When studying the history of the old Atacapas territory (now St. Martin, St. Mary, Lafayette, Vermilion and Iberia Parishes in Louisiana), one must not overlook other groups who came from various parts of the country to settle. They came from France, England, Germany and Denmark, among others, many coming, a little bit later, from other states where they had originally settled. Many continued on into the Texas and Mexican territories, going on to insure themselves of a place in the country's history books. Many put down their roots in the Opelousas Territory and set up homes in Opelousas, Port Barre and Leonville, but still along the bayou.
Some of the early settlers in the old territory settled along Bayou Teche, as can be seen by looking at today's towns from Port Barre to Morgan City, or in groups in the Atchafalaya Basin. Some worked farms, some fished, and some worked in the timber industry. They all had one thing in common: they were looking for a better life for themselves and their children. What they brought into the jambalaya that is Louisiana added spice as they added their ethnic and ethic backgrounds to the mix.
If we head generally south, but sometimes east and west, along the Bayou Teche, we see Arnaudville, which straddles the St. Landry/St. Martin Parish line; then Cecilia, Parks, St. Martinville, etc.
Our first town on this genealogical and historical journey, therefore, is Arnaudville. The community is not only broken in half by the two parish lines but also by Bayou Fuselier and by the Teche itself. Many families settled on farms near the water, but before the establishment of a church. To worship they had to travel to Opelousas and then Grand Coteau if they did not wait for the traveling priest. For most of them were Catholic.
Through the years, the community carried several names. It was first called la Jonction because of the junction of the Teche and Fuselier; then it became known as l'abitation des Arnauds, and then finally, Arnaudville. It has also been called "The Land of the Living Faith" and "Daughter of the Teche.”
Tradition has it that the first settler on the present-day site of Arnaudville was Jacques Arnaud who is said to have arrived from Paris at Pecaniere, a rural community in St. Landry Parish, prior to 1850, where he met and married Marie Lalonde, a daughter of one of the earliest families in the area. (See elsewhere for the Arnaud and Lalonde families.)
Settlers in the area hunted game and later raised cattle, then many branched into the mercantile business and other endeavors.
Arnaudville, like the other communities along the bayou, was reached by merchants ships which plied the waters from New Orleans, up the Mississippi, Bayou Teche and then Bayou Courtableau to Port Barre. They took short cuts to Bayou Portage through Bayous Juronmon and Courtableau. Until as recently as 1909, much of the Arnaudville area, particularly toward Bayou Portage, was solid forest, with only a wagon trail to travel.
At Portage, there were only a few buildings, including one owned by Mrs. Arile Olivier, and a small grocery store owned by Albert Chanson. The building was also the site of a gambling room. The grocer also had fishing interests in Lakes Castille and Troupo.
The Arnaud couple were Catholic and they and other members of the community wanted a church and Jacque and Marie decided to build one on their land, facing Bayou Teche in the second square above Bayou Fuselier. Although Father Rocoffort, who was serving La Jonction, understood their concern for their religious needs, he said that the clergy could not officiate in the chapel as a place of public worship unless it was entirely free from control by any individuals.
Archbishop Blanc in New Orleans had finally wrested St. Louis Cathedral out of the control of 40 years of control by laymen who paid no mind to the church regulations and discipline. There had been the same kinds of problems in Lafayette, St. Martinville, Pointe Coupee and other places in the state.
Work halted on the chapel, but on Nov. 24, 1853, Jacques appeared before a St. Landry Parish notary and donated the property to Father Rocoffort and his successors. The donation included a parcel of two acres of land, and set out specifically that the site was to be for a catholic church. That same year the chapel was completed and it and the people became the parish of St. John Francis Regis. It seems to have been dedicated in 1855. At that approximate time, the Jesuits obtained additional property between Pine and Camp Streets, where the Little Flower Auditorium is now located, for a cemetery. At that time there were no streets, but some were laid out later, including Front and Main, which divided the church property into several parcels. eventually, the Jesuits turned over all of the property to the parish.
On March 6, 1865, Marie Lalonde, now a widow, sold 12 acres of land to the Board of Trustees of St. Charles College of Grand Coteau for $100 in specie. The land was bound by the Arnaud property, by the church lot donated to Father Rocoffort, by the Widow Fayolle, the bayou, and the lots of Paul Blanchard.
