Monday, April 12, 2010

WELCOME TO THE TABLE

While I was in New Iberia this winter, Paul Schexnayder and I began to pursue an idea to do a book about Episcopal Church altars in the Diocese of Western Louisiana. Paul is a wonderful artist who owns a small gallery called A&E Gallery on St. Peter Street in New Iberia and has done the covers for several of my young adult books. My call is to write prose poems about ten churches and their altars, and Paul will do paintings of the church exteriors, as well as the altars within the structures.

My first church to research was the church that raised me up to be a deacon, The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia, and the second research involved the Mt. Olivet Episcopal Chapel in Pineville, Louisiana, next to the diocesan offices. A few days before I left New Iberia, we traveled to Pineville and were able to make a grand tour of the restored chapel and the diocesan house with the Rt. Rev. Bruce MacPherson, bishop of the Diocese of Western Louisiana, and his wife, Susan. Susan was a principal guiding force behind the restoration of Mt. Olivet and greeted me with an armload of research material about this chapel.

The restoration of the chapel is impeccable, and is a tribute to the Bishop’s and Susan’s vision for this important historic structure in the Diocese. The preservation and maintenance of the chapel was provided through the generosity of the Hardtner/Blake Foundation. Over lunch, we discussed the book that Paul and I will work on during the coming year, and the Bishop agreed to write an introduction on church altars for WELCOME TO THE TABLE.

Mt. Olivet, pictured above, was featured on the cover of the 2010 Historic Episcopal Churches Engagement Calendar published by the National Episcopal Historians and Archivists in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and a short vignette about it appears on the March page of the calendar. The chapel was built under the leadership of Bishop Leonidas Polk, first bishop of Louisiana, who was known as the “fighting bishop,” as he served in the War Between the States and died in battle in 1864. Through the inspiration of women of St. James Episcopal Church in Alexandria, who ferried across the Red River to teach Sunday School classes, money was raised to build the chapel in 1857. 

The Gothic architecture building, designed by Richard Upjohn, was constructed of milled pine, except for the oak floors, and a pair of brass coal-oil chandeliers were hung from the vaulted ceiling. The exterior was built with board and batten siding and Gothic windows. Today, all fourteen openings in the chapel contain stained glass windows, ranging from the quatrefoil over the front entrance door to the chancel window behind the altar that depicts Jesus standing at the open tomb with staff in hand. 

In 1979 when the Diocese of Louisiana was divided into two dioceses, The Rt. Rev. Willis Henton, the Diocese of Western Louisiana’s first bishop, made Mt. Olivet the bishop’s chapel, and the parish house became the diocesan offices. The Rt. Rev. Robert Hargrove (who ordained me) attempted to restore Mt. Olivet and parish house during his episcopate, but funds for the restoration were not available. However, in 2006, Bishop MacPherson received a large donation to restore the little chapel. Restoration was completed in 2009, and services in the chapel are now held weekly.

Paul and I hope to visit more western Louisiana churches this Fall, and we’re excited about this historic church project that represents the vision and commitment of Episcopal church men and women during the past two centuries.

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan
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