In a cozy, welcoming home on Third Street, live members of one of the oldest families in Bay St. Louis – and one of the oldest Creole families on the Coast. Myron Labat, Sr. and his wife Rhonda Labat greeted me warmly and told me a little bit about their family. Myron, the former principal at North Bay Elementary School, has lived in Bay St. Louis his entire life. He attended St. Rose Elementary and St. Rose High School until it closed in 1968, graduating from Bay High. Rhonda is from Meridian, Mississippi, and met Myron while they were in school at USM Hattiesburg. Rhonda has worked at DuPont for 37 years as an Administrative Assistant in the medical department.
Myron and Rhonda love their peaceful community of Bay St. Louis, because “it’s a small town where everyone knows everyone.” They also appreciate its low crime rate, and the fact that “it’s close to the big cities if you want to go have some fun.” Myron and Rhonda also enjoy giving back with community service. Rhonda is very active with the Youth Ministry at St. Rose de Lima and its youth choir. Last year, the Youth Ministry raised money to build a home in Haiti for earthquake victims. T
his year, Rhonda’s focus is primarily the St. Rose health fair program to increase health awareness, and keep parishioners both physically fit (exercise and diet classes, blood pressure and diabetes checks) as well as actively involved in the church (Rhonda explained that the program was based upon Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-obesity program). In 2008, Rhonda was chosen by the Hancock Chamber of Commerce as one of the year's 10 Outstanding Citizens of the Year, for her work with the volunteers after Hurricane Katrina. Myron currently serves as president of the Hancock Medical Foundation board. Former principal of North Bay Elementary, he is currently principal of Crossroads Learning Center in Bay St. Louis.
Myron and Rhonda are both avid tennis players, and enjoy cycling. Myron has been a tennis instructor, and now enjoys teaching tennis to children. Their greatest joy, however, is their family. Myron has eight sisters, with four of them still in the Bay/Waveland/Pass area (Darleen, Thyra, Bernadine and Pam).
When I asked Myron and Rhonda what they were most passionate about, they broke into wide misty grins and said, “our children.” They have three of them, and are very proud of their accomplishments. Myron, Jr. formerly served as assistant principal at Pass Christian High School, and is now a Professor of Educational Leadership at USM in Long Beach; Marion is an RN, now studying for an advanced nursing degree, and Bryce (30) is a design engineer for an oil rig construction company. The Labats have three grandsons: Dedrick (18), Trey (14) and Chris (12) and one granddaughter, Bailee (16).
Some Labat Family History
Myron’s great grandfather, Joseph “Papa Joe” Labat, Sr. was the patriarch of the Labat lineage here in the Bay. In 1925, Papa Joe was the General Contractor for the building of the St. Rose Church, rectory and convent. The 40 x 80 foot church, built to accommodate 350 people, was completed in 1926. Shortly thereafter, St. Rose de Lima Parish was made independent of Our Lady of the Gulf Parish, with the St. Rose church as its treasured centerpiece. After that, all of the members and generations of the Labat family attended St. Rose de Lima Catholic School and St. Rose Church.
Papa Joe Labat went on to employ many people from this area, whose families still work in construction and carpentry to this day. His other buildings included VCJ Methodist Church, St. Augustine Seminary, numerous homes on the beachfront, five churches in the Rocky Hill, Fenton and Kiln communities, and the first Labat’s Dry Cleaner building. He married Leonore Fayard and they raised eleven children (including Celestine, see below).
One of Papa Joe’s children, Joseph Sumner Labat, was the owner of Labat’s Cleaners on Easterbrook Street for many years. Sumner was also a member of a jazz and dance band, and used to play at the 100 Men Hall with Harry Fairconnetue, Eddie Thomas, and Eddie Palloade. Sumner’s wife Carmen was a midwife who delivered about three generations of children.
Sumner and Carmen’s younger sons, Rudy and Joe, continued the Labat dry-cleaning business after their father retired, until it shut its doors after Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. Their oldest son, Bernard Joseph, was a master carpenter by trade, and also a concrete finishing contractor. Bernard and his wife Dorothy Mae parented 10 children, including Myron, Sr. (Bernard and Dorothy have both passed on).
The Labat Project
The Labat Project was initiated by Lori K. Gordon in 2000, when she began conducting an oral history with Celestine here in the Bay. Over the course of two years, Celestine shared her life story with Gordon, and loaned her family photo albums.
The project is an intensive look into the history of the Creole culture of coastal Mississippi. From the Labat family photographs, Gordon created an 8’ x 10’ art quilt titled “Labat: A Creole Legacy.” The quilt was completed in 2002, and it was shown to a thrilled and moved Celestine Labat shortly before her death that year. In late 2006, the quilt was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution for inclusion in their permanent collection!
The Labat Project now constitutes a traveling exhibit of eighteen panels, each of which displays images from the Labat family archives and portions of Celestine Labat's oral history.
The Project opened earlier this year at the Bay St. Louis branch of the Hancock County Library and at the East Biloxi branch of the Harrison County Library. If you missed it then, you'll have another chance locally. From November 28- December 26, the exhibit will be showing at the New Orleans African-American Museum, with an opening reception in afternoon of Dec 15; (time tba, check www.thelabatproject.blogspot.com).