Our Church Parish History

By Emily R. Boudreaux
As First Published in 1996

Mrs. Emily R. Boudreaux, who authored this parish history that was published in a 50th Jubilee Parish Directory (1996), entered her eternal reward on February 9, 2001.

The resounding words of St. Paul, “You, then, are the Body of Christ” (1Cor. 12:27), proclaim the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, its members united with one another, with Jesus as its Head.  Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church now reflects upon the achievements of its “members” of the Mystical Body, as it commemorates its fiftieth jubilee.

While under the pastorate and guidance of Rt. Rev. Msgr. A. B. Colliard, the mother church of St. Landry, after 170 years as a parish, in order to accommodate the growing Catholic population in Opelousas and the surrounding areas, gave to the city of Opelousas the new parish of Our Lady of Mercy.

Monsignor, Colliard, known and loved by all, and admired for his outstanding efforts and achievements in the St. Landry Church parish, led the efforts to construct the present building.  He served under the Most Rev. Jules B. Jeanmard, D.D., first Bishop of Lafayette.  At the suggestion of Bishop Jeanmard, Monsignor Colliard, in November, 1940, purchased from the “Mornhinveg Heirs” several lots on the western edge of Opelousas, some of which faced Highway 7 (now U.S. Highway 190).

The foundation work started in December of 1941, with actual construction beginning in late January 1942, following plans drafted by Theodore L. Perrier, Architect of New Orleans.  Construction of the edifice was placed in the hands of J. B. Mouton, Lafayette contractor.  The builders completed their work in early August, and the altars, finished at the end of that month, were then stained and varnished.  It was impossible to obtain electric light fixtures at that time due to war conditions, [so] temporary droplights [were] installed . . . .  The structure was completed in early October, and on October 21, 1942, Bishop Jeanmard presided over the dedication services.

The new church was dedicated to Mary, Our Mother of Mercy, under the invocation of Our Lady of Mercy.  The virtue of mercy is especially appropriate to her as she is the perfect mother of all mankind.  The beautiful and inspiring title is a designation which urges suffering and sorrowing men and women to come to the feet of Mary and appeal to her merciful, compassionate, motherly heart.

Our Lady of Mercy Chapel served as a mission of the mother church of St. Landry from the time of its construction in 1942 until March 1946.  Monsignor Colliard, who retired the $52,000 construction debt in 1945 and turned over the church to the diocese, debt-free, requested that the new parish be created to meet and serve the needs of the growing population of the western section of the city.  On March 26, 1946, Bishop Jeanmard signed the Decree of Erection of the Parish of Our Lady of Mercy, Opelousas, Louisiana, declaring the Church of Our Lady of Mercy dismembered from the Church Parish of St. Landry and erected as a parish of its own.

In addition to Monsignor Colliard, its founding pastor, eight pastors have faithfully served Our Lady of Mercy since its establishment.  Their untiring efforts and unceasing devotion are remembered by most, and an attempt is made here, albeit feeble, to recognize their dedication and laudable works.

Rev. Fr. John C. Cooney, already in declining health, served as first rector of Our Lady of Mercy Church beginning on March 5, 1946.  During Fr. Cooney’s rectorship, the first wedding ceremony was celebrated between Ignace Stelly and Eve Gautreaux on March 26, 1946, and the first baptism, that of James Harold Lalonde, was celebrated on April 6, 1946.  By the end of April, however, Fr. Cooney gave up his pastoral duties due to his rapidly deteriorating health.  Initially taken to Lafayette Charity Hospital for treatment, he later died at St. Patrick’s Sanitarium in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on June 8, 1946.  Monsignor Colliard served as administrator of the parish from that date until October 20, 1946.

Rev. Fr. J. Clifford Gaudin, then vice-chancellor and secretary to Bishop Jeanmard, named pastor of Our Lady of Mercy on October 20, 1946, arrived in Opelousas on October 22.  The early formative years of the parish were filled with activity and promise as Father Gaudin worked steadily, establishing parish organizations, organizing parish schedules, and generally formulating plans for the good of the parish.

Some of the first altar boys to serve at Our Lady of Mercy were Sidney Pitre, Berchman Sylvester, Warren Fontenot, Paul Wayne Ledoux, and Will Ledoux.  Evelyn Fadaol was the first organist and choir director.  The Ushers Group was formed and Amos Bihm served as Chairman and J. C. Mouille served as President.  The Altar Society organized and elected the following officers: President – Mrs. Carrol Prejean, Vice President – Mrs. Gladstone D’Avy, Secretary – Mrs. Wilfred Sylvester, and Treasurer – Mrs. Albert Martin.  The Knights of Columbus #3409 organized on April 22, 1951, with members dedicating the organization to the memory of Rt. Rev. Msgr. A. B. Colliard.  Grand Knight was Percy Ledoux and Deputy Grand Knight was jack Hidalgo.  Marion Harmon was elected Financial Secretary, and Father Gaudin served as Chaplain.  Other organizations established by Father Gaudin were the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Holy Name Society for Men, and National Council of Catholic Women.  The first recorded funeral was that of Moise Briley who was buried on March 13, 1947.  By 1949, the annual parish report showed the following:  average Mass attendance – 800; total Communions – 12,596; Baptisms – 99; Marriages – 21; Burials – 8; First Communions – 67.  Total income was shown as $11,121.42 and total expenses amounted to $12,119.31.

