According to available records, the history of Immaculate Conception Church begins in 1717 (or perhaps 1716) when the Franciscan, Fr. Antonio Margil de Jesus, walked the twenty-one miles from the Spanish Mission at Los Adaes to say Mass at the French Fort St. Jean Baptiste in Natchitoches. Services were also held in private homes or in the post. Editors Note: While local tradition says the home of St.Denis was used for mass, the family resided in Mexico and Mobile at the time, and did not return to Natchitoches until late 1722.
(The following information is currently being revised for accuracy.)
In addition, records show that five church buildings preceded the present one: a chapel called St. Francis, constructed outside the stockade of Fort St. Jean Baptiste in 1728 or 1729; a church built in 1734; a third church made of stone, built between 1771 and 1773 but destroyed by fire in 1823 or earlier; a fourth church dedicated on October 5, 1828, also destroyed by fire on March 17, 1838; a fifth building constructed between 1839 and 1842 on the site where Bank One is now located.
The name was changed from St. Francis to St. Mary’s after the Natchitoches Diocese was created in 1853. (?) The name was again changed to Immaculate Conception 1856. Editors Note: Although some historians maintain this date, it is in direct conflict with the date inscribed on the church bell itself.
The present, or sixth, church was built in 1857. However, it was not entirely completed until 1892 when Bishop Durier added the dome on the tower, constructed the present sanctuary and sacristies, and added the altar and tile floor. All interior fittings and furnishings (except the pews) were imported from France: the main altar, the hand-painted Stations of the Cross, the Statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary over the side altar, and the chandeliers. The spiral staircase leading to the choir is unique in that it has no center support. The wooden Baptismal Font, on the altar, was hand-carved in France. The church bell was “presented to St. Francis Cathedral by the Citizens and the Catholic Aid Society of Natchitoches at Christmas 1880,” according to an inscription on the bell. Stained-glass windows in the body of the church are American made. The twin stained-glass windows in the rear of the church are from Austria. Bishop Augustin Martin, the first bishop of the Natchitoches Diocese, and his Vicar-General, Pierre F. Dicharry, are buried in the church near the side altars.
The church was restored and redecorated first in 1955-56, when the front vestibule and entrance were added. In 1992, an extensive restoration and renovation process began, restoring Immaculate Conception to its grandeur of 1892. Careful research by architectural historians and consultants was employed to determine the most authentic reproduction of the interior of the church. At a cost of $1.2 million, the restoration was completed in June 1996.
Rectory and Museum
Across the street is the Rectory – built in New Orleans in 1885, dismantled, shipped to Natchitoches by boat, and then reassembled – and the Old Seminary built in 1855 to house and educate seminarians. The Bishop Martin Museum is now located there and is the depository for early records, dating from 1724, and for church artifacts, including a silver bell dated 1836. Back of the Seminary, on Trudeau Street, is the Bishop’s Residence erected by Bishop Martin. At one time a similar but larger edifice was directly across from the Residence on the corner of Second and Trudeau Streets, with a wide brick wall between the two. The latter one is no longer standing.