Effort to save historic black church wins support in St. Tammany | St. Tammany Community News

In the early 1900s, residents of a small North Shore lumber community built a modest house of worship near Madisonville and named it Eagle Eye Baptist Church. The modest wooden structure became a non-secular town center for an unincorporated area of ​​western St. Tammany Parish known as Houltonville.

The area’s landscape has changed dramatically over the years, but the inconspicuous little church still stands near the entrance to Fairview State Park off La. 22, having been moved from its original location closer to Lake Pontchartrain. Its name changed – to Magnolia Baptist Church. So has his mission.

No longer an active church, the ramshackle building is reminiscent of Houltonville, a predominantly black community near the Tchefuncte River made up of lumber industry workers and their families. The longleaf pine harvested by these workers forms the bones of many historic structures that exist in New Orleans today, a fact that proponents believe could make the church an important historical and civil rights relic.

The dilapidated state of the Magnolia Baptist Church has raised fears that the last remnant of the vanished village will soon be gone, and that’s why a local pastor and a group of history buffs from St. Tammany Parish are stepping up to preserve and restore the church which has steadily fallen into disrepair over the years. the last decade.

“It’s just sitting there as a structure, and we want to bring it back to life,” said Bonnie Dennis, who chairs the historic preservation committee for the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. “We think this is a really cool project for our chapter to take on.”

Donald Burris, pastor of Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church in Mandeville, chaplain for the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office and leader of the parish’s black community, is leading the effort.

“I don’t want to see it taken down because of its history,” Burris said. “Some people will never see a church like this. Our goal is to restore it to its original appearance so people can see how we used to have a church in a building like this.

Houltonville? Who knew?

A Google search of Houltonville reveals very little about the place, other than a Wikipedia entry that only gives its location: “St. Paroisse de Tammany… latitude 30.407 and longitude -90.143. What can be gleaned about the early years of the area comes from the compliments of the few historical accounts and the few remaining former inhabitants of the community.

What is known is that the area between Mandeville and Madisonville was part of a lumber community that came to life after New Orleanian WT Jay purchased 400 acres of woodland in 1885 and opened a sawmill for harvest bog pines and cypresses. He obtained rights of way to build a railroad line to transport lumber to post-Civil War southern growing areas, including New Orleans.

The Dummy Line Railroad was already hauling fresh-cut logs when brothers Charles and William Houlton purchased Jay’s holdings in 1906, and with that purchase what was known as Jayville became Houltonville. The community included a general store, a U.S. post office, a few churches, and about 250 sawmill workers, according to historical accounts.

In 1936, the Houltonville property was sold to Frank Otis, whose family owned and operated Otis Manufacturing in New Orleans. The North Shore property consisted of what is now the Otis House Museum, a residence built by Jay in 1907. When Otis died in 1962, he bequeathed the house and 99 acres to the state, requesting that it is used for public recreation. This property is now Fairview State Park, and other parts of the original Houltonville have been turned into residential neighborhoods.

Houltonville’s identity as a lumber town has faded over time.

But in February, Slidell resident George A. White wrote a brief history detailing his early life there, and that memory is being used to raise awareness of the importance of saving the Magnolia Baptist Church building.

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White, a scion of one of Houltonville’s original families, described growing up in the community in the 1950s, noting that many activities at the time centered on Magnolia Baptist Church. He says the community of Houltonville originally consisted of six areas “with a (total) population approaching 300 people, most of whom were of African descent.” One of the six sectors is now part of the community of Beau Chene.

Magnolia was the larger of the two churches serving the community, with at least 50 members, White said.

“The events that took place inside the small structure and on the ground became the tools of formation for many young people who attended,” wrote White. “Many happy events have taken place inside the sanctuary, from weddings and baptisms to annual church celebrations and sad occasions, such as funerals.”

The church managed to stay afloat under the leadership of Reverend Frank Sheridan. But as the timber trade gave way to development and residents moved out, church membership dwindled to a few congregants. The church became a simple, storm-ravaged building after Sheridan died about 10 years ago, and members of his family are now involved in the restoration effort.

save the church

Surrounded by ageless oak trees, the Magnolia Baptist Church building is located on a narrow road about a mile off the congested La. 22 route between Madisonville and Mandeville. Storms toppled power lines, leaving the small church darkened and without utilities of any kind.

Vandals damaged the building, prompting Burris to restore the windows and take preventative measures to prevent the weather from causing further damage to the interior.

Dennis, a member of the DAR committee, and other history buffs are trying to identify grants and other financial resources to fund the restoration of the church. They are also looking to create a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to help raise funds for the project.

A small amount of money has already been raised, including a small portion from the makers of ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’, a drama produced by Reese Witherspoon and based on a bestselling novel of the same name. Part of the film was shot at Fairview State Park and a key scene was shot at the church. The film – about a young girl growing up alone in the swamp – is due out in July.

Dennis said a painting of the church by artist Sandra Silk Bono will be raffled off to raise money for restoration. Once the church gets the necessary TLC, supporters said it could be added as a stop on Louisiana’s Civil Rights Trail, which introduces visitors to the state’s role in the rights movement civics.

Iris Vacante, a Madisonville historian and curator of the Madisonville Historical Museum, said the church has great historical value because it was a stronghold of goodwill for members of the segregated community.

“This church tells a story about the lives of African Americans in Houltonville who were instrumental in the thriving sawmill industry on the North Shore,” Vacante said. “He provided a safe place for people of color to worship, to come together, to celebrate unions and lives.

“So many historic buildings have been destroyed by storms or to make way for progress. When we find a gem like this, it’s so important to protect it for future generations,” she said.

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