Jim Bradshaw: New St. Landry church 'thronged with mass of people'
James Blenk, archbishop of New Orleans, led the ceremonies in Opelousas in November 1909 when “the new Catholic church, one of the finest in the State,” was officially dedicated.
The new church was “thronged with a surging mass of people,” the St. Landry Clarion reported on Nov. 13, “Catholics and Protestants vying for each other for vantage room.”
It had been a busy weekend for the archbishop. On Saturday, he’d blessed the new presbytery in Ville Platte.
Then he came to Opelousas “in Mr. Andrew Moresi’s automobile, which had gone there at the request of Father [John] Engerbrink,” the Opelousas pastor.
“He said Mass at the new Opelousas church on Sunday morning, then early in the afternoon “blessed the new [Opelousas] Hook & Ladder Company, immediately after which the dedication exercises of the new church began.”
The archbishop “paid a high compliment” to Engerbrink “for this monument to his zeal and devotion,” as well as to the contractor, Charles Thibodeaux, and the architecture firm of Diboll and Owen, “for the beauty … of the building,” and to the congregation “whose generous aid … made possible this great achievement.”
The architecture firm had been founded in New Orleans in 1895 by the partnership of Collins C. Diboll and Allison Owen and, according to architectural historians, over the next decades designed “some of New Orleans’ most notable buildings.”
There was in fact a good bit of history behind the new church. The first one in the Opelousas territory was built in 1767 next to Bayou Courtableau in what is now Washington.
It became the parish church of the Immaculate Conception in 1770.
The first Church of St. Landry in Opelousas (named for an early bishop of Paris) was built in 1778.
The Clarion described that one as “an adobe church, small, but at least comfortable … where the pioneer priests of those days were wont to preach to the small congregations from a tribune of hewn logs.”
In 1828 “an edifice bearing the dignity of a church was erected … after a superhuman effort” by Father Henri Rossi. That brick church was enlarged in 1851, when Father Gilbert Raymond was pastor.
Father Engerbrink came to Opelousas “in the latter part of the 1880s” and “at once formed the idea that the Parish warranted a larger edifice.” He began “with indomitable courage and rare ability … [to] campaign for a new church,” according to the Clarion report. “It was a great undertaking, but he stuck to his task pluckily.”
He made a new church a necessity in 1901, when he had the old mud-and-moss building demolished and laid the foundation for a new one.
“He had only money sufficient to lay the foundation and [build] a portion of the walls” according to the Clarion. But he continued his plucky campaign
The foundation was made with concrete and brick from the old church. The cornerstone for the new building was laid Aug. 8, 1908. The first Mass was said in the new church on April 2, 1909.
The church cost $44,000, about $1.25 million in today’s money, but, the Clarion said, “it is not yet completed. … Father Engerbrink contemplates many more improvements, mainly in the way of inside furnishings.”
The temporary wooden building that had been used during construction was to be moved to Lawtell.
The St. Landry church and cemetery were placed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 5, 1982.
National Register documents describe it as “an architectural landmark” and still the “tallest and most monumental structure” in Opelousas.”
Father Engerbrink died in 1919 and is buried in the floor of the church near the sanctuary.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.