Thursday, April 07, 2011

St. Francisville's Temple Sinai

by Anne Butler

Early photograph of Temple Sinai
The little rivertowns all along the Mississippi River corridor saw an influx of Jewish immigrants in the mid-19th century. Escaping religious persecution in Germany, these early settlers followed the cotton culture westward and brought with them experience in mercantile operations and finance, filling a gap between planter and slave. As middlemen, they provided the underpinnings and practicalities to prop up a plantation economy that existed precariously on credit, and after the Civil War many Jewish proprietors of country stores found themselves in the land and cotton business when debts were settled through means others than cash. With profits from these transactions, Jews funded philanthropies benefitting their communities and became active in civic and political affairs. They had a significant impact on the areas in which they settled, and yet today there is no Louisiana museum or cultural center recognizing their contributions. At least there had not been one, until now. The first organized Jewish congregation in the St. Francisville area, meeting initially in a hotel and then an opera house, incorporated in 1901 and quickly set about building their Temple Sinai on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River. When the temple was dedicated in 1903, it was an event involving all members of the community at large. As the local newspaper described it, "The sacred building was filled by a large congregation composed of both Jews and Gentiles. It was an hour of rejoicing." Joining together with the congregation to celebrate the completion of the temple were rabbis from New Orleans, local judges, Protestant rectors, choir members from many different faiths, and processions of children bearing palms and candles.
Temple Sinia in St. Francisville, La.
Temple Sinai today.




The fine building, 35x50 feet, had a number of large stained glass windows and high ceilings contributing to perfect acoustics. The handsome circular pews, altar and raised choir gallery were of quarter-sawn oak. The exterior, painted dove grey trimmed in green, featured doorways topped with arched gothic windows and wide central steps flanked by tall twin towers.

Alas, the Temple Sinai would have a short lifespan. Within a few years of its dedication, many of its members had either died or moved to New Orleans for greater business opportunities. In 1921the building was purchased by a small Presbyterian church, which in its own time would suffer declining membership and would close when most of its members joined the local Methodists.

After years of decline, most recently under ownership of the parish police jury, Temple Sinai is being resurrected as part of a cultural complex in combination with the historic brick Freyhan School, first public school in the parish constructed with major funding provided in the will of prominent 19th-century Jewish entrepreneur Julius Freyhan. The Freyhan Foundation has big plans for both of these adjoining structures, with space for cultural and civic activities, plus exhibits on early Jewish contributions to community life as well as early education in the parish. One sizable donation toward restoration of the school building came from the elderly granddaughter of Julius Freyhan.

Plans for  Temple Sinia
Future Plans
While some stabilization work has already been accomplished on the school building, the temple will be the first restoration project to be completed. The Freyhan Foundation, with a Save America's Treasures grant from the National Park Service combined with other contributions, has hired Holly and Smith Architects to rehabilitate the structure, repairing exterior wood trim and lap siding, painting, and replacing the towers that had been removed at some point from the front fa├žade of the temple. A service wing added to the rear will provide practicalities like restrooms. Work is set to begin in late spring 2011. Upon completion of the restoration project, Temple Sinai will provide a non- denominational multi-purpose space envisioned as a much-needed venue for community events and cultural programs. This will be augmented by the Freyhan School part of the complex, where the major exhibits and events space will be a welcome addition to St. Francisville's cultural tourism scene, providing a gathering spot for local residents as well as offering enlightening historical insight so that visitors might gain appreciation for the contributions of the area's early Jewish immigrants.

Inside Temple Sinia
Inside Temple Sinai
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. 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

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.



Temple Sinia front doors
Doors & Arches
Front view of Temple Sinia with doors open.
Temple's Entrance

Benches behind the temple and high school
Julius Freyhan High School
benches behind the Temple..
Temple Sinia - side view, surrounded by large live oaks.
Side view of the synagogoue.

Paddling the refuge
Spring brings paddling Cat Island NWR and Bayou Sara.

Tourism Information


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.

Butterfly
Great Outdoor Photography
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.