The History of St. Bernard Parish
Spanish colonists from the Canary Islands were settled in Louisiana between 1778 and 1783 to halt British colonial expansion west of the Mississippi River in North America. Several groups of these Canary Islanders, known as Islenos, were settled along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs between 1779 and 1783, ultimately populating both banks of the bayou from the rear of what would become Poydras to present-day Delacroix Island. The Poblacion de San Bernardo was established in 1780 with the appointment of a commandant and establishment of a governmental structure distinct from New Orleans. The Islenos became successful farmers and fought against the British in the American Revolution under the command of Governor Bernardo de Galvez and later in the Battle of New Orleans. Following possession of Louisiana by the United States in 1803, St. Bernard remained a distinct settlement, known as a parroquia or parish until 1805 when it was absorbed with what would become Plaquemines Parish into the County of Orleans. The Territorial Legislature of Louisiana legislatively erected 19 civil parishes, corresponding to the administrative districts or posts existing when Louisiana was a Spanish colony. St. Bernard was one of those civil parishes created in the March 31st, 1807 act. St. Bernard encompassed the settlements along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs exclusively. The Parish Church of Saint Bernard and commandant’s office were established in the geographic center of the colonial settlement. The commandant’s office became the first parish courthouse in 1807 and the Catholic church remains in its original location, serving the Catholic faithful.
The area of modern-day St. Bernard facing the Mississippi River from Poydras plantation to present-day Arabi did not become part of St. Bernard Parish until 1817. Indigo planters received land grants along the riverfront in the 1720s in an area called by the colonial French Pointe St. Antoine. A who’s who of colonial Louisiana cultivated plantations, milled lumber and called the area home including Pierre Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, a mid-18th century governor of colonial Louisiana. Following the Battle of New Orleans, property use and ownership changed. Brickyards predominated in what would become Arabi and sugar cultivation reigned supreme along the Mississippi below modern-day Chalmette. The Civil War and its aftermath ushered in a new period of change and growth. The Crescent City Stock Yard and Slaughterhouse Company were established in Arabi, which came to be called Stocklanding, Louisiana. Arabi Post Office in Stocklanding was opened in 1882 and, by the 1920s; Arabi replaced Stocklanding as the community name.
In 1907, Friscoville Avenue was developed in Arabi. Because of a ban on gambling in the city limits of New Orleans, the area gambling center evolved and lasted from 1907 to 1952 with around 5 gambling halls along and in proximity to the 100 block of Friscoville Avenue. Later, and because gambling was illegal, the Louisiana National Guard began raiding the establishments and they eventually closed.
Ironically, gambling is still illegal and against the state’s constitution but Louisiana has a lottery ticket system, a land-based casino and riverboats all over the state. The legislature conveniently changed the definition of “gambling” to “gaming” then passed legislation to establish the gambling/gaming industry.
Over the decades, St. Bernard has developed into a major industrial and petrochemical industry player, has continued to increase its global presence with the Port of St. Bernard and has hundreds of commercial and retail businesses. Kaiser Aluminum was in operation from 1951 to 1983 and provided hundreds of jobs to local residences. It is now the site of the Port of St. Bernard.
It has been ranked as the fastest growing county (parish) in the nation by the U.S. Census Bureau. It is only half as populated as it was in early 2005 due to the destruction by Hurricane Katrina. Today’s population is estimated to be approximately 42,000. The parish is largely rural and is blessed with many communities such as Arabi, Chalmette, Contreras, Meraux, Poydras, Caernarvon, Delacroix Island, Hopedale, Kenilworth, Poydras, Reggio, Saint Bernard, Sebastopol, Shell Beach, Toca, Verret, Versailles, Violet and Yscloskey. Then there’s the ghost towns of Fazendeville, Proctorville and St. Malo. The parish seat and largest community is Chalmette. Chalmette became the seat of St. Bernard Parish in 1938, moving the parish seat from eastern St. Bernard where it had been since 1807.
The parish is surrounded by the Mississippi River, Lake Borgne and the Mississippi Sound and boasts some of the best fishing and hunting in the world. It is the home of St. Bernard State Park, Breton National Wildlife Refuge, and the Chalmette Battlefield, a unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Chalmette Battlefield was established by an act of Congress as Louisiana’s first national park.
