In many Catholic churches, the sins or secrets of parishioners were whispered in a confessional, a box or booth usually at the back of the church.
The confessional most often is a wooden structure, with a center compartment where the priest sits, and on each side there is a latticed opening for the penitents to speak through and a step on which they kneel.
While many traditions around the confessionals have changed, these relics of time past are cherished by many parishioners.
That is the case of the Milano family from Donaldsonville, who have close ties to the ornate confessional returned to their church on July 12.
The long history of the confessional includes the talents of more than one generation of the family.
The Milano family migrated from Sorrento, Italy, to Donaldsonville, Louisiana in the mid 1800s. Several of the Milano brothers were skilled carpenters who had a keen expertise working with wood and could build just about anything.
Rae Milano, whose great grandfather Frank Milano Sr. was known for his carpentry skills, gathered the history of her family and its connection to the confessional and other items in Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church in Donaldsonville.
The story starts when the main altar in the church was purchased from T.F. Phillips Altar Company in Dubuque, Iowa. In 1930, Frank Milano, assisted by his brother, Tony Milano Sr., built the side altars and bottom portion of the pulpit, that has remained in the church all these years, to match the altar. Frank Milano Sr. had a shop on Opelousas street in Donaldsonville with a multitude of special tools.
In addition, the two Milano brothers built two ornate confessionals that were removed from the church in early 1980s by the Rev. Clarence Waguespack during a remodeling phase of the church.
For many years, one confessional was stored by Lemann’s Farm Supply in the old theater portion of the business on River Road, and the other was stored in Thibaut’s Rice Mill on Lafourche Street, both in Donaldsonville.
In 2016, Nick Milano, Frank's grandson and Paul Milano's son, went to Lemann’s for a part, which was in the theater section of the store. Nick noticed the ragged confessional and asked Bubba Lemann if the confessional was the one from Ascension Catholic Church. Lemann confirmed Nick's suspicions.
“I think my great grandpa built that,” Nick remembers telling Lemann.
So, Nick took a picture and texted the photo to his dad, Paul. Later, Jay Lemann, reached out to Paul and told him his family wanted the confessional removed from the store and asked if he would like it. Paul, who had the tools, knowledge and inherited the craft of woodworking from his ancestors, and knowing that was something built by his grandfather, quickly said yes.
Eager to refurbish the artifact, Milano thought he would offer it to the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, since all priests that succeeded Waguespack declined placing the confessional back in church.
After Paul and his high school classmate, Ronnie Rome, towed the confessional from Donaldsonville to Paul’s shop in Darrow, the restoration began. The confessional is 7 feet tall and made of cypress. The ceiling and inner and outer walls are beaded wood. It took Milano 4 months to refurbish the confessional, which was in poor condition.
Milano had to construct several pieces of molding, some peaks on the top, and a cross to match the other four crosses. In addition, he rebuilt all the electrical for the lighting and fan so they are operational. Milano took his time meticulously outlining the top portion and crosses in gold paint.
After Milano restored the structure to a healthy condition, he pondered again and asked the pastor in 2016 if he would like the confessional returned to the church. The priest said no. Milano, determined to get the beautiful confessional back in the church, took a leap of faith and scheduled a meeting with the current priest, the Rev. Matt Dupre.
Paul and Nick met with Dupre and without hesitation, Dupre said yes.
On July 12, Paul and his family returned the confessional back to its original home in the back of Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church.
The church is awaiting the end of the coronavirus to bless the confessional, which will once again be used, Rae Milano said.
Within minutes of posting photos of the installation process on Facebook, Rae Milano said she started receiving positive comments from current and former church members.
"Everyone in the community and those that have left the community are excited that history of the church has been returned," Rae said. "The 250-plus comments I received on Facebook was unbelievable. Everyone young and old were so excited and many remembered this confessional. Several even told me that many kids would ‘play’ in the confessional."