On a recent cold, wet Saturday night, two long-standing traditions came together in the same room: Mardi Gras and St. Peter Catholic Church.
The church is a 125-year-old historical fixture on the corner of 16th Avenue and State street in Pine Bluff.
For the past quarter century, the Alter and Rosary Society has hosted a congregational gathering the Saturday evening prior to Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras Day).
Observance of the ancient Carnival season begins with Epiphany (Three Kings Day) on Jan. 6 and continues until the day before Ash Wednesday.
“Mardi Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday,” the last chance to indulge one’s senses before launching the 47-day Lenten Season of fasting leading up to Easter.
Sundays are not included in the 40 of temperance, giving the observant weekly breaks from self-privation.
Mardi Gras traces its roots to medieval Europe, coming from Rome to France through the House of Bourbon in the early 17th century. It spread via French colonies worldwide, arriving in New Orleans in March 1699.
St. Peter Church traces its origin to Monsignor John M. Lucey, who pastored St. Joseph Catholic Church. He was deeply involved with founding Pine Bluff’s Colored Industrial Institute in 1889, which later became St. Peter Catholic School.
Lucey established St. Peter Church as an African-American mission in 1894.
In 1903, the congregation had grown to the point of needing to relocate from the original small church house to a newly-erected structure with its landmark steeple visible from any point in the city.
In a milestone appointment, St. Peter received their first African-American Catholic priest, the Rev. John Dorsey of St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart, who served the parish from 1905 until 1907.
The 1903 vintage meetinghouse, along with revered church icons and invaluable documents, was completely destroyed in 1948 by a fire of unknown origin.
The current façade soon rose to replace the church lost in the flames. In the early 1950’s, a gymnasium was constructed to provide recreational space for youth and adults alike.
Since the closing of the Parochial school a few years back, the block building is still well utilized as St. Peter’s Family Center.
Starting at 9 in the evening of March 2, some 300 revelers of all ages, dressed in their Mardi Gras finery, filled the hall with the aroma of simmering gumbo and jambalaya, raucous laughter, dancing, king cake and good cheer in preparation for the coming Easter season.
Nola Harrison, who served as Mistress of Ceremonies for the gala affair, told The Commercial, “I’m originally from Lafayette (Louisiana) so I know good Cajun cooking. Our gumbo and jambalaya is the real thing. This event has proved a real success over the years. We have three ladies who sell our tickets for $20. When the school was still open, the funds were used to support our education program. Now they go toward church activities.
“My husband Elton and I were married June 25, 1966. He worked for Tulane University in New Orleans before he came here to UAPB (the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in 1975. He passed away on Jan. 26. He was our first Mardi Gras King in 1994 and loved the celebration so much we had a ‘second-line’ dance here in the gym for his funeral.”
Launching the evening, Father Siprianus Ola Rotak imparted a Mardi Gras blessing.
“The money we raise doesn’t just go to St. Peter but to the work of several denominations,” he said. “This is an event to overcome our divisions and help unite the community.”
Sharing some history of Mardi Gras traditions, Harrison told the jubilant crowd how the king cake, with its tiny, plastic, toy baby hidden somewhere within, is baked in an oval shape to represent the circuitous route taken by the wise men after their meeting with King Herod.
Jealous of a potential rival for the Jewish throne in the form of the Christ child and wishing to rub out such a threat, Herod attempted to trick the Magi into revealing where they found the baby Jesus.
Suspecting such a plot, the wise men proved their wisdom, choosing to return home to the Far East by an alternate route that would avoid further contact with the blood-thirty monarch. The oval represents their roundabout trip, while the toy baby depicts the newborn Christ they came to worship.
Getting the slice of cake with the baby in it is long held as a portent of coming good fortune.
Harrison further revealed the significance of the three traditional Mardi Gras colors so prominently displayed in the Family Center.
“Gold,” she said, “represents purity, while green is for faith and purple royalty.”
The walls of the spacious hall were decorated with murals and paintings depicting Mardi Gras parades and the French Quarter, all created by Baton Rouge native and New Orleans Xavier University graduate Ilona Fontonette.
She and her husband, Edward, who serves as the UAPB librarian, have been church members for decades.
Asked from whence her name “Nola” is derived, Harrison said, “My mother always wanted to live in New Orleans. I’m the seventh of 12 children, so by the time I came along, she named me in honor of the Crescent City until she finally got to visit there later in life.”
The evening included the crowning of this year’s Mardi Gras king, queen, prince and princess and their royal walk around the crowded room. In true Epiphany feasting tradition, the assortment of Louisiana fare included creole vegetables, baked, barbecue and fried chicken, red beans and rice and fresh French bread.
A DJ spinning blues, brass band and zydeco sounds provided music for the customary “second-line” dance as well as various other “shuffles” and “high-stepping” throughout the evening.
It’s fair to say a good time was had by all and no one went away hungry.