by David Johnson
The story of Acadiana has long been known as one of refugee resettlement. The saga of the Cajuns—French Canadians forcibly expelled from the maritime provinces in the 1750s by the British crown—has been immortalized in Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline, and their triumphant, transplanted Francophone culture is celebrated in food, music, dance, holiday celebrations and a yearlong calendar of festivals. Less well known is the story of another collective of emigres who arrived in the region in the 1880s with a similar strong-willed determination to retain their cultural traditions: the Germans of Roberts Cove.
Within this unincorporated rice-and-crawfish farming community located in Acadia Parish three miles north of Rayne, every October the tuba-heavy sound of an oom-pah band finds an appreciative audience in a land more commonly associated with the accordion wheeze and fiddle strains of Cajun music or the frottoir scratching of zydeco. Accompanied by folk dancers in lederhosen and dirndl skirts, and facing long communal tables filled with partygoers devouring hefty servings of bratwurst and sauerkraut, the musicians set the festive tone for the annual Germanfest, a tent-shaded gathering evocative of Germany’s Oktoberfest celebrations. Come Christmas Eve, residents of Roberts Cove celebrate midnight Mass at their parish church, St. Leo IV, with carols sung in German and greetings of “Fröhliche Weihnachten.” Yuletide festivities kick off a few weeks prior, on the Sunday nearest December 6, when the Old World European holiday of St. Nicholas Day is observed. The church choir and two parishioners costumed as Santa Claus and St. Nicholas, accompanied by an altar boy depicting a sidekick, Black Peter, make the rounds at family gatherings across the community. Candy is dispensed to children in exchange for promises to “be good” and reminders to say prayers. A communal feast follows in all nine homes with German and Cajun specialities along a predetermined route. Among the Guidrys, Ancelets, Boudreaux and LaCombes, the phone directory lists such Teutonic surnames as Habetz, Olenforst, Zaunbrecher and Gossen.
How did this unlikely outpost of the Rhineland come to be? The roots of these family trees stretch back more than a century across the Atlantic to war-weary forebears in Geienkirchen-Heinsberg, a district located the westernmost part of Germany surrounded on three sides by Holland. Location made the region prone to border conflicts, and the sons in many of the villages had been drafted, wounded and killed in wars for which they felt little allegiance. Between 1864 and 1871 alone, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck fought three wars of “German unification,” attempting to merge all of Germany into the Prussian Empire. By the 1880s, the desire to evade military conscription was voiced as one of the major motivators for German immigration to the United States. More than 700,000 would arrive on American shores in the 1870s, and another 1.4 million would follow in the peak years of the 1880s.
Religious oppression became another impetus. In the 1880s Bismarck began to impose harsh restrictions upon German Catholics, whom he considered too independent and loyal to the Pope rather than him. In what became known as the Kulturkampf, the iron-fisted chancellor forced a series of discriminatory laws through the parliament that prevented Catholics from being wed in religious ceremonies, forcing all marriages to be conducted in state courts. He also reduced the number of seminaries, thereby shrinking the number of future priests, and expelled Jesuits from Germany. The unpopular laws were eventually repealed, but the lingering friction prompted many German Catholics to question their long-term futures in a nation increasingly hostile to their faith. For the persecuted villagers in Geienkirchen-Heinsberg, a man of the cloth arrived to point the way to what promised to be a faraway utopia, halfway around the world in a subtropical latitude.
Father Peter Leonhard Thevis was born in 1837 in the German village of Langbroich. He became a priest in 1862 in the archdiocese of Cologne where he later met Archbishop Jean-Marie Odin of New Orleans. Odin frequently traveled to Germany in search of priests that he could recruit to Louisiana to serve the growing German immigrant population in New Orleans. In 1867 Thevis made the voyage to this exotic city at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where he made both a religious and civic impact. Thevis founded the German School of the Holy Trinity for young children and established the first German-language newspaper in the city, Das Echo von New Orleans. In strongly worded editorials, Thevis encouraged German immigration to the American South where, he believed, his native countrymen’s strong work ethic and ingenuity were needed to rebuild the recently defeated Confederacy in the years following the Civil War. By 1870 Thevis had assisted in the founding of a settlement named Fabacher (now called Ritchie), northwest of Crowley, where 60 Germans from New Orleans began farming. Joseph Fabacher, the town’s namesake, is credited with establishing rice-based agriculture in Louisiana.
Thevis returned to Germany in 1878 with the intent of luring other family members to settle in southwest Louisiana. After a delay of two years due to fears of yellow-fever epidemics in New Orleans, Thevis’ brother, Peter Joseph Thevis, his nephew, John Gerhard Thevis, and a friend, Herman Grein, arrived and joined the ambitious priest on a journey to Rayne where the men surveyed acreage north of the city as a potential colony. The proximity of a railroad station in Rayne, the availability of cheap and easy-to-clear land, and the example of Acadian settlers who had prospered on the prairie as cattle farmers convinced the foursome that a community could be created. The date was January 12, 1880.
