By Maureen Chicione, RSCJ
The founders of Grand Coteau, Mother Eugenie Aude and Sister Mary Layton arrived in 1821 and started a school. The first enslaved persons on the property may have been loaned to them by nearby Catholic families who had daughters in the school such as the Hardey family whose daughter Mary Ann was one of the first students. Mrs. Charles Smith the donor of the school property had promised a family of enslaved people to the school although there is no record of who they were. She enslaved 25 persons in 1820 so some of the earliest persons enslaved on the property could have come from her. The school property was surrounded by plantations owned by settlers with roots in Maryland. When the Jesuits founded a school in the same town in 1838 there was a steady back and forth of enslaved people from their property and that of the Sacred Heart.
Frank Hawkins is the first recorded purchase of an enslaved person by the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Theodore Mudd was a prominent Maryland Catholic living in Baltimore who owned 16 enslaved people in 1820. Frank was born in Maryland probably around 1790. He was already baptized and married to Jane “Jenny” Eaglin held by another person. She was pregnant and the couple had a son Francis Jr. aged about two when the father was sold south in 1823. This is an example of how families were dislocated by the sale of members although this was condemned by the Catholic Church and prohibited by Louisiana law. Jenny and Frank were not separated for long. The church baptism register indicates that by September 1823 she was living in Grand Coteau held by Robert Barry. She and Frank baptized a daughter Argaminta who sadly did not survive more than a few weeks.
Frank joined other enslaved persons on the Convent property whose exact origin is unknown. Melite an elderly woman is mentioned in the House Journal in 1829 when her husband Martin is acquired with no mention of her being purchased or donated. Records do not indicate cabin for enslaved persons but there is mention of several purchases for Frank: a shirt, coat, blanket, tobacco, and shoes. Other mentions of enslaved persons during this time in the House Journal refer to them receiving sacraments or attending Mass at the Convent. In 1826 a woman named Philis and her two small children were purchased but are not mentioned again in Convent or church records. A letter refers to a woman purchased as a cook who was "sent away" about this time who might be Phillis.
Jenny Eaglin Hawkins was purchased from Horatio Harman by Robert Barry a Maryland owner of enslaved people. She was brought to the area when the Barry family moved to St. Landry parish around 1823. She and Frank were able to resume their relationship. She gave birth to a second son Ben around 1826 or 1827 whose birthplace is consistently recorded as Louisiana.
Mother Xavier Murphy purchased Jane known as Jenny and her two children Frank Jr. and Ben in 1829. An entry in the Convent journal refers to this event as Jenny and her children having “finally come to live here, full of gratitude to Mother Xavier, who brought them in order to alleviate their lot.” In the record of Frank’s death his lifelong affection for Mother Xavier is mentioned again perhaps due to her action in uniting his family. The family had three other children according to sacramental records: John Henry born in 1832, James in 1834 and Marie Anne Xavier born in 1840.
During the period from Frank’s purchase until 1834 there were a number of improvement projects underway at the Convent: a formal garden, fish pond, building a fence, planting trees, making bricks for an addition to the school and the construction of a large cabin for the enslaved. Occasionally the Convent hired enslaved persons or free persons to do specific tasks. Enslaved persons would be responsible for the day-to-day activities such as laundry, cooking, cleaning and caring for the farm and any livestock. There probably was a wagon or carriage drawn by horses for local transportation requiring care and a driver. Frank was trusted to go to Opelousas to make purchases for the school. A purchase of tools for Frank indicate he had a skill such as carpentry or masonry. The convent enslaved persons made bricks by hand that were used for building outbuildings, additions and some were later donated to the Jesuits to start the building of their school in 1838.
Another family reunion was accomplished in 1833 when David (Dave) Eaglin, age 20 was united with his sister Jenny Eaglin Hawkins and purchased for $600 from Joseph A. Gardiner by Mother Xavier. David moved to the area with the Gardiner family who had moved from Maryland about 1832. He appears as a baptism sponsor with wife Julia for the baptism of his nephew John Henry Hawkins in April of that year. The day David arrived to live at the Convent he and Julia were married in church. Julia, sometimes referred to as Julia Ann, made her First Communion at the Convent in 1836. Dave and Julia would often serve as baptism godparents or marriage witnesses and would work and live at the Convent until their deaths in the late 19th century.
In 1834 the Convent Journal notes: “we have erected“ a place to house our three families of Negroes”. That building, with later additions, still stands behind the main house of the Convent of the Sacred Heart. The three families were probably Martin and Melite, a couple in their 60’s, Frank and Jenny with three boys ten and younger, and newly married David and Julia. There may have been other cabins especially in 1850-1860 when the population increased. The cabin is in the foreground of the photo above. The middle section, which was positioned near a well (now covered by a swimming pool) was probably a laundry. The cabin beyond the laundry may have been erected at some later date. From 1840 to 1860 there must have been other small cabins on the property to house other enslaved families and individuals who were then living on the property.
