Louisiana Claver History

As we celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Louisiana State Conference, we take an opportunity to look back at the key events leading up to the formation of the State Conference in 1944. The efforts began almost as soon as the banner of Claverism was planted in Louisiana. The rivalries between regions of the state and the wariness of those outside the state slowed its progress, yet the valiant Knights and Ladies persevered and the past seventy years are a testament to their foresight and tenacity.
The history of the Louisiana State Conference is a gloried one, filled with the stories of men and women from across the Bayou State who have dedicated their lives to the ideals of Claverism. The story begins in 1911, when Professor Leonard Dwight Lang, a native of Key West, Florida and graduate of Saint Joseph‘s Catechetical College, arrived in Louisiana to establish Saint Joseph‘s Industrial School for Colored Boys. From his close association with the Josephite Fathers, Lang had been aware of the Knights of Peter Claver from its very early days. Working with Father John Engerbrink, the pastor of Saint Landry‘s Church, he organized the colored Catholic men of Opelousas and made an application to the National Council to establish a subordinate council. At its quarterly meeting of 21 August 1912, the National Council Board of Directors approved the men‘s request to organize a council.

The Reverend Father Conrad F. Rebesher, S.S.J., founder of the Knights of Peter Claver, traveled by train to Opelousas where on Sunday, 17 November 1912, he initiated the charter members of the new council. The council was the eighth to be established and the men selected the name of Father John Council, after their enthusiastic pastor. Thus, the first council in Louisiana was formed.

Over the next few years, several other councils were formed in towns such as Lebeau, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and Plaquemine. In 1917, the first council in the city of New Orleans, Corpus Christi Council No. 16, was organized. The formation of this council sparked a flame which soon extended to the other colored Catholic parishes in New Orleans.

At its August 1913 meeting, held at Bay St. Louis, just before the Fourth National Convention, the National Council Board of Directors voted to establish three districts, each with a District Deputy. These districts were Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The first Deputy elected for Louisiana was Professor L. D. Lang. In 1915, Lang was elected the third Deputy Supreme Knight and first National Officer (other than State Deputy) from Louisiana. He was among only two Louisianans present at the August 1917 meeting of the Board of Directors to receive the Sublimed and Meritorious Fourth Degree when it was first exemplified. The other, was the National Physician, Dr. Raymond M. Baranco, of Saint Agnes Council No. 12 in Baton Rouge. In 1929, the National Council voted to merge the states of Alabama and Mississippi into the District of Alabama-Mississippi, thus leaving Louisiana as the sole remaining original district in Claverism.

At the 1919 National Convention in Lafayette, Dr. Raymond Baranco of Baton Rouge offered a resolution to form a State Council, or state conference within the state of Louisiana. This resolution was effectively killed by its referral to the Board of Directors. Supreme Knight Faustina and the delegates from the older Gulf Coast councils undoubtedly were concerned about forming any confederations of subordinate councils other than the National Council.

The other innovation which was proposed was the formation of "central committees," in areas where several councils existed in close proximity. By 1919, Saint Katherine's Parish, which had been established in 1895 as the first in New Orleans solely for black Catholics, had long been home to Branch No. 565 of the Catholic Knights of America. The Catholic Knights were established in Nashville, Tennessee in 1877, to provide Catholic men with a beneficial society which they could join which was complementary to their Faith. The Catholic Knights readily welcomed councils in those parishes which had been established for Catholics of color. As the only black subordinate unit in the city, Branch No. 565 attracted members from across the city. The members of the branch were duly represented along with the other branches of the city in what they termed a "central committee." It is likely from this source that the Knights in Louisiana got the idea of forming central committees. The recording secretary of Branch No. 565, who was a member of Saint Dominic Council No. 22 of the Knights of Peter Claver, James Finlay, would be elected the first Chairman (President) of the New Orleans Central Committee in 1919.

In preparation for hosting the 1920 National Convention in New Orleans, the councils in that city informally formed a group which they called the New Orleans Central Committee. They forwarded their by-laws for approval by the National Council Board of Directors, which granted its approval. The New Orleans Central Committee was followed by the formation of the saint Landry Parish Central Committee in 1924. Grand Knight John Martel of Father John Council No. 8 led the effort to establish the Saint Landry Parish Central Committee among the eight councils in Saint Landry Civil Parish: Councils Nos. 8, 34, 38, 39, 40, 42, and 46. The Teche Central Committee was similarly organized in 1935 along with the Southwest Central Committee in 1937.

