Apr. 14, 2013 7:40 AM
The first four African-Americans ordained into the Catholic priesthood in the U.S. were honored Saturday as community leaders and neighbors gathered to place a commemorative plaque in front of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church.
It was a bronze plaque, inscribed in both English and French, memorializing Fathers Anthony Bourges, Maurice Rousseve, Vincent Smith and Francis Wade, who were appointed to Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish when it was first created in 1934.
“I knew all four of them,” recalled Joe Dennis, who attended the all-boys Immaculate Heart of Mary School in 1936. “They were the first black priests in Lafayette. There was an element in the white community that did not want them here. But Bishop Jeanmard decided they were going to stay.”
Leslie Westbrook, The Advertiser——Members of the McComb-Veazey Neighborhood Coterie and the Lafayette City-Parish Council unveil the first sign marking a Lafayette Heritage Neighborhood outside the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church near 12th and Surrey Streets Saturday. Leslie Westbrook, The Advertiser
The historic significance of that has escaped many city leaders over the years. City-Parish President Joey Durel, who attended Saturday’s ribbon cutting, said he had no idea the nation’s first black priests were actually living and working in the McComb-Veazey neighborhood.
“This is such an unbelievably historical piece of Lafayette,” said Durel. “How do we not all now this? How is this not something we brag about all the time? And I had no clue, no idea. What a great honor for the city of Lafayette.”
Members of the McComb-Veazey neighborhood Coterie did have an idea, however. The group of community volunteers has been trying for years to revitalize the historic neighborhood and bring attention to the history and importance of the place. They have been working on several projects to restore dilapidated homes and bring in newbusiness.
“We want our area to prosper and be like it used to be,” said Coterie Chairman Virginia Jones. “This place was jumping. We want the prominence to come back.”
Jones can remember when there werebusinesses, shops and several clubs in the blocks surrounding the church. She said on Orange Street, there was even a hotel with a nice restaurant in it, but that was back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
“You think there are clubs downtown?” she asked, pointing down the block. “Oh, you should have seen it back then. You name it, it was here. And nothing bad happened.”
District 4 Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, Joe Dennis, president of the Citizens Action Council, and City-Parish President Joey Durel unveil the first sign marking a Lafayette Heritage Neighborhood outside the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. Leslie Westbrook, The Advertiser
Jones and her fellow Coterie members have been working with Habitat for Humanity, Lafayette Consolidated Government, Rebuilding Together Acadiana and other groups to restore homes, build fencing and plant trees to beautify the area. She said so far there has been some progress but more is needed.
“We are trying to make it work,” Jones said. “We want to pretty up this doggone 12th Street.”
At the heart of the neighborhood is the Immaculate Heart of Mary school and church. It is home to the Sisters of the Holy Family who have been in Acadiana for decades. Sisters Joan Marie and Mary Innocente Wiltz were on hand for the dedication. The two also knew the four priests. Wiltz said it was Father Rousseve who was instrumental in her becoming a sister.
“He kept telling me, ‘Oh, I think you have a vocation,’” Wiltz recalled. “I said, ‘Well, father, I don’t know about the sisters, but I plan on being a sister-in-law. (I was going to get married). And he said, ‘Oh lord, you gonna be a sister.’ I joined when I was 18 and I never regretted it.”