Thursday, February 24, 2011


by Anne Butler

grace church in the fog

If only these walls could talk! How often have we lamented that the lessons of history might be lost without the voices of the past recounting their experiences. In the four decades that the West Feliciana Historical Society has hosted the Audubon Pilgrimage in St. Francisville, this popular spring fling has featured beautifully restored antebellum plantations and historic townhouses, brilliantly blooming azaleas, hostesses resplendent in replicated 1820s garb, old-time rural crafts and skills, and even glamorous nighttime entertainments. But initially something was missing, some intimate personalized voice resonating through time, and the ancestral oil portraits, the architectural treasures, the leather-bound literature…all gave only mute testament to past glories and sorrows.

grave tours

One of the historic churches featured on the pilgrimage is Grace Episcopal, the oldest church in St. Francisville and second oldest Episcopal congregation in the state, established in 1827.  Its first rector was the Reverend William R. Bowman, second husband of widowed Eliza Pirrie of Oakley Plantation whom the artist Audubon was hired to tutor in the early 1820s; their son would marry the beautiful belle Sarah Turnbull of Rosedown Plantation.

The present brick church, which replaced an early simple wooden building, is  reminiscent of the Gothic country churches of rural England, from whence came many of the pioneering settlers of St. Francisville. Its cornerstone was laid by Leonidas Polk, the Fighting Bishop of the Confederacy, in June 1858, the same year an immense Pilcher organ was shipped downriver from St. Louis and fitted into the south transcept in memory of Judge George Mathews.

From Judge Mathews’ plantation came the oak saplings that now shade the cemetery where he rests in peace along with many of the early settlers. Among the earliest burials was that of baby Edward Baldwin, whose death in the 1840s was recorded as ‘flung from buggy.’ During the Civil War, as St. Francisville received heavy shelling from a Union gunboat on the nearby Mississippi River, old Aunt Sylvia Chew, a free woman of color, took refuge before the altar until a cannon ball crashed through the window over her head; she then fled to the cemetery and put her faith in the substantially built tomb of her old acquaintance Dr. Ira Smith.

Hamilton Willis
With the serene cemetery so full of history and stories, it was no wonder that pilgrimage planners conceived the idea of raising the dead to tell their stories, and who better to direct this fascinating performance than local resident and Grace parishioner Shirley Pourciau, who had earned a Master’s degree in Theater from the University of Illinois and then spent 30 years as a public school teacher, enthusiastically directing plays and pageants and all manner of church shows until she retired from Lee High in 1983. Early performances of the Cemetery Tales utilized the talents of relatives and colleagues from Baton Rouge, but Mrs. Pourciau soon realized that the St. Francisville area abounded in homegrown talent.

Some of these frustrated thespians are real pros, like Dave and Valerie Barnes, who have had many years of professional radio and television experience, while others are simply blessed with a flair for the dramatic, but each gives a memorable performance bringing to life a carefully selected cross-section of St. Francisville residents beginning in the heady years just prior to the Civil War and continuing through the trying times afterward. And so, as dusk falls and the fireflies flit amid the moss-draped live oaks, costumed spirits rise among the tombstones to relate their poignant stories, and in doing so, relate the history of St. Francisville itself. An introduction to Grace’s history is given from the brick front steps of the church, and then young guides lead visitors through the cemetery lit by candles and torches, all to the strains of acoustic period music provided by talented David Porter.

graveside stories
Beside the sturdy tomb of Dr. Ira Smith, who died Christmas day 1850, stands his widow Mary Ann Gray, half-sister of Eliza Pirrie, relating how her husband named their plantation Troy after his boyhood New York home. Another 1850 burial was that of Grace church vestryman Levi Blount, who hanged himself from an oak tree after falling into debt over a costly sugar mill; Blount’s widow Lavinia, who with her New England bluestocking sisters came south to provide young ladies with sound classical educations, relates her story as well. William Dana Hatch was another early vestry member of Grace Church; a merchant in Bayou Sara, he died in 1866 at the age of 54, and over the years his tomb, surrounded by fancy iron fencing, has irreverently been dubbed Hatch’s Pen.

