The Le Vieux Presbytére Museum in Church Point, constructed in 1887 as a home for priests, measures 40 feet by 40 feet, with an 8-foot porch surrounding the structure. The walls are farmed in wood and filled with bousillage. The structure even had a brick wine cellar accessible from the central hall at one time. (Photo by Claudette Olivier/The Church Point News)
Church Point museum getting a makeover
Claudette Olivier / The Church Point News
One of the oldest second stories in Church Point will soon be open to the public.
Local historian Gene Thibodeaux said, “I am not an architect nor did I see the building 100 years ago, but I am familiar with the building and have an engineering background. This is my opinion — when the presbytere was built, there were two bedrooms upstairs, insulated by bousillage. The other spaces (upstairs) were likely never used, being so hot during the Louisiana summer. They were not boarded over — they were never open in the first place.
“The two upstairs rooms were likely no longer used after the porches were enclosed and the bedroom wing added, except maybe for storage. In its original state, the upstairs had a room on each side and a long hallway to reach the other two windows — remember, no air-conditioning. During the 11-year restoration, when much of the building was torn down to its roots, the upstairs was not slated for renovation. It was left in whatever condition the workers left it in.”
One of Church Point’s earliest, still standing homes to have an upstairs area, the Le Vieux Presbytère Museum is undergoing some major updates, including new flooring on the second floor, an area that has been closed to the public since the building opened as a museum in 2007. The museum is closed to the public for the updates.
The building, constructed in 1887 as a home for priests, measures 40 feet by 40 feet, with an eight foot porch all around. The walls are framed in wood and filled in with bousillage, and the structure even originally had a brick wine cellar accessible from the central hall.
In 2007, a group of volunteers collected artifacts, pictures and stories of Church Point and its people, and the building has since served as the Town of Church Point’s museum. The museum was originally open for tours once a week and by appointment, and it is also available for special events.
Museum curator Harold Fonte said the two upstairs rooms were first occupied by family members of Fr. Auguste Vincent Eby who was resident pastor of the Sacred Heart of Mary Parish and spearheaded the construction of the residence. Those family members were Eby’s two sisters and a nephew. Eby, a native of Perigueux, France, lived downstairs. Fonte said the two rooms were likely last used in the early 1960s and at that time were still used as bedrooms.
While the flooring in the second story hallway was redone with a more modern material — plywood and vinyl — wood that needed to be replaced in the bedrooms, which Fonte said appear to be the original floors, was replaced with tongue and groove boards donated by Evangeline Brokerage. Fonte said tongue and groove construction is also how the original floor was made.
The walls of the southern upstairs room will retain the shiplap look, and the northern room will remain as is to display the bousillage.
In addition to the new the new flooring, updates to the museum will also include new display cases, new displays and memorabilia, a gift shop and a second air conditioning unit.
“What’s good is that we will have the stories behind all of the memorabilia — who it came from and how it got here,” Fonte said. “The museum will be self explanatory.”
The two upstairs rooms will house displays, and the previously unused upstairs spaces will be used for storage.
“We will rotate some of the displays by season, and the storage space will allow more items to be housed at the museum, Fonte said. “There will be ‘new’ things on display at different times of the year, and hopefully this will generate periodic returns by visitors.”
Fonte said items available at the gift shop will likely include key chains and coozies.
“I myself would like to have a Church Point coffee cup,” Fonte added, laughing.
Fonte expressed his thanks to the museum’s board members as well as L.J. Bellard, Julie Guidry, Linda Boudreaux and Thibodeaux for providing history of the building as the updates are completed.
All of the work is expected to be complete by the end of the year, and the museum is scheduled to reopen in early 2021.
The museum’s updates were spearhead by Church Point Mayor Ryan “Spanky” Meche and carried out by Town of Church Point employees.
“The mayor and the town’s workers were able to do what a part-time curator and an army of volunteers couldn’t have done on their own,” Fonte said.
He continued, “Through the years, the town’s people have done the best that could what they had to take the museum to the next level. That each item on display will now have a story posted with it is a wonderful thing.”
Meche said the update to the museum is long overdue.
“What we are trying to do is get more interest in the museum,” Meche said. “The museum is part of my plan for a central park, and this was just one more piece of the puzzle to do. It was on my list of things to do. There’s a lot of loose ends right now, but over the next six months, people will start to see those gaps close.”
He continued, “I’d like to get more people interested in the downtown area. Maybe one day the museum can be open every day.”
The history of how the Presbytère came to be can be traced back to 1848.
That year, Jesuit priests from Grand Coteau built a chapel to serve those living along Bayou Plaquemine Brulee, and the chapel was located about where the Our Mother of Peace Elementary School gym is today. A small living quarters in the rear part of the church was used for priests who stayed overnight.
The religious house would eventually become part of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Sacred Heart of Mary Parish. The new parish’s pastor was Fr. Eby.
“When he arrived, he discovered that his church and his living quarters in the back room of it were in a sorry state of repair,” Thibodeaux said. “Fr. Eby built a new church in 1885, located at what is now the boulevard between the present church and the graveyard.”
With the new church complete, Fr. Eby then turned his attention to constructing a new rectory where the current church building now stands.
Eventually, the time came to replace the 1885 church, and Msgr. Clay Anthony Bienvenu, pastor of the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish, had the old church torn down and the present brick church built in 1954.
“The site chosen for this new church was right where the old presbytery sat — it had to be moved or replaced before the new church could be built,” Thibodeaux said. “It was moved rather than replaced. In 1951, the building was shifted a little down the street, sitting directly across Bienvenu Street from the rear of today’s Home Bank.”
Thibodeaux said that the building that sat at this site was far different from the one Fr. Eby had built. In 1910, an annex was added by Fr. Auguste Francois Roger, and a kitchen was added in 1928 by Fr. Auguste Mathurin Viel.
“Monsignor Bienvenu also modernized it after it was moved,” Thibodeaux said. “The building now had a wing for bedrooms and another for a kitchen, with an imposing cupola above them. The porch had been closed in to make more room.”
By 1988, 100 years after it was first constructed, the building was no longer used for its original purpose.
“Plans were made to convert the now-empty rectory into a community center and museum,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s name was to be ‘Le Vieux Presbytere,’ French for the old presbytery. A live radio Cajun music show was aired from the building. The Cajun Ladies organization unofficially ran the building, which was still sitting on church property. The state of affairs lasted until 1991, when the church decided to demolish the old building due to it becoming a financial burden.”
The church then donated the building, to be moved, to the town, but only the original section was able to be moved. Through the efforts of the Town of Church Point, civic organizations and residents, funds were collected, and the building was then moved off the church’s property — at a cost of $20,000, more than 33 times the building’s original construction cost of $600 — and to a lot across the street donated by Church Point Wholesale. The structure arrived at its new location on the corner of Rue Ira Lejeune and Rogers Street on July 15, 1993. A few years later, in 1997, the presbytere was placed on the National Register of Historical Places.
Following the move, federal and state grants were obtained, and the downstairs area was restored to its its original 1887 condition, with the exception of a modern bathroom. The decade-long restoration effort was completed in 2004.