Located along Bayou Teche in St. Martin Parish, about seven miles south of Arnaudville, north of I-10, and East of Lafayette, Cecilia is a non-incorporated rural community. Its roots go back to the early 1800s in Louisiana, and many of its population go back to Acadian roots.
When the village came to be settled, its people sought what they needed in either Opelousas or St. Martinville, and later, Arnaudville. Most of those area pioneers settled on Spanish land grants, although some of them claimed land through occupancy and cultivation.
Joseph Alexander Declouet acquired 2,629.72 acres of land just south of the crook on the East bank of Bayou Teche through a Spanish patent on May 16, 1772.
About 20 years later, Pierre Guidry, a native of Acadia, bought three tracts of land “fronting 50 arpents on Bayou Teche and 50 arpents deep,” according to the late Grove Rees in his book, A Narrative History of Breaux Bridge. The purchase price was 100 bulls. Guidry was married three times and fathered 20 children. Many of them remained in the area, raising families and crops on the rich land.
In later years, Mrs. P. J. Calais of Cecilia said she had been told that Eugene Calais, also “an Acadian of the 1700s” had purchased land that had belonged to Martinet Soudrique. In 1765, Eugene had settled on the West side of the bayou with his wife and seven children. descendants of his son, Dorcilie, still live along the bayou.”
According to an article written by Charlene Harrison in the Centennial issue of the Teche News, “The story goes that the Calais family was aboard a boat with the other Acadians, looking for a place to set up farming. No one can be sure exactly why chose this spot, but they probably found something appealing -- the agricultural value or maybe just the pretty oak trees.
Another early family were the Angelles. The surname is believed to have been Angelloz or Angello and of Spanish origin.
Mrs. Florent Hardy, nee Angelle, grandmother of former Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Paul Hardy, has traced her family back to Everis Angelle who settled in the Cecilia area in the early 1800s. History has it that Leon Dupuis, Mrs. Hardy’s great-grandfather, donated the property for the cemetery near the first chapel. That cemetery is located on the gentle slope which goes to the very banks of the bayou. It is recalled by many residents of the area that during a flood (they think the one of 1940) washed some of the caskets into the bayou where, fortunately, they wedged against the pilings of the bridge, enabling the community to remove them for re-interrment.
According to the late Jeanne Castille of Breaux bridge, Spanish rulers had to name various areas to identify sections when allocating land to settlers, thus Cecilia became known, at varying times, as la grande Pointe, and la Punta. The area is still called la Grande Pointe, although many believe that the particular appellation was applied to an area now known as Four Corners.
The community was also known as la Place. According to Harrison, a legend says that one of the early settlers, a wanderer and romantic, had been looking for a quiet and a peaceful place to live when he happened upon Cecilia. He fell in love with the beauty of the land, they say, lifted his eyes towards Heaven and said in French, “Ca c’est la place!”
Contiguous to the area now known as Cecilia, other settlements took the names of Grand Anse, Pointe Broussard, Grand Pointe or le Grand Bois.
However, in 1890, Harrison related, when Mrs. Andre Lastrapes, nee Marie de la Croix, was serving as the first postmistress, she blessed the town with the name of Cecilia to avoid confusion with the other LaPlace between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Harrison wrote that Mrs. Lastrapes, a music lover and devout Christian, named the place for St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
Several farming families had settled at Cecilia by the mid-1800s, and went to Arnaudville, Breaux Bridge, Opelousas or St. Martinville for material and spiritual needs, Harrison wrote. A missionary priest periodically came to the area, saying Mass in homes, giving instructions, hearing confessions, and baptizing children born since his last visit. In the 1840s, a chapel was built at Pont Breaux (Breaux Bridge) and some Cecilia residents found it more convenient to receive the sacraments there. Others attended the newly constructed church in Arnaudville, depending on which side of the bayou they lived. However, like their neighbors in other settlements, those at Cecilia wanted their own church, and a chapel was built there after 1874.
According to the late Rev. Donald Hebert, who wrote a history of St. Joseph’s church, some sources called it St. Etienne, but he said that was uncertain. “In January, 1889, Father Borias of Breaux Bridge says that ‘There is one station (chapel) visited twice a month ... la chapelle de la grande Pointe’.” The chapel was originally located about midway between the Four Corners and the Grand Anse area, but was later moved closer to what is now Cecilia.
