Slave-era church struggles with life and death KATC - Lafayette,LA,USA Louisiana law ensures the neatly cared-for cemetery will be there forever. How long the congregation will be there to watch over it and join their families ... See all stories on this topic Slave-era church struggles with life and death http://www.katc.com/Global/story.asp?S=9316039 THIBODAUX, La. -- The graveyard beside the Old Fountain Missionary Baptist Church is a clutter of white vaults rising above the soggy south Louisiana soil, jammed together in uneven rows. Louisiana law ensures the neatly cared-for cemetery will be there forever. How long the congregation will be there to watch over it and join their families under the sacred soil are another matter. "I was raised in this church, I was baptized in that bayou right there," said 90-year-old Mary Hallie, who counts at least 14 family members among the dead. "And I always thought when I died I'd lay right there with them." Now it looks as if that will only happen if Hallie is among the next eight church members to die. That's about how many spaces are left in the cemetery. The owner of the land the church and graveyard stand on has told the congregation he will provide no more space for burial after those graves are filled. Although a representative said Laurel Valley Plantation owner Jerry McKee has never asked the church to leave the small sliver of land _ an acre or less _ that the plantation has provided for at least 100 years, time and death may have that same effect. The church _ on the edge of Thibodaux, a small town about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans _ celebrated its 154th anniversary on Oct. 24. Laurel Valley Plantation Inc., which owns the land, figures a church has occupied its present location for only about 100 years, but members believe their ancestors began worshipping there during slave days. The oldest headstone dates from 1898. According to church lore, the plantation owner was out walking one night before the Civil War and heard a noise in one of the slave cabins. When he investigated, the slaves told him they were praying. Church historian Brenda Cahn said the owner told the slaves they should never be afraid to worship, and built a church on a small plot at the edge of sugar cane fields. It is not clear which owner was involved. Laurel Valley changed hands many times after 1775, when Etienne Boudreaux secured a 528-acre land grant from the Spanish colonial government. Later owners bought more ground for the plantation, which today encompasses 700 acres. Much of the history of many churches like Old Fountain Missionary Baptist survives only as oral tradition, said Marge Barker of the Lafourche Parish Historical Society. What is believed to have been the first, or one of the first churches on the site, burned in about 1910, Cahn said. Hurricane Betsy destroyed the next one in 1965. The present church, a modest structure of cinderblock and weatherboard, has been improved over the past 43 years. A new sound system was added, paneling covers the walls, air conditioning offers comfort in Louisiana's steamy summers, pews with red cushions have replaced the old benches. A banner above the choir reads, "The little church by the bayou where everybody is somebody and together we serve." A small social hall also was built. "We put what money we had into it," said the Rev. Joseph Frank, who has been pastor for 21 years. "We rewired it, put on a new roof. We have plenty invested in that church." The congregation built a baptismal pool beside the Bayou Lafourche, where members had previously washed away their sins. The building belongs to the congregation, the land does not, and a ditch cut around the church more than a decade ago marks the limit to the land it can use. "This church is like our home," said Cahn. "If we leave, it will be like a death in our family." Laurel Valley Plantation has never charged the church rent, but it has never relinquished title and has no interest in selling the site or allowing the cemetery to expand, said Harold Block, attorney for plantation owner Jerry McKee. The pastor and church members said McKee has been asking them for a decade to find a new location for the church. They said McKee has told them the location of the church _ about 50 feet from the center of busy Louisiana Highway 308 _ is a major safety concern. "He says he's worried about an accident," Hallie said. "But we've been here all these years and never had an accident." McKee's lawyer, however, said no one has asked church members to move, nor are there any plans to do so. "The church came to Mr. McKee and said they would like more land a little over a year ago," Block said. "He said he did not want to do that. He does not want a large cemetery on his property. And he said if they decided to move he would help them financially." Block said McKee would provide more than $65,000 to help the congregation relocate. Selling the land, even a sliver on the very edge of the plantation, is out of the question, however, Block said. "The Lepine and McKee families have owned Laurel Valley for over 100 years and during that time they have never sold any property," Block said, referring to Wilson Lepine, who with Frank Barker bought the plantation in 1893. The Lepine family acquired a majority interest in the plantation in 1903. McKee married a niece of the Lepine family. Laurel Valley is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of its 50 buildings date back to 1815. But the church and cemetery, which sit several miles from the plantation house, are not on the register. Under Louisiana law, the cemetery cannot be destroyed and use of the land around it is limited, said assistant state attorney general Ryan Seidemann. Worries over the future have taken a toll on the congregation. Where almost 200 people once crowded the pews, barely 100 now show up on Sunday, said Cahn, whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and children have all worshipped at the church. McKee has met with Frank, the pastor, and a couple of church members to discuss "the church's interest in moving and Laurel Valley's willingness to make a financial donation," Block said. For now, the future is murky, and the options are viewed very differently by the pastor and many in his congregation. Frank acknowledges he would like to move the congregation. At 81, Frank dreams of a bigger church with a bit more flash. "I would like to have the baptismal pool inside before I die," he said. He said he has found a suitable building on the other side of Thibodaux, but the $390,000 price tag, and lack of ground for a cemetery, work against it. Relocating will be much harder for many of his congregants. "How can we just walk away and destroy all this history," said Ernest Thomas Jr., a deacon whose mother, grandparents and two children are buried in the cemetery. "We've had people worshipping here, dying here and being buried here for 153 years, and now you just got to pack up and go?" Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.