By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
BASILE, La.—St. Augustine Catholic Church sits placidly at the heart, if not the precise center, of this south Louisiana town that counts among its blessings its badge as the hometown of the newly installed seventh Bishop of Lafayette, Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel.
Though a few things have changed with the times in the town of about 1,900, the 95-year-old parish remains the nucleus of life’s full spectrum in this predominantly Catholic town.
Basile seems quiet, verdant with spring foliage and pungent in the aftermath of an April shower on a mid-week afternoon.
Fresh flowers adorn many of the graves in the tidy cemetery behind St. Augustine, where generations of Basilians rest.
Bishop Deshotel, 64, recalls his hometown as the backdrop for an ordinary boyhood and a place in which faith was central to life.
“The whole culture was centered around the parish church,” he said on one of the last days he spent as Auxiliary Bishop of Dallas before his return to Louisiana and installation as the Bishop of Lafayette on April 15. “It’s like many European French parishes where you have the whole cycle of life—you’re born, baptized, married, have your sacraments and are buried there.”
His Cajun heritage and loving family shaped his unpretentious manner and prepared him for life beyond Basile, just as the priest of his childhood influenced his vocation.
Bishop Deshotel left Basile at 14 to enter high school at Immaculata Minor Seminary in Lafayette—50 miles away—having been inspired by longtime St. Augustine pastor Father Jules Speyrer, who rests in the parish cemetery.
“He inspired my vocation from when I was age 5,” said Bishop Deshotel, who was ordained to the priesthood at St. Augustine on May 13, 1978; ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Dallas on April 27, 2010, in Dallas, and appointed the Bishop of Lafayette on February 17. “He was a gentleman and a very kind, humorous person. He was part of everyone’s family, and not just the Catholics.
“He was a part of the rhythm of life.”
The rhythm of life at Basile’s Exxon gas station and café stays steady with the flow of folks seeking fuel, food and a friendly atmosphere.
The buzz around the short-order grill suggests that the bacon cheeseburgers can do no wrong.
Cheryl Fruge, the store’s assistant manager, says the town rejoiced when Bishop Deshotel was appointed the Bishop of Lafayette.
“It was crazy when we got the news,” says Fruge, a St. Augustine parishioner who has known the Deshotel family since Bishop Deshotel—who is one of eight children—was a schoolboy. “The whole town is excited. We all get the chills. You never think of someone from here being a bishop.”
She thinks for a moment, and reconsiders what she just said.
“Bishop Deshotel was very interested in the church even as a kid,” she says. “He was always that way and not one to be playing around.”
Barbara Young Fruge (no relation to Cheryl), a St. Augustine parishioner and the postmaster of Basile, said that the town can’t wait to have Bishop Deshotel visit and celebrate Mass in his home parish, where the community is planning a special day to honor him.
“I really am blessed and thankful that he is now the Bishop of Lafayette, but I think it’s a bigger blessing for Basile, a rural little community that has given so much to our Catholic faith,” she says. “I think it was God saying, ‘Thank you, Basile.’
“That’s our life—the church.”
Bishop Deshotel’s sister Zelda, who lives in Basile in a home across the street from where she and her siblings grew up, says that her brother was devoted to his Catholic life.
He amazed his elders with his knowledge of the faith and often walked home from school with a box on his head, Zelda says.
“He said he was going to be a bishop or a pope someday,” says Zelda, a retired police officer. “Our parents told us that whenever we passed the sisters’ convent, we were to stop and make sure that they didn’t need anything.”
Not only was their life focused on St. Augustine, where Bishop Deshotel was an altar server, but also on their close family and particularly on Bishop Deshotel’s brother Duncan, who had polio.
Duncan, who died when he was 18, required an iron lung. He rests in the St. Augustine cemetery near his parents, Welfoot Paul and Luna Marie Deshotel.
“We just thought everyone had an iron lung in their house, just like a dishwasher or a microwave,” Bishop Deshotel said. “Our life centered very much around caring for Duncan. We all took turns caring for his needs—meals and changes, watching TV and playing cards.
“I thought we had quite a normal family life.”
A faithful homecoming
His hometown still has a small-town feel, said Bishop Deshotel, whose new ministry returned him to live in Louisiana for the first time in 44 years. “People have moved in and out. Some demographics have changed. I made lots of lifelong friends in elementary school.”
As a teenager, Bishop Deshotel exuded kindness and instantly put others at ease in his presence, said Msgr. Russell J. Harrington, who was Bishop Deshotel’s high school classmate and now is the Chancellor of the Diocese of Lafayette.
“While in high school, Bishop Deshotel was always appreciated for his tremendous sense of humor and his generous heart,” Msgr. Harrington said. “He was always a joy to be around. A faithful son of the faith, Bishop Deshotel consistently revealed his love of God and the church.
“It was obvious that he had a vocation. He’s going to do marvelously as the bishop.”
Bishop Deshotel said that he found his farewell to Dallas bittersweet because he will miss the many priests, parishioners and friends who had blessed his life since he arrived at Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving in 1972.
He said he had not thought he would return to live in his home state.
“If you want to make God chuckle, just have plans for your life,” he said with a smile. “When I told my family that I was coming back, they were a little shocked. They laughed. They’d thought they were rid of me!”
Darrel LeJeune, the St. Augustine choir director and the editor of “The Basile Weekly” newspaper, says that the town wants Bishop Deshotel to come home whenever he can.
As LeJeune plans for Basile’s 50th annual Swine Festival, which salutes the town’s once-prominent pig industry each November, he is keeping his hopes high that the new bishop will participate.
“It’s the biggest thing in town,” LeJeune says as his eyes sparkle with glee. “Maybe the bishop could serve as the parade grand marshal, but we don’t know if that’s possible. We know he’ll be busy in Lafayette.”
In Lafayette, Bishop Deshotel’s new office is in the same building where he arrived 50 years ago, fresh from Basile, to enter Immaculata Minor Seminary.
“Now I’ve come full circle,” Bishop Deshotel said. “This will be a mixture of the familiar and the new.”