Religion as experienced by the Myette Point families in the Atchafalaya Basin was guided primarily by Catholic and Baptist influences. When neither of these was available in the guise of formal leadership, some religious practices were carried forward, presumably from earlier formal situations. The older influence seems to have been Catholic. The Bailey, Sauce and Daigle families would have had Catholic churches within reasonable travel from their centers of origin, i.e. Fourmile Bayou and Stephensville, and the Couvilliers and Langes would have known about a facility 12 miles north at Bayou Chene. The Catholic church on the road (now Louisiana highway 401) known as “the Canal” leading from Napoleonville to Attakapas Landing on Lake Verret was the site of church attendance as well as burial observances. This is true particularly for the Bailey and Sauce families. Once these families moved permanently to houseboats and distributed themselves northward into the Basin, these Catholic facilities were no longer reachable and religious practices became limited to what could be continued by the leadership within the family.
When asked if the Bible was a significant feature of the houseboats among what would become the Myette Point families, the relationship between the isolation of the Basin and formal education becomes apparent. Myon Bailey says “No, nobody had no Bible. I believe we had a Bible, but we couldn’t read it, you know, then.” But there was observance whether there was literacy or a church to go to. His wife, Agnes, adds “Just like, we didn’t go to church, but my momma and my daddy always teach us that they had a God. We always knew, we all knew they had a God.” And her daughter, Dorothy Couvillier adds this “ But we were raised very religious. Every Sunday morning after we had breakfast, and all, we went and knelt down. We were Catholic, and said prayer beads. I mean, that was a ritual. That’s something we knew we had to do. The whole family did that. And many times, Uncle Jesse knew how to say the prayer beads in French, Jesse Daigle, and he’d come and he’d say it in French.”
At some point during the time that the family headed by Myon Bailey was located on the eastern side of Grand Lake in Williams Canal (Blaise’s Canal), he discovered that a priest lived across Grand Lake in Charenton and upon enquiry learned that this priest was agreeable to working out in the Basin as well as in the land-based Charenton location. This resulted in an arrangement whereby Myon Bailey would come across the width of Grand Lake from Blaise’s Canal to Charenton Beach (about 10 miles) in order to transport the priest (R.J.Gobeil) back to the houseboat community on Blaise’s Canal.
A mass (and other sacraments) would be offered for those gathered in one of the houseboats and the priest would be brought back to Charenton. Eventually the priest acquired a boat and the skills to roam the Basin on his own. The priest and Myon Bailey developed a friendly relationship that extended over a period of years within the span of 1938 to 1946. Father Gobeil conducted Catholic training among the houseboat communities, including administering Catechism and First Communion to the children.
Since this priest was oriented toward outdoor activities, his personality would have placed him in agreement with the overall lifestyle of the Basin families. He liked to fish and hunt, and eat, and he apparently could build his own boats – having apparently designed one of the first airboats for use in the Basin. This latter type of transport was necessary to traverse the Basin in low-water conditions. Myon Bailey continues:
“Every three weeks, he’d come. He used to say Mass right in my house. I was Catholic then, you see. And he’d leave my place, he’d go to Keelboat [Pass], go to Hog Island, Catfish [Bayou], he’d go, and… We used to call him Father Gobeil. …he was a outdoor man though! He liketed boats. He build boats, he tried to build boats. Oh yeah, he’d run across there…he had a boat, I don’t know if he hadn’t build that boat hisself. Or bought it. But he hooked it up [rigged it] hisself. And he come at the house, well he’d get there and go to the stove, see what the old lady cookin, and…. He was just a comical man… you could see!”
Other than this extension of a land-based Catholic church, there is no mention, by the Myette Point families, of attempts to originate either schools or permanent religious facilities away from Charenton. As the people in the Basin moved out during the 1940s due to the water and silting conditions, this Catholic missionary work came to an end. Like all the rest of the Basin population, the Myette Point families gathered at the edge of the Basin and then migrated over the levee to live permanently on the land for the first time in three generations. Catholic influence in the form of land-based churches was not within easy reach in these new circumstances.
