The Catholic Church in DeSoto Parish
In the late 1700’s, the French and Spanish settlers began to venture into the Louisiana Purchase to trade at the fort established by St. Denis in Natchitoches. They brought with them their culture, their language and most of all, their Catholic faith. Many of these people were awarded land grants, and settled along the banks of Bayou Pierre. Bayou Pierre runs from just north of Natchitoches to just north and west of the present city of Mansfield, and at that time, was a vibrant scene of trade activity. However, there were so few priests and the population was fairly scattered, which made it necessary for communicants to travel either to Natchitoches or Nacogdoches, Texas, in order to receive the sacraments and the pastoral care of the Church. The priests recognized the perseverance of the settlers in the practice of their faith, and began making sporadic visits to these areas in the early 1800s.
The first Catholic Church was built in the settlement of Bayou Pierre just after the forming of DeSoto Parish. The Lazarist Fathers who were under the authority of the Bishop of New Orleans and who served the church in Natchitoches built the church in 1843, but by 1850 the church had fallen into disuse because of scarcity of clergy. In 1855, Bishop Auguste M. Martin, Diocese of Natchitoches, seeing the need of a resident priest at Bayou Pierre, founded the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul there, and with that, created the first new parish in the Diocese of Natchitoches.
Bishop Martin returned to his native France and recruited priests to serve the Catholics under his care in the Diocese of Natchitoches. In 1856 Father Jean Pierre , one of the French priests who had returned with Bishop Martin, bought land from Joseph Lafitte, and had built a frame church and log cabin rectory.
Father Jean Pierre became the pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Shreveport in 1857, and his assistant, Father Thomas Rebours, was appointed resident priest at Holy Apostles. A series of priests would continue to serve multiple parishes on a part-time basis, establishing schools in their rectories, and serving as instructors.
Then in 1873, Bishop Martin gave the Church of the Holy Apostles to two French Benedictine monks, Father Isidore Robot and Brother Dominic Lambert, who had been sent by their abbot in France to find refuge for their politically threatened community there. Father Isidore opened another school there, and as usual, was its only teacher. That autumn, the Yellow Fever took its lethal toll on the priests who were already spread so thinly among the churches they served. In 1875, the Benedictines moved on to Oklahoma, leaving the diocesan churches without pastors. From 1876 until 1888, another series of priests served the Catholics at Bayou Pierre.
In April of 1888, Bishop Anthony Durier (Diocese of Natchitoches), who had succeeded Bishop Martin, gave Holy Apostles Church and its properties to German Carmelites from West Texas. The Carmelites constructed a monastery, and through the leadership of their prior, Father Anastasius Peters, they expanded the parish’s size and its pastoral outreach throughout DeSoto Parish.
Father Peters took semi-annual begging tours to Germany, in which he sought funds for the monastery, those seeking vocations, and Catholic families who immigrated to Bayou Pierre.
Father Peters accepted a government appointment as postmaster for the area in 1889 to help augment the income for the monastery. While he was there, he changed the name of Bayou Pierre to Carmel, in honor of Our Lady of Carmel, to whom the Carmelite is dedicated.
The Carmelites established a boys’ school, a seminary, and novitiate mission chapels at Kingston, Mansfield, Rambin, Gloster, Oxford, and Grand Cane. (The Rock Chapel or St. Ann’s Chapel, which was built in the woods behind the monastery, is the only remaining structure of the monastery.) They also served the black community and established schools for them, even though these efforts were met with serious opposition. Other problems arose for the vibrant Carmelites; such as, concerns for the validity of their 3rd order nuns, and Father Peter’s questionable acquisitions for the monastery. In 1897, they were forced to leave Carmel by order of the Congregation for Propagation of the Faith in Rome, who suppressed their order. It decreed that the Carmelites join existing American Orders or return to their land.
Father Marian Nyssen, one of the artists who painted the interior of the Rock Chapel, and Father Louis Lambertz, remained at Carmel and joined the diocesan clergy. Father Nyssen continued to visit the numerous missions in DeSoto Parish and expanded them to include Stonewall and Gravel Point. The Gravel Point chapel was later moved to Frierson and named St. Francis Xavier.
Holy Apostles Church remained in use until it was destroyed by fire in 1904 and the Rock Chapel became the parish church. A new chapel was erected several years later where Holy Angels Church had stood. It was named Immaculate Conception. In 1926 Immaculate Conception also burned.
With the departure of the Carmelite monks, the German parishioners who had been brought or moved to Carmel began to leave. At the same time, Mansfield was growing in importance and many people were moving there seeking employment.
For this reason, in 1907 Bishop Cornelius Van de Ven changed the location of the parish to Mansfield where a small chapel had been erected in honor of St. Joseph in 1869. In 1907 he reduced Holy Apostles to a mission.
The parish and its missions were served at different times by diocesan clergy, the Jesuit community from Shreveport, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Immaculate Heart Ministries during the first years of the Twentieth Century. Because of the sizeable community, Bishop Charles Greco split the Mansfield parish in 1956, creating the new Church of St Mary in Rambin.
Property was purchased in Logansport in 1963 and the mission chapel of St Jude was added to the care of St Joseph Church.
DeSoto parish continues to change. In 1959, Father William Kwaaitaal, who served the still active Carmel community at the Immaculate Conception church, was shown the almost forgotten little chapel built by the Carmelites, now almost completely hidden and overgrown with vines and brush. He spearheaded a movement to restore the Rock Chapel, and in 1961 the chapel was rededicated and remains to date, an often visited retreat. It is now on the registry of historical places in Louisiana.
Rambin, Carmel, and Logansport are once again part of the Mansfield Church.
The church at Frierson, St. Xavier was moved to Stonewall and renamed in honor of St. Ann. It is now a mission church of St. Joseph’s in Mansfield.
Funeral and wedding masses are still said at the Rambin church. The Immaculate Conception church is now used occasionally as a meeting place.
The Mansfield Church has recently undergone several repairs and renovations, including the installation of 13 beautiful stained glass windows.
Father Matthew Long, the previous pastor at St. Joseph’s, wrote an article describing the installation of new stained glass windows in the St Joseph Church. In that article he summed up the growth and nature of our parish: “What a blessing the 160th year of Catholicism in DeSoto Parish has been. We are blessed with generous spirits and we are blessed each time we pass into this beautiful church that represents all the goodness and especially all the love the vibrant People of God of DeSoto Parish have to offer to the Glory of God.”
As we have done, we will continue to do.
Sicut fecimus nos pergit.