The area at that time had very little crime and it was mostly handled by the settlers. In September 1853, Alfred Lastrapes, living at Grande Pointe, through an ad in the Opelousas Courier offered a “liberal reward” to the person finding and returning a stolen mare taken from his estate.
Things would heat up, however, in 1857 or 1958 when “crime rose and the law looked the other way,” inciting vigilantes who aimed to “purge communities of criminals,” according to Roger Baudier’s chronicle on the history of Arnaudville. The captain of the Grande Pointe area was “the fiery young Domingeau.”
Baudier referred to a “great vigilante assembly” at la Grande Pointe. The views and comments expressed there no doubt left a lasting impression,” he concluded.
More trouble was to come to the area in the guise of the War between the States, yellow fever and a great flood. However, in 1890, acting on the advice of the pastors at Arnaudville and Breaux Bridge, the Archbishop created a church parish in Cecilia, naming the Rev. Augustin Blanc as its first pastor. He remained for 38 years. The first church was built on land donated by Onezime “Jim” Calais and Placide Leblanc.
The church records reveal names of more early settlers, for all events were chronicled there. Sosthene Guilbeau and his bride were the first couple to be married there before the church was even completed. Anita Duplechein was the first baby baptized (in January 1891). George Lavergnue’s (Lavergne ?) funeral was the first held, as it happens also in the month of January. In 1895, Onezime Calais, Jr. and Anna Armentine Fangui, represented by Caroline Lastrapes, were the Godparents when the church bell was christened.
In William Perrin’s book on Southwest Louisiana, published in 1891, can be found the names of early settlers in the area.” they included Jean Baptiste Angelle; Mrs. A. P. Lastrapes (she later married Louis Guidry after the book was published), daughter of Pierre D. D. delaCroix and Rosa D. LeBlanc; G. Arista Guilbeau, the son of Alphonse Guilibeau and Ophelia Dugas; and Sosthene Zeringue, born in 1841 to Z. and Mary (Suderic) Zeringue, among others.
Of Jean Baptiste Angelle, Perrin wrote that the St. Martin Parish native was born April 1843, the sons of A. (Everis) Angelle, a native of Louisiana. “Mr. Angelle received a limited education in the public schools and began life on a plantation at the age of 13 years. He served during the Civil War as a private in the Confederate service. After the close of the war, Mr. Angelle returned to St. Martin Parish where he began farming. Of recent years, he has conducted a mercantile business in connection with his plantation. He is a successful business man and a respected citizen. Mr. Angelle is united in marriage with Miss Arith Dupuis, daughter of Leon and Adelaide (Angele) Dupuis, of St. Martin Parish. They are parents of seven children.”
He referred to Mrs. Louis Guidry as Mrs. A. P. Lastrapes since she was not yet remarried at the time she remarried 15 years after her husband died, and she and Guidry had five children). “Mrs. Lastrapes was reared in this parish. She entered the Convent of the Sacred Heart at New Orleans at an early age, where she remained for five years, after which she returned to her home and was shortly afterward married to Andre P. Lastrapes. They became the parents of one son, Andre. Her husband only lived two years after their marriage. Shortly after his death Mrs. Lastrapes was appointed postmistress of LaPlace post-office, which position she has occupied since that time, discharging the duties with eminent satisfaction. She also teaches a private school “this place."
”Arista Guilbeau,” wrote Perrin, “was reared and educated principally in Lafayette parish where he married Miss Mary Rose Bernard, daughter of Odile and Carmelite (Broussard) Bernard. After his marriage he removed to Breaux Bridge, St. Martin Parish, where he resided for two years. Since that time he has devoted his attention to planting and merchandising, in which he has prospered. Mr. Guilbeau and wife are the parents of eight children, viz: Ophelia, Desamon, Mary Rita, Carmene, Carmelite, G. Arista Jr., and Blanche."
Of Sosthene Zeringue, Perrin said "Sosthene Zeringue had very limited educational advantages and at an early age began work on a plantation. After having attained his majority he began planting for himself, in which he has since continued with more or less success. He owns a plantation of about one hundred and fifty acres in this parish, on which he raises cotton and corn chiefly. His land is fertile and his plantation is one of the best in this section. At the age of twenty-one Mr. Zeringue was united in marriage with Miss Clemence Guidry, a native of St. Martin Parish, and daughter of Edmond and Joset (Sanier) Guidry. They are the parents of five children.”
