A Bear Named Napoleon

It’s official. We broke a record for the coldest temperatures in New Orleans and surrounding areas. Low temperatures were in the mid-teens in most of the area for the past two nights. With icy roads, staying home was just about the only option most of us had. My little house is on piers. Combined low temperatures and wind were too much for the heater. During the worst of the storm, the heater could only push my house into the upper 50s inside.

Well, it’s almost over. Temperatures tonight will be bearable, hovering just below freezing. After that things will warm up to a more moderate level.

What does that have to do with bears and Napoleon? Nothing. But it’s worth noting it’s been wicked cold here just like in most of North America for the past few days.

Ursin Napolean Matherne.jpg
Ursin Napoleon Matherne

Now, on to Napoleon and bears. A few weeks ago, I wrapped up a photo/essay book about my father’s family. Probably the most intriguing ancestor in the book was Ursin Napoleon Matherne, my great- grandfather. Ursin is a derivative of Ursa, which means bear in Latin. And yes, his middle name was Napoleon.

Ursin’s life spanned the 19th and 20th century. He was born shortly after the Civil War ended, and he died as the Great Depression took hold of the country.

Ursin Napoleon Matherne was a conqueror of hearts, not nations. Ursin had many lovers, and many sons and daughters, too. He was officially married only once, to my great-grandmother, Clinda.

However he had lovers before her and afterward. He even seduced his wife’s sister during his marriage. She had his child, a boy who would forever live with a cloud over his head due to his father’s bearish ways.

His last lover was an Indian woman. She loved him fiercely, and he died with her. When he died, she cried over his body, and scarcely could bear it when the rightful, legitimate sons came to take his body away in a horse-drawn cart.

A bear when it’s angry can be fearsome. Ursin was fearsome in his love. His love, that had no regard for law or fidelity, wounded all who were close to him.

Irene Matherne school.jpg
Schoolchildren in front of Matherne School, cerca 1925.

In between ravaging hearts, Ursin Napoleon also found time to be quite successful. He started life as a hunter, selling hides to his uncle in New Orleans. When he died, he owned enough land to be measured in square miles, not just mere acres. He founded a school and a graveyard. He was a charter member of one of the sole Protestant churches in the region.

Church, you say? Yes. Ursin returned to his wife and sought forgiveness in the church over and over in his lifetime. One of his closest friends and confidantes was the pastor and founder of the Bayou Blue Methodist Church, in the midst of the community he lived. My mother tells me that the old folks used to recount that Ursin, when he was repentant, prayed most eloquently. Despite his faults, he managed to also be somewhat of a pillar of their little community.

matherne cemetery
My eventual resting place

I am a descendant of Ursin Napoleon Matherne. I was christened in the church he helped establish. One day, I will be buried in the cemetery he founded. And when the spirit moves, I can pray quite eloquently.

This essay concludes the family series. If you’re interested in this occasional series, find the tab marked family above to read the posts about the Matherne family.

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Welcome to Gumbo YaYa. My writings are an eclectic blend. A Louisiana gumbo is a composite dish of roux, rice and whatever else the cook wants to add. Yaya is a Creole term for ladies all talking at the same time. The Gumbo Ya-Ya features my writing on spirituality, travel, culture, and humor. Grab a bowl of gumbo here and dig in!

8 thoughts on “A Bear Named Napoleon

    1. I like to call him Ursa Major. He was, indeed, a rascal. I didn’t even know of his exploits until I was an adult. His misdeeds were considered too severe to be shared with young folk.

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  1. I knew most of the story about him but you gave me some information I did not know. Thanks Lori for the information, I am a history nut and love to read about our family. Thanks Cousin

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    1. I don’t mind. I never have. In fact I was named after Grandma Laurentine. She was born as Laurentine, and yet, when she died, she was Lorentine, at least that’s what the grave marker says.

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