Grein returned to Germany and convinced 13 families to join him in his resettlement plan. Soon after their arrival in New Orleans in 1881, Gerhard and another relative purchased 387 acres for $967.50, and Herman Grein homesteaded an adjoining 155 acres. The area became known as Roberts Cove after Benjamin Roberts, the original owner of a Spanish land grant, and the physical appearance of a “cove” surrounded by meandering bayous. In the years that followed, Father Thevis continued to serve as a recruiter, urging more Germans to pursue new lives in a foreign land among fellow brethren. A German church and school became the binding agent among successive waves of German settlers and the colony succeeded in establishing a thriving rice industry.
In 1883 a house of worship was established by Father Aegidius Hennemen soon after meeting Father Thevis. A Benedictine, Hennemen had served as a missionary to German-speaking Catholics and sought a place to establish a monastery. Though the monastery never materialized, he purchased land for a rectory and school and brought with him a Catholic brother to conduct classes in German, a practice that continued well into the first decades of the 20th century until Roberts Cove was confronted with a new wave of discrimination.
On April 4, 1917, the U.S. officially entered World War I. Germany became Enemy No. 1 and on the home front German-Americans bore the brunt of “anti-Hun” fearmongering. Immigrants formerly viewed as respected and industrious neighbors were now the target of suspicion as potential spies and traitors. The unfounded hysteria reached Acadia Parish prior to American engagement. On March 17, 1917, the Crowley Daily Signal published a veiled threat to the families of Roberts Cove:
“… let us prepare to deal with disloyalty and treason, from whatever source they emanate, so drastically that all of our energies may be devoted to the outside enemy. From this time on, until again peace reign in the world, the citizen or alien of this country, whatever his propaganda or unpreparedness is an enemy, and if there is no law to punish him as such, congress should enact one.”
Gossip about perceived anti-American activity threatened to ruin the lives of upstanding citizens. Johann Stamm, among the few residents of Roberts Cove who left farming to establish a business, owned a hardware store. It was rumored that he was making firearms for the kaiser after hours. Three Germans were arrested for making “treasonous” statements. John Frey was detained after he was heard disparaging Woodrow Wilson and flippantly remarking that he would rather serve in the German army than one run by the U.S. president. Ferdinand Olinger was brought to jail for expressing doubts about America’s entry into the war, and Joseph Schaffhausen voiced his opposition to the draft, pointing out that forced conscription was a primary reason his family had fled Germany. Olinger later bought $1,000 in War Savings Stamps to publicly prove his patriotism. Many of his neighbors in Roberts Cove followed suit, making sizable investments in war bonds or the Red Cross.
Xenophobia led the Louisiana legislature to pass some of the harshest anti-German laws in the nation. Five laws were enacted: House Act No. 20 required the registration of all aliens in the state; House Act. No. 14 forbade the ownership of explosives or firearms among said aliens; House Act No. 175 prohibited the selling of anything made in Germany, advertised in German, distributing anything printed in German, or anything in print which favored Germany; House Act No. 259 outlawed the teaching of the German language in in all public and private schools from the elementary to the university level; and Senate Act No. 42 made it unlawful for anyone to use the language of a nation at war against the United States.
The laws were repealed in 1921, but the punitive measures had a chilling effect upon the retention of German customs in Roberts Cove, as did the fatal shooting of August Zaunbrecher in 1919. Zaunbrecher accused an Anglo-American, Leonard Stark, of stealing dirt from his farm. After attempting to make a citizen’s arrest with a shotgun aimed at the accused, Stark in turn pulled a pistol and shot Zaunbrecher. Although the German farmer fired twice at Stark, only Zaunbrecher was harmed and he died two days after the exchange of gunfire. Though Zaunbrecher’s family believed the case to be one of murder, Stark was tried on charges of manslaughter and acquitted. Many believe this was due to the anti-German sentiment of the day.
By 1922 all Germans in the area completed the naturalization process to gain citizenship and ensuing generations were discouraged from learning the mother tongue. “I once asked my grandmother to teach me German,” recalls Marcella Olenforst, a member of the church choir that still sings songs in German. “She said, ‘No, that’s all in the past now. You need to be American.’ ”
The loss of language hastened the Americanization of Roberts Cove, but St. Leo IV church—the “heart of the community” according to resident historian Josie Thevis—was shepherded by an unbroken cycle of German-speaking clerics well into the 1980s. These men would hear confessions and lead prayers in German, and they encouraged their parishioners to embrace fading Old World customs and their immigrant heritage in spite of inevitable assimilation. Chief among these cultural preservationists was Father Charles Zaunbrecher, a native son of Roberts Cove who made ethnic pride a part of his religious calling. In 1981 he traveled to Geienkirchen-Heinsberg with 32 others from the community to connect with distant kinfolk. The ancestral pilgrimage was highly successful and transatlantic exchange visits are now common between Roberts Cove and the German district.