The parish has a total area of 2,158 square miles of which 378 square miles is land and 1,781 square miles (83%) is water. It is the second largest parish in Louisiana by total area and has the largest percentage of area in water of any parish.
The parish of St. Bernard embraces numerous small islands. The principal streams are the Bayous Terre aux Boeufs and La Loutre. There are numerous smaller streams that are efficient drainage canals. The dominant tree species is bald cypress.
Today St. Bernard is made up of many different types of people. It is a family oriented community, with many generations of families living and working within the parish. The “welcoming nature” is the best reason to visit. No one is a stranger and the locals are always willing to sit and chat for a spell. It is the perfect place to meander the scenic byway for a day, visit the sites and stop in at a local restaurant or roadside stand to pick up some fresh locally grown tomatoes.
St. Bernard Parish retains a large Isleno Descendants Community, some of whom still speak an archaic form of Spanish from the Canary Islands. This linguistically isolated group eventually developed its own dialect, mixed with some French and later English. This settlement was first called Tierra de Bueyes, then La Concepcion, San Bernardo de Nueva Galvez, San Bernardo del Torno and finally San Bernardo by Spanish officials. Over many generations, and through great difficulties, the Islenos have succeeded in preserving their heritage and their language. The descendants of the original settlers still maintain communities in the parish today. Visitors can experience the contributions and way of life of the Islenos at Los Islenos Museum Complex on Bayou Road in St. Bernard Village that is open Wednesday through Sunday for tours.
The chief historical attraction in St. Bernard Parish is the Chalmette National Historical Park that is locally referred to as Chalmette Battlefield, at which the Battle of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815, during the War of 1812. The American victory in the Battle of New Orleans not only concluded the War of 1812, but also guaranteed American ownership of the Mississippi Valley. Unchallenged ownership of the Mississippi Valley made American expansion westward to the Pacific Ocean an ultimate reality, securing America’s place as a global titan.
The Battle of New Orleans was fought on the plantation of Ignace Martin de Lino de Chalmette. The American forces under Major General Andrew Jackson defeated the British forces led by Lieutenant General Sir Edward Pakenham.
The battlefield, operated by the National Park Service, is open daily for visits to the interpretive center and park ranger chats. Many street names near the battlefield bear the names of both American and British military leaders, or take a pirate theme, since the pirate Jean Lafitte was a hero in the battle. A high school, later elementary and now a middle school, was named in honor of Andrew Jackson, who was the commanding officer in charge of defending New Orleans against the British invasion.
During the great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the city leaders of New Orleans and the state used dynamite to breach a levee at Caernarvon, thirteen miles below Canal Street, to save the city of New Orleans from flooding. At the time, it was thought by New Orleans residents that the dynamiting saved the city, but historians now believe that the dynamiting was unnecessary due to major upstream levee breaks that created pressure on the New Orleans levees. The levee breach caused flooding and widespread destruction in most of Eastern St. Bernard Parish and parts of Plaquemines Parish. Residents were never adequately compensated for their losses.
Hurricane Betsy swept over the New Orleans area on the evening of September 9, 1965. Betsy caused a strong storm surge in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a deep-water shipping channel to the east and south of New Orleans.
The storm surge over topped levees along the channel and on both sides of its terminus at the Industrial Canal in the Ninth Ward. There may have also been a breach of the Back Protection levee along Florida Avenue. The flooding covered areas of Gentilly and both the upper and lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The flooding spread to the east and inundated most of Arabi. In Arabi, Betsy began to die down around 3:00 AM. Many residents, thinking the worst had passed, went to sleep around this time. The flooding reached Arabi Park around 4:00 AM waking the exhausted survivors to another phase of the disaster. Between 4:00 AM and 6:00 AM, the water rose between six and eight feet. By dawn, the water was making its way across the railroad grade between Arabi Park and Carolyn Park and flowing into Chalmette.
For days the survivors huddled in a few two-story buildings surrounded by water, with little or no supplies, power, running water or communications. There was no search and rescue or military presence. Eventually, they evacuated themselves by using their own fishing boats. They headed for higher ground on St. Claude Avenue in Arabi and the Kaiser Aluminum plant in Chalmette.
