Built entirely of cypress, St. Mary’s Chapel still bears ornate details including cast-plaster stations of the cross, though water damage has compromised much of the structure. Photo by Russ Gorabty

Descendants of the Chauvin family join forces to save a beloved church

For descendants of Louis Chauvin II, Pierre Chauvin and the town of Union, St. Mary’s Chapel—built by the Chauvins in 1875 in the French Gothic Revival style using Louisiana cypress and once featuring a Gothic steeple—has long been a multi-generational institution of faith, community and celebration.

Today, the nearly 150-year-old chapel is in a state of disarray, needing a new roof, windows, electrical upgrades and more. So a dedicated band of community members, through the newly formed nonprofit Friends of St. Mary’s Chapel, are pulling the chapel back from the precipice of extinction to restore its former glory. 

“The church is a family heirloom in the community, and it was started by the people. Even though the congregation doesn’t live in Union proper anymore, the result of that same congregation is coming together to preserve what they built,” says Fran Fleniken of Baton Rouge, a Chauvin family descendent whose ancestors built the present-day chapel.

“I look at it every single day,” says Spencer Chauvin, also a descendant and a founding member of the nonprofit, who lives a few hundred feet from St. Mary’s in the French Creole Chauvin house he has preserved for more than two decades (where brothers Pierre and Louis were raised). “This is a great opportunity to reunite the community and bring people back for the single purpose of restoring the church, which is probably where their family started by way of a marriage, union or baptism—it’s coming full circle.”

St. Mary’s Chapel exterior, circa 1917. Photo by Ida Bergeron Chauvin Lambert

The first St. Mary’s Chapel was built by Antoine Andermann in 1849; the needs of a growing community led to the current chapel being built a quarter-century later. It was his descendent, Carmel Andermann Veron, another founding member, whose inaugural Facebook page reminiscing about Union helped fuel public interest in restoring the chapel.

Serendipitous turns have brought their restoration efforts to the forefront. A chance conversation about the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation served as a catalyst to land a coveted spot on the 2021 Louisiana Most Endangered Places list. When a photographer who documents potential film industry locations saw the chapel doors open one day, he ventured inside and shot the dramatic interiors, bestowing the images upon the nonprofit.

Documentation of the chapel’s history was readily accessible to Spencer Chauvin through hundreds of photographs, press coverage, affidavits, and even handwritten payroll books handed down through generations—much of which will aid the group’s application for St. Mary’s Chapel to appear on the National Register of Historic Places.

Also crucial to the process was consulting Spencer’s father Henry Chauvin, whose deep ties to Union offered insights into the chapel’s history and townspeople (Henry and his father Charlie Chauvin previously served as sources for Cabanocey, a lively historical account of St. James Parish written by Lillian Bourgeois). 

“People would like to get married in a place you will remember for the rest of your life. If St. Mary’s was advertised, people would see the charm of this country church,” notes Henry Chauvin, who remembers Union as a growing family town where tricycles lined the sidewalks.

To reignite that sense of community, the organization has fundraising plans mirroring those from when the chapel was first built—music concerts, fairs, cookoffs and gatherings. By channeling their collective energy, the sound of wedding bells may soon grace St. Mary’s Chapel once again.

Monetary donations are the group’s primary need, but those skilled in roofing and carpentry are also welcome to contact Friends of St. Mary’s Chapel. Learn more at saintmarychapel.org.