Lafayette, Louisiana’s tradition of celebrating Mardi Gras is legendary. In this episode of Discover Lafayette, Rick Chappuis and John Swift, Past President and current President, respectively, of the Greater Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association (“Greater Southwest”), discuss with host, Jan Swift, the history of Mardi Gras in Lafayette and how their volunteer-led association coordinates this family-friendly festival enjoyed by the community as well as tourists from all over the world.
Many locals are not aware that the annual celebration is coordinated by Greater Southwest’s all-volunteer workforce and underwritten by private dollars and monies raised by the Le Festival de Mardi Gras a’ Lafayette at Cajun Field each year during Mardi Gras week. Greater Southwest also serves as the liaison between the Lafayette Consolidated Government, the Lafayette Sheriff’s Department, Lafayette City Police, Public Works, and other public agencies assisting with the Carnival.
The first recorded celebration of Mardi Gras in Lafayette was on February 14, 1869, when according to the local newspaper, “Clement’s band provided the music in the courthouse.” However, the first city-wide Mardi Gras observance was held in 1897 when Manuel Pellerin initiated the idea of a Mardi Gras King and Queen, a parade, a pageant, and a ball. That first Mardi Gras Ball and Parade set the pattern for all future Lafayette Mardi Gras celebrations. The first King was Judge George Armand “Bedon” (High Hat) Martin, known as a “ . . .raconteur, dentist, planter, solon, and genial gentlemen.”
In 1934, a city-wide carnival celebration became a reality under the leadership of American Legion Post No. 69 members Gaston Hebert, Stanley Martin, and Laurent Comeaux, who joined with various civic leaders of Lafayette, including Maurice Heymann and Paul Krauss. The group invited representatives from all the civic organizations to a meeting where the Greater Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association was formed with the intention to take the burden off of city government in conducting the festivities.
Many credit Maurice Heymann as being the “father of Lafayette’s Mardi Gras” because he underwrote the group’s activities many times until it was on its financial feet.
Greater Southwest is not a krewe, but a board of volunteers who produce and coordinate the parades and the City Ball held on Tuesday night of Mardi Gras. They also secure floats for the various participating krewes, hire marching bands, train the volunteer drivers (who are parents of local boy scouts), purchase insurance, and coordinate with various governmental entities to ensure everyone’s’ safety and the clean up after the parades.
In 1949, the Krewe of Gabriel was formed to assist the Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association. The Krewe was the idea of Dr. James Comeaux, who reigned as King Gabriel in 1950, to serve as an “organization within an organization” and to help Greater Southwest promote Mardi Gras on a larger scale. Since Mardi Gras began being celebrated annually in the 1930s, the event has only been suspended during WWII (1942 – 1947) and in 1951 during the Korean War.
The City Ball held each Mardi Gras evening at the Heymann Center is a sight to behold as Queen Evangeline and King Gabriel are presented and celebrated with their Royal Maids and Dukes. A “Ladies Committee” oversees the selection of pageant gowns and suits to be worn by the 12 debutantes; 12 Dukes are selected from the membership of the Krewe of Gabriel to escort the young women. The event is free and tickets may be obtained at the Heymann Performing Arts Center.
Mardi Gras will be celebrated this year on March 5, 2019. The list of parades overseen by Greater Southwest, which begin with the Children’s Parade on March 2, may be viewed here. For more information and a full history of the Greater Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association visit http://gomardigras.com. Discover Lafayette thanks Greater Southwest for information needed for this article.
Paradegoers can track the progress of parades live during the events so as to accurately estimate when to arrive at their desired viewing spot. The link may be accessed here and will be live during the actual parade times.
*Updated on 2/20/2019