The first baptism in the chapel was that of Joseph Emar Stelly, son of Deodale Stelly and Feliciane Burleigh, on Jan. 6, 1856.
The Rev. Christopher Cuny was appointed first pastor of the church in 1851 when it was transferred to the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The following year a new church was built, and the old building became a rectory.
The civil community and the congregation grew, both being affected by events of the time.
During the 1840s and 1850s, the "Know Nothing" and American parties inflamed anti-clergy sentiment, and Father August Martin, stationed at St. Martinville, suggested to Father Blanc at Cecilia that they "shake the dust of such ungrateful communities and seek religious work elsewhere."
It appears that it was a troubling time for the parishioners as well as their pastors, but they fought the anticlerical tide and their faith helped them to overcome those troubles.
Father Denoyel became pastor and about the time he arrived, the village began to prosper and gain importance as a commercial center. Bridges had been constructed over both bayous, and streets began to cut through town, stores were opened and the town was incorporated on Feb. 25, 1870. The businesses thrived as people from a wide area - from Bayou Laurent, beyond Bushville, from Bayou Bourbeau and Bayou Sam, even the marshy area of the Atchafalaya Basin - came to church and to do business. The trading centers and stores were able to furnish goods to the farmers when they came into town to worship.
Not surprisingly, the businesses developed around the junction of the two bayous, and a public road followed the Teche. Streets around the principal area included Fuselier, Canal, Neblet and Courtableau. Then the road became known as "le chemin des Opelousas," and then as Main Street. L. Simpson owned an early store, and among the early businessmen in Arnaudville was U. A. Guilbeau, who employed E. C. Rogers for two years. In 1864, Rogers, who had left and gone into business at Abbeville and Breaux Bridge, returned to La Jonction and opened a store at Union and Front Streets. His brother, L. M. Rogers, became his partner in 1875. E. C. became the first postmaster when a postal service was inaugurated in 1874. One of the first store was the Darby store, which lasted until the recent past and is still remembered by practically all of Arnaudville’s present population.
Adlin Durio, who owned a large plantation in St. Landry Parish, opened a mercantile business after the civil War and was elected mayor in 1888.
Ulysse Guilbeau was one of the wealthy residents and he loaned some of the money to build the second church in 1872; however when the panic of 1873-1874 crippled him financially, he asked for repayment of his $1200 note.
That same year, a Realtors' booklet described Arnaudville as "..... (being) in a splendid farming region, with excellent citizens tributary (sic) to its trade. Here also is found a commodious church and school house that speaks for the piety and intelligence of the people. In this section are found some of the most fertile lands of our Parish, noted for production of corn, sugar, cotton, vegetables and fruits....Lands sell at $5 to $15 per acre, according to location and improvements."
Mrs. Hermine Bernard owned a store, which was operated by her son, David Bernard, across from the church. David Bernard also owned a store in partnership with Bebe Begnaud. Later, Oscar Rivette opened a store on the same property. The Rivette and Darby stores later closed, however Regis Lagrange's store, until recent years, remained on the corner where it originated. That corner is now the site of a modern supermarket owned by the Guidry Coles.
Two hotels existed in Arnaudville A Mr. Thompson ran one in 1898, and it was later operated by J. A. Guidroz, and then C. Delacroix. It closed in 1937. Mr. Singleton owned the Central Hotel located at Neblet and Fuselier Streets, along with a merchandise store.
The first bank was organized and established in 1904 by a group of citizens, the first cashier of the Bank of Arnaudville being Maurice Olivier. It was sold to the Parish Bank and Trust of Opelousas in 1924, and closed, along with the parent bank, during the Great Depression in 1932. The Washington State Bank opened in 1937 and is still operating, as well as a branch of First National Bank of Opelousas. Sidney Durio was the first cashier of Washington and managed it until the middle or late 1950s. Early employees were Wivis Arnaud and Mrs. Georgia Savoie.
In 1870, the Jesuits turned over the charge of the church to diocesan priests and the Rev. Christopher Cuny was appointed first pastor. In 1872, the church was converted into a rectory and a new edifice built to accommodate the growing congregation.