Seeing the dire need for a parish activity building, on April 5, 1950, Father Gaudin purchased two lots located at the corner of Myrtle and Bullard Streets, and the building situated on those lots, known as the “Cortez Garage,” and this building served as a parish hall and catechetical building for many years.

It was also during Father Gaudin’s pastorate that Rev. Fr. Wilfred Sylvester, on May 10, 1952, became the first priest ordained from this parish.  Father Sylvester celebrated his first Solemn Mass on May 11, 1952, at 10:00 a.m., and an afternoon reception followed in the parish hall.

Further, Father Gaudin carefully planned and supervised the installation of the beautiful stained glass windows in Our Lady of Mercy.  The windows bear invocations or titles of Our Blessed Mother, and relate to appropriate Bible passages and to her “Magnificat.”  The Stations of the Cross were also ensconced under Father Gaudin’s guidance and supervision.  About that time, air conditioning was installed – much to the relief of all.

His long-range vision had not yet been realized, however.  Father Gaudin aimed to build a school, a new church, a convent, a rectory, and an auditorium on a 22-acre tract of land purchased in 1952, located just outside the city limits of Opelousas.  “Our Lady of Mercy Development Fund,” instituted in December 1958, and headed by Percy Ledoux, General Chairman, began its campaign to raise funds.  All efforts were made to get this project underway but parish interest was low and Father Gaudin’s dream never reached fruition.  The Church utilized some of the property as a cemetery, but within a few years, its was deemed unsuitable for this purpose, and the remains of those buried there were moved.

Father Gaudin’s time at Our Lady of Mercy was a very fruitful one, and with a sense of sadness, his parishioners wished him Godspeed on June 15, 1961, when he departed for his reassignment to St. Margaret’s Church in Lake Charles.

Rev. Fr. Adrian W. van Hal, appointed pastor of Our Lady of Mercy on June 23, 1961, arrived on June 24, 1961.  Father van Hal, of Dutch descent, was ordained to the priesthood in the Netherlands.  He spoke seven languages, and his varied experiences during his priesthood included serving as an Army chaplain from 1945 to 1956.  During that time, he witnessed the sights of the concentration camps at Dachau and Belsen.

Within a short time of his arrival, major changes and renovations took place.  During his first year, he instituted a Sunday evening Mass, installed a public address system in the church, erected the Rosary Confraternity and altar added an 11:00 a.m. Sunday Mass.

On Monday, June 11, 1962, at 6:30 p.m., Father van Hal celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving on the silver anniversary of his ordination.

Realizing the need for a new rectory and sacristy, Father van Hal began making plans.  Then Bishop of Lafayette, [the Most Rev.] Maurice Schexnayder, approved the plans just before his departure for Rome to participate in the Ecumenical Council, and gave his permission to contact an architect.  Mr. Clayton J. D’Avy, a parishioner, was engaged; the wheels were set in motion, and construction commenced on March 11, 1963.  The rectory and sacristy were completed several months later at a cost of $70,000.  On September 9, Father van Hal moved into the completed rectory along with Rev. Fr. Stanley P. Begnaud, who served Our Lady of Mercy as its first associate pastor from June 1963, to June 1965.

Father van Hal, seeing the future need for a new CCD building, sold the old “Cortez Garage” building and had it removed from the property.  Construction began on the new building with Father van Hal as overseer, and Clayton D’Avy as architect.  On December 8, 1965, the parish accepted the new CCD building as complete at a cost of $105,300.

During this time, Rev. Fr. Henry E. Ory succeeded Father Begnaud as associate pastor, and he served from 1965 to 1968.

Following the mandate of the Second Vatican Council for more active congregation participation in the liturgy of the Mass, countless churches around the world underwent major changes and renovations, and in June 1967, Our Lady of Mercy initiated some of those changes.  Father van Hal and Clayton D’Avy headed the project.  The substantial physical changes and renovations [were] completed in the spring of 1968 . . . .  Msgr. Jules Jeanmard, pastor of St. Anthony Church in Eunice, Louisiana, consecrated the new marble altar on May 8, 1968, and relics of St. Clarius and St. Prosper were enclosed and sealed within.

