St. John’s Episcopal Church Memorial

They gathered in Thibodaux as they have in the past, numbering nearly 50.

Their purpose, they said, was to honor dead whose lives included service to the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

“It is a memorial to those who served who are buried at this cemetery, and for those who died at Lafourche Crossing and other battles, and those who are buried in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery,” said Steve Alvarez, a retired Gretna carpenter who is commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Lt. J.Y. Sanders Camp, organized at Thibodaux.

The memorial service, held on private property at St. John’s Episcopal Church, was cultural as well as spiritual, as evinced by the Confederate re-enactor uniforms, the presence of several Confederate national and battle flags, and sentiments expressed in speeches and in the prayers themselves.

The Rev. Larry Beane of Salem Lutheran Church in Gretna – like St. John’s, a church steeped in history – gave the invocation.

Spoken in Thibodaux, Rev. Beane’s words made clear the position of those present in the new war that has erupted in the nation, in which place names like New Orleans and Charlottesville are significant as Chancellorsville or Gettysburg are to the war fought more than a century and one half ago, whose purpose and outcome are still subjects of debate.

“We implore Your defense, Almighty God, of our monuments and memorials, landmarks of bronze and stone, and of the preservation of our history, recorded in pen and ink, and that we may be living monuments, memorials created in your image, examples and guides to generations yet unborn, who will, according to your will, take our place as defenders of civilization, liberty, and independence,” Rev. Beane said, in a prayer that included tribute to the late Francis T. Nicholls, once governor of Louisiana and Confederate general, who lies at the St. John’s cemetery along with other local Civil War heroes like Silas T. Grisamore, and Capt. John Jackson Shaffer.

The prayer was offered the same day as conflict 1,000 mile away, in Charlottesville, where a woman was killed and others injured during a weekend of battle between avowed white supremacists and those who opposed them, leading to a national debate that now affects the presidency of Donald Trump.

As with most local memorials to the Confederacy, the St. John’s gathering drew no public notice and caused no alarm. Asked about concerns they might have had after the fact, however, some locals expressed thoughts clearly indicate they would prefer it not occur.

“I have issues with anything that celebrates the Confederacy,” said the Rev. Nelson Dan Taylor of Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically situated black congregation. “But that does not mean I am going to interfere with it.”

“The Confederates tried to destroy this nation,” Taylor said. “They rose up and fought the cause of supporting slavery. If the Germans were to start celebrating Hitler the whole world would be against it including everybody in this country. Free speech is free speech but my speech is free too and I oppose it.”

The SCV group had permission to hold their service at the church, whose own history is inextricably intertwined with the war and Confederate persona. It was founded under the bishopric of Leonidas Polk, the “fighting Bishop” who as a Confederate general was killed by artillery fire near Atlanta in 1864.

No less than 26 Confederate veterans are buried in its cemetery.

At least 114 rest in another graveyard, St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemtery on La. 1. The Catholic cemetery includes a Confederate memorial erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Members of a Texas cavalry regiment who died at the battle of Lafourche Crossing are said to be in an unmarked grave near that site.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, in existence since 1896, is an organization of people who claim and can prove lineage from a person who was a member of the Confederate forces of the American Civil War. In recent decades the national organization and some local chapters, or camps, have experienced splits over how involved members wish to be in the monument culture war, identification with Confederate ideals and philosophy. Members maintain that their embrace of the Confederate battle flag is motivated by a desire to commemorate heritage rather than espouse hate. Black Americans and others offended and hurt by displays of the flags – and a culture of idolatry regarding statues and monuments , many of which were erected in and on the cusp of the Jim Crow era of legally-enforced racial segregation, share sentiments similar to those expressed by Rev. Taylor

The dead at St. Joseph’s were included in the prayers at St. John’s, it is not a likely venue for a similar service, although some were held in prior years.

In a July 24 letter the Rev. Mark Toups, Vicar General of the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese, told Alvarez that a memorial planned fell under the category of “extra-ordinary” use, and so was subject to strict conditions.

No uniforms, guns or volleys are allowed, according to rules promulgated for the cemetery by the Diocese. News media attendance, cameras or other recordings are not permitted. Flags are banned except for the Papal banner and the flags of the U.S. and of Louisiana.

The SCV decided to go ahead with their traditional venue of St. John’s, not expecting what they took as a rebuff from the Diocese.

Alvarez says the Diocese is engaging in an unfair and discriminatory practice.

“Are we southerners not allowed to honor our heritage and our roots just as just as the Germans we fought against in two world wars and the Italians who were with the Germans? The Mexicans remember the Alamo,” Alvarez states in a letter protesting the church policies. “It’s time for the church as well as the politicians to teach and do what is right for all people, not the ones they are afraid of because they may cause civil unrest and destruction … I hope the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux will reconsider their decision in the future and allow for us to visit St. Joseph’s Cemetery and have a peaceful gathering there one day. I will pray for that, that is if they will allow me to do so.”

Father Toups said the Diocese is not discriminating against anyone, and that in communication with Alvarez he repeatedly stated – indeed encouraged – prayers for the dead, as an important part of Church doctrine.

“The Catholic Church believes that all people deserve a graceful and dignified burial. Furthermore, the Catholic Church has always taught that it is a noble and good thing to pray for the dead,” Father Toups said in a statement released Sunday night. “Praying in cemeteries and honoring the memory of loved ones is certainly a reflection of the teachings of the Catholic faith and the customs of the Catholic community in Houma-Thibodaux. Visiting a cemetery for the purpose of prayer is often essential in grieving and during the process of healing. As the ordinary use of a Catholic cemetery refers specifically to the Rite of Christian Burial and the Rite of Committal, any extra-ordinary request for use of a Catholic cemetery must retain a singular focus of praying for the souls of the dead.”

Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis is a veteran journalist and author who grew up in New York City, but has spent most of his career in the Bayou Region. A specialist in criminal justice, he enjoys boating and historical research.

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