A good bit off the beaten path tucked away quietly in an almost fairy tale-like wooded forest is a little known treasure…
Rock Chapel was built in the century before last by Carmelite monks. The tiny, simple-yet-elegant and even entrancing chapel stands humbly and rather gloriously on a summit atop a hill in Carmel, Louisiana (in Northeast DeSoto Parish).
It’s front is wrapped by a narrow winding creek of almost crystal clear water trickling downtstream. On a nice day, rays of sun peek majestically though the tall trees, casting colorful and magical lighting here and there and stark shadows to and fro around the peaceful grounds which surround the chapel.
The only noises to be heard out here are the chirping of birds, the trickling flow of water from the stream, and the gentle rustling of tree leaves in the light wind.
I love it. A lot.
And so do many others, as evidenced by a guest register inside the chapel. Not plenty... there are only a few names each week… but still many… more than I would have thought being that this unique landmark seems a fairly well kept secret. Names in the register appear from all around Louisiana as well as neighboring states and there were many names from places all over the United States.
One gentleman signing the register simply wrote, “She said ‘Yes!’, apparently having proposed marriage to his girlfriend at this site.
Indeed, this a great place to getaway from the daily grind or hustle and bustle. There are benches outside the chapel on which to relax, meditate, and enjoy nature literally at its finest in this most serene setting.
Interestingly, to meditate, reflect, pray, and to study in seclusion were the very reasons Rock Chapel was built in 1891 by monks of the Carmelite Order.
The chapel itself is the last remnant of an old Carmelite monastery which flourished in the late 1800s.
The region in which the monastery was eventually situated had long been settled by French and Spanish Creoles of Roman Catholic faith. These settlers came to desire a place to worship in their community.
Prior to 1860, when this community was actually known as Bayou Pierre, a congregation was established and a church was built. In 1880, having acquired land by donation (30 acres) and by purchase (52 acres), plans were laid to expand the church. In 1886, German Catholics from Waco, Texas sought permission to establish a Carmelite monastery.
Under the leadership of Father Anastasius Peters, sent from the Marienfield Diocese in Dallas, a monastery was established, which would soon include a two-story monastery building, an old pre-Civil War residence converted into a convent to house nuns who would aid in teaching and the monastery, and the Rock Chapel.
The monastery building itself was built by the monks, constructed of logs, rocks and masonry. A report on Rock Chapel dated 1936 by “S. Blue” states “Carmel residents describe (the monastery building) as a two-story structure about 70 ft. by 30 ft.” I found the report in the Works Progress Administration section of the Louisiana State Library.
Rock Chapel itself was hand built by the monks, who carried stones from the surrounding hills and fastened them together with mud plaster.
Late in 1889, the community of Bayou Pierre was renamed Carmel in honor of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel to whom the Carmelite Order was dedicated.
The monastery was used as a day school for community children and as a. Place of study for adult men. About 60 pupils made use of the school.
Eventually, four Carmelite Sisters opened the convent and school for girls. Other buildings making up the church settlement were a bakery, post office, workshop, and a barn for cattle.
“The monastery saw its happiest days during the decade from 1888 to 1898,” the “Blue” report states. “The monks, lay brothers, sisters and novices carried on their duties of religion and of teaching in much the same manner as the old world monasteries.”
These glory days would come to an end. Death began to take its toll among the monastery members. Poverty and the difficulty of ministry to the widespread missions brought discouragement. Father Peters departed the monastery, having been called back to Texas, in 1898. Soon afterwards, the sisters of the convent also left. After that, activity at the monastery began to decline. In 1900, the monastery disbanded.
The buildings there, unused and untended, were destroyed by a fire in November 1904. The Rock Chapel was unaffected, mainly because of its isolation on the top of the hill but almost as if somehow protected by its own glorious nature.
The Blue report notes that the Rock Chapel interior, as of the 1930s, had been “ruined” by lack of care and the walls and ceiling which had been tediously and remarkably painted by monks were damaged by people who carved writings on them and even took sledgehammers to portions of the interior.
In the 1960s, the frescos and ceiling murals which had been painted close to a hundred years ago by two French monks were restored through local efforts and through the Catholic Diocese. The diocese hired local artist Eugenie Manning to photograph and trace the artwork and then recreate the paintings. She spent eight months on this project and did a brilliant job.
The religious seal painted above the doorway of the chapel roughly translates to “I have much love for the Lord God.”
When we first visited Rock Chapel, we contacted the chapel caretaker Lajuana Shaver to gain access to the property. She gave us access along with one kind word… “Enjoy.”
And that we did.
Rock Chapel is located outside of Mansfield. There is a store along the road into the chapel called “Lafittes” that offers some serious custom fresh sandwiches… they have a key for visitors to use to get into the grounds and chapel. Sometimes, the gate is open and it is left to the honor of visitors to treat the grounds and the chapel kindly.
Please be kind. And enjoy!