Country Church at Rural Life Museum
After Emancipation, American blacks had entirely new issues to test their fortitude. They found themselves having to struggle for land rights, voting rights, and simply the right to move around. In many areas they were still forbidden by law to gather publicly. The local church became a focus point that not only offered spiritual support, but provided a place for political and community interaction. The country church at the LSU Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge is a fantastically preserved example of a haven for a free people who had nowhere to go.
David Floyd, museum director, tells how each church came to be known for something unique. The one at the museum, originally standing at the Welham Plantation, was known for its long funerals and elaborate wakes. "They never had a piano," he explains, so for the memorial songs "they would create rhythms with their hands and feet."
The small church built in the style of Gothic Revival so popular at the time, reflects the simple state of the devotees who constructed it in 1870. The building is entirely original. The style is stripped down to its basic elements with a central aisle terminating in a three-cornered apse. There is one main entrance door and lancet windows line the side walls. Instead of stained glass windows, the glass is painted to look like a more expensive window.
"In fact later we would see churches, like St. Gabriel's and St. James', that would choose to paint their glass," Floyd says, "even after they could afford the stained glass."
The church's membership remained strong through the early 20th century, however as rural areas became more urbanized, the congregation started to shrink in the 1950s. By 1960 the church had become abandoned. Eventually, the Rural Life Museum wanted to buy the church, but the estate holders decided just to give it to them.
"They told us, 'You can't sell God's house,'" Floyd recalls.
Today the church is the site of an annual pilgrimage. Every June, the great and great-great grandchildren of the original parishioners, about 150 people, have a service there. Additionally, small weddings and events are held in the venerable old house of worship.
The director finds gratification that the church in a sense completes a set of buildings. "We were happy to add the church," Floyd says, "because we already had slave quarters and some working spaces from Welham."
Just up the path from the church is a re-creation of a Louisiana country cemetery. Floyd points out the wrought iron crosses checkering the space. "The French and Spanish community made cemeteries like this one up until World War II." Blacksmiths would be commissioned in the wintertime to make the crosses. Wrought iron was popularly used for memorials as they could easily be modified with a particular family's design-a name or a fleur de lis, for example.
As time went on, families felt that a stone monument would be more elegant, so they replaced the crosses. Also, Floyd interjects, "The biggest enemy to the crosses are lawnmowers-they knock them over." Many of the old crosses had been simply thrown away.
"We collect the crosses from the cemeteries," he says "But we will not take any piece without a clear provenance of ownership."
The Rural Life Museum is Louisiana's only open-air museum. It features the actual equipment and buildings that were typical of the 18th- and 19th-century working classes. Every item collected at the museum was actually used in everyday rural work. And the unassuming church in one corner of the site reminds us that these hard-working pioneers also took some time from their work for something deeper. ✦