108 East Saint Peter Street
Every Building Has a Story
Since New Iberia’s founding in 1779, Catholicism has been the main ingredient in this giant pot of gumbo that is southwestern Louisiana culture. The city of New Iberia has had three different names over the past 232 years: Nueva Iberia, Nouvelle Ibérie, and New Iberia, its current name. For nearly sixty years after the city’s beginning, the town was without a permanent church. From the beginning residents relied on neighboring priests from St. Martin De Tours Catholic Church for their monthly masses. At this time, New Iberia only had fourteen houses; all other houses in the town were built after 1840. As more towns got incorporated, the number of churches and chapels grew, bringing forward the need to have become independent of the St. Martinville parish and build a church. The land was first donated by François Prévost through a Spanish land grant in 1777. The land was then sold to Joseph Artacho in 1780 who sold it to Joseph Prévost, Jr, in 1789. Prévost sold the land to Nicolas Hebert in 1794 who sold it to Alexandre Hebert in the same year. Hebert then sold the land to Thomas Collins in 1801 who proceeded to sell the land to James Murphy in 1804. Murphy leased the land in 1804 and later sold it at an unknown date. Murphy’s Widow received the land and sold it to Henry Pintard and Charles Olivier Devezin in 1816. Devezin sold his interest to Pintard in 1817, giving him full ownership of the land. When Pintard died, his widow married Bernard Lafosse who dies in 1825. The Estate of Mrs. Bernard Lafosse is then sold to Frederick H. Duperior in 1825. Duperior and his wife then proceeded to donate the land to St. Peter’s. In the St. Martin Parish Conveyance Book 13, page 363, the land is described as the following: “A parcel of land measuring one arpent wide on Petite Anne Road (Iberia St.) by 2½ arpent deep.” There was no St. Peter Street at the time.
In 1836-37, the first church was built. It was a small, wooden structure, but as there was such a small amount of families in the town, it was just right. By 1888, another church was built, one larger than before, to accommodate the rising number of people attending masses. Due to the diligent work of Father Chasse, who took the liberty of finding out who wasn’t confirmed or hadn’t made their First Communion and convincing these people to receive the sacraments, the number of people in the congregation increased, along with the increasing number of people moving into New Iberia.
In 1870, the institution of Catholic Schools began in New Iberia, affiliated with St. Peter’s. The first Catholic school was Mount Carmel Academy, an all-girls school, opened by the sisters of the Mount Carmel convent. The first all-boys school was established in 1877, and was called Holy Cross College, but was sometimes referred to as New Iberia Academy or New Iberia College, which was run by priests and lay professors. In 1913, land was bought for a new institution to be built, the future St. Peter’s College, but as there was no one to run the school, it remained closed for five years, until 1918. Though there had been an influenza outbreak that year, the school was successful, and enrollment increased every year from its original number of 126 boys.
The priests of St. Peter’s are one of the most important pieces to the puzzle that is this wondrous church. Though the building itself has seen change, demolition, and reconstruction, it would be nothing without the priests that added to its grandeur. Much work went into gathering followers and increasing the amount of people in attendance, more work in making sure that people received all their sacraments. What was once a small congregation ended up climbing into the tens of thousands by the early twentieth century. St. Peter’s Catholic Church has a very rich history, one that the members of this church parish hope to watch continually grow long after they are gone, as it had long before they were born.
If Walls and Windows Could Talk
With an overall size of 188 feet by 112 feet, St. Peter’s Catholic Church is a mostly Romanesque building with hints of French Renaissance and Neoclassical Revival. The front lawn of the church isn’t one of the most spacious, but still has breathtaking landscaping, sometimes hiding the lower exterior of the church from passersby, until they reach the covered area before the two main doors. Two large towers can be seen from a distance containing large belfries covered by white, metal enclosures. One would notice that on all four corners of the structure are individually sculpted rosaries, symbolizing New Iberia’s devotion to the rosary. Beautiful cast iron railings line the multiple French doors throughout the span of the building. What lies behind these doors is even grander than one can imagine.
