Restoration of Old Temple Gives St.Francisville New Cultural Venue

By Anne Butler

A gathering of the St. Francisville community in December 2012 replicated a similar gathering more than a century earlier, both celebrating the opening of beautiful Temple Sinai perched on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River. The earlier gathering, in 1903, marked the long-awaited opening of permanent place of worship for the area’s Jewish residents, while the recent gathering celebrated the restoration and re-opening of this significant structure and a return to life as a welcomed cultural venue for the region.

The recent celebration at the temple was attended by preservationists and community members, including a number of descendants of the original Jewish founders and several who attended the first central public school in St. Francisville which had been constructed largely through funding provided by one of those early Jewish residents, Julius Freyhan. The school alma mater included mention of Julius Freyhan, but few students in the half-century the school was in use actually remembered their benefactor. The temple rededication included a reminder of that history.

In 1820 there were only 2700 Jews in the United States, but through the mid-1800s waves of immigrants arrived to escape anti-Semitism, particularly from Bavaria and the German states along the Rhine, and Alsace-Lorraine in pre-industrial France. Forbidden to own land in the Old Country, these immigrants found their expertise in merchandising and finance filled a crucial gap in an agrarian society like the Cotton Kingdom, as they followed the westward movement of the cotton empire from depleted eastern fields to the rich fertile lands of the Mississippi River corridor.

Often arriving penniless, the Jewish immigrants began as peddlers, carrying their wares in heavy packs or pushcarts until they prospered enough to purchase a horse and wagon, taking much-needed merchandise to isolated farm families in the countryside in the days before rural mail delivery. When they could, they moved up to clerk in stores, then opened stores of their own in the little country towns that served as commercial centers for the surrounding plantations.

The whole southern economy in the Cotton Kingdom was balanced precariously on credit extensions at every level, and the rural merchants played on important role in this agrarian system, providing the drygoods and farming equipment, the underpinnings and practicalities for the cotton culture, with the shrewd business sense to survive the ebb and flow of a fluctuating economy based on chancy crops and credit. After the Civil War, the Jewish merchants were able to extend life-saving credit to suffering planters and sharecroppers, and when the large cotton factorage firms failed to recover after the war, the country storekeepers became pivotal figures in cotton marketing and financing. At a time when cash was in short supply and banks unreliable, their stores had the family and business contacts to provide far-reaching credit arrangements that allowed them to become conduits for funneling some much-needed cash into rural areas.

As these hard-working immigrants prospered, the South became the center of Jewish population in the country, offering religious and political freedom as well as the possibility of social and financial success. Jews in the South? Who knew! From Vicksburg to Port Gibson, from Natchez to Woodville, from Bayou Sara and St. Francisville to New Orleans, there were thriving Jewish communities; Donaldsonville had more Jewish mayors than any other Southern town, and even the Confederacy had outstanding officials like Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. In the St. Francisville/Bayou Sara area, important names included Max Dampf, born in Germany’s Black Forest, who served on the bank board, was a member of the Board of Supervisors of Election, had a general merchandise store, and was called “a wide-awake progressive businessman and valued member of society;” Joseph Stern from Weisbaden had a livery and horse and mule market; L. Bach and Company sold goods wholesale and retail; shoemaker Moritz Rosenthal arrived in a wagon pulled by oxen and his son dealt in imported drygoods (and it would be his granddaughter Hannah who saw to it that the Hebrew Rest cemetery was kept in immaculate condition all the days of her life); Abe Stern had horses and mules, and Joseph Goldman had a bar room and grocery store; M.C. Levy handled general merchandise, as did Adolph Teutsch who came from Bavaria; Picard and Weil sold plantation supplies; Morris Burgas, who had studied at the University of Berlin and at Oxford, kept books and managed cotton warehouses and a mercantile house for his uncle.

Accepted as contributing members of their adopted communities along the Mississippi River corridor, these immigrants as they succeeded in business supported public works and served in important civic offices. Synagogues and temples were built, cemeteries established and charitable organizations formed as the Jews shared their prosperity in great philanthropies. Typical was Julius Freyhan, who arrived penniless in America at age 21 in 1851 and by the time he died in 1904 was described as one of the wealthiest and most respected men in the state. In Bayou Sara and St. Francisville he built up a business empire of stores and saloons, cotton gins, gristmills, sawmill, and a drygoods mercantile selling everything from buggies to coffins. J. Freyhan and Company, later known as M&E Wolf when his brothers-in-law took over the business, served as the principal source of supply for a dozen Louisiana parishes and southwest Mississippi counties, in a year selling $1 million worth of goods and handling 14,000 bales of cotton.

