The second Saturday in July at City Park can only mean one thing: The place is crawling with Mercadels — or Mercadals, depending on which version of the family name the hundreds of descendants of Frank and Marie (or Mary) Mercadal use.
The “official” spelling was changed to Mercadel somewhere along the line, but not all of the couple’s 16 children and their offspring chose to adopt it.
Either way, the Mercadals’ unlikely union in post-Civil War New Orleans spawned one of the area’s largest family reunions.
The gathering drew upwards of 1,000 people Saturday, not as many as 30 years ago, when Jacqueline Mercadel Tillman organized the first event to honor the request of her late father George, but still the most in some time.
“Back then it was outrageous,” Tillman said. “Then Katrina scattered us out some. But we’re coming back now. Every year, some pass on, but you see more and more babies.”
Indeed. Most of the Mercadels have followed the fertile lead of Frank and Mary.
Marcel Mercadel, Tillman’s great-grandfather, fathered 18 children.
So while on Saturday there was mourning for 100-year-old Enola Mercadal, Tillman’s grandmother, who died July 1 and was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery, where Frank and Mary are interred, the reunion’s attendees included 2-month old Lexie Laine DeCuire, a great-great-great-granddaughter of the founding couple.
Family, said Danatus King, another of Enola Mercadal’s host of grandchildren, is “the bedrock of civilization,” so gatherings like Saturday’s become valuable far beyond a normal social gathering.
“When you don’t have the strength of family and the support of family, you’re just swimming out there on your own,” said King, a former president of the local chapter of the NAACP. “That’s why it’s great that we can come out here to see each other and get to know each other.
“That way when you pass somebody on the street, you can say, ‘Hey, that’s my cousin!’ and some day you might need each other.”
On Saturday, most of the attendees donned yellow T-shirts featuring the names of all 16 of Frank and Mary’s children. The assorted Mercadels and Mercadals were scattered around and under dozens of tents in the park’s largest picnic area, making it look more like an army encampment.
The smells of grilling chicken, burgers, hot dogs and various other meats overlapped. There was no shortage of tasty side dishes ranging from crawfish pasta to pork and beans.
“If you want caviar, bring it,” said Charlotte Mercadal, who took over organizing duties from Tillman in 2008. “And if you want peanut butter and jelly, that’s OK, too.”
Truth be told, one could probably just roam from tent to tent, sampling each one’s efforts.
That especially applied to desserts, which certainly weren’t in short supply, as were beverages ranging from water to more potent items.
“I’ve had five (beers), so one more should do it,” said 86-year-old Joseph Dupuis of Slidell, whose grandfather, Emile Mercadel, was the seventh Mercadel offspring, born in 1893. “But don’t hold me to it.”
Most people hung out with immediate family. Others wandered around, running into seldom-seen uncles, aunts and cousins while making acquaintance with some for the first time.
Kids, who made up perhaps a third of the crowd, mixed and mingled seemingly without need of introduction.
Here and there, spontaneous dancing broke out.
“I feel like I’m 19 again,” 72-year old James Everson, of Avondale, said as took part in an electric slide with a dozen youngsters. “The kids give me energy and make me think about the old times.”
Save for an opening Mass, there were no formal group activities. Contests to determine the oldest and youngest attendees plus those who came the longest distance were discontinued several years ago because it was just too difficult to get everyone’s attention.
While some traveled from as far away as California and Nevada, Anthony Mercadal and his daughter, Christina, probably made the longest drive — 23 hours straight through from their home in Rochester, New York.
“It’s long trip, but once we get here, we don’t want to go back home,” Christina Mercadal said. “It’s just amazing to see how the family changes every year and catching up on what they’ve been doing.
At 84, Anthony Mercadal is the unofficial family historian, and he is quick to clarify one important part of the story.
Marie or Mary was born in Germany in 1861, the daughter of John Smidt, a shipping magnate who immigrated to Luling in the “German coast” area along the Mississippi River a few years later.
At some point she met Frank Mercadal, who was born in Cuba in 1859 and moved to New Orleans with two of his brothers while in his teens.
When Mary married Frank, she was disowned by her father.
“Mary was white, and Frank was Creole,” Anthony Mercadal said. “I know most of us don’t look that way now, but that’s who we are.”
The first Mercadal child, Rene, was born in 1877, and the last, Ernest, in 1905. Frank died in 1913 and Mary in 1938.
Over the years, Mercadal, or Mercadel, has become a common name in New Orleans even as the succeeding generations have spread it throughout the country.
However, as is so often the case where New Orleanians are involved, there’s a strong pull of family to come home, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Rahssan Thornton was one of the country’s top-rated outside linebackers last season at Shoemaker High School in Killeen, Texas. But when it came to picking a college, LSU was an easy winner over Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama and more than 30 other suitors.
The reason: Ernest Mercadal was his great-great-grandfather, and his great-grandmother, Ramona Briscoe of New Orleans, wasn’t going to let “my baby” go anywhere else.
“When he was little, he used to say to me, ‘Maw-Maw, when I grow up and go to college, it’s going to be LSU,’ ” Briscoe, 82, said. “I just prayed that the Lord would let me live long enough to see it happen, and he has.”
On Saturday, Thornton looked like any other kid as he played with his younger cousins.
“This is home for me,” said Thornton, who was born in New Orleans but with his parents in the Army has lived in several other places. “I knew if I went to LSU, if I ever needed help, I’d have family close by.”
It’s reasons like that, and not just preserving the Mercadal or Mercadel name, that led Tillman to join with other relatives to get the reunion started.
“At first, we had to work hard to get the word out,” she said. “But now everybody just knows about it.
“It’s so good to see people come back year after year because they love being together like this. There’ll still be a Mercadal reunion 100 years from now.”