As you enter the large, steel front doors you find yourself in the vestibule where there are multiple statues depicting various saints and missionaries including St. Anthony and St. Jude Thaddeaus. Welcoming you into the actual body of the church is another large set of doors, which is in keeping with the reverence of the structure. Containing a vast amount of space, the main body of the church can seat about 1,200 worshippers in its four rows of pews. Here, one can calm and prepare themselves for the Body of Christ, which they will be receiving during their time at St. Peter’s if they choose. The grandeur of the church magnifies once you walk into the body of this holy area. From the floors to the ceilings, you feel as though you are in a stunningly painted globe, with magnificent colors, statues, and a beautifully decorated sanctuary at the head of the church. Looking around, you are sure to see the massive stained glass windows along the sides of the church, each depicting a scene from the Stations of the Cross. At the corners and in several secluded areas of the church, one can see the many statues of some of the many saints or angels. The inside of this fabulous church has changed over the many decades, fitting with the current interior design style, but nevertheless, has remained gorgeous at all angles.
Located directly above the vestibule near the entrance is the choir loft. This is where sacred hymns of praise are sung every Saturday anticipated mass. The young adult choir, children’s choir, and cantors also sing in the choir loft on Sundays. One would notice that the railing to the choir loft is in three separate segments. Two more sets of railing were added to the first in means of safety.
The ceiling of St. Peter’s is one of the finer points of its construction. With a larger than life mural of the Holy Trinity located directly above the altar, one feels instantaneously calmed. Another large mural is located on the ceiling in the center of the church. Upon the mural is an inverted cross, which as tradition states, is how St. Peter was crucified. Next to the mural are two symbols: keys and a miter and an anchor. The keys and miter symbolize how Jesus gave St. Peter the keys to heaven while the anchor symbolizes Peter’s occupancy as a fisherman.
A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words
Original concept for the High Altar and baldachin by architect Owen Southwell as interpreted by the Daprato Studios, New York, Chicago, and Pietrasanta, Italy. (Blueprint in vault at St. Peter’s, scanned May 2011)
Interior view, May 2011, center ceiling. The ceiling depicts a bishop’s miter with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and an anchor with rope – all symbols of Saint Peter. The center features an inverted cross (tradition holds that Saint Peter was crucified on an inverted cross) with the symbols of four Gospel writers (Saint Matthew, Winged Angel; Saint Mark, Winged Lion; Saint Luke, Winged Ox; Saint John, Eagle) on the four corners. Saint Peter’s commission from Jesus Christ “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church and I will give thee the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven,” Matthew 16:18-19 is also featured as are four palms symbolizing martyrdom.
Voices from the Past and Present
St. Peter’s Catholic Church has been a point of importance in the lives of New Iberia citizens for years now. Though it is just a building, it has made a serious impact on the lives of many, and there are many fond accounts of events that happened at the church. Couples were married there, parents baptized their children there, and on a sadder note, people parted with their loved ones for the last time there.
Parishioner Paul Schwing remembers the effect on the town during the flood of 1927, and how people handled the problem. In New Iberia, the water had risen nearly three feet, which was not enough to enter the church but enough to make driving a dangerous task. This did not stop people from attending their regular Sunday mass, though. People could be seen directing small boats through the water to the church, picking up people along the way. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best, except for men who replaced their pants with shorts, in order to pull the small boats along to the church.
Mr. Schwing also shared his recollections from being an altar boy at St. Peter’s. One of his memories includes receiving pay for assisting in funerals. The more important of the job done by the altar boy, the more money he would receive. Some were given fifty cents, some twenty five. He also remembers that when the second church was being torn down, a casket was exhumed from under the church, and he shares that Father Joen was buried there, as he was one of the most beloved and important priests that St. Peter’s had.
Baudier, Roger. St. Peter’s Church of New Iberia. New Iberia: n. pub. 1953. Print.
Belanger, Milton. St. Peter’s. 2011. Photographs. Private collection. Milton Belanger.
DuBose, Peighton. Modern Day St. Peter’s. Photographs. Private Collection. Peighton DuBose.
Glover, Elise. “Half Million Dollar St. Peter’s Church Dedication Rites Today.” The Daily Iberian 29 June 1953. Iberia Parish Library. Microform.
Laperouse, Roberta. New Iberia 1950 – 1953. Photographs. Private Collection. Mickey Delcambre.
Lemoine, Guy. A Guide to St. Peter’s Catholic Church. N.p. n.d.
Martin, I.A and Carroll. Second St. Peter’s Church early 1900s. Photographs. Private Collection. St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
Martin, Carroll. New Iberia Aerial. c. 1960. Iberia Parish Library Collection. Looking Back: Images of Iberia Parish 1940 – 1970. 2005. The Daily Iberian. Page 85. Print.
“Work on St. Peter’s Church Underway After Rites Here.” The Daily Iberian 30 May 1951: 12 Iberia Parish Library. Microform.