Wednesday, January 14, 2009

FELICITE


In my book of young adult fiction, FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE, I acknowledge Felicite of New Iberia, Louisiana, a person I fictionalized as a Haitian woman in the story of the Spanish settlement of this city. I not only liked the name of this woman, I liked her caring personality. In the fall of 1839, yellow fever broke out in New Iberia, and the “real life” Felicite became the first Florence Nightingale of Teche country who ministered to the sick, cared for those who were dying, and sometimes buried the dead. New Iberia historian Glenn Conrad, now deceased, wrote about this unique person, who even had an oak planted in her honor by the Conrad family at West End Park in New Iberia.

Felicite, who was born in Santo Domingo, was a part of the Duperier family, dating back to Henry Frederick Duperier, and when the 1839 yellow fever epidemic struck New Iberia, she became both physician and nurse, even to several doctors in town. Undocumented reports told of half the population of New Iberia dying from the fever that year, but historian Conrad revealed that according to St. Peter’s Church records, only 11 people were buried from the church during the epidemic (but some may not have been Roman Catholic or may not have been able to afford a funeral!!).

Conjectures have also been made about Felicite being a slave who belonged to the Duperier family, but, again, Conrad declared that there was reason to believe she was a free person of color living on the Duperier place. He claimed that there was no evidence she was a slave.

Felicite was so revered for her altruism during the yellow fever epidemic that her picture adorned the parlors of a number of her white friends during the 19th century, according to another historian, William Perrin. Perrin wrote that on the day of her death, her body lay in state in the home of the Duperiers, all New Iberia businesses were closed, and the entire population followed her to her last resting place.

Several years ago, I received a telephone call from a man in Texas who claimed to be a psychic. He told me that my name had appeared in his consciousness, followed by the name Felicite, and he wondered if I knew anything about a woman by this name. At the time, I had completely forgotten about the plaque memorializing this nurse that stands near the parish library and told him “no.” He kept insisting that I must know her, and I finally hung up…but not before he revealed the many insights about me which he had received -- they were so “on the mark,” I became spooked. About a week later, as I walked on the sidewalk leading into the library, I noticed the plaque with the name “Felicite” immortalized in bronze and gasped. After FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE appeared in print this past Spring, I kept expecting a telephone call from Texas…

When I was writing FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE, Felicite seemed to be a good candidate for a fictionalized version of a healer in this story of the Spanish settlement of New Iberia, so she became a part of the city’s history in a second memorializing, even though she was fictionalized. In 1989, on the occasion of New Iberia’s 150th anniversary, Felicite was remembered at a memorial service, and a headstone was dedicated in her memory by the NAACP.
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