Without power and ways to prepare food, the word spread quickly that the Royal Castle on St. Claude in Arabi had opened. Long lines begin to gather and lasted for days as people flocked there to get castle burgers by the dozens. To this day, and as a young high school student working at the Royal Castle in Arabi, this person holds the record for the most number of castle burgers cooked and served in one day and in one week. Years later, he became the State Senator for District 1 and once again had the privilege of serving the people of St. Bernard Parish, former Senator A.G. Crowe.
On August 29, 2005, St. Bernard was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The storm damaged virtually every structure in the parish. The eye of Katrina passed over the eastern portion of the parish, pushing a 25-foot storm surge into the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (“MRGO”). This surge destroyed the parish levees. Almost the entire parish was flooded, with most areas left with between 5 and 20 feet of standing water. The water rose suddenly and violently, during a period that witnesses reported as no more than fifteen minutes. In many areas, houses were smashed or washed off their foundations by a storm surge higher than the roofs.
From August 29th. 2005 through December 2005, much of the parish remained without proper services, including electricity, water, and sewage. Parish leaders declared all of the parish’s homes unlivable.
There were countless heroes throughout this tragic ordeal ranging from everyday citizens, the law enforcement community, parish officials and employees, the military, the churches and untold numbers of volunteers. Many of these stories can be found by googling Hurricane Katrina. There you will find out more details of how former Sheriff Jack A. Stephens and his team managed the most devastating disaster in our nation’s history and how former State Senator Walter Boasso commandeered a major river vessel to coordinate a major evacuation of St. Bernard citizens.
Another center in the rebuilding effort was at the church of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, which served the congregations of the seven other Roman Catholic parishes as well as the main office of Catholic Relief Services. It also served as the only place to hold funerals for the first 12 months after Katrina. Hundreds of FEMA trailers were moved in to the parish so that families would have a place to live while re-building their homes.
As of late November 2005, it was estimated that the Parish had some 7,000 full-time residents, with some 20,000 commuting to spend the day working, cleaning up, or salvaging in the parish and spending their nights elsewhere. By mid-December some businesses had returned to the Parish, most notably the ExxonMobil plant in Chalmette (Chalmette Refining) and the Domino Sugar plant in Arabi, together with a handful of small local stores and businesses.
At the start of January 2006, it was estimated that some 8,000 people were living in the parish. The H.O.P.E. Project, a collective of volunteer relief workers, founded itself in January 2006 in the empty shell of the Corinne Missionary Baptist Church in Violet, LA, providing the tools for rebuilding and community empowerment. Since June 2006, Camp Hope, located in Arabi, has been housing volunteers’ assisting residents of St. Bernard Parish in their recovery from Hurricane Katrina. A grassroots organization, the St. Bernard Project, opened its doors in March 2006. A fully volunteer-run organization funded by the United Way, they helped residents get back into their homes by working on their houses, providing tools, support and where possible, funding.
As of October 2006, the population was estimated to be 25,489. Due to Hurricane Katrina, the parish’s 20 plus public schools were consolidated as one school, the St. Bernard Unified School, or SBUS. St. Bernard Unified School broke up into several different schools in the 2006-2007 school year.
In 2011, the Public School System expanded. Andrew Jackson High School was converted into a Middle School. Lacoste Elementary was converted into a Ninth Grade Academy. Trist Middle School is once again serving as a Middle School.
At the start of the 2016-2017 school year there is one high school, Chalmette High School and Chalmette High Ninth Grade Academy. The three middle schools are Andrew Jackson Middle, St Bernard Middle School and N. P. Trist Middle. The six elementary schools include Arabi Elementary, Chalmette Elementary, Joseph Davies Elementary, J. F. Gauthier Elementary, Lacoste Elementary and William Smith Elementary. There is also C. F. Rowley Alternative School. The newest school in the parish is Arlene Meraux Elementary built on land donated by the Meraux Foundation.
The St. Bernard Parish Public School District is one of the top performing districts in the state for both student achievement and teacher effectiveness. With a tradition of academic excellence, extracurricular achievements, and state-of-the-art facilities, students are prepared to excel in college and career.
