A sweet comeback: St. John Sugar Queen lives on with crowning of Jaycee Bennett

Published 9:09 am Wednesday, September 6, 2023

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RESERVE — The Sugar Queen tradition lives on as Jaycee Bennett assumes the crown to represent one of St. John the Baptist Parish’s most treasured industries.

Bennett was crowned the 72nd Sugar Queen Sunday, September 3 on the historic grounds of the Godchaux-Reserve House, a symbol of the lasting impact of the local sugar industry. Surrounded by local dignitaries, pageant director Sue Cancienne, and the Sugar Queen Committee, Bennett was appointed to represent St. John Parish at the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival Pageant in New Iberia this month.  She was crowned by the 71st Sugar Queen, Emma Palermo DeArmond, who assumed the title in 2019 before the pageant went on a multi-year hiatus amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

Bennett, the 19-year-old daughter of Desiree and David Bennett of Garyville, is a second-year student at Nicholls State University majoring in accounting.

Her introduction to pageants began in the River Parishes with Deb Miss Ray of Life and Junior Miss Fleur De Lis titles, and she is excited to step back into the pageant world.

“I’ve always wanted to do it, and I am hoping that by accepting this appointed position, we can bring the pageant back to the parish,” Bennett said. “I’m looking forward to meeting new people, dressing up, representing St. John, and putting myself back out there again. It’s a good way for young girls in our community to learn about the sugar industry and how it has a big impact for us.”

Bennett was Riverside Academy’s 2022 valedictorian. While she is currently in her sophomore year of college, she has accumulated enough credit hours to be considered a junior. She’s a member of the Colonettes dance team and a Junior Delegate at Large of the University’s Honors Program, in addition to serving as a member of the Colonel Catholics and a math tutor at the Tutorial and Academic Center. She is a recipient of the Frederick Douglas Textbook Scholarship and a member of the National Society of Leadership and Success.

Bennett also teaches dance off campus at A Time to Dance Studio in Houma. She’s very involved at her home church, St. Hubert’s in Garyville, where she serves as a Eucharistic minister and a lector. She recently ran a Bible study for teen girls over the summer.

Bennett’s other interests include dancing, music, theatre, and crafting jewelry.

Members of the Sugar Queen Committee said Bennett was selected because “she is an outstanding youth in our community who is doing great things and showing leadership.” With experience in pageants, she shows promise of serving as a well-rounded representative of St. John Parish.

Cancienne is thrilled that St. John will once again be represented at the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival Pageant September 21-24 alongside St. James and St. Charles.

“It’s an industry we all love. It’s a part of all of the parishes, and it means so much to our ancestors. They worked in the sugar refinery and in the cane fields,” Cancienne said. “This is how these little parishes survived, and it’s a part of us. We are trying to keep it alive because it’s where we came from, and our young people don’t get it. That’s why I like when these young women take an interest in it, even if they might be three generations removed from the sugar refinery. It all matters because somewhere, someway, you are connected.”

The St. John Parish Sugar Queen Pageant began in 1948, just three years after the end of World War II. Cancienne said the pageant, which once drew in contestants from across the parish, has struggled in recent years due to college orientation, sorority rush, and other scheduling conflicts that have prevented the pageant from returning to St. John Theatre.

Maria Stelly, a member of the Sugar Queen Committee, would love the see the pageant return to the stage.
“As a former queen, I will always be grateful for the honor to represent our parish as well as all the opportunities and experiences it gave me. I became part of the committee and worked over 20 years with the pageant,” Stelly said. “I just loved that time of year when all of the community would come together – the contestants, the entertainment, the Parish officials and businesses and the committee – for this prestigious event and made it the success it was.”

The 72nd coronation of St. John Parish Sugar Queen would not have been possible without support from several sponsors, including the following: The Godchaux Reserve House Historical Society, Parish President Jaclyn Hotard, Sheriff Mike Tregre, District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut and ADA Keith Green, State Representative Clay Schexnayder, State Representative Greg Miller, St. John Parish Assessor Lucien Gauff, Councilman at Large Michael Wright, Roussel’s Fine Jewelry & Gifts, PJ’s Coffee, Riverlands Survey Company, Reserve Lions Club, Hymel’s Florist, Formal Connection, First American Bank, and the St. John Sugar Queen Committee.