Reserve sanctuary honored as part of history trail

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 4, 2012



RESERVE – Seven years after earning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, the more than 70-year-old Our Lady of Grace Sanctuary in Reserve has now been added to a more exclusive list of sites across the state significant in African-American history.

The sanctuary is among 36 sites spread across the state that make up the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail, a collection of museums, churches, plantations and other sites that tell a vibrant story of blacks in Louisiana. The original Our Lady of Grace church, now known as Riverlands Christian Center, joins Evergreen Plantation in Wallace and Laura Plantation in Vacherie on a list of sites in the River Parishes.

“The building has such a unique history, and we are so excited about this honor,” said Rita Perrilloux, whose husband, Steven Perrilloux, is the pastor of Riverlands. “Being a part of this heritage trail will help us tell the church’s story to a larger audience.”

According to Perrilloux, when it opened in 1937, Our Lady of Grace was the first Catholic church in the area built for African-American parishioners. Prior to its construction, blacks would worship at the segregated St. Peter’s Church in Reserve.

“Two or three pews at the rear of the church were usually reserved for African Americans,” Perrilloux said. “They were allowed to worship and take communion but couldn’t fully participate in the parish. They couldn’t sing in the choir or participate as altar servers.”

Perrilloux said Father Roderick Auclair and white Pastor Monsignor Jean M. Eyraud lead the charge to construct a church and school for the black parishioners of St. Peter. The St. Catherine School opened in 1932, and Our Lady of Grace started construction in 1936, with most of the work done by the community who would use it.

“When the church was added to the Register of Historic Pla.-ces, we got some of the original parishioners together to talk about the opening day celebration,” Perrilloux said. “One of the stories recalled that the priest at St. Peter offered up his altar boys and other services for the first mass at Our Lady of Grace. As it turned out the parishioners declined because they finally did not need them. They had their own.”

Perrilloux said the church was originally constructed on River Road not far from St. Peter’s, but it is now positioned just off NW Third Street on the former Cornland Plantation following a rather precarious repositioning of the building in 1992 to save it from demolition.

“There were some tense moments during that two-mile move,” she said. “We had been through so much, and we didn’t want to lose it.”

According to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Our Lady of Grace Sanctuary stands as the only historic black Catholic parish to survive outside the city.

With the sanctuary being added to the heritage trail, Perrilloux said the state plans to add additional directional signage to draw tourists in. She said the building has played host to a familiarization tour of state welcome center employees and other tourism executives.

“We have had a great opportunity to show off the building to those other than our regular congregation,” Perrilloux said. “In the coming days we are also doing tours for production companies scoping it out as a site for filming.”

Perriloux said the church will be holding a grand opening ceremony for the general public on April 20. The church will be open to tours from that point.