St. Martinville — spry as ever at 200
Photos by Jeff Stephens
Incorporated St. Martinville turns 200 years old in 2017, inspiring a full calendar of events sponsored by the city and local museums. Just like birthdays of people, birthdays of places conjure memories worth sharing. The stories conveyed through these bicentennial celebrations will explore the deeds, traditions and legends of Native Americans, French and Spanish Creoles, Acadian exiles, free men of color and African slaves — all of whom contributed greatly to the local culture we know today.
The area has recently bounced back from the floods of August, with attractions like the Acadian Memorial mural refurbished and ready for company.
St. Martinville’s old square, with its St. Martin de Tours church and surrounding landmarks, is the historic focal point of St. Martin Parish, Louisiana’s colonial Attakapas District and all of what we now call Acadiana.
Although built in 1844, the church building is anything but drab. Two rows of pristine Doric columns divide its beautiful boxed and gated pews, the pipes of its 1885 organ are visible above the choir loft, its 14 sculptural Stations of the Cross were crafted in France for St. Martin’s around 1905, and an 1830s oil painting of patron St. Martin by Jean François Mouchet hangs above the altar.
An 1858 rectory flanks the church, and statues of an early cleric and stalwart Native American warrior of the Ishak tribe (dubbed Attakapas by the French — meaning, true or not, “cannibal”) stand facing South Main Street.
The statue the world has come to see, however, is the one that receives her visitors in a tiny and ancient cemetery on the upstream side of the church — the seated figure of Evangeline. It was posed for and donated to the town by actress Dolores del Rio after starring in the locally filmed 1929 silent-movie version of Longfellow’s epic poem by the same name (available on DVD at Ebay.com and Amazon.com). “America’s poet” knew little about Acadians and nothing about Louisiana, and his heroine lingered here only briefly before continuing the search for the fiancé separated from her during their exile from Acadie, but she will forever be a symbol of the little city in the minds of the world and locals as well.
Many of the oldest commercial buildings in town are those facing the church along S. Main Street, including the Maison de Tours at 128, built in 1855 by Boston designer Robert Benson, now available for courtyard weddings and receptions (337-380-5677, maisondetours.com). A few steps away stands the Duchamp Opera House at 200 S. Main, built about 1830 and its old upstairs theater remains active today thanks to the dramatics of the local Evangeline Players. You might find an artist at work in the downstairs souvenir and art shop (337-394-3282), perhaps even Dennis Paul Williams, the young city councilman whose 20-foot mural awaits you in the African American Museum on the bayou side of the square.
The Old Castillo Hotel, which borders the square was built in 1827, and is now a B&B whose upper gallery overlooks the bayou that sits under the branches of the town’s beloved Evangeline Oak. With only seven guestrooms (337-394-4010, oldcastillohotel.com), it’s wise to plan ahead. You don’t want to miss owner-hostess Peggy Hulin’s homemade preserves, home-baked bread, sweet and light pain perdu and unique biscuit-dough beignets.
From the B&B, it’s a half-block to the Acadian Memorial complex (337-394-2258, acadianmemorial.org) where you might easily spend a day visiting the 12-by-30-foot “Arrival of the Acadians” mural (depicting actual refugees from Acadie), a wall of bronze bearing the engraved names of 3,000-plus names of known arrivals, the eternal flame that burns in their honor, and a replica of the “Deportation Cross” that has stood in Grand-Pré since 1929 memorializing the first wave of exiles in 1755. The other historic diaspora affecting Louisiana was of course, the slave trade, and displays in the complex’s African American Museum graphically describe life aboard slave ships and the fate of slaves and Creoles of color through the antebellum era, Civil War and Reconstruction.
North of the square at 1200 N. Main, the sprawling green fields and ancient oaks of Louisiana’s first State Park, the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site (337-394-3754, crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-parks) surround such features as the park’s original “Cajun cabin” replica (now a full-fledged Acadian farmstead complex) and a 1715, raised Creole cottage that would have been occupied by successful Creole and Acadian planters. Called the Olivier House for an early owner, the cottage is a museum of early tools and household paraphernalia, and the park’s nearby visitor center is an actual museum of artifacts that bring to life such aspects of Attakapas District livelihoods as Spanish moss ginning, cotton pressing, sugarcane farming and ranching.
St. Martinville’s bicentennial calendar begins with a Jan. 21 pre-Civil War “Vigilantes” battle reenactment, between local farmers and wealthy planters, and the Jan. 28 Bicentennial Opening Celebration at the State Historic Site. For the following 11 months of activities, visit stmartinville.org.
Kayaks and Canoes
Even upstream’s easy on the Teche, but kayaks and canoes weren’t frequent sights there till the bayou was named a National Water Trail in 2015, one of only 20-odd streams so designated by National Parks. To rent a boat, contact Bayou Teche Experience (337-366-0337) or Cajun Country Swamp Tours (337-319-0010), both in nearby Breaux Bridge. For an introduction to the birds and creatures of the Nature Conservancy’s incredible Lake Martin Preserve, 12 miles from St. Martinville, one of the largest wading-bird rookeries in the U.S., call LeBlanc Swamp Tours (in town, 337-332-6546) or Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tours (at the lake, 337-230-4068).
Near St. Martin Parish’s splendid 1853 Greek Revival Courthouse on S. Main Street, the post office at 224 S. Main is the hiding place of Minetta Good’s 1940 oil painting of Longfellow’s Evangeline, one of Louisiana’s 24 existing post office murals funded by Depression-era WPA arts programs.