Researchers plan to compile an index of churches and eventually publish a book that would be of interest to historians and genealogists. The Center was awarded a grant from the Cane River National Heritage Area to begin the first phase of the project.
“In the first phase, we will work to compile a list of churches and contacts. Then we will create a survey asking if they have their church history. Many churches do and they read those on their church anniversary,” said graduate student Markita Hamilton, the project’s principal investigator. She plans to work with the Natchitoches Ministerial Alliance and attend district church meetings in search of records pertaining to births, baptisms, deaths, marriages, pastors, memberships and any photographs that may exist. Hamilton hopes congregations will be willing to have their records scanned, digitized and eventually made searchable. “I’m very interested in the little known facts about each church.”
“There was a book published in 2001 entitled, ‘Historic Black Churches of Natchitoches Parish’ which only included approximately 40 churches,” said Loletta Wynder, project coordinator for the Creole Heritage Center. “In our primary research, we have found that there were many more thriving churches that were not included, some that were established over 100 years ago. In addition, we need to include other churches that were established over the last ten years, after the printing of the original book. The project could grow and grow, but first we have to get the information.”
Hamilton and Wynder will give priority to older churches that have the most fragile records. They will document cemeteries associated with the churches, deacons and information pertaining to how each church was established. They are also interested in how the churches got their names and if the name changed over the years.
“Church records are important. Some churches were built on land donated to the congregation from neighboring landowners in which case, there would be a record in the courthouse describing plats and where it came from,” Wynder said. A wealth of information can also be gathered from funeral programs and prayer cards that list dates and biographical information about the deceased.
Many churches have a long history with freemasonry with records that document cornerstone laying. Church records also often demonstrate a close connection between religion and education in the black community, Hamilton said, as many churches began in schools and many schools began in churches.
“The Guide to Black Churches in Natchitoches Parish” will include those that descend from churches that no longer exist and those that were formed when a congregation split. Often churches with similar names were once one church, Wynder explained, and there are some instances of congregations changing denominations altogether after a split. Those splits sometimes present a challenge to collecting and documenting records; elders may be hesitant to exhume old conflicts and, because small churches are so closely tied to family history, resentment over a split can endure for generations.
“Many church members remain faithful members of their family’s church, even if they move to a different part of the parish and many churches are populated by members of the same family. All the members are related,” Hamilton said.
Another challenge is that records passed down through decades of church secretaries sometimes get lost or placed in a cabinet and forgotten, Hamilton said. The Creole Heritage Center can help congregations properly organize, archive and preserve their documents.
The Rev. Henry Edwards, pastor of St. Savior Baptist Church near Vienna Bend, is enthusiastic about the project, not only about recording the history of his 130-year-old church, but also some of the traditions associated with baptism, communion and celebrations like Homecoming and Family and Friends Day.
“I would be eager to share,” said Edwards, who described the old St. Savior building, where the bell tolled for funerals and congregants shared meals under the trees by Cane River surrounded by cotton and cornfields. “There are some things that should never die. You want to make sure your children and grandchildren balance the present with the past so they respect and know what took place. Without the old, you can’t have the new.”
“Our main focus is genealogy. The first step is to get the church history itself and find out if they have records of baptism, marriages, death and who is buried in the cemetery,” Wynder said. “Once printed, this book will be an excellent tool for churches, genealogical associations and family members researching their family information. On a personal note, I am hoping that it will help me to fill in some of the gaps on my own family tree.”
For more information on “The Guide to Black Churches in Natchitoches Parish,” contact Hamilton at the Creole Heritage Center at (318) 357-6685 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.