off kitchen. It was a great life for those who lived it.

  14. Wow! James, you have spoken so much of what my mother and grandmotherhas shared with us about the Deep South and especially about Holy Ghost Catholic Church and St. Landry Parish. I am a cradle Catholic at Holy Ghost Church. I am actively involved in ministry here. I attended Holy Ghost Elementary School. At the time of segregation, the two Catholic Schools (Holy Ghost & AIC) were merged to Opelousas Catholic. My parents saw fit to transfer me, at that time, to public schools. Father AJ McKnight has transitioned on to glory and he chose to have his memorial & funeral services at Holy Ghost of which he called home. We have continued progressively in worship & service as Catholics. Thanks for this stroll through our history. Come for a visit sometimes. It would be nice to meet you. God bless.

    • I will take you up on the invitation. I am currently living in Baton Rouge. I make the short trip to Opelousas fairly frequently to visit family and friends.

  15. James, according to research your ancestor George Simien and his brother Louis Simien were killed during the Opelousas Massacre. George was 75 years old and Louis was 79. They died together. My ancestor, Francois Panteleon Simien – their brother was 69. Research does not document a date of death. He very well could have been killed with his brothers during the massacre.

  16. Mr. James Guidry I have a project that may interest you. My mother attended Holy Ghost and is from that area. Your article gave me the inspiration to put the concept into action and is truly a great piece of work. I can be located on LinkedIn if this site does not release my personal email.

    I have a military/government/technology background….
    San Diego Calif area.

  17. James, I have put off too long to say thank you for writing the history of our childhood & our transition into our adult life only a short distance away from Holy Ghost. Thank you for sharing so eloquently.

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