By Brother XAVIER WERNETH, SC
In August of 1854, Bishop Jacques Van de Velde, SJ, of Natchez, Mississippi, visited Bay St. Louis where he met several Brothers of the Sacred Heart and Father Stanislaus Buteux, the pastor at Our Lady of the Gulf. The bishop was so impressed by the brothers that he wrote in French to Brother Polycarp Gondre, superior general of the brothers in LePuy, France, asking for three brothers right away to teach in Natchez and some later for Vicksburg. "I prefer your brothers to all others," he insisted. Bishop Van de Velde died the following year, and it was not until eleven years later, on November 1, 1865, that three Brothers of the Sacred Heart went to Natchez to conduct the Cathedral School.
In the same contract by which the brothers took charge of the school, they agreed to manage an orphan home for boys. Bishop William Elder of Natchez started the orphanage when William St. John Elliot, a wealthy Catholic, left in his will provisions for the diocese to open a male orphanage to be incorporated under the name D'Evereux Hall Orphan Asylum. The diocese opened the orphanage in 1860 in a small frame building on a plot of land consisting of 35 acres on Aldrich and Pine streets in Natchez. The little orphanage which could accommodate only 12 small boys was administered by the Rev. Frederick Muller, a diocesan priest, but Bishop Elder wanted a religious congregation of men to manage it in order to give it greater stability.
On December 15, 1865, three more brothers arrived in Natchez to direct D'Evereux Hall. The bishop began immediately to construct a larger brick building that was completed the following year and was filled right away with 41 orphans. Additions to the building were made in 1879 and 1910 to increase the capacity of the orphanage since yellow fever epidemics had orphaned many children in the area. The 1910 building put up by Bishop Thomas Heslin provided more spacious living accommodations for the brothers whose number at the orphanage had increased to ten. D'Evereux Hall on the highest hill in Natchez made an impressive sight.
In 1938 Bishop Richard Gerow took a personal interest in the orphans' welfare and determined to make D'Evereux Hall one of the finest charitable institutions in the state. He spent $30,000 to renovate the buildings. By then the only brothers in Natchez were the seven who remained at the orphanage after the brothers had withdrawn from Cathedral School in 1935 when the boys' and girls' schools, both very small, merged into one larger school under the direction of the Sisters of Charity.
In 1947 Brother Basil Harrington replaced Brother Lambert Fairfield as director of the orphanage. The seven brothers there worked with about 50 orphans each year. They ranged in age from 6 to 17, but most of them were still in the elementary grades. They attended classes at either the orphanage or the Cathedral Elementary School. In 1949 Brother Florian McGinnis, who had already managed the orphanage for a six-year term, returned as director. He had been an orphan himself at Boys' Industrial Home in Mobile, and he always showed a great love for and understanding of the orphans even if his ways were considered old-fashioned.
At least seven brothers had been assigned annually to D'Evereux Hall since 1878. But in 1950, Brother Martin Hernandez, provincial, changed that. Pressed for manpower because the previous year seven professed brothers had left and another had died, and not wishing to withdraw student brothers from the newly opened scholasticate and interrupt their studies, Brother Martin cut the staff at D'Evereux Hall from seven to five in 1950-51, to four in 1951-52, and to three in 1952-53. But by 1952, the enrollment at D'Evereux Hall had dropped to 35 boys and the brothers had discontinued teaching classes on the campus. Working with Brother Florian in 1952-53 were Brothers Ephrem Falgoust, who prefected the boys, and Henry Moulin, who was old and infirm.
In 1953 Brother Edgar Gagnon, who was 50 years old, succeeded Brother Florian as director. Brother Edgar served six years and provided very well for the orphans under his care. He saw to the installation of a new heating system in the dormitory and acquired new playground equipment. An article concerning the brothers' work at D'Evereux Hall appeared in the Vicksburg Herald, September 18, 1954. It stated: "Too much praise cannot be given to these noble men, the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, for the splendid work they have accomplished since taking charge of the orphanage. Practically 1,500 of Mississippi's homeless boys found a home there. One hundred and ninety-three boys from Warren County received their training at D'Evereux Hall since it was established. At present there are 12 boys from Warren County at the orphanage. All of these received and still receive the best of moral and educational training and have proved themselves valuable citizens of our state."
