Churches tend to blossom in keeping with the community around them. People at St. Theresa of Avila Catholic Church in Gonzales believe the opposite might be the case, too.
“The civil parish kind of grew up around the church,” said the Rev. Eric Gyan, St. Theresa’s pastor.
As St. Theresa turns 100 years old, both city and church seem to be doing just fine.
On Sunday, Oct. 14, St. Theresa will begin recognizing its centennial with a special 11:30 a.m. outdoor Mass, the first celebration over several months for a parish whose roots are planted even deeper in Ascension Parish history.
In 1840, a chapel was built on Cornerview Road (La. 429) along the New River, roughly four miles east of the current location, and visiting priests from Donaldsonville came every few months for baptisms and weddings, said longtime member and historian Purvis Hebert. The church’s cemetery remains near where the road passes under Interstate 10.
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish replaced the chapel in 1863. A ship carrying priests and deacons sent to the church from France was the first commercial vessel the Union Navy allowed to travel after it had taken control of the Mississippi River during the Civil War, said Collette Lambert, a member who has studied the church’s history. The church’s name was changed to Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in 1873.
“People came from as far as Galvez by wagon,” said Hebert.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, growth in the eastern part of Ascension Parish along the railroad line led to the establishment of three Catholic parishes, including St. Theresa. Its current cemetery includes Joseph “Tee Joe” Gonzales, for whom the city is named.
“When the declaration was made to establish Gonzales as a (church) parish, the Cornerview parishioners were highly upset,” Hebert said. “They were told they may use it (the old church) as a funeral home. Due to their protests, there was a priest from here who continued to serve it as a mission church.”
The original St. Theresa wooden church, built in 1918, was so poorly constructed that in 20 years it became apparent it would need to be replaced, Hebert said. The steeple was removed before it fell over.
“For the last 15 or so years (of its use), the church was the ugliest church in the world with the steeple chopped off,” Hebert said.
In 1952, the old church was rolled a short distance on logs so construction could take place on a new sanctuary, which was dedicated the next year. Renovated eight years ago, it continues to be the center of a church that has grown along with the community. A kindergarten through seventh grade school was added in 1959, which, until three years ago, included nuns from the Sisters of the Most Holy Sacrament order of Lafayette. Now fourth through eighth grades attend St. Theresa’s facility, with pre-K through third grade attending St. John the Evangelist.
The church’s influence has extended far beyond its parish boundaries.
After the Second Vatican Council replaced the Latin Mass in favor of native tongues, a group of Notre Dame Seminary students who called themselves The Dameans began writing, recording and performing music that became influential throughout English-speaking Catholicism in the 1960s and ’70s.
One of them, Michael Balhoff, was associate pastor at St. Theresa. He formed a youth choir that included guitarist Gary Daigle, who collaborated with The Dameans in writing music and eventually joined the group when one of its original members left. The group, which included Darryl Ducote, Paul Caesar and Gary Ault, produced many albums and traveled the world spreading their music.
“After the Catholic Mass went to English, they didn’t have a lot of music in English, and these guys were pumping it out,” Gyan said.
Of course, St. Theresa’s greatest impact has been in its community, whose growth has reflected that of Baton Rouge, which has brought its share of challenges. Gyan said St. Theresa has a great working relationship with other denominations to minister to people’s needs.
“In Ascension Parish, we do not have some of the resources available in East Baton Rouge Parish,” said Deacon Jodi Moscona. “We do not have the facilities of St. Vincent de Paul, things like that. We have created a food pantry across the street which services a lot of people in Ascension Parish and serves as a place for nourishment for a lot of people who can’t get into Baton Rouge. … Sometimes we have to put people up in hotels, give them rides, and we are up for that.
“We have sort of a buzz phrase,” Moscona said. “We don’t serve people because they’re Catholic. We serve them because we’re Catholic.”
For 100 years and counting.