In many regards, social development in Livingston Parish resembles the colorful pattern that characterizes Louisiana as a whole. The contrasts separating French Creole Acadiana from the upland, predominantly Anglo-Celtic, region of the Bayou State mirror the cultural divisions that differentiate northern Livingston Parish from environs south of Interstate Twelve. Perhaps most importantly, dissemination of the word of God reflects Livingston’s role as a microcosm for evaluating the state as a whole. Traditionally, the northern portion of the parish has been the domain of Baptist, Methodist, and assorted fundamentalist Protestant faiths, while in the southern reaches Roman Catholicism reigns supreme. From the colonial period into the mid-twentieth century, the original American Protestant faith, the Episcopal Church, found no home in Livingston Parish.
Providing a direct challenge to the prevailing 200 year void, in the summer of 1952 the Lord shone his blessings on our home region inspiring a small group of spirited individuals to introduce an Episcopal Church amid the piney woods of Livingston. Little more than a small country town itself in the early 1950s, Denham Springs served as the focal point for the new movement with the arrival of the Nicholas Pugh family, transplants from Napoleonville. Dedicated Episcopalians, the Pughs transferred their membership to Trinity Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge where they encountered Edwin C. Coleman, a theological student on the staff at Trinity, who first suggested the creation of an Episcopal parish in Livingston. Armed with a vision to further the Lord’s work in her new home, Mrs. Pugh hosted a meeting where sixteen people signed a document filing for status as a mission. Within weeks, the first service was held on August 31, 1952 in the First Methodist Church of Denham Springs where services continued through early 1953. Layreaders and clergymen from Trinity and St. James churches in Baton Rouge conducted the services. On January 21, 1953, the fledgling mission was admitted in union with the Diocese of Louisiana. The mission’s advance was occasioned largely through the efforts of a small group of dedicated individuals, most notably: James, Betty, and Corinna Wilcombe; Mr. and Mrs. T. D. Kemp, Robert and Betty Quinn, Eleanor Magee, Mrs. Henri Tinsley, Harrison Bradshaw, Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Copes, Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Shaffer, and Mr. and Mrs. Ben Carlos. By mid-1953, the congregation had rented a small converted house on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Main Street that was later purchased for $4,700.00. An alter was constructed on the north end of the structure while the two bedrooms were converted into a Sunday school room and a nursery respectively. Virtually all of the renovations were completed by the members themselves - while the men worked clearing debris and making repairs, the women cleaned and cooked. Mrs. Tinsley encouraged weekend workers with a special gumbo every Saturday. Donated brown paint suited the men who quickly applied it, only to surrender to the women who recoiled at the appearance of a brown church, demanding and receiving a more appropriate “churchly” shade of white.
As the building took form, the mission continued to grow, choosing the name St. Francis as an appropriate appellation for a church emerging amid the pristine environs of Livingston Parish. In March 1953, the Bishopric sent O. C. Edwards, a young deacon from Trinity to St. Francis where he remained until early 1954. Edwards was replaced by Father Clarence Pope who served as Vicar until 1956. Following Pope’s departure, Father Robert C. Hall assumed direction of the small mission. Hall, a former radio announcer, proved a dynamic as well as a pleasantly opinionated leader captivating the congregation with his powerful sermons. Under his direction the membership continued to grow, necessitating the enlargement of the chapel to accommodate 105 people. When Father Hall departed in the summer of 1959 to assume responsibilities at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, the Bishopric dispatched Reverend Albertus Deloach to Denham Springs. Under his effective leadership the church continued to grow, inspiring Mrs. Monita Jackson Lard to donate four and one half acres of property which continues to serve as the spiritual homestead of St. Francis. Through the early 1960s a more visible presence, complimented by ever growing numbers of dedicated parishioners, furthered the growth of the Episcopal presence in Livingston. In April 1967, Father Richard Walkley assumed direction at St. Francis after Reverend DeLoach moved to St. Augustine’s in New Orleans. Under his leadership the church building was moved to the property donated by Mrs. Lard and a home on Popular Street in Denham Springs was purchased to serve as a rectory. Upon Father Walkley’s departure in January 1969, the Reverend John G. Allen became Vicar of St. Francis. Mrs. Eleanor Magee, one of the charter members, generously bequeathed $51,000.00 which served as the core of a fund to construct the present church building. Supplemented by pledges from the members the new building, originally designed to serve as a parish hall, was completed in 1974. The new building and grounds encouraged the sustained growth necessary to allow St. Francis to achieve parish status by 1976.
In 1977, Father Allen departed and Father John Kline, a retired priest from Grace Episcopal Church in St. Francisville, kindly helped sustain the message at St. Francis until the arrival of Reverend David Cameron in August of the same year. Father Cameron is credited with providing critical stability and a functioning organizational structure to the loosely run parish. When Father Cameron departed he left a well-organized Sunday school program and a committed vestry for interim minister Reverend Frank Hipwell and his successor as priest Reverend Elliot Marshall III. Under Father Marshall’s leadership the Sunday School Annex building was added to the church grounds and a developing lay readership program was in place. Father Marshall resigned in 1990. Direction of St. Francis fell to Reverend Donald R. Brown. Father Brown oversaw the emergence of a thriving daycare program that facilitated increasing membership and an expanding budget. By the early 1990s the operating budget of St. Francis increased to more than $75,000.00 while membership approached nearly two hundred. When Father Brown departed in 1996, the Reverend Paul B. Hancock, headmaster at Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge agreed to serve as interim priest until the arrival of Father Bevin Leach in 1998. Father Leach encouraged continued parish growth, championing such projects as the annual Pumpkin Patch and Fall Festival that serves as a central component of church fellowship and community outreach. Father Leach’s departure in 2001 again necessitated the call for an interim priest. As we approach Founders Day 2002, delineating the fiftieth anniversary of St. Francis, Father Robin Whitlock has graciously assumed primary responsibility for overseeing spiritual development in the parish. During the short 50 year span that has witnessed St. Francis’ advance from an idea to the spiritual community it represents today, fourteen priests and key interim ministers have overseen development.
Like all churches, St. Francis has witnessed her fair share of challenges. But her strength has remained manifest in the devotion of her parishioners to sustaining the vision that brought the Episcopal faith to Livingston Parish. Whether in the form of collecting S&H Green Stamps to secure the first organ, confronting the demands of escalating costs with limited resources, or simply in sustaining the “big tent” ideal where everyone is welcome so central to Episcopal ideology in a time where categories and labels frequently divide us, the love of Christ and a commitment to his worship has guided the vision at St. Francis. In the early days of the small mission, Jim Wilcombe, one of the charter members, took a seed from Christ Church Cathedral and planted it on the church grounds near the present building. Much like the resulting towering oak that provides shade and succor to both parishioners and the wildlife cherished by our patron Saint alike, St. Francis has overcome all obstacles in her path ensuring that the Episcopal vision of Christ like commitment will burn brightly in Livingston Parish for generations to come.