Nov. 18, 2019 - The parish community of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Grand Coteau, La., is celebrating its Bicentennial. Throughout the years, the parish has served a diverse and vibrant community while bearing witness to 200 years of growth and evolution, including name changes and the construction of the current church, completed in 1880.
Bishop Louis William Dubourg founded the parish in 1819, nearly two decades before the Jesuits’ arrival in Grand Coteau in 1837. They came at the bishop’s request to establish St. Charles College, Louisiana’s first school for boys, and staff the church.
Located in south St. Landry Parish, St. Charles Borromeo is the third oldest parish in the Diocese of Lafayette. Historically, St. Charles Borromeo was the “Mother Church” from which sprang parishes ranging from small, rural churches to St. John the Evangelist, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Lafayette.
The parish has been known by more than one name in its history. The original name — St. Charles Borromeo — was changed to Sacred Heart Church when the new building was dedicated in 1880. The new name reflected the parishioners’ gratitude for the efforts and prayers of the Religious of the Sacred Heart during the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic that ravaged much of southern Louisiana but left the village of Grand Coteau untouched. The sisters were also instrumental in raising the money for the construction of the new church.
In 1931, African American congregants formed their own parish named for St. Peter Claver, and in 1938, Christ the King Mission was established to serve a farming community about six miles from Grand Coteau in Bellevue, La. The parishes and mission church reunited into one parish in 1971 under the original name of the 1819 church, St. Charles Borromeo. The former St. Peter Claver Church became St. Charles Chapel, where special Masses are celebrated, and which serves as the parish’s Religious Education Center.
The parish is celebrating its bicentennial with several community-building events.
A Bicentennial Choir Concert was held June 9 at Christ the King Mission in Bellevue, La., when all the musical groups of the parish joined together to perform a liturgical concert. The selections included well-known gospel and traditional songs as well as newer Christian songs. The audience happily joined in singing with the choirs.
At a Bicentennial History Symposium on Sept. 8, parishioners from the various historical communities that make up present-day St. Charles Borromeo Parish shared personal reflections and recollections. Many stories involved the church’s vivid artwork and stained-glass windows that captured the imagination of young and old alike. Some anecdotes featured popular figures, like former pastor Fr. Cornelius Thensted, SJ, frequently spotted zipping around town on his scooter.
Before and after the oral presentations, the audience enjoyed a slideshow of historical pictures of the original St. Charles Church and the present church, along with detailed images of the stained glass and artwork of the saints. Included were pictures of Peter Claver Church, St. Peter Claver High School, Christ the King Mission, and some of the people, both lay and religious, who have animated the mission of the parish over the past 200 years.
A Bicentennial Mass is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 3. Current pastor, Fr. Derrick Weingartner, SJ, will preside, assisted by Jesuit Fathers Mark Kramer and Clyde LeBlanc and visiting priests, including former pastors.
St. Charles Borromeo Parish is part of a broader Jesuit presence in Grand Coteau. An elementary school opened in 1890, originally as the Sacred Heart Parochial School. Its name was changed to St. Ignatius School in 1956, in honor of the founder of the Jesuits. St. Charles College closed as a boys school in 1922 and was replaced by the Jesuit novitiate. Currently, the St. Charles College building houses the novitiate, a retreat center and a Jesuit community, including the St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Pavilion for senior Jesuits. Another retreat center, Our Lady of the Oaks Jesuit Retreat House, lies just on the other side of the Jesuit cemetery from the church.
St. Charles Borromeo is a unique and beautiful place. As one lover of church buildings wrote, the church is “a library whose text is written in symbols.” By deciphering those symbols and examining their meaning, faith can grow, quality of worship can be enriched, and greater honor and glory will be given to God, who is the source of all the beauty that surrounds this special part of His holy kingdom.
Thanks go to the Bicentennial Committee of St. Charles Borromeo, who sent this story, and to the Jesuit Archives and Research Center, for the photos.