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.