by Ken Dupuy
On May 23, 1797, in the midst of the French Revolution, a child was born in France, somewhere in the Catholic Diocese of Coutances. In the year that Antoine was born, Napoleon was experiencing military victories and was slowly amassing power and influence. In the United States, the Frigate Constitution, better known as "Old Ironside," was launched. George Washington, completing his term as President, was turning over the reins of power to John Adams. Thomas Jefferson, having lost the presidential election to John Adams by only 3 electoral votes, began serving as vice president, until his election as president in 1801. In 1803, when young Megret was but six years old, President Jefferson negotiated with Napoleon to acquire the Louisiana Purchase. It would be to this territory that Megret would migrate and found his own town. It is a rare occurrence for a Catholic priest to found a town, as you are aware. It is how this act came about that is the basis of this account.
On September 22, 1822, Father Megret was ordained into the priesthood. For several years he would toil in his native country prior to coming to the United States. During his last years in France, he became associated, as a journalist, with a popular, but controversial newspaper, the "L'Avenir." For reasons unknown to me, this journal came into disfavor with the Holy See. Father Megret left the staff of the "L'Avenir," where his writing skills were said to have been noteworthy.
Eventually, Father Megret boarded the Talma, and sailed from Bordeaux to New Orleans. By February 28, 1842, he was serving at St. John's church in Vermilionville (Lafayette). It is probable that he was sent there by Archbishop Blanc to gain control of the church from the church wardens. They, and other such wardens had been given control of the various Catholic churches in the state by the Louisiana Legislature in the 1820s and 1830s. Father Megret was in for a battle, for these men, armed with the law, were not about to give up the church to some foreign priest! The battle lines were soon drawn and both sides drew blood before the war was over. Literally, Father Megret's blood was shed on the streets of Vermilionville, when he was attacked and beaten by a ruffian. The man who attacked him had been paid by some of the town's leading citizens to rough him up. This assault was meant to persuade Father Megret that he was unwanted and that his attempts to gain control of the church would not be tolerated. In an assault of another type, the editor of the local newspaper, the Impartial, was paid to attack this unwanted priest on the pages of the newspaper. Some months later, Father Megret and this editor came face to face in a friendly meeting. Afterwards, Father Megret wrote to his superiors that the editor, E. I. Guegnon, was not such a bad fellow after all. Many of you will recognize Guegnon as the founder of Abbeville's current newspaper, the Meridional.
Well, if the church wardens thought that they had the upper hand, they were sadly mistaken. Father Megret, a persevering individual, brought out his own weapons and attacked the opposition where it hurt the most—in their religious services and in their pocketbooks. He withdrew from Vermilionville and visited his missions, thus depriving the congregation of their religious services, particularly Mass on Sunday. It wasn't long before the wardens had lost favor with the "good people." The merchants were also swayed towards supporting the priest; people weren't coming into town on Sundays, so the merchants were losing business. Soon, some of the parishioners proposed to build a church for Father Megret, and he encouraged them in this endeavor. Although it was not immediate, the wardens capitulated. In 1846, in an official document recorded in the Lafayette courthouse, some 600 or so white male adults signed the agreement that gave control of the church to the Catholic Church and to the victorious, never-say-die Father Megret.
One mission or outpost that Megret visited early in his pastorate at St. John's was Pont Perry. This town, in 1843, was located in what was still Lafayette parish—Vermilion parish would not be carved from Lafayette parish until March 1844. Today that town's name has been shortened to Perry. There were several Catholic families in the vicinity of Perry's Bridge, a town that had grown up beside the only bridge across the Vermilion River at that time, and there were converts to be made there, as well. Sometime during his self-imposed exile from Vermilionville, Father Megret focused his attention on this area of his church parish.