During this same period, active Baptist missionary work was directed toward settlers within the Basin. This was headed by a missionary named Ira Marks. It came when the Catholic influence was waning and no conflict between the ideologies is noted. The zeal and practicality of this activity resulted in the Baptists making many conversions among the Basin people. The work spearheaded by Marks resulted in a school/church facility being erected first on Hog Island and then later at Myette Point. In both cases this was the first opportunity for children in these communities to attend formal schooling, a process reminiscent of the Catholic Jesuit missionary work in other parts of the world. During the week, school was conducted in the buildings and on the weekends church services were held. Hog Island was strongly populated by both houseboats and bank residences but when the Baptists first tried to set up a place to hold services they had a problem with the people they were trying to serve. It seems some of them didn’t get along and if one house was picked as a place for services, other people would not go to that house. Eventually this was solved by Ira Marks and his associates putting up a non-residential structure that could be used as both a school and a church.
One of the notable things the Baptists did was to literally put their message on the water. Much like the Catholics, the Baptists realized they had to go where the people were, and those places were reachable only by boat. So Ira Marks and others built a two-story building on a motorized barge and called it The Little Brown Church. With this very mobile facility they conducted services and revivals in all over the southern Basin. Since the barge had engines it also had a generator to provide electricity, resulting in the church being so brightly lit at night that it is still remembered for that by the Basin residents who attended it.
“It was self propelled; he had two V-8 motors in it. … He would go from place to place, and have revivals. On the lake. Yeah, it was real funny. Now, we didn’t have no lectricity, you see? When they’d come with that church…park it, and they had…they had a generator on it, and boy you’d go on there, boy that thing be lit up…! It was weird to us because everything [on the church] was so bright at night, you know? And we used to live by them coal oil lights. There was nuttin bright by that. And that Little Brown Church be lit up, boy, you could see that sucker for miles.” [Edward Couvillier, 1995]
As people moved out of the Basin and onto the levees or into nearby towns, the Hog Island school was abandoned. A new activity was begun at the newly formed community of Myette Point about that time, involving the Baptist Ira Marks working to set up a school there. The titular head of the community, Myon Bailey, was Catholic by tradition and a fisherman by lifelong occupation, but he knew that the future of the children now living on land was education, so he agreed to work with the Baptists to build the church/school.
After the building was built and the teacher was hired (Miss Claudia Hazen) the school/church functioned as the first formal education available to all of the school-age children belonging to the more than 20 families that lived in the community. Myon had good memories of this. “She used to give them boys here, them bigger boys, a nice school. For a while.” He eventually became a regular participant in the Baptist services held there. The church/school functioned for three years (or maybe four). After a time the roads became shelled and passable enough for the children to be transported to school in Franklin via buses, and the building’s function became solely a Baptist mission church, originally serviced by Ira Marks and later inherited by Bobby Hodnett who served as minister in that facility for many years, often doing full-immersion baptism, with the bayous being a ready source of water. Although officially retired, he continues to work with a congregation of people in the Myette Point/Charenton area. Today the church is served by another ordained minister, Joe Sauce, who grew up in the community and still practices his skills as a commercial fisherman as well as spiritual leader.
So, religion has long been a part of the Myette Point story. It has had a mixture of formal practice and informal observance over the decades of life in and around the Basin. It remains a part of the psychological landscape to this day in the form of the Myette Point Missionary Baptist Church at Oxford and the Little Pass Baptist Church in Charenton. A Catholic church has also long been a feature of religious activity in Charenton.
All pictures except the sunrise are courtesy of the Darlene Soule collection.
The Atchafalaya River is at 8.3 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 7.6 feet in a few days. A moderate rise is on the way from the Ohio. Ups and downs.
Rise and Shine, Jim