OPELOUSAS, La. — On Easter Sunday the Rev. Gerald Toussaint will welcome the members of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church to fellowship, pray and begin Bible study via conference call, as he has since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the call, Toussaint goes live on Facebook to preach his sermon. The decision to remain virtual is primarily out of caution for the elderly congregants at Mount Pleasant, he said, but the church also doesn’t have a place to meet in-person right now.
The Opelousas church building was set on fire just weeks before Easter 2019, along with two other historically Black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish. The arsonist, Holden Matthews, was arrested about a week later and pleaded guilty in February 2020. He is serving his 20-plus-year sentence in federal prison.
Three years later the Mount Pleasant congregation is perhaps months away from meeting in a brand-new sanctuary and fellowship hall. The new construction is nearly complete, awaiting a few deliveries and final inspections, Toussaint said.
“We began in a dark moment, but it’s getting brighter and brighter every day,” Toussaint said. “Now it’s a bright day as we’re looking forward to being back together in the church.”
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When the church burned they met for about a year in the Equine Center in Opelousas and went virtual amid the pandemic.
“It’s been challenging but we’ve been getting through it simply because we stuck together,” he said. “We realize none of us could have done this without faith. It’s only by faith in God we’ve been able to even start the process of building.”
While on the call, Toussaint updates his flock each week on the status of the construction process before Sunday School starts.
“They are very excited,” he said.
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‘We’re at a real good place right now’
The sanctuary of St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church is open to the elements, a gaping hole where large front doors will one day stand. Through the open window spaces you can see the progress that has been made — framed up walls, a staircase and more meeting rooms than before.
The unfinished building sits on the same land in Port Barre that has held the church for almost 150 years. Next door is a completed fellowship hall on a slab that had been poured before the church was burned.
“We built it out as quick as we could to have a place to worship,” the Rev. Kyle Terrell Sylvester Sr. said.
There’s also a new parking lot, which helped when the COVID pandemic hit. The church met outdoors for “parking lot services” as the weather allowed, and then Sylvester preached via livestream.
They came back in-person mid-2021, first sitting spaced out in the fellowship hall and now filling it with more than 80 every week.
“We’re at a real good place right now,” Sylvester said.
They’ve been able to plan for the future of St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church, constructing a bigger building than before. Currently they’re waiting on windows to be delivered and for the brick and mortar to begin.
The timeline for completion is really dependent on supplies, he said.
“We are at the mercy of the market,” he said. “We may be waiting a little while.”
‘Lord, you got us’
But Sylvester is thankful he’s able to meet with his congregation in the fellowship hall in the meantime. Right after the fire they rented a building in Opelousas, which they shared for about a year. That was challenging, as was just not being “home.” The fellowship hall meets that need.
“It is good to know we have a place dedicated and devoted to worship,” Sylvester said. “I can honestly say throughout it all, personally and as a congregation, it’s built resilience. It’s built toughness.
He said it hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been “nothing short of amazing” to see God bring them through the fire and the pandemic.
“We can say, ‘Lord, you got us; you brought us to this point, and no matter what comes next, you got us still,'” Sylvester said.
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This week Sylvester has been preparing for the annual Easter sunrise service, which will start at 6 a.m. Sunday in Port Barre. The yearly tradition had to be virtual in 2020 but was in-person last year.
The 2019 arson wasn’t the congregation’s first loss of their building to a fire. The original church building burned down in the early 1900s, the pastor said.
The third church set on fire over 10 days in 2019 arson spree was Greater Union Baptist Church. The lot where it stood was left vacant for a long time, but today passersby can see a large metal church building taking shape on Old Port Barre Road outside of Opelousas.
Greater Union Baptist was established there about 130 years ago and has more than 100 congregants on its rolls, many of them lifetime members, Deacon Ronald Milburn said a year after the fire.
“It’s been very family-oriented and those in the church either belong to families that have also worshiped there traditionally or who have married someone from those families,” Milburn said. “It’s always been a very committed congregation.”
Contributing: Bobby Ardoin, Daily World
Contact children’s issues reporter Leigh Guidry at Lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.