Friday, November 19, 2010

ST. MARTIN DE TOURS

When my daughter Elizabeth, who lives in Palmdale, California, visits me in New Iberia, Louisiana, we make an annual pilgrimage to St. Martinville, a small town approximately ten miles down the road from us. She goes down to get her yearly “fix” of baked goods from Dana’s Bakery, one of the oldest bakeries in Acadiana. Yesterday, we made this trip on Hwy. 31, a road pockmarked with holes created by cane trucks which transport their heavy loads of cane to nearby sugar mills. It was a typical Louisiana afternoon -- the sky threatened rain and dark clouds hung over us, as if any moment we would ride into a cloudburst. I told Elizabeth that my favorite description of Louisiana is: “looks like it might rain,” which doesn’t mean that rain will actually fall. The appearance of the sky in Sewanee, TN, my second home, has this same appearance, and I sometimes refer to it as Graytown.

Inside the small bakery, Elizabeth bought her usual store of petit fours, brownies, and chocolate drop cookies and ordered a beignet for Joel, my seven-year old grandson. “We don’t have good bakeries like this in California,” Elizabeth told the taciturn clerk, who managed a concise smile. Although the Grand Derangement occurred back in the 18th century, Cajuns are sometimes tentative about “come heres,” particularly when they announce they’re from California. When another customer came in, we overheard the clerk speaking in French to him, which reinforced Elizabeth’s feelings of being a “come here.” I reminded her that she was born in New Iberia and lived in Acadiana eighteen years before going out to “La La Land.”

I also take my grandchildren to St. Martin de Tours Church in St. Martinville when they visit, and we light candles for their families. Although we aren’t Roman Catholic, the old church has been a place of miracles for me. Each time family members have undergone serious crises, I travel down to the church and offer up prayers, then light candles for the suffering family members… and usually their problems are resolved.

St. Martin de Tours is called “the mother church of the Acadians,” and was probably the church of choice for the descendants of one of my ancestors, Pierre Vincent, a cattleman who came to Louisiana after he had been exiled in Europe following the Grand Derangement from Nova Scotia. St. Martin de Tours, a lovely crème and white structure built in 1836, is the fourth oldest church in Louisiana. It’s filled with light and has white walls and “gated” white and tan pews which Acadians once reserved for family members. In 1790, Fr. George Murphy, an Irish priest, associated the church with the patron saint, St. Martin, and a portrait of this saint hangs behind the main altar. The very ornate baptismal font and sanctuary lamp are said to have been gifts from King Louis XVI of France.

Joel, fascinated with the statues, dutifully lit his candle for his other grandmother (who is now dying). He was awed by the fourteen white columns leading up to the main altar and the beautiful stained glass windows. However, he seemed to be more fascinated with the old gravestones, including the one of Evangeline (who was really Emmeline Labiche), subject of Longfellow’s lengthy poem of that title. After a visit to the interior, Joel walked around the church yard, reading the dates on the graves. I remember being fascinated with cemeteries when I was his age, and although this may seem morbid, I think he, like I, was trying to imagine how people looked and acted centuries ago.

I mentioned St. Martin de Tours in my book, MARTIN’S QUEST, in which Grandmother Eulalie goes down to the church and lights candles for Martin’s ailing father, then requests that Fr. Meaux perform a Novena for him. Joel is too young to enjoy MARTIN’S QUEST, but someday he’ll be able to say that he visited the authentic site of one of the scenes in his grandmother’s book about traiteurs.
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