D'Evereux Hall, Natchez, Mississippi – Photographer Norman Studio circa 1910 – Louisiana State University Libraries, Special Collections – The Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection – Mss. 3778, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley collections – LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Brother Aquinas Vanderhoeven began a six-year term as director in 1959. He enjoyed excellent rapport with the clergy. Joining Brothers Aquinas and Henry was Brother Pierre St. Pierre, who prepared meals and took care of the small boys who needed constant watching. It was a happy and cheerful community. The brothers had an opportunity to assist at a second Mass during the day while the 28 boys attended classes at the new Cathedral Grammar School just a short distance from their house. Also the brothers had time to putter in the garden and look after the chickens and the three milk cows.
On December 12, 1960, 50 brothers gathered in Natchez to celebrate the centennial of D'Evereux Hall. Bishop Richard Gerow of Natchez-Jackson celebrated a solemn pontifical Mass for the occasion. Following Mass there was a banquet at the Eola Hotel. Bishop Gerow and Monsignor Thomas Fullam, diocesan director of Catholic Charities, had high praise for the work of the brothers.
Brother Pascal Ackerman, province tailor, joined the community in Natchez in 1960. In 1962 Brother Alban Tucker replaced Brother Pierre. At that time the number of boys had decreased to only 23, most of them very young. Ample playground facilities such as swings, bikes, and slides suitable to young boys kept them occupied during recesses. Even though hired help did most of the cleaning, each boy was given chores around the house to teach him responsibility. They kept the old house spotlessly clean. The brothers maintained a family atmosphere and trained the boys in politeness, charity, and piety.
By the early 1960s, it was apparent that new directions in child-care programs were under discussion by diocesan officials. In 1965 when Brother Hubert Bonnette, provincial, visited the orphanage, he was struck by the young age of the boys. As did previous provincials, Brother Hubert concluded, "Brothers should not take care of this age group." (Provincial's Report, 1965) On March 4, 1965, the provincial council agreed that Brother Hubert should speak to Bishop Gerow and his auxiliary, Bishop Joseph Brunini, a "brothers' boy" from St. Aloysius in Vicksburg, about withdrawing the brothers from D'Evereux Hall in Natchez. Both bishops served on the board of trustees for D'Evereux Hall and for St. Mary's Orphanage for girls. The board had decided to follow the new directions in child-care ministry and adopted an "expanded child-care program." The new program aimed at providing a more homelike atmosphere whereby groups of one to three children were taken in by foster parents and groups of six to eight orphans were placed in group-care homes. (Province Monthly, March-April, 1966, p. 1)
At its meeting on April 4, 1965, the provincial council, with the full agreement of the bishops, unanimously decided that the brothers would withdraw from the orphanage in the summer of 1966. Thus, when Brother Dacian LeBlanc took over direction of D'Evereux Hall in September 1965, he knew it was the orphanage's last year and a period of transition.
The brothers had operated the orphanage in Natchez for more than 100 years since their arrival there in 1865. They had worked with more than 1,500 orphans at the school. Brothers who ministered to the orphans maintained many happy memories of their work at D'Evereux Hall. An article about Natchez in Brothers of the Sacred Heart quoted Brother Pierre St. Pierre as looking back on his days in Natchez as "the happiest days of my life."
The same article quoted Brother Pascal, who lived at D'Evereux Hall as an orphan from 1918-24 and who later served there for five years as a brother, as having "cherished memories of both times." (Vol. 5:2, October 1985, p. 5)
Brother Xavier Werneth, SC
August 30, 2010 revised from Plus Fifty