by PAUL F. STAHLS JR.
When it comes to luring tourists, the St. Landry Parish village of Grand Coteau prints no brochures, runs no ads, concocts no slogans or sales strategies. One reason is that it has not a single hotel to fill nor a single admission-charging attraction; the other reason is that the visitors come anyway.
Most, in fact, come back again and again, to see an entire community somehow preserved unchanged for nearly two centuries, to see alleys of oak or pecan trees stretching in all directions, to see the massive 1830s Academy of the Sacred Heart where one small room has been proclaimed a miracle site by the Catholic church. Mainly, however, they come to bask in the almost eerie warmth of undiluted cultural and religious traditions untrampled by the march of time.
The time is ripe for a visit: springtime is road-trip time, and there’s a beautiful and thoughtful new book called Grand Coteau by Trent Angers of Lafayette waiting at your bookstore to inspire you. Once here, the quaintness of this place, its atmosphere of serenity and even divinity, will thoroughly enchant you, no matter how brief the visit.
Midway between Lafayette and Opelousas, the landscape includes the borderlands between bayou country to the southeast and the Cajun prairies to the west. By the turn of the 19th century it was already dotted with small farms and sizable plantations, but it was the donation of several parcels of land by planter Charles Smith and his family, to be used for a cluster of various church structures, that would give shape and purpose to the little community. The St. Charles Borromeo Church grounds in 1819, plus generous expanses of property in 1821, would soon provide pastoral settings for the Academy and for St. Charles College (now a Jesuit seminary and retreat house). Another retreat house, Our Lady of the Oaks, now occupies the original church site, a stone’s throw from the “new” St. Charles Borromeo, completed in 1880.
Grand Coteau is perched on the northernmost reaches of the Teche Ridge (the brow of the sprawling Mississippi River flood plain), which gives the town its rather exaggerated name, literally “big hill.” It is Bayou Teche, in fact, that provides the most scenic approach (follow the bayou on Highway 31 to Arnaudville and cut cross-country on westbound Highway 93 to Grand Coteau), although most visitors are folks heading north or south on Interstate 49 who simply can’t pass by without stopping.
From the Grand Coteau exit, follow Louisiana 93 a half mile east to a five-pronged intersection, where 93 meets Chatrian Street and Burleigh Lane, and here begins your quick introduction to the town’s historic district. A private roadway leads maybe 50 yards west from the intersection to the Duffy-Oge Home, an 1850s center-hall beauty that once was the manor of a plantation stretching south to Bayou Carencro.
Except for a handful of cottages on Main Street that now contain shops, the historic homes of Grand Coteau are, like Duffy-Oge, private, but almost all are viewable from the streets and roadsides. Most are Creole cottages built of cypress and fronted by four- or six-columned (“three-bay” or “five-bay”) galleries, some with the Anglo influence of a central hall, some with touches of Greek Revival ornamentation, some with Victorian-carpenter filigree. To see what’s probably the oldest, turn right on Burleigh Lane and drive a half mile to a cottage on the left, with two front doors and a gallery lined by a colonnade. It was built by Robert Burleigh (likely in the 1810s) and handed down through at least four generations.
Return to the five-pronged intersection and turn right on Chatrian, which leads two blocks through rows of antebellum dwellings to Cherry Street. Turn left on Cherry and left again to follow Highway 93 along the town’s most scenic city block, with the handsome old four-story St. Charles College on the right (built in 1909 after fire destroyed the original) and a row of vintage cottages on the left. These now contain shops and cafés, alongside the Grand Coteau Bed and Breakfast, and Catahoula’s restaurant occupies the old Pollangue Store, which was built in the 1850s.
You can zigzag between most of Grand Coteau’s other picturesque homes by continuing two blocks past Catahoula’s, then driving one block right on St. Joseph, one block right on St. Charles, two blocks left on Market and one block right on Irene to Church Street. A left turn here would lead you to the academy, but that’s a major tour best done after lunch, so turn right and let Church Street lead you three blocks back to Catahoula’s. Along the way you’ll pass vintage Creole and Victorian cottages on your right and, on the left, wonderful old Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House (1938, reminiscent of a large Spanish hacienda) and the dazzling white-frame St. Charles church with its cruciform wings and spectacular Second Empire bell tower.
And thus a carload of companions toured its way to Catahoula’s on a recent Friday for a perfect lunch that turned out to be memorable in more ways than one.
