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The Monuments on Our Courthouse Square

Photograph: The World War I (Great War) Monument dedicated to the soldiers who served in the military during the Great War of 1916 to 1918, some giving their lives, stands on the grounds of the St. Landry Parish Courthouse Square in the heart of downtown Opelousas. (Photograph by Freddie Herpin.)

Carola Lillie Hartley
Publisher and Contributing Writer

In 1920, a monument was erected by the citizens of St. Landry Parish in honor of the boys who served in the great war, World War I. The only monument dedicated to the parish soldiers who served in that war, was placed on the St. Landry Parish courthouse square, on the southeast corner of the square facing Court Street. The monument was scheduled to be dedicated on July 4, 1920. But there is more to this story.

During that same year, another monument, one to memorialize the soldiers who fought for the confederacy in the Civil War, was installed on the northeast corner of the same square. It was unveiled with a dedication ceremony in February of that year. 

The World War I Monument
Erected just 18 months following the end of that great war, that monument, named the Victory Column, was a project of the St. Landry Council of Defense, headed by E. M. Boagni, Chairman; W. B. Prescott, Treasurer, M. A. Grace, Vice Chairman; R. O. Eckert, Secretary; with board members J. A. Haas, Charles Thibodeaux, J. G. Lawler, A. W. Dejean, Leon Wolff, E. G. Richard, C. A. Gardiner, J. A. Guidroz, G. Richard, B. F. Vanoy, J. P. Savant, A. E. Resweber, John T. Thistlethwaite and Philip Hickey. The Building Committee for the Victory Column was E. M. Boagni, Chairman; C. A. Gardiner, B. A. Littell, W. B. Prescott and Leon Wolff.

According to a St. Landry Clarion, March 15, 1919, page one article entitled “Take First Steps to Erect Soldier Monument Here”, a meeting was held earlier that week at the office of the chairman, E. M. Boagni. The committee assembled at that meeting decided to go forward with the idea to have a monument erected to honor the brave St. Landry Parish soldiers who fought in the great World War that had recently ended. The committee agreed to canvass the entire St. Landry Parish area for contributions to the WWI monument fund so a fitting testimonial to the St. Landry fighters could be built. The parish schools and all parish churches were also asked to be involved with the fund-raising effort. 

On Monday, March 31, 1919, the WWI monument fund-raising campaign began in St. Landry Parish. It continued for the entire month of April, ending on April 30th of that year.

An article on page one of the Star-Progress on April 12, 1919, announced the St. Landry Parish Police Jury unanimously approved a contribution of $1,000 to the Monument Fund (for WWI Monument). At that April 7th meeting, St. Landry Council of Defense chairman Mr. Boagni told the jurors the monument was being erected for all the soldiers of St. Landry who had participated in the world war struggle whether on the battlefield or in army camps. He estimated the cost of the monument would be at least $10,000.

Also, at that meeting the police jury decided they would have charge of locating the monument on the courthouse square, which would be turned over to the parish as soon as it was dedicated.

As the campaign began, excitement over the WWI monument was building. It seemed most of Opelousas and St. Landry Parish were getting involved.  Opelousas led the way in the fund-raising campaign by setting aside one day for the Monument fund campaign. Opelousas Mayor Mike Halphen issued a proclamation naming Thursday, April 10th, “Monument Day” in the town.

Opelousas citizens were asked to observe that day in a proper manner, “by giving the cause a worthy thought in the manner suggested by the Council of Defense.” Mr. Boagni suggested everyone should give to a monument dedicated to the soldiers who fought in World War I, a war that ended in victory for the cause.

Two Different Monuments for Two Different Wars, by Separate Committees, on the Courthouse Square
While the Council of Defense was working on the WWI monument project, the St. Landry chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, chapter No. 1470, U.D.C., were continuing with their long-time effort to have a monument on the courthouse square erected in memory of St. Landry soldiers of the war of 1861.  According to an article in the Star-Progress on February 7, 1920, the Confederate monument would be located on the northeast corner of the square, while the World War I Veterans’ monument would stand on the southeast corner, with both monuments facing Court Street. 

After all the funds were secured for the WWI monument, it was ordered from the Albert Weiblen Marble and Granite Company in New Orleans.  Following that, a monument base was laid on the southeast courthouse square by Homer Ventre and a crew of men on September 25, 1919. Likewise, the separate committee from the United Daughters of the Confederacy ordered their monument from the same New Orleans company, and a base was laid, also by the Homer Ventre crew, on the northeast side of the square for the war of 1861 monument.

