Yellow Fever Epidemic
New Red Church Pastor — Father Paret Reveals Early Life on the Mississippi River
Approaching the middle of the 19th Century, life was good and prosperous for most people in St. Charles Parish. St. Charles was a wealthy sugar parish. At that time, Louisiana supplied the nation with over half of all sugar in American markets—the second most important agricultural crop of the nation. St. Charles had an abundance of sugar plantations lining the Mississippi River — over 50. For most St. Charles citizens, it was a leisurely lifestyle, where gentlemen of the German Coast wore top hats and waistcoats and rode with wives and daughters in their buggies along River Road surveying their own and other plantation estates or visiting neighbors. Often they might travel alone on horseback. Young people spent their days hunting, fishing, boating, swimming, or racing their horses on River Road. Many of the women were aristocrats appearing in public in hoop skirts, shawls, bonnets, and sometimes using parasols — all in keeping with their wealthy southern lifestyle.
It was at this time in parish history that the Little Red Church welcomed a new pastor, Fr. Joseph Michel Paret. Fr. Paret was born in 1807 in the small village of Pélussin, France, and was sent to the Louisiana missions in 1847 by the Catholic Church. In 1848, he arrived at Little Red Church to serve the spiritual needs of his parishioners in the midst of an agricultural economy that was thriving. Fr. Paret would serve at Red Church twenty-one years, leaving in 1869. He would witness firsthand an exceptional period in the parish history , when great sugar plantations were prospering and later the profound consequences of the Civil War were occurring. In 1853, in the midst of the state’s worst yellow fever epidemic, Fr. Paret wrote long and detailed letters to his family back home in France, titling the collection of correspondence, My American Journal (Mon Journal d’Amerique). About 1858 or thereabout, Fr. Paret traveled by steamboat to New Orleans where he purchased a sketchbook in a Chartres Street stationery store near the St. Louis Cathedral. In the coming months and years he began painting watercolors of Red Church, the presbytery, and plantations across the parish, all showing daily life in St. Charles. In all, Fr. Paret painted fifty-three watercolors. It is easy to determine from these watercolors that St. Charles Parish was indeed very prosperous. In 1869, the watercolors went back to France with Fr. Paret when he returned home. The watercolors and journal eventually became the property of his brother August Paret and his descendants. Over 100 years later, the sketchbook and journal were found in an old trunk in Pélussin, France.
Thanks to Fr. Paret, one is able to travel back in time, to glimpse the history, to view life as it was in St. Charles. The following is only a small part of the series of 53 watercolors painted on the pages of an ordinary sketchpad so many years ago.
This text is copyright © material by Marilyn Richoux, Joan Becnel and Suzanne Friloux, from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana: A Pictorial History, 2010.