PUTTIN’ ON THE DOG
Our state dog, the noble Catahoula cur (alias, Catahoula hog dog), is a breed descended, they say, from faithful canines that came to Louisiana with the doomed DeSoto. Regardless of origin, they’re unsurpassed at bringing home the bacon and an appropriate namesake for a restaurant that for nine years has been integral to any proper visit to Grand Coteau. It opens at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, and at 11 a.m. for lunch/brunch on Fridays and Sundays only (888-547-2275 or 337-662-2275).
This is a family-owned restaurant, by the Slaughter family, to be precise: father John J. (famed photographer of Grand Coteau, whose works adorn the restaurant), Hilary (multitalented mom, whose current passion is creating chic knitted hats), and sons John D. (restaurant manager) and Andrew (energetic and ambitious young waiter). And so it was, as 11 a.m. chimed on the Friday in question, that young John was standing beside one of his father’s photographic portraits of a glass-eyed Catahoula, keeping up his end of a conversation with an early arrival but keeping his own keen eyes on the staff’s preparations for a larger-than-usual gathering of the Sacred Heart alumnae group. Their luncheons are always well-attended, but the day’s guest speaker was author Trent Angers, who would present his remarkable and long-awaited new book, Grand Coteau, filled with history and lore of the village and the ladies’ beloved academy.
Soon the alums begin appearing, and suddenly Catahoula’s is crowded. As the volume of greetings and conversations reaches a low roar, visitor Earl Moreau of New Orleans is introduced to Sister Barbara Moreau of the academy, and the quick conclusion that there’s no relation doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm for swapping details of respective genealogy. One group over, in a lively conversation that has attracted strangers as well as old friends, Louise Cousin and her cousin Mickie Blanchard are cataloguing their family’s association with the academy: an unbroken vine on the family tree that stretches from a great-granddaughter at the base, upward to their own limb and thence much farther up, somewhere near the treetop, to their great-great-grandmother.
After the call for seating, waiters begin circulating as academy board chairman Lawrence Svendson and others greet the group, and the meal begins. In a brief lull following the soups and salads, the two Moreaus, nun and layman, lean from their adjoining tables to resume their genealogy review, speaking quietly for a time but becoming visibly more animated when they hit on a clue to possible kinship. They’re interrupted, however, by the arrival of tilapia served in plates of magical sauces and, in due time, by the tink on a glass that draws attention to the author at the speaker’s table.
Angers, editor and publisher of the venerable Acadiana Profile magazine and founder of Acadian House Publishing, is the author of three earlier books (most folks’ favorite being his biography of Cajun politician and Hadacol-creator “Coozan” Dudley LeBlanc). We now learn that through four decades in the word business he has nurtured a secret love, and his newest book “reveals all,” as they say, about his passionate love affair with Grand Coteau.
The emphasis of the after-dinner remarks is on Grand Coteau’s spiritual impact, not only on academy students, but on men entering the priesthood at St. Charles College and the hundreds of people who come to make weekday or weekend retreats, following the dictates of silence and “spiritual exercises” prescribed by Society of Jesus founder Ignatius Loyola 500 years ago.
The event ends with a rush to the book table for signed copies, and as the alums and their companions file out of Catahoula’s, the final segment of the genealogical explorations of Earl Moreau and Sister Barbara Moreau erupts into a ceremony of hugs and back-pounding, marking their now-absolute certainty that they are, you guessed it, long-lost and newfound cousins.
“HEART” OF TOWN
From Catahoula’s, follow Church Street to the edge of town and on past vast fields where alleys of trees run this way and that. Soon the paved road abruptly turns 90 degrees to the right and leads 100 or so yards to beautiful Sacred Heart.
Of the world’s 212 Sacred Heart academies, Grand Coteau’s is the oldest in continuous operation, and tours are available on weekdays for those who call for an appointment (337-662-5178). You might be granted a weekend tour if the voice on the phone can find a guide for you, but a weekday visit is more lively, when the old hallways are filled with the clatter and chatter of plaid-clad students. High-school classes are relegated to the newer wing of the school (built in 1938), making the central structure the exclusive domain of the cherubic younger students and pilgrims like yourself.
The chapel wing and central structure, with its three levels of iron-columned galleries, were built in four stages, 1830, 1834, 1845 and 1870s. Tours (about an hour) include the simple and solemn chapel, hallways and stairways lined with paintings of saints and pioneering nuns, and some rooms furnished as in the early days to dramatize the stark simplicity of the nuns’ rooms and the horrors of their grisly dental and medical paraphernalia.
In one such room, in 1866, a young nun-to-be named Mary Wilson lay suffering from a deathly illness before experiencing an instantaneous and total cure, which she attributed to the appearance and intercession of “Blessed” John Berchman (then not yet named a saint). When authorities in Rome studied the case and proclaimed the cure to have been a miracle, that event and other factors led to the canonization of St. John Berchman, in whose honor the room is now maintained as a shrine. Mary Wilson is buried in the nuns’ cemetery, near the antebellum stable where horses are kept for the teaching of equestrian skills.