Christmas Day, 1875, brought the arrival of Father Charles Denoyel. To be remembered forever as "le bon Pere Denoyel," he was involved in the lives of his parishioners, not just as their pastor, but as one who could inform and protect them from the evils of the day, including the credit system. During the epidemic of 1873 and the flood of 1882, he gave them his strength. During his pastorship, a private school was established in 1885. In 1891, the Sisters Marianites of the Holy Cross took over the school. A two-story school was built at a cost of $3,500, and opened with an enrollment of 25 boys and 24 girls. It became known as Father Denoyel's school because he paid for it out of his own pocket. Until the Marianites arrived, lay teachers manned the school. It was dedicated to St. Joseph.
Father Denoyel felt one element of the parish, the Black children, was underserved, and that they should have a Catholic education as well. He knew that the townspeople would never furnish funds and support for such a school. Roger Baudier, writing on the Lafayette Diocese, said he felt that if he asked the community, they would have told him to ask "Mister Lincoln - he freed them."
He persevered, however, and was able to get some money through the generosity of Mother Katherine Drexel, who later founded and became Superior general of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and still later, a saint in the Catholic Church. It's certain Father Denoyel feared for the school and those fears came to roost on the opening day of school when "Regulators" rode up on horseback, cracking their whips to intimidate the small group which had gathered on the steps of the convent. They could not prevent the school from opening, but on Sept. 22, the call of "Fire!" rang through the town. The school had been burned. Who the actual arsonists were was never known or if it was, never revealed.
Father Denoyel's last act as pastor was the legal incorporation of The congregation of St. John Francis Regis Roman Catholic Church on Aug. 7 1894. In November, he left, never to return. He became chaplain of Ursuline Convent in New Orleans and later returned to his native France where he died.
In 1889, another brochure heralded the fact that Arnaudville had a population of 400 and "....is destined to become a very important point just as soon as the Southern Pacific Extension through the parish is completed, which will be in about a month....Arnaudville will be the terminus."
Existing store were expanding, the town had two cotton gins, two hominy mills, a rice mill and a brick manufactory, as well as two hotels, seven stores, two millinery stores, two doctors and a dentist. There were also two lumber yards, three blacksmith shops and a butcher shop. There were also a new Methodist Church and a Baptist church, which served the Blacks. A public school and the Catholic school educated the youngsters, however a few years later, due to poor economics and competition from the public schools, St. Joseph's School was closed. It would be until after World War II before the town had another Catholic school, the Little Flower School.
Those economic problems persisted for many years and residents, now served by Father Maisonneuve, suffered through a dismal period. They were plagued by crop failures and floods, and the physical church crumpled. No funds could be obtained to repair the several buildings. Father Maisonneuve suffered with his people, and on Dec. 2, 1914, he died at the rectory. He was buried in Arnaudville.
Father George Mollo arrived to serve the community on July 4, 1915, but harsh times were arriving again as the country went to war and Arnauadville's men marched off to help defend the nation. Families came to pray and their faith would be tested with the 1918 flu epidemic. One of its native sons, Paul Saizan, contracted the flu on the ship he was riding to war. By the time it arrived in France, he had pneumonia and died in a hospital there. It was small comfort to his family that he had died aboard ship rather than on the front. His body was returned to Arnaudville after the war and he is interred in St. Leo Catholic Church in Leonville.
On Dec. 22, 1916 the town suffered another fire, this one destroying the old rectory -- the original parish chapel. The parishioners, however, collected money and a house was bought and remodeled to use as a rectory. In 1926 and again in 1930, lightning struck the steeple of the church. In 1929, the first new rectory was built at a cost of $4808. The old rectory sold for $5000, although it had been inundated by the flood of 1927 when muddy waters courses through the Teche Basin and other streams of the area, spreading destruction over the farm lands, ruining crops and homes, including those in the parish.
Msgr. L. Canon Massebiau followed Father Mollo, and he dedicated the parish to the Little Flower of Jesus, St. Therese de Lisieux. He believed that a church hall was essential to parish life, and in 1935 began the demolition of the old convent. The salvaged lumber went into construction of the Little Flower Hall, which stands to this day. He also enlarged the church to provide a space for the Blacks to worship, and to provide a chapel for the people at Bayou Portage. The Little Flower School and convent were built in 1946-47. In 1948, a new church was erected and formally dedicated in February 1949. It was subsequently consecrated in 1953, on the Centennial of the church parish. At that time, the pastor, Father Daniel L. Bernard, was elevated to the rank of Monseigneur, and a devout member of the community, Auguste Pelafigue, was endowed with a Papal decree.