Friday, April 27, 2012
By: Judy Creekmore
Our Lady of Grace Sanctuary in Reserve has been named the latest tourist destination on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. The sanctuary, at 123 Redemption Way, was officially opened for tours during a ribbon-cutting ceremony April 20.
Rita Perilloux helped Our Lady of Grace Sanctuary to be named to the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.
The African American Heritage Trail, developed and promoted by the Louisiana Office of Tourism, takes visitors to museums, heritage sites, institutions and cultural attractions throughout Louisiana.
The Office of Tourism created a website that makes it easy to chart your tour of landmarks highlighting the history of African American culture in the state. “A Story Like No Other” currently features 33 places and attractions, including Laura Plantation in Vacherie and Evergreen Plantation in Wallace.
Cami Geisman, deputy communications director for Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne’s office, said that eight more sites, including Our Lady of Grace Sanctuary in Reserve and San Francisco Plantation in Garyville, will be added this year. Beginning in July the website will be updated reflecting the new additions.
“The African American Heritage Trail is a unique way to travel the state, and you can learn a lot by visiting these places,” Geisman said. “Every year new sites will be added and it will grow and grow.”
The sanctuary is the original building of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church. When the church was replaced by a new structure, the old church was moved two miles to its present site in 1992 and now serves Riverlands Christian Center Church.
“The sanctuary was built in 1937, so it’s not that old. It is not on the trail because of its architectural grandeur, but because of its social, ethnic and religious significance,” said Rita Perrilloux, whose husband, Steven, is pastor of Riverlands Christian. “It represents a time or a phenomenon that happened in south Louisiana that was the Jim Crow separation of churches.”
The Perrillouxs were responsible for having the sanctuary placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. They saw a need not only to save the building and what it stands for, but also to share its stories and those of people of Reserve with others.
Perrilloux is still amazed by events that led them to take on the task.
“I asked, ‘Dear Lord, why us?’ because we’re not historians; but he’s entrusting us with this assignment,” she said.
They recently attended a Louisiana Tour Promotion Association show, and Perrilloux said they realized the importance of their involvement.
“People of color were missing in action,” she said about their being two of a handful of non-white participants. “That means that the people who are preserving the history in Louisiana are Caucasian, and I saw why the Lord had us do this. There is a need for people of color to be involved in the telling of Southern history.”
The assignment also includes recording oral histories. Perrilloux said she wants the church to become a depository for oral histories of local residents. The records will be available to the public.
“We want you to be able to send your grandkids over to learn about Grandpapaw,” she said.
She said that many local students do not know their own history, and they write about the same nationally famous people every year during Black History Month. “How can the kids in this area not know about Marshall Lawrence and Edward Hall?”
Lawrence and Hall are two of the people featured in sanctuary tours. Marshall became a blacksmith’s apprentice at age 11 because his father did not want him to work in the fields. He became Reserve’s first blacksmith, an auto mechanic, musician and teacher at the old Fifth Ward High School in Reserve, Perrilloux said.
Hall helped familiarize uneducated black people with the qualifying process so they could register to vote. In the 1940s he filed a suit against the Registrar of Voters in St. John the Baptist Parish that resulted in voting rights for black people in Louisiana. Once the votes of black citizens could be counted, he and a group of local men began to lobby for a high school for black students in the parish, Perrilloux said.
“I believe if we gather the history and have people come, it will enrich their lives,” Perrilloux said. “If we don’t preserve it for the students, then it could be lost.”
The sanctuary tour is also featured in New Orleans Plantation Country promotions, sponsored by the River Parishes Tourist Commission.
Perrilloux said that many of the tourist destinations feature a plantation-centric lifestyle, yet Our Lady of Grace Sanctuary still fits the theme. “We tell the story of the people of color when they left the plantation,” she said.”We jump on where plantation tours leave off.”
The sanctuary has a library, gift shop and a coffee and snack parlor. It is available for weddings and other events. For more information visit the church's website or firstname.lastname@example.org or call 985.536.4717.