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Father Vincent Dufresne, pastor of the Catholic Church in East St. James Parish, blesses with holy water an unmarked cemetery from the former Buena Vista Plantation near the Welcome community on Friday, June 19, 2020. Dufresne and activists opposed to a Formosa Plastics plant planned for the area had won a court fight to hold the ceremony. They believe the graves contain the remains of slaves who lived on the antebellum plantation.

Bishop Michael Duca, the leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, on Saturday will join other Catholic leaders, St. James Parish residents and environmental groups opposed to a proposed Formosa Plastics complex for an early All Saints Day commemoration recognizing people buried on the company's property.

The discovery of their unmarked graves and the dispute over who is buried in them have been one of the flash points in the continuing political and legal battle over the $9.4 billion chemical complex planned by Formosa affiliate FG LA.

Known as the Sunshine Project, the plastics plant is proposed on nearly 2,400 acres in the northwestern corner of St. James near the Welcome community.

One of FG LA's own expert's initially speculated, based in part on the process of elimination, that the graves could belong to enslaved African-Americans but later said that, after further research, he couldn't rule out the possibility that white field hands or others were buried there.

Local residents and the groups have seized on that initial speculation to assert the graves hold the remains of former slaves, but FG LA officials say no archaeologist has been able to confirm the identity, ethnicity or race of the remains on the fringes of FG's property.

FG LA says four sets of remains and many other potential burial shafts have been found on the old Buena Vista Plantation property but remains haven't been found on other portions of the site.

A statement from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Rise St. James issued Friday says Duca, New Orleans-area Deacon Chris Kellerman, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph and others will attend the All Saints Day commemoration 11 a.m. to noon at the site along River Road.

An aide in Duca's office confirmed Friday he would attend the event.

All Saints Day is Sunday and All Souls Day is Monday. All Saints Day commemorates those believed to already be in heaven; All Souls Day commemorates all the faithfully departed. It is a time when many Catholics honor their dead relatives, often visiting and cleaning their grave sites.

The environmental groups had fought in court with FG LA for access to the site for a Juneteenth commemoration, but FG LA announced earlier this week that the company would pause preconstruction activities on most of the property Saturday to allow Rise St. James and others to visit.

"FG is, and has always, been respectful of the remains discovered on its property,” Janile Parks, FG’s director of community and government relations, said in a statement.

Parks added that the company is committed to preserving the area's history and cultural resources and working with groups "interested in honoring that history."

"All Saints Day is a time to honor those who came before us and Louisiana traditions to mark the day are especially unique," Parks said.

Based on guidelines provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, visitors will be asked to undergo temperature checks, wear face coverings and practice social distancing while onsite, Parks said.

The site received a multi-denominational blessing during the commemoration for Juneteenth, which marks the end of African-American slavery in the United States.

The groups are currently pressuring the Parish Council to rescind the land use approval for the Formosa complex as they and others also challenge key permits in state and federal court. The Sisters of St. Joseph recently sent the Parish Council a letter asking members to throw out the land use approval for FG LA.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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