The History of Terrebonne Genealogical Society
By Nancy Lowrie Wright
Those of us who became interested in our family history in the 1960s and 1970s probably were instructed by Mrs. Mercedes Pertuit, known to all as Miss Mercedes. She was an elementary school teacher and taught every one of us like we were her elementary school students. We learned how to spell genealogy, only one ‘o’ and cemetery, with no ‘a.’
Through Miss Mercedes we became acquainted with others who were interested in genealogy. In the early 70s we decided to get together so we could talk about our hobby without boring everyone around us. Most of our first meetings were held at the home of Paula and Rex Milhollan in Barrios subdivision. Some of those who attended on a regular basis were Necia and Luther Kelly, Necia’s mother, Bernice White, Georgia Kelly, Eleanor Clement, Miss Mercedes and me. I don’t remember if we had officers but our normal meeting routine was just to take turns telling of our latest experiences and asking for suggestions to solve certain problems. Most of our ancestors were not from this area, so we covered many states with our research. We also shared the publications we purchased or subscribed to and looked for the surnames others were searching. In time Georgia Kelly became our president and we met at her house irregularly. We didn’t see much of Paula and Rex Millhollan by then, but we did see some new faces. James Avet, Raymond Bourg, Sister Linda Pellegrin and James and Judy Cogswell started coming to our meetings. From Georgia, we heard about another couple, Dorothy and Jess Bergeron, who were interested but they were never able to attend our meetings. After Georgia’s husband died, she didn’t feel like hosting meetings so the loose organization languished.
Another genealogist, Dorotha Horvath, moved to Houma and took a job at the library. She complained to Margaret Shaffer, who was library director, that she couldn’t find any genealogists. Margaret suggested that she host a meeting at one of the libraries. She did, but only 4 people attended. Dorotha was very disappointed. Margaret suggested Dorotha host another meeting and suggested that she call Miss Mercedes and get suggestions for some speakers or a panel of speakers. I happened to be at Miss Mercedes house when Dorotha called. We put our heads together and came up with a panel composed of Audrey Westerman, the genealogist from Thibodaux, Miss Mercedes and Georgia Kelly with Dorotha as moderator. This meeting was in November 1981. This meeting filled the meeting room at the East Branch Library. They had to bring in more chairs. At that meeting we decided that it was so close to the Thanksgiving and Christmas season that we would hold an organizational meeting in January. All attending were asked to provide their address and phone number so that we could contact them later.
Margaret Richard, Victor Hemphill and I volunteered to canvas those who attended the November meeting to get a slate of officers. We wrote a letter to those who had attended the November meeting telling them of the next meeting in January. That meeting was held at the North branch library. Philip Chauvin offered to do anything to help the society organize. Georgia Kelly and I looked at each other and from across the room we silently agreed that Phil would be our candidate for President.
At the next meeting we presented a slate of officers: President, Phillip Chauvin, Jr.; Vice President, Dorotha Horvath; Recording Secretary, Hope Paul; Corresponding Secretary, Ledora Hernandez; and Treasurer, Nancy Wright. The slate of officers was elected. Two of our directors were Georgia Kelly and Miss Mercedes. We chose the name of Terrebonne Genealogical Society. We discussed what we wanted the society to be and do. We wanted a genealogy committee to answer queries, print a quarterly, regular meetings with speakers, and everyone liked receiving the letter announcing the meeting. Billie Robinson volunteered to edit the quarterly. It was decided the Corresponding Secretary would write the newsletter. Georgia Kelly, Miss Mercedes, Wilma Boudreaux and Godfrey Olivier were appointed to answer genealogical queries. The vice president would be in charge of getting the speakers.
President Phil suggested a contest to name the quarterly. I don’t remember who suggested it, but Terrebonne Life Lines was the winner. During this first year we also decided to include the original Lafourche Interior so we now covered Lafourche and Assumption parishes too.
Audrey Westerman was not able to attend our organizational meeting. Bennie Naquin knew Audrey had tried unsuccessfully to convince the Lafourche Heritage Society to publish a genealogy quarterly. Bennie called Audrey to tell her of our plans. Audrey found Phil’s phone number and called him to tell him she wanted to help with the quarterly. He told her to contact Billie Robinson. After the first issue of Terrebonne Life Lines came out, Billie found it was more work than she expected so she gladly turned it over to Audrey.
