Diocese of Baton Rouge to close two Iberville Parish churches

TOMMY COMEAUX tcomeaux@postsouth.com
St. Joan of Arc is one of two churches in Iberville Parish the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge will close in November

The Diocese of Baton Rouge announced over the weekend two churches in southeast Iberville Parish will close Nov. 24, St. Joan of Arc Parish and its mission church,, St. Catherine Laboure.

St. Joan of Arc is in Bayou Pigeon while St. Catherine Laboure is north of its sister in Bayou Sorrel.

"The decision was made through prayer by Diocesan Bishop Robert W. Muench after several months of intense study, deliberation and consultation with St. Joan of Arc's administrator, parish and finance councils, its trustees and the Diocesan Presbteral Council, which consists of member priests of the diocese," the diocese announced in a press release. 

After the closing of the two churches, St. Joan of Arc's current parish along with St. Catherine Laboure's will be incorporated into St. Joseph the Worker's boundaries in Pierre Part. 

Church membership was informed of the closings at Sunday's services via the Very Rev. Paul Yi, administrator at St. Joan of Arc.

The viability of the parish long-term was evaluated in regard to its relationship to the changing demographics of the Catholic population in that area of Iberville Parish, the church parish's financial resources and future pastoral considerations.

Parish configurations within the diocese have been reviewed by a Diocesan Pastoral Planning Commission in an effort to find ways to address how they might be realigned in the future to address shifts in the Catholic population.

"The particular situation at St. Joan of Arc Parish suggested that the future of the parish be evaluated as soon as possible," the press release continues. 

"I thank you for your witness of and commitment to the gospel of our Lord," Muench wrote in a letter to Yi and his congregation. "Your faith has enriched the life of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Your humble love and service of our Lord has been exemplary."

He continued, saying the Planning Commission has been in the process of "discerning the needs of our diocese" in light of an increase in the number of Catholics and the imbalance created by "the decreasing number of priests available for pastoral leadership."

Muench cited changes in the demographics of the greater Baton Rouge area which has "significantly affected the financial strength of some of our parishes." St. John of Arc's parish "has encountered extreme financial difficulties and a decline of regular and active parishioners. 

While lay leaders attending the meetings leading to the churches' closures expressed sadness at the turn of events, Muench said the majority of them were understanding.

The bishop said he has asked Yi to arrange an appropriate weekend for him to visit the parish "to celebrate Mass and to spend some time with you, the parishioners."

"Be assured of my continued prayers for you all as we continue our journey together into the future under the guidance of the Holy Spirit," Muench said.

The church in Bayou Pigeon, St. Joan of Arc, was first pastored by the Rev. Gerard W. Bosch, the pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Plaquemine in late 1909.

Even before there was a church building, Catholics in the area celebrated Mass monthly in private homes and in 1914, the parish was reassigned to St. Joseph the Worker Parish where it will be returning next month.

A chapel boat called Our Lady of the Sea made a monthly visit to the Bayou Pigeon beginning in 1936, carrying Father Jules Toups of St. Joseph the Worker to celebrate Mass near an old abandoned store where the small boat docked. 

From 1938 to 1948, the Diocese of Lafayette upgraded the watercraft carrying a priest, the Rev. R.J. Gobeil in a cabin cruiser, the St. Julie. Gobeil will hold services in people's homes and later in an old school house near Bayou Pigeon.

Catechism was taught by nuns from New Orleans over the summers to prepare children for first communion and confirmations held at St. Joseph. 

Under the leadership of a priest identified only as Sr. Geravis, a chapel was built in Bayou Pigeon in 1951, ending a two-year campaign to raise funds through church fairs and sales of crawfish that began in 1949.

The chapel from St. Basil's Academy in Plaquemine was installed in the small chapel to call the Catholics of the area to Mass. Its first resident pastor was Fr. C. Peter Jenniskens in 1965 and the St. John of Arc parish was founded later the same year. 

St. Joan of Arc was remodeled in the 1970s and its ParishFamily Center was dedicated in 1983. At the time, the church hall was moved to St. Catherine Laboure and in late 1990, a Marian Shrine dedicated to Our Lady Queen of Peace was erected behind the St. Joan of Arc Church.

The old St. Joan of Arc was demolished due to termite damage in 1999 and with the help of devoted parishioners, a new church was dedicated in 2003. 

The changing Catholic population and financial challenges have affected churches well beyond Iberville Parish. The dioceses announced last month St. Pius X Church in Baton Rouge would close in November and its school at the end of the 2017-18 scholastic year.