Increasing deaths among the RSCJ made a cemetery necessary in 1835 and several more, including Frank’s beloved Mother Xavier Murphy would fill it with their graves dug by him, Dave, and others who served as pall bearers. Enslaved persons were buried in the church cemetery and the first to die was Martin in 1835. His wife Melite survived until she was over 100 dying in 1859. Frank and his sons were the main labor force at the school. In 1840 a rumor of a slave uprising caused him to be taken into custody for questioning. His answers must have satisfied the authorities for he was released by nightfall.
Wilson Jacobs and Marie Louise Phillips first appear in sacramental records as enslaved persons of the Convent when they baptize daughter Clara in 1849. Marie Louise dies age 39 in 1859 leaving ten-year-old Clara and her older brother Firmin age about 15. Wilson does not appear in the burial register of the church or any census record, so his fate is unknown. Due to the presence of former enslaved persons from the Hardey plantation as witnesses in later church records for Firmin and Clara it is possible that Wilson and Marie Louise were enslaved by the Hardey family who arrived in 1816 in Grand Coteau. An enslaved man named Wilson appears in Jesuit records in 1845-1846 owned by a person named Alphonse de Bayon, clerk to sugar planter Francois Robin. From later records it is clear that all the family were born in Louisiana.
The names of other couples appear as witnesses in the sacramental documents recording baptisms and marriages, but their surnames are not given. They include Bill and Josephine, Veslain and Eugenie, August and Rosaline, Ignace and Eliza, Peter and Eliza, and August and Eugenie. Children born to enslaved persons automatically became enslaved persons themselves. By 1860 two-thirds of the persons enslaved on the Convent property had been born there, not purchased.
A myth that the RSCJ taught the children on the property to read and write is not borne out by census records which records all of them as illiterate adults. None were able to sign the work contract of 1865 or their marriage register with anything but an X. The RSCJ did teach both adults and children their prayers and basic catechism probably by rote memorization.
In 1865, after emancipation, a number of enslaved persons at the Convent put their mark on work contracts with the Convent property overseer, Benjamin Smith, and remained there, although it is not always known for how long. These people included Dave and Julia Eaglin, Jenny Eaglin Hawkins Martin (who had married Jesse Martin after Frank’s death), Jenny’s son James Hawkins and his wife Emeline and their two or three children, and Jenny’s other son Ben Hawkins and his wife Caroline and their six children. Firmin Jacobs, then 20 years old, and Clara Jacobs, age 16, also remained. Kitty perhaps wife of Henry Eaglin, along with Rosalie and her family – whose last names are unknown – also signed work contracts.
After emancipation, census and other records continue to provide significant pieces of information about the now freed men and women associated with the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Dave and Julia Eaglin lived and worked there until their deaths. Dave passed away in 1881 and Julia, or Aunt Julia as the religious referred to her in their Convent records, passed in 1891. They were mistakenly identified in the 1870 census as the “Hawkins” and listed along with four Hawkins children aged 9 to 19. These children do not appear in any local church record and their parents are unknown, Jenny’s and Frank’s son James died around 1879 when he was just 45, but the 1880 census records that his wife and children were still living on the Convent property.
Both the 1870 and 1880 censuses record the names of Jenny Eaglin Hawkins and her second husband Jesse Martin. Jenny had reached the age of 105 when she passed away in 1890. Jesse’s place and date of death are not known. Frank and Jennys son Ben and his wife Caroline appear in the 1870 census as Hawkings. Caroline died in 1871, and two years later Ben married the widow Mary Clark. The couple had several children and the names of their entire blended family are noted in the 1880 census. Almost everyone in the original Hawkins family, along with their spouses and some of their children, were buried by 1880. Descendants moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, before moving on to Beaumont, Texas.
Firmin Jacobs married Mary Linton in 1865 and the couple had 5 children. After Mary’s death Firmin married Marie Lavergne in 1878 and the couple had 11 children. The family name appears in censuses up through 1910. Firmin’s occupation is listed as butcher. He was around 60 years old when he died in 1916 and is buried in the St. Landry parish cemetery in Opelousas. In 1866, his younger sister Clara married Ozee Eaglin, whose first name is sometimes given as Hosea or Ose. He had formerly been owned by R. Hardey. When Ozee died at age 36, having had 11 children with Clara, she married Alphonse Senegal, with whom she had at least 3 more children. Clara, Ozee, and Alphonse are all buried in the St. Charles Borromeo parish cemetery. The name appears in censuses up through 1910.
As of this writing, a number of living descendants of Jenny and Frank Hawkins, have been located. They are descended through Jenny’s and Frank’s sons, James and Ben and their children and grandchildren. Living descendants of Wilson Jacobs and Marie Louise Philips have also been located, descended through their children, Firmin and Clara, and their children and grandchildren. So far as is known today, it appears that David and Julia Eaglin did not have children. Living descendants of two other couples, Frank Hawkins Jr. and Marguerite, and John Hawkins and Rose Eaglin have not been located.
Maureen Chicoine, RSCJ researched and wrote this essay. It recounts the beginnings of a longer and more complex history that the Religious of the Sacred Heart are striving to bring to light.