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!
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • 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.