At the Twenty-Fourth National Convention at Beaumont in 1936, Grand Knight Alvin Etienne of Saint Catherine Council No. 73 at Reserve authored a resolution to form the Louisiana State Conference. In the years between 1919 and 1936, the State of Texas which became a district of Claverism in 1918, had successfully formed a State Conference in 1922 through the efforts of its State Deputy, Sir Knight Albert Edgar Woodley, a native of St. Martinville and resident of Houston. Due to disagreements from the various central committees within Louisiana and from delegates in other states, the resolution to form a Louisiana State Conference was tabled until the next convention, which was to be held in 1938.

The Twenty-Fifth National Convention met at Lafayette in 1938. The convention approved Grand Knight Etienne‘s resolution to form a state conference. Supreme Knight Louis Israel issued a call on January 24, 1939 for an organizational meeting to convene on April 30, 1939 at New Iberia with the National Secretary, Sir Knight Joseph Edmond Glapion as chairman. On that Sunday, seventy delegates answered the roll, representing thirty-five of Louisiana‘s forty-one councils. There was immediate protest on the part of some that the Supreme Knight had appointed the National Secretary from New Orleans rather than the State Deputy, Sir Knight Theophile E. Carriere of Opelousas as chairman of the meeting. The dissension was widespread with more than a dozen Knights taking to the floor to voice their opinions on the merits of a state conference. Grand Knight Etienne pleaded the cause of forming a conference, citing the unity it would create among Louisiana‘s councils. The final vote was taken to dissolve the meeting without forming a conference – the results being thirty-seven yeas, twenty-eight nays, for abstentions – thus the realization of a state conference was further delayed.

In his annual report for 1939, the Supreme Knight commented on the fact that the Northern States District (then called the District of and Illinois) had successfully held its first conference. He noted that Louisiana was unique in having central committees and that many felt a state conference was a useless duplication of the work of the central committees and an attempt to dilute their power. He observed that while the central committee meeting was no more a hassle than 7 cents carfare, for the New Orleans delegates, it usually amounted to a good distance for the country councils who did not care to attend both meetings. The rift between country and city, generally polarized by the New Orleans Central Committee and Saint Landry Parish Central Committee would delay progress for another five years.

By 1944, the group of younger, formally-educated Knight who had long sought the opportunity to lead the Order had come to power. These Knights were able to settle the intrastate rivalries ably enough in order to bring about the formation of the State Conference. On June 4, 1944, the Louisiana State Conference of the Knights of Peter Claver was organized at New Orleans. In that initial session, hosted by Saint Monica Council No. 59, the first State President, Brother Leo J. Llorens of Bishop Desmond Council No. 91 in Alexandria, was elected.

The Ladies of Louisiana followed suit soon thereafter, for on October 1, 1944, the Louisiana State Conference of the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary was organized at Breaux Bridge. The visiting members were hosted by Evangeline Court No. 49. Lady Iona W. Berteaux of Mother Katharine Drexel Court No. 59 was elected the first State President.

Since its inception as a subdivision of Claverism in 1913, the Great State of Louisiana has had twenty-one Knights‘ State Deputies and fourteen Ladies‘ State Deputies. More of its sons and daughters have served as National Officers than any other district. It has been home to the Order‘s National Headquarters since 1948. The Father of Claverism in Texas, Sir Knight Albert Edgar Woodley, was a native of Louisiana. The founder of the Central States District, Sir Knight Edward W. LaSalle, was a native of Louisiana. The pioneering Knights in the Western States District: Julius Pratt, George Theophile and Armand Duvernay, were natives of Louisiana. The first Supreme Knight, Gilbert Faustina, and first Supreme Lady, Mary Lula Lunnon, were natives of Louisiana. Is there something about Louisiana soil which yields such an abundance of leading Clavers? Do the waters of our many rivers and bayous contain some potent ingredient which makes for Claverism at its finest? The record shows – Louisiana has been at the forefront of all of the Noble Order‘s valiant efforts at Catholic Action! Let us endeavor to an even greater future under the banner of Saint Peter Claver!