Tradition has it that the prominent men of Perry's Bridge, including its founder, Robert Perry, offered property upon which Megret could build a church. Reportedly, Father Megret was dissatisfied with the land and rejected the offer. On his many trips down the Vermilion River to Perry's Bridge, he saw some prime property that was just begging to be bought. He later described it as land "in the best location on the banks of the bayou in the midst of a population much larger than that which lives around Vermilionville." He had found his Shangri-La and purchased it. For $900, Father Megret bought 160 arpents of arable land on July 25, 1843. Payment was to be made in two installments, one in 12 months and the other in 18 months. Joseph Nunez signed as security for the $900. On that property was the home of Joseph LeBlanc and his wife Isabelle Broussard. LeBlanc had been the vendor of this land, and in a separate document Isabelle agreed to the sale about a year later. As was common in those days, neither Joseph nor Isabelle could sign their names. At the time of Megret's purchase of the land, the LeBlancs were living in Calcasieu parish.
Father Megret set out immediately to have the residence converted into a chapel; he hired John Kennedy to do the job. Since Father Megret couldn't speak English, and Kennedy spoke no French, there was bound to be confusion. For example, Megret had not wanted the dome ceiling that Kennedy constructed. Completion of the remodeling took longer than Megret had expected. However, he said Mass there on his visits to Perry's Bridge, even though the residence was still being remodeled.
In February 1844, only seven months after Megret bought the land, the residents in the area asked Father Megret to name his future town "Abbville." The "e" is missing in Megret's own letter to his superiors, on his own map of the town, and it is missing in his will dated 1845. Abbeville was even spelled without the middle "e" in newspaper items of that era. It is probable that it was named so, because it was to be the town of their Abbe, which, according to my French dictionary, can mean father. I did not find confirmation that he was born in Abbeville, France.
Interestingly, shortly after the congregation named his future town, Megret wrote to his superiors that his church was no longer St. Mary Magdalen of Perry's Bridge, but was now St. Mary Magdalen of "Abbville." His future town now had its own name. By the dimensions listed on his 1846 map, Father Megret had laid out only about 38 to 40 acres of the total 160 arpents for the town of Abbeville. It was bounded on the north by what would come to be named St. Victor Blvd., and on the south by what would come to be known as Lafayette Boulevard, in 1854. These two streets are unnamed on his original map. The west side of Abbeville was bounded by "Bayou Vermilion," while the east was bounded by the "residence of the Sisters of Charity." The street running north and south along the sisters' land would eventually be named East Street. However, on his map Father Megret had another name for it, but I could not decipher Megret's handwriting.
A month after Abbeville received its name, the State Legislature created Vermilion Parish, and specified that the seat of justice had to be within a half mile of Perry's Bridge and that it had to be on the west side of the Vermilion River. Father Megret and his supporters knew that if Abbeville had the Catholic Church and the courthouse, it was bound to prosper. They did not accept these stipulations about the site of the seat of justice; after all, the bill creating Vermilion Parish had been introduced in the legislature by Daniel O'Bryan, Robert Perry's son-in-law. So, for the next ten years there was a constant struggle between these two towns to gain the parish seat of justice. In fact, the courthouse and the seat of justice bounced back and forth between Abbeville and Perry's Bridge during that decade. There was everything to gain and everything to lose.
To persuade the police jury to favor Abbeville, Father Megret, in 1845, made several pledges to this governing body, if it would make Abbeville the permanent seat of justice. For example, he promised to donate land for the courthouse as well as to build a courthouse. He said that he would also donate land for the streets. The courthouse square and the land for the jail would be of the same dimensions as those of Vermilionville. The width of the streets would be the same as the width of Vermilionville's streets. He didn't promise a town square, when he made these other commitments, but Magdalen Square appeared on his 1846 map just the same. He left this square without shape, surely trusting in future generations to shape it into the thing of beauty and function that it is today.
