The Five Catholic Churches of Natchitoches
By my friend, Richard Seale
The first recorded baptism in Natchitoches occurred in 1723,
however, as M. Derbannes reported in a letter written in October of that year,
"We have no church in this post, nor priest.
It is a Spanish priest who comes to say mass on Sundays."
No church building was erected in colonial Natchitoches until 1735,
when Commandant St. Denis rebuilt the fort on the hill
that is now the American Cemetery.

A replica of this church can be seen within the enclosure at
Ft. St. Jean Baptist State Commemorative Area.
Seven years later, upon his death in 1744,
St. Denis was buried in this church.

By the time of the Spanish domination of Louisiana,
the church built in 1735 had deteriorated to ruins.
Therefore, in 1771, the Spanish commandant, Athanase de Mezieres,
ordered construction of a new Catholic Church in Natchitoches.

This church building was constructed outside the walls of the fort
on the northern end of American Cemetery hill near present day DeMezieres Street.

DeMezieres himself reported that there was an
"abundance of stone here, both for making lime and for walls",
which implies that this church was made of stone.
However, only twelve years after its construction,
the "stone" church needed extensive repairs.

On January 26, 1783, several notable inhabitants gathered to discuss
"la necessite indispensable" of repairing both the church and the rectory,
but a list of the repairs was so extensive that the congregation decided
to have a new church built rather than repair the "stone" church.

In 1778, the Catholic congregation of Natchitoches began building
a new sanctuary on the corner of present day Church and Front Streets and,
by the end of that year, this third church, the Church of St. Francis,
was completed at the cost of 3,997 piasters.

By 1821, Bishop Dubourg reported that the Church of St. Francis
was near "collapse" and its ornaments were in "tatters".
The next year, his despair over the condition of the building was
compounded when a fire broke out in the church and destroyed it
and sixty-five other buildings and homes in town.

In 1826, the Louisiana Legislature authorized St. Francis Catholic Church
to hold a lottery to raise funds to build a new church. Over $18,000
was collected, and on October 5, 1828, the city's fourth Catholic Church was dedicated.

This building was located directly west of the old church
in the lot nowoccupied by the Church Street Inn.

A decade later, great disaster struck once again.
An eyewitness, William Toumey, wrote that on
"March 17, 1838 . fire (which) reduced the splendid Roman Catholic Church
as well as the dwelling(s) of Dr. Geard, Mr. Martine, Mr. Crossman, Mrs. Harrison
and the law office of my friend, Dunn, to a pile of ruins.
Damage was computed at over $100,000."

This building was repaired and rededicated in 1842.
In 1856, the area's congregation rebuilt the Cathedral of St. Francis
on the site of the present sanctuary.

This building was finally completed to its present magnificence
in 1889 by Bishop Durier, who donated part of his personal fortune for this purpose.
That year the building was rededicated the Church of Immaculate Conception
and it has remained the central point of the Catholic community here
for over one hundred years.

Confusion has surrounded the history of the Catholic Churches in Natchitoches
due to incorrect reporting by several noted scholars.
Many of these scholars place the first church in Natchitoches on Front Street
and most confuse DeMezieres "stone" church with the building constructed in 1788.
This confusion has also led to a misunderstanding of the location
of the grave of St. Denis.

However, recently uncovered documents and maps in
the Natchitoches Parish Courthouse and the Cammine Henry Research Center
at NSU have helped to reveal a more accurate sequence of historical events.

Nevertheless, whatever the interpretation
of events surrounding the churches of Natchitoches,
the Catholic Church has served as the center of
the town for nearly three hundred years.