|ST. FRANCISVILLE’S OLD BENEVOLENT SOCIETY
by Anne Butler
The St. Francisville, LA, area is fortunate to retain a number of magnificently restored plantation homes that welcome visitors throughout the year with an impressive picture of life as it was for the upper echelon of antebellum society in the South. But other structures---smaller, simpler---speak in quieter tones to teach a history lesson no less significant.
And nearly every church had its benevolent society, officially incorporated under the direction of respected elders of the congregation. Preserved documents reveal that, while some of these church leaders laboriously wrote their names on deeds in the fanciful flowing script of the times, others, unlearned, simply signed with an X. But they all took their responsibilities seriously, for the benevolent societies they formed filled dire and pressing needs.
With few other outside resources, these societies offered significant services to their members---sitting with the sick, caring for the infirm, feeding the weak, funding medical care, and finally covering the modest expenses of a decent burial as well. The charter for the Poor Peoples Benevolent Society, filed August 20, 1904, before West Feliciana’s deputy clerk Eugene S. Muse and certified by District Attorney Robert C. Wickliffe, specified its purpose as being “to help and care for the sick and infirm, and the poor members of the society, and to bury the dead.”
In 1920, for example, the Royal Benevolent Society, “incorporated under the Laws of the State of Louisiana and filed in the Parish of West Feliciana, at St. Francisville,” purchased from Morris Burgas a parcel of land on the Woodville and Bayou Sara Public Road, bounded on the north by property of St. Andrew Baptist Church. Fronting 50 feet on the Woodville Road, the property was purchased for $350, with $100 payable in cash and the balance in five notes of $50 each spread over the next five years, the mortgage secured by society president Emanuel Williams and Secretary William Wilkerson.
According to an 1877 issue of the early newspaper called the West Feliciana Sentinel, benevolent societies’ annual meetings could be elaborate affairs, if the description of that hosted by the Union Benevolent Society was any indication, involving as it did a 75-foot table groaning under the weight of “turkey, chicken, sugar-cured hams, deliciously barbecued beef, mutton and pig, flanked with vegetables, fruits and an extensive variety of dessert and generous supply of wines. To sum up, it was the finest ‘spread’ we have seen in many a long day, and reflected great credit upon our friends of the ‘Benevolents.’ We have frequently had occasion to mark the perfect order and decorum of the society when paying the last sad tribute to the dead, and the spontaneous manner in which they turn out upon such occasions. The objects of the association as set forth in their constitution and bylaws, and indeed, as evinced in their practical working, is (sic) to foster Christian love, union and peace, to attend and alleviate the sick, to administer to the wants of the destitute in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and to bury the dead…We wish them a hearty Godspeed in their noble efforts to subserve the ends of charity. In all their legitimate and reasonable undertakings the colored people of West Feliciana will find no warmer friend and supporter than the W.F. Sentinel.”
Violet Pate, octogenarian historian and lifelong congregant of Afton Villa Baptist Church, recounts some of the old-time practices there---the pond baptisms with white-clad candidates liberally immersed and cleansed of sin, the wake services as congregants sat up throughout the night with the deceased who’d been transported to church in a big black glass-windowed mule-drawn wagon, the “veiling” of the seat of deceased church officers. Mrs. Pate recalls the old folks walking barefoot along dirt roads, lanterns lighting their way at night, cleaning their feet with rags before putting on shoes to enter the church.
There were two benevolent societies in the church, the older Afton Villa Benevolent Society dating from 1905 and the Willing Workers society begun by some of the younger men around 1935. Violet Pate explains that these societies filled many needs such as sitting with the sick, plus covering a specified number of doctor visits, prescriptions and ambulance trips per year out of the dues paid by several hundred members; Willing Workers dues began at 25 cents a month, but have risen to $5.
While the Willing Workers society still has about a hundred members, the Afton Villa Benevolent Society has disbanded, and only a few other churches maintain their societies. Their services, after all, are no longer so vitally necessary, with today’s equal access to standard insurance coverage for medical and funeral costs.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination, but visitors find it especially enjoyable in the winter when the glorious 19th-century gardens are filled with blooming camellias. While the Old Benevolent Society can be seen only from the outside, a number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: the Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from soul food to Chinese and Mexican cuisine, seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park) or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.