The Turnbulls of Rosedown are well represented in the cemetery and in the performance, with three different generations telling their tales, beginning with Martha Barrow Turnbull who with her husband Daniel built magnificent Rosedown Plantation in the 1830s and over six decades surrounded the home with glorious gardens based on landscapes seen on her European honeymoon. Her grandson Daniel Turnbull Bowman was slain in 1900 after volunteering with the army unit sent to quell the Moro insurrection in the Philippines. Lt. Bowman is portrayed graveside with such elan by Hamilton Willis, complete with the riding boots that are his customary attire, that during one performance, as he related how his devoted mother fretted over his perilous military service, the cell phone forgotten in his pocket rang, and without missing a beat Willis adlibbed, “That must be her now.” The third of the Turnbull-Bowman spirits is the most recent, the fifth generation, Mamie Fort Thompson, last of the area grande dames and noted for her wicked wit. Into her 90s “Miss Mamie” presided over Catalpa Plantation, sharing with each and every tourist who came calling a glass of the potent sherry referred to as “grandma’s daily dalliance with naughtiness,” and proving to the world that old southern belles never die, nor do they ever lose one iota of their charm.

A deceased rector of Grace Church tells his tale in this graveyard filled with fine statuary and Victorian monuments of marble and stone. But amidst such splendor sadly stand characters like Tullia Richardson whose plantation was aptly named Misery, and Hannah McDaniel who died in 1885 at age 90 so impoverished she had no tombstone at all. When her daughter’s attorney-husband was killed in the explosion of the steamboat Princess en route to the opening of the Supreme Court in New Orleans, the family sold their elegant townhouse on Royal St. in St. Francisville and opened a boarding house in New Orleans to make ends meet. Another distinguished barrister mortally wounded aboard the Princess in 1859 was Uriah Burr Phillips; when the steamboat’s boiler exploded rounding Conrad’s Point just below Baton Rouge, those passengers not killed instantly were laid out on the lawn of the Conrad’s Cottage Plantation. Burr was shipped home to linger a week before dying and was laid to rest beneath a hand-carved Italian marble monument.

Beside the enormous stone cross marking his family plot arises the spirit of Judge George Mathews, chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1812 until his death in 1836; his father was an early governor of Georgia, and several brothers-in-law served on the first vestry of Grace Church. His is the earliest burial included in the Cemetery Tales, while nearby is one of the most recent, the 27th Marine Corps Commandant, General Robert H. Barrow of Rosale Plantation, whose distinguished military career took him around the world but who returned to his boyhood home for retirement. Declining burial in Arlington National Cemetery, General Barrow opted to be laid to rest in 2008 beside his beloved wife Patty, the interment ceremony with its impressive military honor guard and booming gun salutes attended by everybody in town, including school children.

grave tours
The voices of the past speak to us in many ways, sometimes harshly and sometimes gently, but rarely so movingly as when the spirits of the dead rise to tell their stories beside their tombstones. These Cemetery Tales take place on Friday evening, March 18, as part of the annual Audubon Pilgrimage, which celebrates a southern spring in St. Francisville, the glorious garden spot of Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. For 40 years the sponsoring West Feliciana Historical Society has thrown open the doors of significant historic structures to commemorate the tenure there of artist-naturalist John James Audubon as he painted a number of his famous bird folios.

Features of the 2011 Audubon Pilgrimage March 18, 19 and 20 include two  historic townhouses: Avondale and White’s Cottage, and in the surrounding countryside two 19th-century plantations: Wakefield and Spring Grove, plus Afton Villa Gardens, Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches and the Rural Homestead with  lively demonstrations of the rustic skills of daily pioneer life. Tour hostesses are clad in the exquisitely detailed costumes of the 1820’s, nationally recognized for their authenticity.

The National Register-listed historic district around Royal Street is filled during the day with the happy sounds of costumed children singing and dancing the Maypole; in the evening as candles flicker and fireflies flit among the ancient moss-draped live oaks, there is no place more inviting for a leisurely stroll. Besides the Graveyard Tours at Grace Episcopal cemetery, Friday evening also features old-time Hymn Singing at the United Methodist Church and a wine and cheese reception at the West Feliciana Historical Society museum headquarters. Light Up The Night Saturday evening features live music, dinner and drinks. For tickets and tour information, contact West Feliciana Historical Society, Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775;phone 225-635-6330; online, email

grace cemetery
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 this time of year when the glorious 19th-century gardens are still filled with winter-blooming camellias mixed with the earliest bloomers of spring, the flowering bulbs and fruit trees.  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 (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park) or