The page one article in the Star-Progress on February 7, 1920 reported the Confederate Monument was “planned several years ago by members of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and after many appeals for funds to public bodies and patriotic individuals and citizens, sufficient money was at last realized during the last year to assure the erection of a monument to the memory of the St Landry heroes who fought and bled for the Lost Cause from (18) ’61 to ’65.”

According to that same article, “To Hon. E. M. Boagni, chairman of the famous and efficient St. Landry Council of Defense during the late World War, is due the major portion of the credit for the beautiful shaft erected in memory of the St. Landry soldiers who participated in the recent World War with the Central Empires of Europe. He headed the movement that secured sufficient funds to justify the erection of one of the prettiest granite shafts in this section of the state. While his task was not an easy one, Mr. Boagni was successful in obtaining the funds necessary in what is regarded as a record-breaking time.”

That article also reported on the arrival of both monuments (shafts) in town on Monday morning, February 2, 1920. Albert Weiblen, president of the marble and granite company from New Orleans, was also on the scene at the courthouse as the placement of the monuments on their bases was begun. It took about two weeks for the job to be completed.

The next step for the two monuments was to have the unveiling and dedication ceremonies.

Dedication Ceremonies for The Two Monuments

Confederate Monument: The unveiling and dedication of the Confederate Monument, with the words “In Loving Memory of the Confederate Soldiers, 1861-1865” inscribed on one side, was held on Sunday, February 22, 1920, at 2PM on the courthouse square in downtown Opelousas. On that afternoon a parade consisting of program participants along with members of the Daughters of the Confederacy and Confederate veterans was held, beginning at 1PM outside Barrilleaux’s auditorium and ending on the square. The unveiling and dedication program consisted of a number of speeches with the sounds of Dixie and other music performed by the brass band along with members of the Daughters of the Confederacy and by Opelousas High School pupils.

World War One Monument: The World War I monument was very popular with the local community and received a lot of support. People were looking forward to its unveiling and dedication. Although that dedication of this monument was scheduled for July 4th of 1920, that did not happen. What did happen was totally unexpected by everyone. Here is the rest of the story.

On February 28, 1920, both Opelousas newspapers, The St. Landry Clarion and the Star-Progress, had front page articles about the Victory Column monument. It seems when the monument was delivered to Opelousas, people who viewed it noticed the inscriptions on the sides of the monument.

On one side of the monument was this dedication:

“Erected by the citizens of St. Landry Parish in honor of her sons who enlisted to serve their country in the great war for the preservation of democracy and in loving memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice for the triumph of the free peoples of the world and an honorable victorious and enduring peace.” 

On the other side were the names of the committees that were instrumental in securing the funds to get it built. There was much controversy about the names of the committee inscribed on the monument. After much discussion, and meetings of everyone involved, it initially was reported that all agreed those names should remain as they were inscribed.

However, that was not how many Opelousas citizens felt about the name issue. Many voiced their opinion stating they did not like the idea of committee members names inscribed on the monument but thought the names of those who died in the war should be there.

It was pointed out that the committee members were not aware their names would be on the monument. Rumors spread around the town and the parish about this controversy. As a result, the WWI monument was not ever formally unveiled or dedicated.

Two Decades Later
As the clock ticked off the years, the WWI monument remained on that southeast corner of the courthouse square, still not officially dedicated.  Twenty years later in 1940 when the new courthouse was opened, the Daily World ran a story about the opening, and also did articles about other things on the square including the two monuments put there in 1920. 

Apparently, the story on the WWI monument did not sit well with some Opelousas folks, and it was all because of that controversy over the names inscribed on one of its sides. The Daily World even lost some subscribers because of that article.  John R. Thistlethwaite, in his Mugwump Column addressed the decades old controversy on March 12 of that years: “The erection of the monument was in the hands of only a few men, the rest merely giving their aid by soliciting subscriptions and donating money. The monument was built in good faith by persons genuinely interested in commemorating those who died for the cause (the fight and victory that was WWI). Those on the committees did not know that their names were to be engraved on the monument and did not know what was to be written onto it.” By doing more investigating in 1940, Thistlethwaite found out that most of the men working on that monument committee at that time did say they had no idea their name would be on the monument, but since it was already inscribed, they wouldn’t suffer the humiliation of having it chiseled off by any party or parties.  So, the monument was never dedicated.

Today, over a century later, the beautiful WWI monument remains on the courthouse square in downtown Opelousas. Dedicated or not, it stands as a memorial to the soldiers who fought, and to those who died, during WWI.

Wilfred Sylvester of Opelousas, soldier in WWI.