Back in town, visit Grand Coteau’s other cemetery of note, the old Jesuit Cemetery, which lies behind St. Charles Borromeo Church, adjacent to Our Lady of the Oaks and not far from the impressive grotto on the grounds of St. Charles College. There among many other priests of yore lies the Rev. Thomas E. Sherman, son of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, whose route to infamy led, as you will recall, through Georgia.
Some who stroll among the old Latin-inscribed stones of the Jesuits report hearing a low, wavering moan that rises to a high-pitched wail. Then silence. Then the sound returns. No cause for alarm. Thus warmed up, Jesuit retreat master and jazz meister Rev. Frank Coco, over at Our Lady of the Oaks, will then doodle out the strains of “Just A Closer Walk” or some other favorite on his clarinet, the purpose being practice but the effect being the entertainment of anyone in earshot. His life is guiding guests through meaningful retreats; his love is jazz. At age 84 he has a new CD, and he’s just back from his 40th annual early-morning Mardi Gras “walk” up St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, as chaplain of Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club.
For information on attending a group or individual retreat at Grand Coteau, call Our Lady of the Oaks (337-662-5410) or St. Charles College’s Jesuit Spirituality Center (337-662-5251). People of all faiths are welcome.
“Sunset is home,” says lawyer Robert Fruge, who has spent his professional career (as did his father, Dr. John Fruge) in Sunset, Grand Coteau’s sister city just across I-49, “but I have a great fondness for Grand Coteau like everyone else around here,” and he’s proved it by giving a great gift to the village and to you: the Grand Coteau House, a bed-and-breakfast inn that faces St. Charles College just a few steps from Catahoula’s. Complete with raised galleries and a cozy courtyard, the inn features spacious rooms with antique furnishings and private baths. Have a look at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can call 337-662-3902 (daytime) or 337-662-5904 (during evening hours) for reservations.
Plan at least one dinner at Catahoula’s during your stay, more if you can. There’s so much to try! For an appetizer you must somehow choose from goodies such as Louisiana lump crab cakes (with smoked-pepper tartar sauce and maque choux) and oysters Catahoula (with roasted corn and pepper flakes, au gratin), and for your entree – well, you’ll find bodacious steaks and bountiful seafood platters, but be wild! Try the crab meat cheesecake (imagine crab lumps in a cheese “custard” over smoked tomatoes, all overlaid with a pecan crust) or maybe the seafood napoleon – layers of tilapia fillets with medallions of pan-fried eggplant and lump crab cake, all topped with fried oysters and fried shrimp in a Chardonnay/Tabasco cream.
For excursions in the area during your stay, the diversions of Lafayette are not far away, and wonderful Chretien Point Plantation (an important Creole-Anglo hybrid built by one of the Sacred Heart brickmasons) is open for tours near Sunset. And remember that the new Evangeline Downs is just up I-49 near Opelousas, with quarterhorse racing at 6:45 p.m. Thursday through Sunday in March (followed by several months of thoroughbreds); near the track is the Slaughter family’s new Triple Crown restaurant (a nondescript exterior but a stylish interior filled with memorabilia of the greatest horses in racing lore, plus truly fine dining at prices you can afford, even if you lose at betting the ponies).
THE MORNING AFTER
Sunrise in Grand Coteau. As folks from the retreat at St. Charles College begin settling themselves into the huge lawn’s old wooden yard chairs for reading or meditation, guests at Grand Coteau House, just across the street, begin ambling across their gallery to the adjacent Three French Hens for breakfast. Up and down the block are boutiques and antique shops to be explored later, plus John J. Slaughter’s new gallery featuring his photography, Hilary’s hats, and creations by other artists and artisans of the region.
When lunch time rolls around, have a sandwich at the Kitchen Shop’s tearoom or maybe just skip to the pastries created there by Nancy Brewer, a Louisiana pastry chef who’s come back to us after training in the culinary schools and restaurants of New York. The popular favorite is her Gateau Na-Na, essentially the ingredients of a pecan praline baked inside a buttery dough (you can order these pie-size delights for shipping by calling 337-662-3500). You’ll find the acclaimed acrylic and pastel Louisiana landscapes of Jesse Poimboeuf, all sorts of dandy kitchen gadgets and, in a section called Pistache, ballgowns and antique jewelry.
Perhaps two days and a night isn’t long enough. But you’ll be back. •