Superintendent Doris Voitier was chosen as the recipient of the prestigious John F. Kennedy Library Foundation award for political courage. She has served the St. Bernard Parish school system for more than 30 years being appointed Superintendent in August of 2004.
One year later, when every school building in St. Bernard Parish was damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Voitier worked boldly and tirelessly to reopen schools for any student who might return home. With one borrowed computer, no working phones and with no emergency grant money, Voitier took out loans to hire disaster clean-up teams, secure portable classrooms and rent trailers to house a skeletal teaching staff that agreed to work for reduced pay. In November 2005, just weeks after the storm, Voitier reopened the first school for about 300 returning students of the 8,000 who had been enrolled before the disaster. By August 2007, just two years removed from the storm, five schools were reopened serving nearly 4,000 students. Superintendent Doris Voitier was honored for her courageous fight to re-establish and re-build St. Bernard’s public schools in the face of pervasive devastation and bureaucratic challenges.
St. Bernard Parish also has several private schools including Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Classique Academy and Lynn Oaks.
Elaine P. Nunez Community College was established in 1992. It is the only higher education institution in St. Bernard Parish and it was the first public institution of higher learning in Louisiana named after a woman. Elaine P. Nunez was a lifelong resident of St. Bernard Parish and was extremely supportive of public education.
It is a comprehensive community college offering a general education and an occupational technologies curriculum that blends the arts, sciences and humanities leading to associate degrees, certificates and workforce development.
Dr. James A. Callier was appointed as the first President of the college that experienced a unique beginning when Hurricane Andrew struck the New Orleans area on the very day classes were scheduled to begin. With strong support from the local community, the college was able to open three days later.
Then on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina roared in. It was and to this day, the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history. Taking a direct hit with winds in excess of 130 mph in addition to at least seven feet of floodwaters throughout the campus caused millions of dollars of damage. And like the devoted captain who would never abandon his ship as it slipped slowly downward in to the deep, Dr. Tommy Warner, the Chancellor of Nunez, stayed on campus throughout the storm and was later rescued from the top of one of the buildings after a number of days.
It was under the leadership of Dr. Warner and his staff that the college opened within weeks after the disaster establishing classes on the site, on-line, in Slidell and other locations where students had to evacuate. By December, the facilities department with volunteers had gutted the first floors of the buildings and restored electricity, water and sewerage. The college became an oasis in the ravaged parish and a catalyst for business and industry revitalization.
In January of 2006, all classes became available again and the college was reopened for business.
In 2017, Dr. Tommy Warner retired effective December 31, 2016 after many years of public service as the Chancellor of Nunez and the Louisiana House of Representatives. He was succeeded by Dr. Tina Tinney after a comprehensive and competitive national search that included on-campus interviews and public forums with students, faculty and staff and community members.
Dr. Tinney’s appointment becomes effective Jan. 2, 2018.
The St. Bernard Voice is the Parish’s official journal and is the longest-running newspaper dedicated to St. Bernard Parish. For 125 years, since 1890,The Voice has recorded the parish’s mix of current events, commentary, community happenings and school news. Norris Babin is the co-publisher and co-owner while Edwin Roy is the Editor.
The St. Bernard News is another local newspaper covering all the important events around the parish. Bobby Giroir is the Editor.
Formerly published newspapers that served the parish include the St. Bernard Eagle and the St. Bernard Weekly Eagle that was published in the 1870’s through 1884 in Arabi. Progress was published in Stock Landing (Arabi) from 1888 to1889. The St. Bernard Protector lasted from 1925 to 1926 and the St. Bernard Guide was published from 1982 to 1986.
In a parish known for its rich heritage and deep roots in tradition, it’s tough to find a week where someone isn’t celebrating something in St. Bernard Parish. If there’s one thing we love more than eating the delicious dishes in St. Bernard, it’s celebrating them. With too many cooking styles to count and a festival to celebrate them all, your palette will thank you as you sample eats from the ordinary to the extraordinary. We invite you to come to beautiful and historic St. Bernard Parish and enjoy the sights, sounds, our culture, our unique foods and most of all, our people.
“Our heartfelt gratitude and appreciation goes out to Dr. William “Bill” Hyland for his guidance and contributions to this historical narrative and project.”