By Harriet P. Gross
St. Francisville, Louisiana. Not too far up the Mississippi from New Orleans. Population: 1,765. Claim to fame: its annual Audubon Pilgrimage, when every stately old plantation home is spruced up and open for public viewing.
(Yes, esteemed bird painter John James Audubon did actually live here once, for four short months in the 19th century, while he tutored the daughter of one of those stately old plantation homeowners. But during those months he produced perhaps his best-known work, the bald eagle, so the fame claim is probably justified.)
I hopped off the sightseeing bus at the little visitors’ center to find out which house to visit, and found, instead, a display of local Jewish history! There are no Jews at all left now, but its former Jewish residents certainly left their mark on St. Francisville.
A sizable Jewish community in the heart of West Feliciana Parish (Louisiana’s equivalent of County) “flourished during the late 19th century,” according to its historical society. The Jews first met in a hotel and then in an opera house, incorporated Temple Sinai in 1901 and two years later built its home. The local newspaper described the dedication: “The sacred building was filled by a large congregation composed of both Jews and Gentiles. It was an hour of rejoicing” with “processions of children bearing palms and candles.” But not too many years later, the boll weevil arrived in St. Francisville and the Jews departed, reestablishing their mercantile businesses in New Orleans. In 1921, the small synagogue was bought by local Presbyterians and became their church home.
Julius Freyhan, businessman and philanthropist, was a key figure in both the Jewish community and the town during his lifetime, which ended in 1904. Before his death, he had established a foundation whose first bequest funded the building of a public high school in St. Francisville to serve all students of West Feliciana Parish. The Freyhan Foundation’s assets grew over the years, while both the former synagogue structure and the school — which still bears Julius’ name although it graduated its last class in the 1950s — fell into disrepair. In 2007, the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation listed these two buildings among the state’s 10 most endangered sites. So Freyhan’s legacy was tapped to help make things right.
In December 2012, the Foundation completed a seven-month restoration of Temple Sinai, whose first “open house” event was a Holocaust program last August, jointly sponsored by the Foundation and the Parish Historical Society. On a summer Sunday evening, local teacher Mark Lester told the story of Polish survivor Eva Galler to a standing-room-only audience that included many of her New Orleans family’s former classmates and neighbors. “We all must speak out and let such prejudice and intolerance be remembered,” Lester said, “so that we can learn from it and help eradicate it.”
Once I heard all this, of course I had to see the “new” Temple Sinai for myself. It is again today just what it used to be: “The fine building, 35×50 feet, had a number of large stained glass windows and high ceilings contributing to perfect acoustics. The handsome circular pews, altar and raised choir gallery were of quarter-sawn oak. The exterior, painted dove gray trimmed in green, featured doorways topped with arched gothic windows and wide central steps flanked by tall twin towers.”
But the stained glass windows are in solid colors, without any religious significance, and there are no Jewish ritual objects of any kind on display; Temple Sinai, somewhat ironically located on Prosperity Street, is now a treasured historic monument, but no longer a house of worship. When I asked a local resident what happened to the Protestants who had until fairly recently prayed together there, she replied, “Oh, they’re all Methodists now!”
(The Julius Freyhan Foundation currently seeks donations to help complete restoration of “his” high school. Anyone interested in contributing, or in obtaining more information, should visit www.freyhanfoundation.org.)