St. Augustine Parish (Isle Brevelle) Church
St. Augustine Catholic Church and Cemetery, or the Isle Brevelle church, is a historic Roman Catholic church and cemetery located in Melrose, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. It is the cultural center of Cane River's historic Créoles of color community.
Established as a mission church in 1829, by mixed-race freedman Nicolas Augustin Metoyer, St. Augustine is celebrated as the first church in Louisiana to be built by and for free people of color. It is among the oldest churches founded and built by and for people of African descent in the United States.
The church and cemetery are within the Cane River National Heritage Area, and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Because of its significance to Catholic and Créole history, St. Augustine also is a marked destination on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.
Tradition holds that the church was established by Nicolas Augustin Metoyer in 1803 and that services have been held continuously since then. Historical records challenge the local lore. Parish records document the founding of the Chapel of St. Augustine "as a mission of the church of St. François of Natchitoches" in July 1829, shortly after the church was constructed. The mission was recognized in 1856 as a parish in its own right, and authorized a resident priest.
When Father Jean Baptiste Blanc consecrated the chapel for religious use (19 July 1829), he reported that it had been "erected on Isle Brevelle on the plantation of Sieur Augustin Metoyer through the care and generosity of the above-named Augustin Metoyer, aided by Louis Metoyer, his brother. ... The said chapel ... having been dedicated to St. Augustine, shall be considered as under the protection of this great doctor."  Tradition also describes the role of Augustin's brother Louis (founder of the nearby Melrose Plantation, a National Historic Landmark ), as the chapel's designer and builder.
The Church of St. Augustine is distinctive among Southern churches of all denominations for its racial role reversals. Surviving pew records show that the front seats were occupied by the Créole de couleur Metoyer family who built the chapel. Seated behind them were the families of prominent white planters within the community. Post-Civil War, St. Augustine chalked up another apparent first in U.S. racial history: its own congregation by this time was almost exclusively people of color; but, it served as the mother church for the predominantly white congregation of Mission Ste. Anne on Old River.
The original structure has not survived. Union forces during the Red River Campaign of May 1864 were said to have torched the first church.
A second church burned in the early 1900s. It was replaced by the present-day church building, which was completed in 1917. Tradition holds that early furnishings included paintings of patron saints Augustine and Louis in honor of the Metoyer brothers, as well as an altar brought from Europe by other family members. The original bell that hung in the belfry above the vestibule is said to be the one still in use. An image of the original church survives as a backdrop in the contemporary oil portrait of its founder that hangs in the church today.
The Metoyer brothers were two of ten children of the French merchant Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer and the former slave Marie Thérèse Coincoin, sometimes (albeit erroneously) called Marie Thérèse Metoyer. He had initially leased her services as a domestic and concubine. When the parish priest filed charges against the black Coincoin for bearing mixed-race children while living in the residence of a white man, and threatened to sell her away to New Orleans, Metoyer bought her from her owner and privately manumitted her. Across the next thirty-seven years, he manumitted each of their children.
Coincoin, as a médecine, planter, and businesswoman, worked to buy the freedom of her five older black children from an earlier union with another slave. She secured that freedom for three of them. Together, her offspring and their families created a large Créole of color community in Natchitoches Parish that spread the length of Cane River Lake.
Its core would be, and still is, St. Augustine Parish on Isle Brevelle.
Representation in other media
- Elizabeth Shown Mills's historical novel, Isle of Canes, draws upon her research in both family tradition and primary sources. She explores the founding of St. Augustine and the character of the religious leadership of the Isle Brevelle community in Creole Louisiana.
- Boston's African Meeting House is recognized as the oldest church built by and for African Americans that is still standing in the United States. See  Early black Baptist churches were founded in South Carolina and Virginia around the time of the American Revolutionary War.
- "Creoles in the Cane River Region", Cane River National Heritage Area: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary, National Park Service, accessed 15 Jul 2008
- Ron Stodghill, "Driving Back Into Louisiana’s History", New York Times, 25 May 2008, accessed 7 Jul 2008
- The parish registers from 1803-29 document each time the parish priest traveled to Cane River and Isle Brevelle to conduct services. They explicitly name the site at which the services were held. Those records repeatedly document that Augustin Metoyer and his family brought their children and slaves to one or another named site for baptism or marriage. The first services were held on Augustin's plantation on 19 July 1829; see Parish of St. François of Natchitoches, Register 6: 116. The second occurred four days later when Augustin's great-nephew Louis Monet married at the Chapel of St. Augustine; see St. François Register 11, entry 1829-#10.
- Fr. J.B. Blanc, Reg. 6: 116. For a lengthy analysis of the evidence surrounding the construction of the chapel, see Gary B. Mills, The Forgotten People: Cane River's Créoles of Color (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 197), 145-50.
- Clyde Roque, "St. Augustine Church", Diocese of Alexandria, accessed 15 Jul 2008.
- Mills, The Forgotten People, chapter 9, summarizes the testimony in the numerous Civil War damage claims by St. Augustine parishioners.
- Clyde Roque, "St. Augustine Church", Diocese of Alexandria, accessed 15 Jul 2008
- Father J. J. Callahan et al., The History of St. Augustine's Parish; Isle Brevelle, Natchez, La.; 1803-1853; 1829-1954; 1856-1856 (Natchitoches: The Parish, 1956).
- A black-and-white image of the portrait is reproduced online in the archived edition of Ken Ringle, "Up through Slavery," The Washington Post, 12 May 2002 Washingtonpost.com."
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Quintanilla's Crusade, 1775–1783: 'Moral Reform' and Its Consequences on the Natchitoches Frontier", Louisiana History 42 (Summer 2001): 277–302.
- Metoyer to Augustin, doc. 2409 (1792) and Metoyer to Dominique, doc. 2584 (1795), Colonial Archives, Office of the Clerk of Court, Natchitoches. Metoyer to Louis, Pierre, and Marie Susanne, Misc. Book 2: 207–11, Office of the Clerk of Court, Natchitoches.
- Mills, The Forgotten People. "Creoles in the Cane River Region", Cane River National Heritage Area: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary, National Park Service, accessed 15 Jul 2008
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Isle of Canes (Provo: Ancestry.com, 2004).
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to St. Augustine Catholic Church and Cemetery (Louisiana).|
- "Creoles in the Cane River Region", Cane River National Heritage Area: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary, National Park Service
- "Louisiana's African American Heritage Trail", Louisiana Travel
- "St. Augustine Church", (Natchez) Isle Brevelle, Louisiana, Diocese of Alexandria