A tourist bus from a riverboat docks as the river crawls through St. Francisville on a picture-perfect Sunday morning. A barefoot little girl with tight blonde ringlets skips down the sidewalk to the left as the guide calls attention to a tree-framed wooden church building to the right. Although the scene seems picked from the walls of a museum, the soft sounds of singing indicates that history is alive and worshiping at First United Methodist Church, one of the oldest structures and congregations in the parish.
The church will celebrate its 175th anniversary Sunday and illustrates why the faith walk and the historical walk are linked arm-in-arm in the St. Francisville community.
Retired educator and historian Dorothy Temple explained that her community and church’s roots are not buried in the water and mud that once was Bayou Sara. “In Spring of 1844, the old bell that hangs in the present bell tower of United Methodist Church started to toll,” Temple said. “The bell at that time hung in the belfry of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, located in Bayou Sara, the thriving riverport and trading post that developed in the late 1790s below the hill in St Francisville.”
Bayou Sara was established by French colonists in the early 1790s. It was once the largest river port between New Orleans and Memphis. The earliest settlers didn’t know that spot was prone to be reclaimed by the Mississippi. The settlement was gradually destroyed by repeated flooding and fires, and little remains of Bayou Sara today.
Before the demise of Bayou Sara, business and the spread of the Gospel came to its sinking shores. Harold Babin, former United Methodist pastor, explains that as a city grew, churches popped up by deliberate intent. “The Methodist circuit rider came through this part of the country in the early 1800s and they created churches,” he said. “They would send circuit riders by wagon trains and that sort of thing and they created churches in this community.”
Babin said the Roman Catholic outreach was probably the first to arrive at Louisiana’s cotton country and Grace of Episcopal, established in 1827, is even older than the congregation he pastored.
The first church was built on Sun Street, but the entire Bayou Sara community started to abandon the port town because of the frequent flooding and structure damage. The church members salvaged the materials they could, including the original church bell, and reconstructed the church on Royal Street in St. Francisville.
The church building on Bayou Sara was torn down and the timbers were sold, Temple said. The proceeds from selling the timbers, private donations and a church extension fund were used to build a new church and parsonage in St. Francisville near the present site on Royal Street.
The church became a part of the Baton Rouge District of the Louisiana Methodist conference in 1894, and the new church building was completed in 1899, housing the bell that had rung in the church at Bayou Sara. The historic stained-glass window located in the front of the bell tower still carries the name Methodist Episcopal Church South.
The first St. Francisville location would not be the last. When the need arose for a new location, members decided to relocate the church instead of rebuilding. In late 1948, plans were made to move the church building to its present location on Royal Street, in the historic district of St. Francisville.
The church building and its contents have several significant features. The stained-glass windows reflect rich colors, and two back windows have been dated by to the mid-to-late 1800s. The church building has an ornate, rounded bead ceiling and 18 stained wooden concave pews. A cinder block education building was completed in the early 1950s for $6,000. The cost was greatly reduced due to the generosity of the people of the parish who donated labor, gravel, lumber and other materials.
The original parsonage was torn down in 1958 and a year later, a new parsonage was built. That parsonage building is now used for CHASE Ministries, and a nursery and daycare center.
The church’s name officially became United Methodist Church in 1968. Around that time, the education building was updated and enlarged. In 1983, a new Fellowship Hall was added to the remodeled education building.
Temple said members purchased the historic Robb House, that sits adjacent to the church, in 1990. It was renovated and made into the new parsonage. The Robb house holds a great deal of historic significance to the area. It was built in 1895 as a pharmacy with living quarters upstairs. A new parsonage was recently purchased in another part of the city and the Robb house now serves as the church's administrative offices and offers additional Sunday School classrooms.
Church records show that 81 pastors have served United Methodist Church in the last 175 years. The Rev. Harold Babin and his wife Patricia served at the church for 33 years from 1972 to 2005. He was the longest-serving pastor in the church's history. “When I began here in 1972, we had a hundred and thirty-five members and a yearly budget of $10,000,” Babin said.
Babin pastored the church when it celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1994. The membership had increased to 340 members and the church had a yearly budget of $125,000.
Babin was able to witness the growth of the area and its churches. “I knew St. Francisville was growing in many ways — the nuclear plant was coming, St. Francisville had a vibrant paper mill and they had a canning factory."
The Babins lived in Zachary while he was working for the Louisiana Department of Transportation. When he retired, he was able to go full-time, finish his education, and go from part time to full-time ministry in St. Francisville. “They would ask us if we wanted to leave after one year and they would ask the church if they wanted to keep us,” he said. “I was reappointed 33 times.”
The city’s growth corresponded with the church’s growth, and when Babin retired, United Methodist Church had almost 600 members.
The Babins moved back to Zachary after retirement and are members of United Methodist Church of Zachary but are still close enough to keep in close contact. “I go back there periodically and we will go up there for the celebration, and when I walk into that sanctuary I get real nostalgic because it brings back a lot of memories, and in my mind and in my heart I still remember all so many and most of all those wonderful people,” Babin said.
Babin notes that churches and congregations are tied to the area’s growth and community development. He said the Roman Catholic Church, Baptist Church, the Methodist Church and African American congregations are all strong in the area, he said. “I loved that our Methodist Church and all the churches in the parish come together on shared events. We did Community Thanksgiving service together and rotated around to the different churches. It was so valuable for the whole community.”
The faith community also has baccalaureate services in which all the churches come together and worship at the high school so there is a strong community that helps the parish bond. “As a whole, we care about each other,” he said.
The pastoral torch was passed to a much younger man who also said he hopes his days in the St. Francisville pulpit are measured in decades. The Rev. Daniel Hixon became pastor of United Methodist Church in 2016. Hixson, a native of West Monroe, and his wife Christine have one daughter, Elizabeth.
Hixon preached about joy and the pursuit of happiness as the tourists passed the quiet streets outside his Sunday service. It was a lesson in history as well as spiritual well-being. With the 175-old-church as a backdrop, he spoke of a time when Americans sought fulfillment and happiness. He fears that an evolving society seeks constant entertainment instead of happiness that is not material or short-lived. As time stood still, the values and rewards cherished nearly two centuries ago could be heard in the echoes of the vintage bell that has rung from Bayou Sara to Royal Street.
United Methodist Church will conclude its 175th anniversary events with a community reception Sunday, Nov. 3, from 3 to 5 p.m.