Harrison also spoke to Mrs. Adolte (Lena) Johnson, then 93 years old and a native of Cecilia who remembered the early 1900 town. She was the daughter of Simeon Betancourt who arrived at the area near Four Corners during the Civil War.
He farmed cotton, corn and sweet potatoes most of the time, she told Harrison. “When the high water passed each year, he’d plant rice for the family.”
Mrs. Jack Landry, 90 years old in 1986, was the granddaughter of Amedee Champagne, a Civil War veteran and early settler on the East side of Bayou Teche between Cecilia and Breaux Bridge. She recalled that her father, Alcee Champagne, bought property on the West side of the bayou where she was living in 1986. She said he moved there to establish a sugar cane farm a year after he married. He later served as sheriff, police juror and school board member.
According to Lena Johnson, property holders were scarce until about 1966 when owners began selling their property or dividing the estates. Some began to concentrate in the Breaux Bridge area when the bridge was built. She said despite the rich land and peaceful settings that man liked, mother nature drove him away.
Indeed floods in the 1900s and a killing freeze in 1912, left “My parishioners (are) in deep misery,” the pastor wrote to the archbishop in New Orleans. “It is actually famine which exists. I beg you ... through your influence to obtain bread until the corn ripens. Some people are eating acorns to keep them from starving, others are driven to steal or risk getting killed.”
Mrs. Landry recalled that after the 1912 freeze, “farmers went broke and many lost their farms. There was a sugar cane refinery, but in 1914 it was taken down and sold, things were so bad.”
Assistance in the form of funds and clothing had to again be made to flood victims in Cecilia. The bishop wrote to the Rev. Louis Perronnet, who had recently been appointed the new pastor at St. Joseph’s: “Cecilia was in the path of the flood and its people suffered severer losses. The church and rectory escaped damage by water.” Father Perronnet distributed $500 worth of corn, cotton and potato seed sent by Pope Pius XI. More funds were forthcoming in 1929.
What little crime there was, was handled by the constable or the Justice of the Peace. Trials were held at the latter’s home and if the accused was deemed guilty and needed to do jail time, he was taken to the St. Martinville jail.
Mrs. Johnson told Harrison that there was a chapel and cemetery in the early part of this century at the head of her road, near the Four Corners. A priest would come for marriages, baptisms and funerals but she was baptized in Arnaudville. She recalls Father Blanc teaching catechism on Wednesdays and Sundays at the "new" church, near the location of the present brick church which was built in 1939, and remodeled in 1999.
By 1944, there were enough blacks in Cecilia for their own parish and with the assistance of the Josephite fathers, and the Rev. Roderick Auclair, St. Rose of Lima Church was built.
The only other establishments for some time, Mrs. Johnson remembered, were two little stores and a bar. Later, dance halls opened and another store was opened around the 1940s. Mrs. Landry described the general merchandise store near the road to Henderson opened by Euphemond Broussard in the early 1900s.
"I think he had the first big store in the area although there were other small ones. He handled large quantities of goods and was able to advance farmers who often paid later with crops. "Mr. Broussard had the first telephone which the locals could use in an emergency." Electricity was first available in the 1930s.
There were no doctors in the area in earlier days and Mrs. Johnson said the people either depended on the local healers (traiteurs)(such as her husband and father-in-law) or saddled up the horses and headed to Arnaudville or Breaux Bridge.
Mrs. Landry's mother had an uncle in Breaux Bridge who came to their home to deliver her first two children, but a Dr. Boudreaux from Arnaudville came when she was older for the few times when a doctor was needed.
There are now a large grocery store, a funeral home next to the church, a Health Unit and a bank, among other businesses.
The town has never incorporated although a few attempts were made to do so. "After looking at the pros and cons and realizing the advantages that nearby Henderson gained after incorporating we thought it would be a good thing for our community, Leo "Pope" Huval, one of those spearheading the efforts, explained. "Henderson was receiving federal money which helped pay for many improvements within the community. We thought we could enjoy some of those benefits by incorporating.”
One campaign to incorporate Cecilia was taken all the way to the polls and would have been successful except that some residents on the outer edges of the proposed boundaries were against the idea and stopped the incorporation.
In the meantime, the community remains established around the schools and church, the very things that helped establish Grande Pointe in the early days.