A ‘spirited’ tour through time

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 2, 2011

By David Vitrano


CONVENT – For the fifth and final time, St. James Parish-based Crazy ‘Bout History held its “Gone But Not Forgotten” tour of St. Michael’s Church and Cemetery and nearby Poche Plantation.

Although meant to be more informative than spooky, the tour was perfectly timed as it was held on Halloween weekend.

The tours started in the plantation home, the doorway of which was draped in black to signify the people inside were in a period of mourning. On the porch, Janice Church told the group about the people of the time and their relationship with death.

She said while disease was rampant, diseases were not the only causes of death.

“We died from the cures we were given for these diseases,” she said, adding, “There’s no other time that people were so obsessed with death and dying as during the Victorian Age.”

Inside, a grieving widow, her head draped in black, prayed next to the body of her departed. Throughout the other rooms, other family members, dressed in black from head to toe, explained some of the mourning customs of plantation residents in the 19th century.

As the tour moved to the church, it was greeted by a woman singing a ghostly version of “Ave Maria.” She invited the guests to sit down, and she told the story of her life and death.

Death hung in the air throughout the tour, but again, its presence was not meant to frighten but to teach. The singing woman even injected a little humor into the proceedings, saying, “We really hate to be called ghosts.”

As she led the group to the grotto, based on the grotto at Lourdes, she explained how the “stones” are actually made from the leftover hard parts from sugar processing.

Next, the tour moved into the cemetery itself, the real reason behind the tour as proceeds from the event go to maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery.

The first stop was a mother, singing to her infant cradled in her arms. The group learned she was Beatrice Nicholas, who was born in 1918 and lost many of her children to the times. The fact that Nicholas, portrayed by St. Charles Catholic student Audrey Martin, just died in 2006 underlined the notion that times can change dramatically during one’s lifespan. In fact, some of her surviving descendents, including a daughter, took the tour that day.

Next, the group met Pierre Landry, who was the mayor of Donaldsonville in 1868.

Portrayed by Darryl Hambrick, he told of his birth as a free person of color, his eventual sale into slavery and his rise to prominence during Reconstruction.

“Wow, what a life,” he proclaimed at the conclusion of his tale.

As the crowd moved deeper into the graveyard, they were greeted by a group of four young people, portrayed by Kaitlyn Lemoine, Ashley Marchese, Lexi Arcemont and Michael Morton, all students at St. Charles Catholic. They told of their deaths by drowning in the Mississippi River after a boat they were on sank.

Next, the group met Amelie Peytavin, portrayed by Glenetta Shuey. Her husband, John Peytavin, invented a pecan shiner, and she lived a life of privilege until her death in 1937.

Lastly the tour visited the gravedigger, portrayed by tour organizer Connie Donadieu. The gravedigger told a few more tales of the souls that were buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery as their incarnations roamed through the graves. As she spoke, the undertaker, portrayed by Aubrey Lambert sat in the background. Her tales must have been especially interesting to him, as he has relatives buried in St. Michael’s, and one of the stories, that of Felicien Lambert, who was buried on a rainy day so his coffin kept popping out of the ground, related to his family directly.

After the tours were over, Donadieu said they were well attended, although most attendees came from outside the area. Although this is the last time the tour will be presented in this manner, Donadieu’s mission is far from over.

“You have to get it out that history is so amazing along this river,” she said.