The police jury agreed to the terms. However, they later had to return the seat of justice to Perry's Bridge following another parish election. Father Megret felt that the police jury had not held up its part of the agreement. He went to court to get the seat of justice back or else to be compensated, in the sum of $10,000, for the violation of the agreement. The lower court did not rule in his favor, so Father Megret had the case brought to the Louisiana Supreme Court that was hearing cases in Opelousas at that time. It was not until after his death that the high court handed down their ruling. The lower court's ruling was upheld. It was a moot point by this time. In 1854, the legislature made Abbeville the permanent seat of justice for Vermilion Parish. Unfortunately, it was too late for Megret to savor the victory. He died three months before his success was realized.
Father Megret had even hired an attorney to lobby State legislators in his efforts to make Abbeville the seat of justice. According to the attorney, Etienne Lauer, he spent two months "conferring with" the legislators who were convening in New Orleans, which was the capital at the time. Lauer also obtained the signatures of the white, adult male Catholics of Lafayette Parish for Father Megret, in 1846, when the church wardens relinquished control of St. John's church to Father Megret and to his superiors.
We spoke earlier about the property that Father Megret had set aside in Abbeville for the Sisters of Charity. His attempt to have this religious order settle in Abbeville and his persuading the Sisters of Mount Carmel to come to Vermilionville indicate that Father Megret considered a Catholic education important. To get the Sisters of Mount Carmel to come to Vermilionville, he promised to donate property to them if they would establish a Catholic school there. The agreement was made, and Father Megret donated the property upon which Mount Carmel stands today in Lafayette to the Sisters of Mount Carmel in 1846.
Father Megret had purchased some of this land for the sisters on credit. He agreed to pay the $808 owed for the land in the following manner. In four annual payments of $212 to St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, he guaranteed the education of Guillame Mouton, son of Cesaire Mouton, at St. Charles College. The payments were not only for books, lodging, and food, but also for clothing, pens, etc. Cesaire Mouton was the vendor of these particular lots.
It was also in 1846 that Megret's map of Abbeville, which included land for the Sisters of Charity, was sent to his superiors. For some reason, unknown to me, this religious order did not come to Abbeville. However, Father Megret must have felt certain that the sisters would come to Abbeville—he named the street we know today as Charity Street, "the Street of the Sisters of Charity." It would be nearly 40 years later before a religious order, the Sisters of Mount Carmel, would be persuaded to establish a convent in Abbeville. It was Father Mehault, another priest from France, who convinced this religious order to come to Abbeville.
Before leaving the subject of Father Megret's involvement with religious orders, let me add that in 1851 Megret was communicating with Archbishop Blanc about having land set aside for the order of the Trappists. However, I don't know if the land was to have been in Abbeville or in Vermilionville. Father Megret even proposed to found a community of men "under the protection of Anthony the Hermit." Archbishop Blanc nixed these plans.
The sparse number of conveyances relating to Father Megret's sale of lots in Abbeville have one peculiar similarity—payments of the notes were not due until 1857! I am almost certain that many records of his real estate transactions were lost in the fire that destroyed our courthouse in 1885. However, many of the sales of these lots were mentioned in his letters to New Orleans. I wonder if Megret realized any financial gain from these transactions since he died several years before the notes were due. Since his original map differs from the map used after his death—the lots were numbered differently after lot 3—I am uncertain where the lots he mentioned in his letters to New Orleans and those that were listed in courthouse records were located. Today the Megret portion of Abbeville uses the lot numbers that appeared on the map of his estate in 1854.
Father Megret knew full well the power of the fourth estate. He had once been a journalist himself, and he felt the sting of editorials against him in the Impartial. Little wonder then that he would seek to use it to his advantage. As early as March 1843, Megret asked Archbishop Blanc for permission to start a newspaper with "two Frenchmen." It was to be called "L'Union." Megret apparently wanted to counterattack the Impartial, which he explained had been attacking religion, the priesthood, etc. There is conflicting evidence as to whether the Union ever went to press.
