THIBODAUX, Louisiana — A Louisiana bishop celebrated a memorial mass for victims of a massacre of African-American Louisiana residents 130 years ago.
Bishop Shelton Fabre, Bishop of the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese, decided to celebrate the special Mass in Thibodaux on Thursday after learning that the city had declared the day “1887 Memorial Day,” honoring 30 to 60 people killed Nov. 23, 1887 to end a strike by sugar plantation workers.
Fabre walked into the church wearing a bishop’s miter. He was followed by descendants of victims who wore gold and black sashes. Family members also wore red T-shirts with black lettering on the front with the words “Thibodaux Massacre 1887.”
Fabre celebrated the Catholic memorial Mass for the dead.
The service opened with a minute of silence that was called for the Thibodaux city and the Lafourche Parish proclamation, which was issued last week. Readings from the Mass included lamentations — which are typically read at funerals.
The Mass focused on the victims’ sacrifice and journey to Jesus.
“The dead aren’t gone until they are not remembered and forgotten by the living,” Fabre said in a statement quoted in a news release Tuesday from the 1887 Memorial Committee, created to honor the victims and help heal race relations. “As the Thibodaux community on November 23rd remembers those who were killed 130 years ago in the violence of the Thibodaux Massacre, we will offer a Memorial Mass for their eternal rest and peace.”
Lafourche Parish, like its parish seat, declared Thursday a day of remembrance and observed a moment of silence at noon Thursday to honor the people killed on Nov. 23, 1887.
Thursday was the first official commemoration of the killings. Descendants of victims attended the noon Mass at St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Church. It was followed by a gathering including a traditional second-line procession like those at jazz funerals.
Wiletta Ferdinand of New Orleans, a retired educator and great-great-granddaughter of Jack Conrad — a man who was wounded and whose son was killed — helped organize the family commemoration.
“It is very important to us that the Catholic church is recognizing the Thibodaux Massacre. St. Luke’s has always been a family parish,” she said.
She said she had been looking forward to meeting the bishop.
“He is our newest advocate,” she said. “He is our angel. When I learned this I was elated that a real live bishop would think enough of our ancestors to acknowledge this tragedy. Then I thought how proud my grandmother would be. She was also a devout Catholic.”
John DeSantis, who created the memorial committee after publication in 2016 of his book about the strike and killings, said, “For the spiritual shepherd of this area’s Catholics to perform this memorial mass is a blessing for both the living and the dead.”
The committee is trying to raise $24,000 for an archaeological survey to learn whether many of the victims were buried in a mass grave on the grounds of what’s now a black American Legion chapter, as local tradition holds. If there’s a grave, the group wants to have the bones exhumed, studied, and buried in consecrated ground.
“As we remember and honor them, may we also remember that violence is never an answer to any of the challenges that we face as we continue to strive to achieve greater racial harmony and peace,” Fabre said.