In 1968, Rev. Fr. Robert Courville replaced Father Ory as associate pastor, and he served in that position until 1970.  Another mandate of Vatican II directed the formation of lay groups to aid in governing church parishes, and after several planning meetings, Father van Hal scheduled a parish council election for Sunday, May 18, 1969.  Of the twenty names placed on the ballot, and from the 800 or more ballots cast at the Masses that day, the parishioners elected the following:  Clayton D’Avy, Billy Baque, Dr. Richard Hargroder, A. C. Bellard, Paul Dugal, George Stoute, Mrs. Rene Briggs, Jr., and Clarence Ledoux.  Ex-officio members of the council were Jimmy Soileau and A. C. Thibodeaux – Trustees; Father van Hal and Father Courville.  The newly formed parish council held its first meeting on May 28, 1969, and elected as officers Paul Dugal – Chairman, Billy Baque – Vice Chairman, and Mrs. Rene Briggs, Jr. – Secretary/Treasurer.

Father van Hal had many plans for Our Lady of Mercy, but he became seriously ill in June 1969, and from that time until June 1970, he was hospitalized three times.  Death came in August 1970.

Rev. Fr. John J. Windt succeeded Father van Hal, and he served from August 1970 through March 1971, when he was transferred due to illness.

Rev. Fr. George H. Simon, appointed pastor in 1971, implemented many other improvements at Our Lady of Mercy.  He purchased additional church property, oversaw the paving of parking lots, and invested savings for the future needs of the parish.  He also directed the remodeling of the confessionals to conform to the new Rite of Penance as set out by the Second Vatican Council, and converted the baptistery to a room of reconciliation.  The laity became more involved in the Mass, and among those first commissioned to serve as Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers were Bob Chachere, Otis Dupre, Jr., Lorraine Dupre, Carroll Lavergne, James Mackey, Wanda Manuel, and Clay Menard.  Among the first Lectors were Wade Dupre, Paul Dugal, and Max Miller, and the first women Lectors were Lena Ricotta, Claire V. Landry, and Flo Inhern.  Under Father Simon’s direction, other groups such as the Flower Girls and the Enthronement of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were established, in addition to the Legion of Mary, with Margie Stegall serving as its first president.  Father Simon felt the need for a director of religious education and music minister, and engaged Joseph Fontenot to fill those positions.  Mr. Fontenot served faithfully in those capacities under four pastors, for fourteen years.

Father Simon also celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination while at Our Lady of Mercy.

Those serving as associate pastors during Father Simon’s pastorate were: Rev. Fr. J. A. Doyle, 1970 – 1972; Rev. Fr. Richard Fabre, 1973 – 1977; Rev. Fr. Lane Fontenot, 1977 – 1979; Rev. Fr. Joseph Thanh Vu, 1979 – 1981; and Rev. Fr. Martin C. Maraist, Jr.

Father Simon, who served as pastor until July 28, 1982, is particularly remembered for his humanitarian efforts in assisting the displaced Vietnamese families who had settled in this area, and his working in renewing oneness in the parish.

Rev. Fr. Martin C. Maraist, Jr., served Our Lady of Mercy as associate pastor from July of 19871 to July of 1982.  He served as temporary administrator from July 1982 until he became pastor on March 27, 1983.  On frequent occasions, he could be seen parking his car at the end of a block, and then walking from house to house, visiting parishioners and distributing Holy Communion.  An avid gardener, he enjoyed working the grounds of the church.  Father Maraist’s pastorate ended on November 8, 1986, upon his appointment to serve another parish.

 Rev. Fr. Michael J. Arnaud, designated temporary administrator of Our Lady of Mercy on November 8, 1986, served in that position until December 6, 1986, when he became pastor.  Major improvements were realized during Father Arnaud’s pastorate.  He supervised the refurbishing of much of the interior of the church, and the purchasing of the new pews.  The marbling of the pilasters on the side walls of the church is an example of the care and attention he paid to the project.  Father Arnaud revived the annual church fair to assist in satisfying church expenses, and that function existed for several years.  Additionally, he instituted the “Food Committee” devoted to preparing food for families of deceased parishioners, headed by Theresa Dupre.  Also, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) was established, directed by Mr. and Mrs. Carl Clement, and assisted by Glenda Joubert.

Considered one of Father Arnaud’s most important achievements at Our Lady of Mercy was the establishment of “Mercy Chapel” on August 28, 1992, devoted to the twenty-four-hour adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.  Priscilla Stansbury was appointed overall coordinator of Mercy Chapel.

After several years of dedicated service, Father Arnaud, whose work was done here, departed on May 23, 1993, on his new assignment.

The “adopted” son of Our Lady of Mercy, Rev. Fr. Barry Crochet, ordained on Saturday, June 12, 1993, celebrated his first Holy Mass at Our Lady of Mercy on Sunday, June 13, 1993.

