Prairieville cemetery at center of controversy after items removed

Michael Tortorich
Gonzales Weekly Citizen
Shantel Sibley, who has family members buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Prairieville, shared this photo of items from grave sites.

Some Ascension Parish families have been dismayed after items on their loved ones' graves were removed at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Prairieville.

The Household of Faith Church, which owns and operates the cemetery located at 17683 Hwy. 933 in Prairieville, has been the subject of local media reports throughout the week after items went missing from the sites.

In a statement released through the church's Facebook page, Pastor Scott Bledsoe apologized for causing concern to the families.

He said the damage from Hurricane Ida to the cemetery was extensive, and the church had phone issues in the aftermath of the storm.

"Our hearts were in the right place, and we hope that you understand that we have not been accessible by phone to respond to any issues because Hurricane Ida damaged the church’s phone system," he stated in the post.

Bledsoe said there has been "a lot of misinformation and emotion" surrounding the clean-up efforts. He added that falling tree branches caused significant damage to the vaults and headstones.

"When we saw the cemetery in this state after the storm we knew that we had to do something quickly to secure the grave sites. At the same time, we were also dealing with storm damage at our church including the loss of all of our landline telephones, and damage to Church staffs’ homes. Under the circumstances we had to rely on outside help to clean-up the cemetery," the statement continued.

Under the previous regulations for the cemetery, families would be responsible for the costs of repairs, according to Bledsoe's statement. With new regulations in place, the church would bear the cost and burden of repairs.

He also pointed out that when the church took ownership of the cemetery, they had "virtually no contacts" for the families of those buried there.

"Some of these graves are very old as the cemetery has been in operation for well over 100 years. There is no easy effective way to find out who are the surviving relatives or how to contact them," Bledsoe stated.

He closed by sharing the church's website, at hofchurch.com/cemetery, as a means of getting into contact with the staff.

The Gonzales Weekly Citizen shared a Facebook post seeking comment from families affected by the missing items, and many responded.

Donna Baxter, who said she has five generations of family members there, recalled checking her family's graves two days after the hurricane. She said all of the vases were still attached to the vaults.

She said her father is buried there and his vase was fine two days after the storm, but was removed during the cleanup.

Carl McKnight Jr, whose son is buried there, also checked the grave two days after the hurricane to find everything intact.

Shantel Sibley said she made the original post about the matter to the popular What's Going on in Ascension Parish Facebook group.

Sibley said she visited her family members' graves on Sept. 6 to make sure everything survived the storm.

"People are always helping each other out there. When you visit Mt. Zion, you tend to help everyone, not just your own. That's part of why we have never had any issues before this," said Sibley, who has had immediate family members there since 2006.

When her cousins returned Sept. 11, they called and said everything she had brought there was gone.

"He said everything from everyone's grave was gone," Sibley said.

She pointed out her photos were taken on Sept. 6, which was days after Hurricane Ida passed through the area.

"They also said they had no way of giving anyone due notice, but seeing as you are the fifth news reporter I've spoken to, I'd argue that it's simply not a reasonable excuse," she continued. "My posts reached many, many people, and a large and well-established church could have reached out to the community and gave us a heads up. They could have posted a sign at the cemetery. It's really not that hard in 2021 to be heard."