Feisty priest’s fight began Abbeville

One hundred sixty-six years ago, on July 25, 1843, Father Antoine Desire Mégret bought the land where he would build a church and the town called Abbeville. He did it because, quite literally, he’d been in a big fight in Lafayette with the trustees of the church there.

He’d thought about locating his church farther up the Vermilion River at Perry. But he was offered nothing but a piece of swamp.

Act of Sale No. 448, still on record at the Lafayette Parish courthouse (because Vermilion Parish had not yet been separated from it), shows that Father Mégret bought the land from Joseph LeBlanc “of Calcasieu Parish” for $900. The priest was to pay $400 within 12 months of the sale and the remaining $500 within 18 months.

The LeBlanc home served as Father Mégret’s first chapel while he built a real church on the site of the present St. Mary Magdalen Church. 

That church was blown down by the infamous Last Island hurricane that took hundreds of lives in coastal Louisiana in 1856.

That was three years after Father Mégret died as the last casualty of a yellow fever epidemic in 1853. But it wouldn’t have phased him. He didn’t back away from trouble.

He was born in Abbéville, France, and came to Louisiana as a Capuchin missionary in 1842. He was sent to Vermilionville (as Lafayette was then known), where he inherited a fight that had been going on between the old priest and the parishioners of St. John’s Parish.

In those days, as today, church parishes were created not only as institutions of the church but were also incorporated as civil entities. It was customary that a board of trustees made up of laymen from the parish would oversee the business of the civil corporation.

These trustees, called Marguilliers in French, sometimes thought they should run the spiritual affairs of the parish also. That always brought trouble.

In Lafayette, the Marguilliers regarded themselves as the masters of the church and the pastor as their hired hand. They refused to pay the old pastor’s salary because of the ongoing argument, and they told Mégret that they wouldn’t pay him either unless he did their will.

He would have none of that. He told the trustees that he was not subject to their whim, that his boss was the bishop, and if they didn’t like it, he’d close the church and go elsewhere.

Things came to a head when a local tough guy, hired by the Marguilliers. “hurling foul and slanderous insults,” attacked Father Mégret on the street and beat him up. Townspeople, including the sheriff, simply stood by and watched.

Father Mégret made good on his promise. He locked up the church in Vermilionville and moved to Abbeville.

When he refused to say Mass or administer the sacraments in Vermilionville, the congregation entered the fray. They elected new trustees.

The old Marguilliers refused to accept the result of that election and called for a new one. Nobody showed up to vote.

Father Mégret had won. He began saying Mass again in Vermilionville, but also at the new chapel in Abbeville.

In 1847, he laid out lots for a town site around his new church. He sold the land to buyers on the condition that they would pay an annual “interest” to support his church.

You can contact Jim Bradshaw by e-mail at jhbradshaw@bellsouth.net or by regular mail at P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.

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