In 1849, Father Megret sold lots 3 and 4 in Abbeville to Francois Briault, a former businessman in Vermilionville. When Abbeville was incorporated in 1850, Briault became its first mayor. When Briault died that same year, Megret became curator of his succession. At one of the succession sales, Briault's printing business was sold to Emile and Valsaint Veazey who kept the business going under the name of Veazey Brothers and Co. Two months before his death, Father Megret sold to Valsaint Veazey the Independent, a newspaper that was being published in Abbeville, most probably by the Veazeys. As part of the sale's agreement, Father Megret stipulated that the newspaper had to remain in Abbeville even if new owners would purchase it. In 1856, Guegnon would take over this same newspaper and would rename it The Meridional. Based on these facts, I believe that we can safely say that Father Megret was greatly instrumental in establishing the first newspaper in Abbeville. Until now his role in this important endeavor has been overlooked.
In one final connection with journalism, Megret bought the Impartial from E.I. Guegnon in Vermilionville just days before Father Megret died. What had been his intentions, since he was planning to return to France? Perhaps the Veazeys in Abbeville were in need of the printing equipment. This Vermilionville newspaper remained in Father Megret's estate until it was ordered sold in 1858.
Father Megret never lived in Abbeville, but that doesn't mean that he simply forgot about it. For example, in 1845, Megret transferred some pews from the church in Vermilionville to his church in Abbeville. In 1846, he spent Easter Sunday in Abbeville, and he asked permission to bless the cemetery. In 1847 he was having another church and a presbytery built, in anticipation of a pastor coming to his town. However, the building of these two structures was so slow that when Father Nicholas Francais arrived in Abbeville to become its first pastor, in March 1848, these buildings were still not finished. Therefore, Father Francais had to live in the sacristy at first.
The archives in New Orleans has quoted Father Francais as writing that since God had called him, at age 50, to found a new parish, he hoped that he would be given the means to succeed. Comments in some of the letters written by the priests in Abbeville from 1848 to 1853 indicate that Father Megret looked over their shoulders during their pastorates at St. Mary Magdalen Church, and that this vigilance was not always welcomed.
As early as 1848, Father Megret requested that he be allowed to leave Vermilionville. He was asking to be sent elsewhere, and not to Abbeville, either. In August 1853, when Archbishop Blanc was in Vermilionville, Father Megret again asked to be relieved of his duties there. Later that month Father Megret was told that he could leave. However, since there was no one to replace him, he decided to remain a short while longer. It would be a fatal decision. Sometime in late 1853, a ravaging epidemic of Yellow Fever struck down victims by the hundreds in the Attakapas area, and by the thousands in New Orleans. Father Megret ministered to the sick and dying in the Vermilionville area, until he too was bitten by a mosquito carrying that deadly disease.
Father Megret had seen other victims come down with the disease; he must have realized eventually that he too had contracted the "black vomit" disease. He must have known that he would probably die, and so, he saw his dream of returning to France turn into a nightmare. Father Megret had to have been aware of the suffering that he would experience, and had time to dread the end. It must have been with mixed feelings that he met his final fate—knowing that he would never see his homeland again, and knowing that he was about to meet his creator. On December 5, 1853, Father Antoine Desire Megret, founder of Abbeville, died at the age of 56.
Today, the statue of Father Megret in Magdalen Square is our memorial to this great man. However, he left his own crowning memorial—Abbeville itself. Embedded in this crown are three jewels—the courthouse square, Magdalen Square, and St. Mary Magdalen Church. On the courthouse square we find peaceful resolutions of our legal and judicial matters. On Magdalen Square we find peaceful relief for our minds, both at rest and at play. In the St. Mary Magdalen Church we find peaceful resolution of our sorrows and of our sins.
These sites are perpetual memorials to this priest and to the sacrifices he made for Abbeville and for Southwestern Louisiana. He gave his life in providing for the spiritual needs of his parishioners. It can truly be said that Father Antoine Desire Megret died a martyr.
By Ken Dupuy
In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Father Antoine Desire Megret, the founder of Abbeville, Louisiana.