“…the parcel of land herein donated to my children…the church of St. Augustine…built by me and my family principally for our usage…it is my desire that others professing our holy Roman Catholic and apostolic religion, have the right to assist at the divine office in the said chapel.”
These words, displayed in the sacristy of St. Augustine Church, will forever define the roots of the Cane River gens de couleur libre (free people of color) and will mark the area where their European ancestors settled in the French colony of Louisiana over 250 years go. During this time, twelve generations of descendants and area residents have come to practice their holy Roman Catholic Faith on holy days of obligation.
Since arriving to this country, “our people,” as we are not commonly referred to, have assimilated with the various races that occupy this country, but the majority still align themselves with the patriarch of the community and his mother country, France.
The first recorded history of the parish is the blessing of the church by Fr. J. B. Blanc on July 19, 1829 under the title of St. Augustine, the patron saint of Augustin Metoyer. At this time, the church was to be a mission of St. Francois of Natchitoches. However, the written record does not always agree with oral tradition. Tradition has it that Augustin’s father, Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer had taken him to France in 1801 to visit his homeland. While there Augustin was struck by the arrangement of the French villages where community life was centered about the church. Upon his return to Isle Brevelle and with the help of his family, the first church was constructed in 1803. While the year the first church was built will probably always remain a mystery, the fact remains that St. Augustine Church was built by free people of color using their own money, predominately for their own use, and invited all others in the area who wished to participate and share in their Catholic faith with them. As a means of collecting money for the church in earlier times, families of the parish were required to rent pews for their personal use. Name boxes were attached at the end of each pew which allowed its owner exclusive use, even if the church was full.
Although Augustin donated the land for the church, his brother Louis was the architect and builder, with other family members donated religious items. In honor of the two family members primarily responsible for completing the church, two paintings of their patron saints were placed in the church, one of St. Augustine and the other of St. Louis. While the painting of St. Louis was destroyed or lost in the 1960’s, the painting of St. Augustine still remains. The bell in the church tower is the only remaining object that was used in the original church and is still in use today summoning parishioners of the area to its doors.
On March 11, 1856, the mission of St. Augustine at Isle Brevelle was decreed by Bishop Augustus Martin to be a parish in its own right and assigned his own brother, Fr. Francois Martin to be its first resident pastor. As a parish in its own right, St. Augustine expanded to serve four other churches in the area, St. Charles at Bermuda, St. Anne’s at Spanish Lake, St. Joseph’s at Bayou Derbonne, and St. Anne’s on Old River, with the latter remaining the only active mission church of the parish to date.
In 1913, under Bishop Van de Ven, the order of the Holy Ghost Fathers took charge of the parish and remained until 1990. The dedication of the existing church structure by Bishop Van de Ven was at a solemn high mass on Feb. 15, 1917 with Fr. J. Baumgartner as its pastor.
On June 10, 1970, through the intercession of St. Augustine, the patron saint of our Church, our parish was blessed with the acquisition of a masterpiece. At an auction on Melrose Plantation, Fr. Norbert Rosso, pastor of St. Augustine Church, gave a moving speech telling the history of the painting and introduced some of Augustin Metoyer’s descendants. He then placed an opening bid of $2000 and after a dead silence and no other offers, the bidding was closed and the painting of Augustin was returned home.
Bishop Sam Jacobs rededicated the church after a restoration and remodeling project that included the addition of a structure adjoining the church and rectory under Fr. Victor Vead on Feb. 25, 2001.