Recalling Feliciana Jews

— Temple Sinai never was a grand temple, but for the 19 or so years it served the tiny Jewish congregation of Bayou Sara and St. Francisville, it was the center of religious life for its 20 members.

Thanks to the work of the Julius Freyhan Foundation, its president Nancy Vinci and a grant from Save America’s Treasures, old Temple Sinai is completely restored for use as a community gathering place. St. Francisville will celebrate this rehabilitated treasure on Dec. 9.

St. Francisville’s earliest organized Jewish congregation met in Bayou Sara in 1892, first at the Meyer Hotel, then at the J. Freyhan Opera House.

According to minutes in the West Feliciana Historical Society Museum, members of the Jewish congregation led by President Adolph Teutsch gathered in April 1893 to make plans for building a temple. In 1901, the congregation formally incorporated with Ben Mann, a livery stable owner, as president. In July 1902, work was begun on the new Temple Sinai, which was built on Turner Hill overlooking the Mississippi River on the higher ground of St. Francisville. One month later, the cornerstone was laid in Masonic ceremonies.

Mrs. M.E. Leake, editor of The True Democrat, billed as the “official journal of the parish,” described the dedication of Temple Sinai in the March 28, 1903, issue of the paper.

“The sacred building was filled prior to the hour for the services by a large congregation composed of both Jews and Gentiles,” Mrs. Leake wrote. “It was an hour of rejoicing, and Christian friends, fully sympathetic, rejoiced, too.”

The article describes the temple as being 35 by 50 feet with a high ceiling, many large stained-glass windows, abundant light and ventilation and perfect acoustics.

Among those participating in the dedication were Rabbi Max Heller, of New Orleans; Rabbi L.S. Rosenthal; Isidore Hiller; congregation President Joseph Meyer, a member of the first City Council; Judge Joseph L. Golsan; Judge S. McC. Lawrason; and the Rev. Louis Tucker, rector of Grace Episcopal Church.

“At the dedication of the temple, the whole community gathered together,” said Anne Butler, West Feliciana author and historian.

“The dedication address was given by an Episcopalian judge, who was my great-grandfather.”

Also taking part in the festivities were children representing “prominent Israelite families” including Abe and Louis Mann, Laurence and Theresa Mann, Solomon Levy, Ary and Herbert Dreyfus, Julia Fischel, Ella Teutsch, Juliet Wolf, Helen Schleshinger and Louie Ediger.

Temple Sinai lasted less than two decades. Within a few years of the dedication, most of the members had died or moved to such larger cities as New Orleans.

In 1922, the building was sold to the local Presbyterian church, which held services there for many years until its membership declined and most of the congregation joined the St. Francisville United Methodist Church. In 1994, the building, which had fallen into disrepair, was donated to the West Feliciana Police Jury.

With only one local surviving descendant of Temple Sinai’s congregation, the little Jewish community was all but forgotten. Then in Dec. 2003, Pauline Alma Friedman, the granddaughter of Julius Freyhan, one of the area’s early Jewish residents, reconnected her family with St. Francisville.

Friedman, who was in her 90s, unmarried and living in California, contacted Butler and asked her to write a book about the three generations of her family. Friedman donated the copyright of Butler’s book, “Three Generous Generations,” to the West Feliciana Historical Society.

Julius Freyhan, an extremely successful businessman, had moved to New Orleans by the time Temple Sinai was built, but he donated the organ for the temple. At his death, he left a legacy of $8,000 to provide a central high school for the parish. With additional public and private funds, the Julius Freyhan School was opened in 1905. Until it closed in 1951, it was a significant part of West Feliciana life. However, in time, it too fell into disrepair.

In the early 1980s, a group of local residents led by the late Billie Magee began a move to restore the old high school as a community cultural center. The Julius Freyhan Foundation was formed and fundraising began. Even though the foundation raised some money, the project was enormous, and the building continued to deteriorate.

At her death in 2005, Friedman left $300,000 to the West Feliciana Parish School Board to restore the old school with the stipulation that one room in the school would showcase local Jewish history. That same year, the Julius Freyhan School and Temple Sinai were both placed on the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation’s Most Endangered List. Local residents felt that something needed to be done to restore these two local landmarks.

“When that happened, we decided that the whole project, the temple and the school, should be a whole campus to show what Jewish life was like in the small Jewish communities,” Vinci said.

The foundation entered 99-year mutual endeavor agreements with the police jury, which owns Temple Sinai, and the school board, which owns Julius Freyhan School. The decision was made to restore the old temple first.

“When we got those agreements, we decided to go for a Save America’s Treasures grant from the U.S. Park Service,” Vinci said. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu was instrumental in helping the foundation get the grant of $250,000, which had to be matched.

“There were stringent requirements by the State Preservation Office and the U.S. Park Service to make sure everything was done properly,” Vinci said. Paul Morvant, of Holly & Smith Architects, of Hammond, designed the restoration, which was done by Blount General Contractors, of Denham Springs. Restoration contractor Andy Simon restored the temple’s original windows.

The building also contains its original floors, beadboard ceiling and pews. Because the choir loft had been removed many years ago, it was not replaced in the restoration.

“In our business plan, the building will be used for destination weddings, conferences and seminars,” Vinci said. “It will be a great business once we get the other building done.”

On Dec. 9, the rehabilitated temple will be opened in ceremonies similar to the original dedication more than a century ago.

Butler, the great-granddaughter of one of the original speakers, will speak on the early Jewish community; local children will march in to patriotic songs; and a reception will be held where it was held in 1903, two blocks away at Jackson Hall, then Pythian Hall, at Grace Episcopal Church.