All Saints Sunday
By James Akers
ST. MARTINVILLE – It is often said that after 225 years of the existence of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church, there are more people buried in the cemetery than are alive today in town.
All Saints Day, which falls this Sunday, is a major feast day and holy day of obligation in the Roman Catholic Church. But in past times, people used to begin cleaning their family tombs for the occasion starting six to eight weeks before Nov. 1. People could be seen arriving at the cemetery with buckets, brushes, brooms and scraping tools. For weeks before Nov. 1, one could find Mrs. Louis Gary Sr., and her prison labor force cleaning the cemetery.
In the early days there was not the choice of flowers you have now. Talented people would fashion wreaths from wire and would make colorful crepe paper flowers dipped in hot wax. On the church square would be seen vendors of these arrangements. Rooster’s combs, fresh flowers of burgundy and gold, were popular. The small purple flower known as “everlasting” could also be found. The more affluent of the community would have fashioned wreaths of metal flowers to adorn the tombs.
At the end of the day, these metallic wreaths were removed from the tombs and stored away until next year. Upon the tombs could be seen every type of container from glass milk bottles and glass fruit jars to beautiful vases holding flowers for the deceased. The tombs were described as looking like white wedding cakes.
All Saints Day was a solemn day and yet a festive day. St. Martinville is a social community and the day provided an opportunity for the gathering of local news and visiting friends and relatives. From before dawn on the grand day, people began to converge on the town to fulfill their religious obligations and to honor their dead.
People from the country, out-of-town visitors, and local people began to gather at the cemetery and the church. Many people from the country visited the cemetery the whole day, bringing lunches and beverages. All Saints Day always brought brisk business to town. Most merchants closed their stores for the three o’clock ceremonies, however. Mrs. C.T. Bienvenu could be seen collecting the cemetery dues at the gate. All the way to the rear could be found Mrs. Luke Bonin, sitting on her concrete bench, saying the Rosary.
The women at that time wore black, navy blue, gray or brown. Hats, kerchiefs, and later, chapel veils were appropriate head coverings. Usually All Saints Day was cold. Some of the older ladies wore the Croix de Bon Morte, crucifixes pinned to their coats. Children were starched and ironed within an inch of their lives.
Because of the sugar cane grinding going on at that time, many men were not able to attend services until late in the afternoon. After working so hard in the cemetery, ladies brought pieces of cardboard to fan the soot off the tombs, deposited there by the burning of the sugar cane in the fields and the smoke stacks of the Levert and Bulliard sugar mills, which filled the air with a sweet smell.
At about 2:30 p.m., the vested priest and the altar servers lined up outside the Church, bearing the processional cross, acolytes, the aspergillums and sprinkler carrier. There was no driveway in front of the church at that time, so the procession went down Main Street to Bridge Street and to the cemetery. From the main gate, the procession moved to the large cross in the cemetery. Many of our pastors were gifted orators and gave stirring sermons that were spoken about for days. After the ceremonies, the priest retired to the church and the visiting continued until dusk.
In the 1970s, Father Kenneth R. Morvant added an second observance at night. The community was encouraged to place lighted candles in glass containers on the tops of the tombs for this second blessing of the cemetery. Hundreds of flickering candles enhanced the beauty of the occasion until the 1980s. A great writer once said that one of the beauties of the Christian religion is the way they honor their dead.
Blessing of the tombs in celebration of All Saints Day will take place Sunday, Nov. 1, at the following cemeteries:
•Catahoula – After 10 a.m. Mass, Our Lady of the Lake Cemetery, St. Rita’s Catholic Church.
•Henderson – 11:30 a.m., St. Michael’s Cemetery, Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church.
•Cecilia – 8 a.m., St. Joseph Cemetery, St. Joseph Catholic Church; after 10 a.m. Mass, St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church.
•Arnaudville – After 10:30 a.m. Mass, St. John Francis Regis Catholic Church.
•Coteau Holmes – 11 a.m., St. Elizabeth Catholic Church.
•Breaux Bridge – After 10:30 a.m. Mass, Cemetery No. 1; 3 p.m. Cemetery No. 2, St. Bernard Catholic Church.
•St. Martinville – 4 p.m., St. Michael’s Cemetery, St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church;
3 p.m. Queen of Peace; 4 p.m. St. Michael’s Cemetery, Notre Dame Catholic Church.