By Melinda Martinez, Alexandria Town Talk
ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) — Thanks to a few “good Samaritans” and a grant from FEMA, some of the headstones and monuments in Old Rapides Cemetery that were damaged by Hurricane Laura in 2020 have been restored.
The cemetery is located on Hattie Street in Pineville, near the Gillis-Long Bridge, known as the Jackson Street Bridge, and dates back over 200 years, when the territory was under Spanish rule. The site is where the home of the first Spanish commander Etienne Marafet Layssard of El Rapido Post once stood.
After Hurricane Laura swept through the area in 2020, members of the Historic Rapides Cemetery Preservation Group inspected the cemetery and found that many headstones and monuments had been damaged.
“While fallen branches and trees could be removed, professional help and expertise were going to be needed to repair damage to monuments,” said Bobby Hynson, the group’s secretary.
No one in the group or at the Town of Pineville, owner of the property, knew how this was going to be accomplished since no one had the expertise to undertake the task. Then the Louisiana Cemetery Task Force of the Los Angeles State Attorney General’s Office contacted Hynson for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to complete the repairs.
Only individuals, or “good Samaritans”, could apply for grants to restore a monument or tombstone. Government entities or professional groups were not eligible.
The Cemetery Working Group has compiled a list of qualified monuments. Hynson said the preservation group then began looking for people who would be willing to apply for the grants. Of those who applied, seven were approved.
“Because of their generosity, the fundraising requests they made, we were able to repair – professionally – the damaged headstones here at Old Rapides Cemetery,” said Father Chad Partain, president of the group. “And that’s of course something that we would never have been able to afford without this grant.”
The program was well suited, Hynson said, especially since most monuments don’t have families available to undertake the repairs themselves.
“We are very grateful that this program exists and that we have been able to take advantage of it thanks to the generosity of a number of people here in the community who have volunteered to sponsor these damaged monuments, especially for families who do not have more of a connection to the cemetery,” Partain said.
There were different amounts for each monument that needed repairs, said Pat Boone, one of those who applied.
“We used to get checks in the mail from time to time,” she said. “It’s like any grant process. It takes time.”
The checks they received enabled them to hire the Texas Cemetery Restoration Company of Crockett, Texas to do the work.
“We are working on about 40 monuments here that were toppled or damaged by trees and wind from the hurricane,” said company spokesman Rusty Brenner.
“A lot of the stones are in partial repair because of a lot of the process (involves) of putting the pieces back together,” he said. “And I think we have about 10 to the point of just fixing little things and cleaning up.”
Brenner points to a monument – the Casson Monument – where they repaired seven parts that were knocked down after Hurricane Laura.
“You can see the four pedestals and then the top of the house there – it was all on the ground,” he said.
While the company worked on the damage, the preservation group also had them repair several other monuments funded by funds generated from donations, sales of their book, ‘Under the Shade of the Trees’, and the cost of d admission to their annual guided tour. The book is a compiled history by Hyson, Partain, and Andrea Wilson Warren and is available from the St. Frances Cabrini Church office or on Amazon.com.
The cemetery is one of the few where people regardless of religion, race, nationality or socio-economic status are buried together.
Auguste Jean Toussaint, a prominent black entrepreneur who helped build St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church and the Kress Building in downtown Alexandria, is among those buried there, Hynson said.
Veterans like the last Spanish commander of the district of El Rapido, Enemund Meullion, who died in 1820, are also buried here. Meullion was a veteran of the War of Independence.
Pierre Baillo II, founder of Kent Plantation House, is also buried there. Kent House is a Creole-style plantation house built around 1796 on a land grant from the King of Spain. It is the oldest known structure in central Louisiana and one of the area’s top tourist attractions.
Alexandria’s founder, Alexander Fulton, is also buried in the cemetery but in an unmarked grave. He died in 1816. James Madison Wells, governor of Louisiana from 1865 to 1867 during the Reconstruction period, is also buried there, as are Henry Boyce, Boyce’s namesake and federal judge and U.S. senator, and Captain Chittenden Edwin Ball, Ball’s namesake.
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