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 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.
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.
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 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 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
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