The board worked long and hard in setting up a constitution and by laws. Fortunately the new organization of the Federation of Genealogical Societies published a book on how to organize a genealogical society. We poured over every suggestion in that book and chose the ones we thought would work best for our organization. As treasurer, my two goals were 1) to grow to 200 members so we could apply for a bulk mailing permit which would save more than half the price of a postage stamp per newsletter and 2) to apply for non profit status from the Internal Revenue Service. We accomplished that first goal during our first year. The IRS decision on the non profit application took more than a year, but we finally received the notification of approval.
The first year was a learning experience for all of us. Victor Hemphill worked for a printer and thought he could print the quarterly for a very nominal fee so we set our dues at $7.50 per year. Before we published the first quarterly, Victor left the printing business. I don’t remember how we got the first quarterly out, but eventually Audrey purchased a copier and printed Terrebonne Life Lines.
We asked everyone to give us the name and address of others they knew who were interested in genealogy of this area. We sent an introductory letter to everyone announcing our plans for this new genealogical society and inviting them to join us. They did join, a few at a time. As our membership grew, we had to print more of that first issue. We had to print that first quarterly 6 times to fulfill our obligation of all 3 quarterlies for all first year subscribers. We started too late in the year to get 4 issues out.
The newsletter was a big hit, everyone wanted to announce the new grandchildren, the new son or daughter in law and all the joyous news. It was a shock to us all and brought us back down to earth when one of our members, Evelyn LeBlanc, died during that first year. Suddenly we realized we had to print obituaries too.
We started early in the year with the hospitality committee. Evelyn French was in charge of the refreshments. They usually consisted of donut holes, coffee and soft drinks. Since non profit organizations were scrutinized for social expenses we decided the donation box was the best way to keep the refreshments out of our expenses.
Our meetings were held in the East Houma Library and the North Houma Library meeting rooms. We alternated our meetings and had a different group of members at each place. Some of our very faithful members who came to many meetings were: Bennie Naquin, Dot Smith, Larue LeBlanc, Ruby Babin, Ruth Theriot, Pat Bergeron, Pat Blanchard, Don Boudreaux, Wilma Boudreaux, Leola Cinquemani, Alton Detiveaux, Viola Drott, Ruth and Phillip Exposito, Nellie and Jeff Guidry, Sandy Henry, Gloria Hicks, Goldie Legendre, Thelma Sillery, Celine Verret, Ruth Bergeron, Dorothy and Jess Bergeron, Doris Mae Ledet, Margaret Richard and Ollie Theriot. Then as now, there were many memberswho live in the area, but have never attended a meeting. We may not see them at our meetings, but they are a valuable part of Terrebonne Genealogical Society.
Dorotha wanted to sponsor a seminar. Most of the board members had no idea how to do that. Dorotha gave everybody a job and we put on our first seminar. We had one book seller that I remember. Mr. Nick Murray and his wife brought their books of Hunting for Bears computer printed marriage indexes by counties. They were delightful people and helped make our seminar informative and friendly. No meal was planned, but many of our members brought enough food that we had a ‘pot luck’ meal. The seminar was sometime in the winter. Everything had gone so well that first year that we were all ‘high’ on our success and the many new friends who shared this strange hobby.
The board made a great discovery. We found no one volunteers, but they will show up and do the job you give them, do it very well and have fun doing it. We know we can always count on our wonderful members to help wherever they can.
I found a big difference in the early group and the organized members of Terrebonne Genealogical Society. With the early group, most of us were not native to this area. After organizing, most of the members had native roots. At almost every meeting someone found a new cousin. Our meetings were like family reunions and we enjoyed our newfound family and friends and still do.
In the thirty years since we organized several things have changed. The Terrebonne Parish Library built a beautiful new main library with a genealogy department and meeting rooms. We try to schedule our meetings in the large meeting room at the main branch library so our members and guests can come early and/or stay late to research.
Nicholls State University Archives has opened. They are willing to keep the papers and documents of this area that we collect as researchers. Our library wants things in book form but not everything adapts well into a book. Nicholls Archives fills the need for a repository for our documents. They also welcome researchers.
The Catholic Diocese of Houma Thibodaux has opened. They also have a research room and welcome researchers. While their records only pertain to Catholic sacraments, most of our ancestors of this area are recorded within their volumes from the various churches.