Rev. Fr. Michael J. Russo, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy since June 1, 1993, has been instrumental in renewing many Catholic traditions in the parish.  Among them are Eucharistic Processions, May Crowning of the Blessed Mother, First Saturday Masses and Devotions, weekly Way of the Cross, and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.  Father Russo, of Sicilian heritage, was particularly pleased to institute the St. Joseph’s Altar on March 19, 1994, with then Bishop of Lafayette Harry J. Flynn as guest.  The beautiful traditional altar, viewed and appreciated by hundreds of parishioners and guests, has become an annual event.  He also expanded the “Food Committee” – renamed the “Good Samaritans” – in order to reach out to more bereaved families, and also formed a new apostolate of prayer known as “The Vocation Statue/Sacred Heart Enthronement,” dedicated to family prayer for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and enthronement of the Sacred Heart image in the home.  Father Russo also established the “Children of Mary,” a group of young children who meet on the first Saturday of each month for Mass and fun activities, and the “Advent Giving Tree,” committed to outreach of the poor.  He was also instrumental in the beautification of the sanctuary, a project commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the parish.

Father Russo, although always mindful of and attentive to the physical needs of the parish, is particularly devoted to the spirituality and holiness of his parishioners.  The long lines of penitents awaiting the Sacrament of Reconciliation reflect his dedication and effectiveness in the pursuit of sanctity of his people.

During Father Russo’s pastorate, and for the first time, the chaplains of the Opelousas hospitals began making their residence at Our Lady of Mercy.  Rev. Fr. George Thychery, a native of India, arrived in October 1993.  His responsibilities in the parish were limited due to his official duties as chaplain at the Opelousas hospitals.  He remained on until May 1994, when he received assignment as pastor of his first parish since coming to America.

Rev. Fr. James Vellankal, also a native of India, followed Father Thychery, and he took up residence at Our Lady of Mercy in May 1994, when he assumed the position of chaplain at the Opelousas hospitals.  Father Vellankal’s responsibilities are also limited due to his chaplainry duties.

Rev. Mr. Charles Ortego, ordained to the permanent diaconate on June 26, 1993, and assigned to Our Lady of Mercy in April 1994, serves as its first deacon.  With dedication and fidelity, he assists in many areas of the parish, particularly in catechesis and ministry to the sick.

Over the years, several parishioners of Our Lady of Mercy received special recognition for their service to others.  On July 13, 1966, Bishop Maurice Schexnayder presented the Bishop’s Medal to Mrs. Numa Lavergne and Mrs. Lena Ricotta for their many years of devoted service.  On the same day, Bishop Schexnayder presented to Mr. A. C. Thibodeaux, Sr., the Papal Medal “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” for his outstanding service to the Pope and to the Church.  Mrs. Cammie Vigé received the Bishop’s Medal from Bishop Harry J. Flynn on May 5, 1991, for her lifelong service to others.  On February 1, 1996, following a special Anniversary Mass, Bishop Edward J. O’Donnell bestowed the Bishop’s Medal to Mr. Wade Dupre, Mrs. Flo Inhern, and Mr. Clayton D’Avy.

This brief history of Our Lady of Mercy Church has touched only the high points of the past fifty years, and countless pastoral works and accomplishments are not recognized here.  May Almighty God bestow His abundant graces on all those members of His Mystical Body, who throughout the years, have shepherded His people in this parish.

And to all of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ of Our Lady of Mercy Church – the Parishioners – especially those who through the years, have served this parish tirelessly, with unflagging dedication, giving their love, time, talent and/or treasure, May they all be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one (John 17:22-23).

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In addition to Monsignor Colliard, its founding pastor, eight pastors have faithfully served Our Lady of Mercy since its establishment.  Their untiring efforts and unceasing devotion are remembered by most, and an attempt is made here, albeit feeble, to recognize their dedication and laudable works.

Father Michael Russo was transferred to another parish in June 1996.

 Rev. Fr. F. David Broussard, became pastor of Our Lady of Mercy in June 1996 and served until January 1999.  During his pastorate, the new Mercy Chapel near the rectory was constructed.

 Rev. Fr. Jefferson J. DeBlanc, Jr., became the 10th pastor of Our Lady of Mercy on January 13, 1999. He was also appointed Chancellor of Opelousas Catholic School in December 1999.  Fr. Jeff strongly supported the many devotions of the parish and the OLM Youth Group.  Fr. Jeff had the vision to add the portico to the East entrance of the church, bring the restroom facilities into the church, and make the multitiered sanctuary one level.  Fr. Jeff moved the church office from inside the rectory into a new office building and began the remodeling of the rectory before being reassigned.  This work will insure that his mark will be felt on the parish for many years.  Fr. Jeff guided this parish with a kind and gentle heart that always lead them to the heart of Jesus in all the Sacraments.

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