Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of Month, 2003
Evangeline mourns in Louisiana
Acadian roots flavour the culture of sleepy Louisiana
St. Martin of Tours - Feast Day - November 11
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
A statue of a forlorn young woman dominates the tiny old cemetery beside Eglise St. Martin de Tours. On the monument, Evangeline identifies the fictitious heroine of the 1847 epic poem that made Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famous. But what is the unhappy Acadian girl doing in somnolent little St. Martinville in sub-tropical south Louisiana?
Here, on the banks of a Mississippi River distributary, turgid Bayou Teche, settlers from France, Canada and Spain put down roots and in 1765 welcomed refugees from Nova Scotia, expelled in the Grand Derangement. These Acadians became "Cajuns" and readily mixed with the local population.
Old expressions persist among the city's French speakers where their motto is still "Ma Fois, Mes Amis, Mon Cafe." On parting, "au revoir" might become "Que Dieu vous garde," that is "May God keep you."
The present church of St. Martin replaced an earlier one in 1844. It's a simple basilica plan with side aisles separated from the nave by columns and having separate entrances in the building's facade. The church is constructed of local brick, plastered inside and out and of Greek revival style.
Namesake of the church was a Roman officer and later fourth century bishop of Tours in France. Martin's conversion is recounted in the familiar story of how he shared his cloak with a destitute man, only to find out that he had encountered Christ. He constantly sought solitude but was forced to accept the bishopric by popular demand.
His time was spent visiting the poor and his far-flung, ill-defined diocese. Thousands of pilgrims visit his tomb in Tours while his statue in the Martinville churchyard has him frozen forever in the act of cutting his famous cloak in half with his sword. In addition to this church, Martin is also patron of the city, the civil parish (county), soldiers and France.
St. Martin's Church is a treasure-trove of religious artifacts, partly because its historic status countered some of the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council. Many good French saints are depicted in sculpture here, from Jeanne d'Arc to Roch. St. Martin de Tours and the Beggar is a huge 19th century painting behind the altar. Old cedar box pews, once rented to parishioners, still retain their unusual little doors.
And Acadienne Evangeline? After hearing a story of lovers separated during the expulsion, Longfellow sought out an eyewitness narrative by the Acadian Abbe Reynal. From it he developed his epic poem Evangeline.
Evangeline and Gabriel, separated on their wedding day in the village of Grand Pre in l'Acadie, searched for years for one another. The story ends tragically with Gabriel's death in the arms of his beloved.
Emmeline Labiche, the heroine, was separated from her betrothed at Grand Pre. Her Gabriel (Louis Arceneaux) came to St. Martinville first. Arriving three years later, Emmeline found Louis already married, fell ill and died within a few months.
The seated figure that now graces Emmeline's grave in the churchyard was a gift from a crew that filmed here in 1929. Dolores del Rio, star of the silent movie, The Romance of Evangeline, was the model for the statue.
Other historic sites to visit here include the Petit Paris Musuem and the Evangeline Oak, rendezvous of the storied lovers. Visitors can enjoy a tour of the elaborate presbytere or attend one of the many daily Masses celebrated at the "Mother Church of the Acadians."
And indulge in gumbo, jambalaya or boiled crawfish at any of the city's dozen restaurants. Or go a little further afield to Mulate's, "The World's Most Famous Cajun Restaurant," for shrimp etouffee in historic Breaux Bridge.
"Que Dieu vous garde!"