Julius Freyhan and later his widow provided the bulk of the funding to construct the parish’s first central public school, the beautiful brick building adjacent to the temple. And it was in his opera house in Bayou Sara that the first organized Jewish congregation came together, after meeting initially in the Meyer Hotel in 1892. In 1893 the group began planning to build a temple, and in 1901 a formal incorporation known as Temple Sinai was set up, with livery stable owner Ben Mann as president of the congregation. Active work began on the building on high ground in St. Francisville in July 1902. Julius Freyhan donated the organ for the temple, his brother-in-law Emanuel Wolf the Perpetual Lamp.

The local newspaper, the True Democrat, ran a lengthy tribute to the dedication of Temple Sinai in its March 28, 1903 issue, calling the ceremony “an event involving all members of this small community.” Said the article, “The event par excellence of the week has been the dedicatory services on Sunday last of the house of worship recently built by Hebrew citizens.  It was an hour of rejoicing, and Christian friends, fully sympathetic, rejoiced too. The time of waiting was agreeably passed by comments on the beauty of the synagogue.”

The 1903 dedication ceremony included prayers and addresses by not only rabbis but also the Episcopal rector and several esteemed local judges (including Judge Samuel McCutcheon Lawrason who was the great-grandfather of one of the speakers at the 2012 rededication), musical offerings by a choir composed of members of the congregation and Gentile friends, and a sermon preached by Rabbi Dr. Max Heller of Temple Sinai in New Orleans, who had just presided over the marriage of Julius Freyhan’s daughter Juliet to his old friend from Hebrew Union College, Rabbi William Freidman; Rabbi Friedman was raised at the Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum, one of the regional beneficiaries of funding from Bayou Sara’s B’nai B’rith lodge of which Julius Freyhan had been a founding member.

A children’s procession, carrying US flags, palm leaves and lighted candles, represented most of the local Jewish families: the Manns, Levys, Dreyfuses, Fischels, Teutsches, Wolfs, Schlesingers and Edigers. The building, called “the most attractive house of worship save one in St. Francisville,” was filled, the newspaper said, “by a large congregation composed of both Jews and Gentiles. The feeling of reciprocity among all town residents when any good work is to be done is shown in this as in all other cases, and is especially due to this congregation, as they are charitable to the needy, and kindly towards all without regard to creed.”

The entire community, then, celebrated in the spring of 1903 the opening of Temple Sinai, which for several decades served a dwindling and aging congregation as members sought expanded professional and financial opportunities in New Orleans and elsewhere; in the early 1920s the beautiful building on the hill became a Presbyterian church, later to be abandoned when most of the Presbyterians joined the Methodists down Royal St.

In December 2012 the community gathered once again to celebrate Temple Sinai’s superb restoration by Holly and Smith Architects, with yet another generation of children singing and processing with palm fronds and candles and flags, plus remarks by Freyhan Foundation leaders, prayers led by Rabbi Barry Weinstein, and a concluding reception in the same location as in 1903 (now the parish hall of Grace Episcopal Church).  The return to community use of this historic structure is a wonderful example of coordinated efforts on every level, from the US Park Service and Senator Mary Landrieu to state government, from the parish school board and police jury and Town of St. Francisville administration to the Freyhan Foundation’s board and the commitment of dedicated individuals, beginning with the late Billie Magee and now under the determined direction of Nancy Vinci. Freyhan Foundation director Joanna Sternberg very capably guided the year-long restoration, which was funded by donations and a grant from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program.

Now the temple, with its superb acoustics, circular oak pews, colorful stained glass windows and new service wing with kitchen and restrooms, will provide space for weddings and lectures and all manner of nondenominational community cultural activities. Perhaps of equal importance, its re-opening, coupled with plans for completing the restoration of the Freyhan School, has given the entire area a greater understanding and appreciation of the historic contributions of an often-neglected but significant segment of society. Information on use of the temple is available by calling the West Feliciana Historical Society museum director at 225-635-6330.

St. Francisville is a year-round tourist destination featuring a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation. Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Gardens are open seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, offering periodic fascinating living-history demonstrations so visitors can experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills offer unmatched recreational activities in unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, all especially enjoyable in the cool weather. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from Chinese and Mexican cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.