As early as 1956, at the urging of Father Zaunbrecher, reunions were regularly held among the now far-flung descendants of Roberts Cove’s original pioneers, many of whom had begun to marry neighboring Cajuns or seek employment beyond the colony’s confines following World War II and southwest Louisiana’s oil boom. By the 1960s these familial gatherings, or feierleckkeiten, became a standard event every October on the grounds of St. Leo IV. In 1995, it was decided that the get-together would be open to the public and billed as Germanfest, a celebration that now draws hundreds of locals and visitors for a weekend of folk dancing, German music, food and drink, but with flavor distinct to south Louisiana.
“Some of the German cooking tradition persists, but we are so surrounded by the [Cajun] French … a lot of times German people come to our festival and say we we have too much seasoning!” says Josie Thevis, who serves as curator at the Roberts Cove German Heritage Museum. “And we have to say to them, we had to make some changes to appeal to our French neighbors and the heritage around us.” Along with Reiners-family sauerkraut, Zaunbrecher-family sausages, Hoffpauir-family bratwurst and potato stew, rice is prominently positioned on the combo plate at Germanfest. “Families prepare all the food because we did not want any commercial vendors.”
The museum opened adjacent to St. Leo church on September 16, 2002. Antique farm tools, beer stein collections, maps and other ephemera fill much of the space, but Father Zaunbrecher’s painstaking genealogical research forms the core of the exhibits. Each family in Roberts Cove is given a display space where portraits of each generation are mounted, some with tintype prints reaching back to the earliest days of the settlement. A visit is the equivalent of walking into a giant family album.
St. Nicholas Day has also been continuously celebrated in Roberts Cove, but the practice has changed dramatically over the years. St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), was known for his good deeds and generous offerings to all people, rich or poor. According to folklorists he forms the basis for the secular tradition of Santa Claus, but many Europeans view St. Nicholas as a separate religious figure who endured the persecution of Christians under Roman Emperor Diocletian in the first half of the century 300 AD. Legend tells that he routinely rode through the streets on a white mare, distributing toys and treats to children. St. Nicholas is most heralded in Holland, where his arrival every year draws thousands to the streets of Amsterdam for a nationally broadcast television event.
By the early decades of the 20th century, St. Nicholas Day in Roberts Cove had taken on a raucous atmosphere. Young men in the community, all dressed in Santa Claus costumes, would visit the homes of family and friends where children were mildly terrorized by their antics. Children would hide from the masked men who were known to chase and roughhouse the youngsters they discovered. The era of the “wild Santas” came to an end in 1952 when Father Gerard Wolbers, a native of Holland, became St. Leo’s priest. Unimpressed by the rowdiness, he informed families about the tradition in his homeland and set about to replicate the ritual of a gentle St. Nicholas, dressed in a cape and miter and carrying a staff, visiting families with his companion, Black Peter, a now controversial figure in the Netherlands representing a blackamoor in Renaissance attire who carries a basket of treats for well-behaved children. (The young boy who portrays Black Peter is typically a white child wearing blackface makeup.)
“He didn’t like what he saw,” says Josie Thevis, recalling Wolbers’ reaction. “It was just American Santa Clauses and we were not celebrating St. Nick. He said, ‘That’s not the tradition of St. Nicholas.’ He told us the original story and he changed it over to reflect the religious meaning. The choir took over.” The choir now dresses in matching red sweatshirts and black pants and disembark a bus ahead of the costumed characters at each gathering, singing carols to onlookers.
This child-friendly holiday is now eagerly anticipated in Roberts Cove where gatherings rotate year to year among the homes participating families. Bertha Lacombe was among the hosts in 2015. “It’s the beginning of Christmas,” she says, “and a tradition I can remember from my own childhood. The children enjoy it so much, and it makes for good memories generation to generation—a time to enjoy the company of our family and community.
Charlie Olinger recalls the days when the roving gang of unruly Santas defined St. Nicholas Day. “A bunch of mamas started to complain. Kids would be chased into hay barns to escape,” he says with a laugh. “Now it’s a great tradition that keeps families together. There are a lot of things I see as a grown man that I can remember as a kid. I know the vestment on St. Nick has not changed since my childhood.”
On Christmas Eve St. Leo church hosts a traditional midnight Mass. The choir will sing in both English and German, including such carols as “Ihr Keinderlein Kommet,” “Ihr Hirten Erwacht” and “Stille Nacht.” The songbooks are written in English phonetics since German is no longer read or spoken in Roberts Cove, but it’s a language of the heart and a pride in the past that has never ceased to exist.
Midnight Mass will be celebrated at St. Leo IV Church, located at 7166 Roberts Cove Road, on December 24. For more information, call (337) 334-5056.
Germanfest is held every first Saturday and Sunday of October. For more information on the festival and the museum, visit robertscovegermanfest.com.