The Hardware Store Synagogue

A Deconsecrated Louisiana Shul Now Sells Hammers and Nails

Original: Bikur Cholim in Donaldsonville, La., was once the only shul on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The synagogue closed six decades ago and the last Jew in town died in 2004.
Courtesy of Mary Ann Sternberg
Original: Bikur Cholim in Donaldsonville, La., was once the only shul on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The synagogue closed six decades ago and the last Jew in town died in 2004.

By Mary Ann Sternberg

Published March 21, 2014, issue of March 28, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

I wandered the aisles of the Ace Hardware store in downtown Donaldsonville, La. (population 7,473), trying vainly to discern anything that suggested the building’s unique provenance. But I could detect nothing among the paints and nails and garden supplies that overflowed on the shelves and walls to reflect that this building had been Congregation Bikur Cholim.

Bikur Cholim had been the only Jewish place of worship on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It is now, quite ironically, recognized as the second-oldest extant synagogue building in Louisiana, despite its current incarnation and the fact that Donaldsonville has zero remaining Jews.

From the vantage point across Railroad Avenue, one can see a tall wooden building rising elegantly behind the hardware store’s low, 1950s commercial façade. The old façade is adorned with Victorian filigree, and handsome lintels at the corners. But most people wouldn’t notice, even those who travel to Donaldsonville following an itinerary of Southern Jewish history along the Mississippi River corridor, organized by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Visitors are directed to the Bikur Cholim Cemetery, which dates back to 1859, and the (now closed) Italianate B. Lemann and Son department store, completed in 1877. Ace Hardware receives merely a footnote.

The Bikur Cholim congregation was organized in 1869; the synagogue was built in 1872. The Donaldsonville Chief, a weekly that is still in operation, reported on the “commodious, tall structure… with a double archway over the entry. There is a rosette window but no other decoration, and a small balcony on the second floor.” The Silver Coronet Band “filled the pauses in the dedication ceremony with solemn music.”

At that time, Donaldsonville had boasted a vibrant Jewish community with 70 member families, including mayors, businessmen and farm owners, small and large. As reported in The Chief, they gathered for Friday night and Saturday morning services; for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other life-cycle events, and for business meetings, benefits and more. In 1900, the newspaper stated, “Our Jewish residents are reckoned among the best and most liberal minded citizens and are associated with every progressive move.”

As is often the case in many small Southern towns, however, Donaldsonville’s Jewish community began to disappear. By the 1930s, intermarriage with local Catholics had greatly diminished synagogue membership; by the late 1940s, the synagogue was closed. In 1955, the building was deconsecrated and was sold to a Western Auto dealership, with proceeds from the sale dedicated to a perpetual care fund for the cemetery.

Renovation: Bikur Cholim as it looks today.
Courtesy of Mary Ann Sternberg
Renovation: Bikur Cholim as it looks today.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.