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.
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The stairs led to the Gautreaus’ great room, a large, inviting space under a 14-foot, barrel-vaulted old pine ceiling painted white. When I saw it, my heart pounded: Bikur Cholim’s original ceiling.

The woodman’s special pride was reserved for his floors, which he’d found poorly nailed down in Western Auto’s attic. It had been the original flooring of the synagogue, which he sanded and refinished, revealing the warm, rich grain of old heart pine. The project had been a labor of love, even if he often referred to the original building as “the church.”

Carolyn Masur now lives in Lafayette, La., but she heard I was looking for anyone who had attended services at Bikur Cholim. She grew up in Klotzville, just down Bayou Lafourche, in Donaldsonville. Now in her 80s, she warned that her memories weren’t perfect. When she attended services as a young teenager, synagogue membership was already in great decline.

She remembered a small entry foyer that led to a carpeted center aisle dividing the ranks of eight or 10 rows of pews on each side. “Everyone brought their own prayer books,” she said. She remembered scuffing her feet against the board floors as she sat, probably squirming, in the pew.

The sanctuary space seemed very tall; the walls and ceiling were white, and lights hung on long chains. The four large windows along each side were too high for a girl to see much outside. The raised and carpeted bimah was furnished simply, with a lectern for the rabbi and two high-backed chairs. The Ark on the back wall was an unadorned cabinet with wooden doors holding a single Torah with a blue cover. No choir accompanied the services.

These final years for Bikur Cholim were far different from the services with music, choir and energy described by The Chief. And it had been her father, Masur told me, who was in charge of the building’s sale.

I now believe that, with Gautreau’s sleuthing and Masur’s remembrances, I have gained some sense of the simple, elegant space that was Bikur Cholim. I can envision that place where men named Bloch, Pforzheimer, Kaufmann, Kessler, Klotz and Lemann brought their families to synagogue in a town where the Jewish merchants closed their stores during Saturday morning services.

My interpretation of Bikur Cholim can never stand as historic documentation, but it’s the best I can muster for now to honor that lost Jewish community of Donaldsonville. So I keep hoping that some vintage, dog-eared and yellowed photographs of a wedding or a bar mitzvah at Bikur Cholim will turn up — either to verify what I’ve pieced together or to correct me with blessed certainty.

Mary Ann Sternberg, a freelance writer and the author of “River Road Rambler” and Along the River Road,” Third Edition (LSU Press 2013), lives in Baton Rouge.

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