A Tragic Love

"Evangeline" poem and related sites in St. Martinville tug at the  hearts of romantics.

Your heart just breaks for this girl.

In the epic poem, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed the story of an Acadian woman (Evangeline) uprooted from her home in Nova Scotia by the British and separated from her intended on the day of their wedding. Evangeline searches for her Gabriel while traveling through Louisiana, but it’s not until many years later that she, now a nun, finds him ill in an East Coast hospital, only for him to die in her arms.

The poem was published in 1847 and instantly became a hit. In 1929, actress Delores del Rio arrived in St. Martinville to shoot a film version of the poem, and while in South Louisiana, she posed for the statue of Emmeline Labiche, a St. Martinville woman some say was the source of Longfellow’s story. See it outside of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church.

Whether Labiche existed or was the inspiration for Longfellow is debated. But visitors to this quaint Cajun town on the banks of Bayou Teche revel in its romantic story of a people torn apart by politics and delivered to a new world to start anew.


City Origins

In the early days of the Louisiana colony, Europeans moved into the area to raise cattle, bringing African slaves with them. In 1765, following “le grand dérangement,” or the great upheaval, from Nova Scotia, Acadians — or Cajuns as they are now known in Louisiana — arrived and settled along the Teche. The largest group of Acadians arrived in 1785, followed by French immigrants and all forms of nationalities after American statehood. 

At one time, St. Martinville was known as “le Petit Paris” for its many Creole aristocrats. But Martinville’s Acadian and African-American roots remained. When St. Martin de Tours was established, the first baptism in the church was Marie of Senegal, a 16-year-old slave, according to Elaine Clement, St. Martinville director of tourism.

Visitors can learn more about this history at the African-American Museum and the Museum of the Acadian Memorial side by side in the Cultural Heritage Center, located in the center of town on South New Market Street. Both museums tell the city’s history from the personal stories of both groups of people. 

Acadian history and the Evangeline legend are two different things, although the poem has become part of the bigger story.

“It’s not an accurate history,” Clement said, adding that the poem describes a defeated people and doesn’t include the heroes who fought the British over a 30-year conflict. “I don’t want to destroy the myth, but I want to empower the rest. I’m trying to tell more of the story.”

The Acadian Memorial consists of a wall of names of those who were expelled from the Canadian Maritimes and arrived in Louisiana. On the opposite wall is a mural of the Acadians’ arrival to St. Martinville created by Lafayette artist Robert Dafford. In the rear of the museum is an eternal flame and a replica of the Deportation Cross of Grand Pré, Nova Scotia, where thousands of Acadians were sent into exile by the British.

The African-American Museum next door not only relates Louisiana slavery, but the many residents who became free people of color, including Monroe Baker, the city’s first black mayor.

Visiting St. Martinville

During the city’s heyday, Jean Pierre Vasseur built a hotel on the corner of the city square. It passed through different owners but one of the most popular operators was Delia Greig Castillo, a steamboat captain’s widow. Today, the Old Castillo Bed and Breakfast is owned by Peggy Hulin, who offers visitors travel advice along with fresh flowers and gift bags in the rooms, and her famous Cajun breakfast of “pain perdu,” or lost bread, and homemade preserves.

The B&B is located on Evangeline Boulevard and situated next to the Evangeline Oak, the spot where Evangeline waited for Gabriel in Longfellow’s poem. The walkway along the bayou stretches from the oak and Longfellow’s statue to the museums. Visitors will hear the church bells ring from St. Martin du Tours across the street and may visit for a French Mass.

Also within walking distance from Old Castillo is The St. John Restaurant, located in a restored warehouse on Bayou Teche. St. John’s Executive Chef Bonnie Breaux last year was named Queen of Louisiana Seafood for her crackling-crusted black drum. 

The historical district surrounding the church consists of 32 buildings dating as far back as 1820. Be sure to stop at the Duchamp Opera House to browse its gift shop and art gallery. 

Other spots to visit include the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site on North Main Street, which explores through a Creole mansion and Cajun cabins the cultural diversity of the people who settled here. Rangers gives tours of the historic facilities and offer special events, such as trade days and re-enactments, sometimes in French.

For romantics looking for a Valentine’s Day escape, look no further than St. Martinville, where tales of love are entwined in the fabric of the city. 

For more information, visit cajuncountry.org or call (888) 565-5939.

Cheré Coen is a contributor from Lafayette, La. She’s authored the book Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.

Originally published in AAA SOUTHERN TRAVELER.