By: Carola Lillie Hartley
Anyone coming into Opelousas at the east entrance on Highway 190 will notice the Myrtle Grove Cemetery, located to the right. The historic cemetery has occupied that spot since it was created as the Protestant Cemetery about 200 years ago. It was also the public burying ground in Opelousas. But for the efforts by one Opelousas woman over 150 years ago, we may not have that cemetery today. Her name was Mrs. P. A. Gray, and this is her story.
Born in Florissant, Missouri on May 15, 1821, Penelope Ann Beauchamp came to Opelousas with her parents Joseph (1791-c.1826) and Ellen Hensley Thompson Beauchamp (1789-1868) when she was just six years old. Following the death of her father In c.1826, Penelope and her brother Joe were raised by her widowed mother. On September 8, 1840, Penelope married William H. Gray. In 1849, Mr. Gray passed away leaving Penelope a young widow on her own in Opelousas. After his death, she was known as Mrs. P. A. Gray.
Mrs. Gray was very involved in the Opelousas community during her lifetime. She was a charter member of the Opelousas Methodist Church and was active in church work. She did works of charity in the area, leading various groups and organizations. She was also involved in business as an agent for different sales products offered to the public over the years. Although living alone, she was enjoying a good life in Opelousas. But that did not last for long.
In the fall of 1854, Mrs. Gray met a young stranger in town who was visiting for a few weeks. His name was Horace G. Loring, who claimed to be a native of Maine, born in 1832. He was described as about 5Ft. 5 ½ inches tall, with black hair, very dark eyes, straight nose and a rather long face. He was said to have a lively disposition and pleasant agreeable manners. He represented himself as being related to a highly respectable Loring family in Boston, MA and claimed to have once been a midshipman in the United States Navy.
After just a short time she fell in love with him. At the end of November Loring left Opelousas, claiming to have business in another state. He returned early in February of 1855, and just a few days later, on February 5, he married Mrs. P. A. Gray, at the Methodist Church in Opelousas, with Rev. C. A. Frazee officiating. Many in Opelousas celebrated with the couple on their wedding day. And for some who were not able to attend the party, the happy couple sent pieces of their wedding cake and some champagne. Mr. Sandoz with the Opelousas Courier was one of those receiving the cake and champagne. He announced their wedding in the Saturday, February 10th edition of the Opelousas Courier and even offered them this toast: “May their long life be as sweet as their cake – and their road through this world as bright and sparkling as their wine!”
Unfortunately, the world did not turn out to be so bright and sparkling for the new Mrs. Loring. Apparently, Mr. Loring was not who he claimed to be after all. Just about three months following the wedding, in May Horace said he had to make a business trip to Mississippi. He left Opelousas never to return. Seems he also had a wife in New Orleans.
What a scandal that was in Opelousas! Poor Mrs. Gray was described as a respectable woman of the community who was fooled by this Bigamist. A warrant was issued for his arrest. and sent out all over the US.
It was soon discovered Loring did not go to Mississippi, but to New Orleans where he fled the state, leaving on the steamship Daniel Webster for California. The story of the search for him, charged with Bigamy, went out to all the newspaper editors throughout the US asking that they spread the story to help locate him and bring him back to St. Landry Parish to stand trial. That never happened. At the start of the Civil War, he joined the Union Army in the state of Wisconsin. He was killed on August 14, 1863, in Missouri and is buried in the St. Louis Cemetery in that state.
Penelope went back to calling herself Mrs. P. A. Gray. When the Civil War began, she got involved in trying to help the soldiers by providing them with uniforms and equipment. She took charge and collected materials that those in need could use. She organized ladies of the surrounding areas into sewing clubs, using the old Varieties Theater building, owned by her brother, on the corner of Main and Landry streets as their headquarters. The ladies also provided food and other hard to find items needed by the soldiers and others in the community. She also helped to nurse the sick and injured back to health and helped widows and orphans who were left alone following the war.
After the war in the 1870s Mrs. Gray turned her attention to trying to save and improve the Protestant Cemetery in Opelousas. She organized and headed a committee to raise funds and get work done to clean up and maintain the burial grounds. She started a campaign to raise funds to install a fence around the cemetery. That took some time, but by the 1890s there was enough money so that could be done. And there were extra funds that she used to improve a small cottage nearby so that a sexton could live there and care for the cemetery. A fence was installed around this cottage as well.
As the twentieth century began, Mrs. Gray continued her work with the Methodist Church and with charitable causes for the remainder of her life. She also continued to work for that cemetery, making sure it was kept up and maintained as it should be. If it were not for that work, we may not have that cemetery today.
Mrs. P. A. Gray died in Opelousas at her residence located on the southwest corner of Landry and Liberty streets on September 4, 1912. She is buried in the cemetery she devoted her life to preserve. Although her tombstone reads Penelope Ann Gray died September 4, 1911, according to her obituary in the St. Landry Clarion, she died in 1912. In her obituary published on page one on Saturday, September 28, 1912, she is described as “a noble soul, a worker in every cause affecting human weal. She always took the lead in the extension of charitable work.” She was also credited with saving the Protestant Cemetery for the town, making it a fit resting place for loved ones, and a proper graveyard for the city’s unidentified dead.
Next time you see the cemetery sign on highway 190 at the east entrance to our historic town, think about Mrs. P A. Gray and what she did for our community.
Photo: Myrtle Grove Cemetery at the east entrance to Opelousas as it appeared in May of 1952. (Carola Lillie Hartley collection.)