The Catholic soul of Cajun Country
From pilgrimages to pirates, from ’gators to gumbo, discover the colorful heritage of south Louisiana
By Traci Neal
The skiff’s motor purrs as we glide through the flooded forest of bald cypress and water tupelo trees, scanning the waterline for the eyes of an alligator. Bryan Champagne, our tour guide, makes a soft barking sound near a nesting site, mimicking a baby gator’s call to its mother.
Born and raised in nearby Breaux Bridge, Louisiana (“the crawfish capital of the world”), Champagne has spent much of his life hunting, trapping, and fishing along the bayous — the slow-moving waterways that branch off of the Mississippi River in south Louisiana.
These days, though, Champagne has turned his attention to ecotourism — promoting the area’s natural resources to tourists and helping to preserve the region known as Cajun Country.
“My goal,” says Champagne, “is to bring the people into the swamp and show them what we have. I try to get the word out and help them understand about the swamp and all that goes on here, and hopefully we won’t lose it.”
Like Champagne, the state of Louisiana is concerned about keeping its land — and its heritage — intact. Following the 2005 and 2008 hurricanes that devastated much of Louisiana’s coastline, the state continues to implement a “Louisiana Rebirth” initiative, a strategic plan to guide the recovery of the tourism industry and cultural economy, and “restore the soul of America.”
That soul belongs in large part to the Cajuns, descendants of the French Catholic immigrants who came here in the mid-18th century after Le Gran Derangement — the Great Expulsion — when the British forcefully deported more than 14,000 Acadians from present-day Nova Scotia during the Seven Years’ War.
“Add to that [French history] the Spanish and Caribbean influences, and the relatively large number of African-American and ‘Creoles of color’ Catholics, and you’ve got something unlike anything in the rest of the country,” says Mark R. Silk, director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Connecticut, and author of several books about the history of religion in America.
“We’re a mixture of people from different backgrounds, different situations, who’ve all come together in Louisiana to produce a hearty, good, and faith-filled people,” says Monty Hurley, 72, of Lake Charles.
Ducking underneath the Spanish moss that drapes the branches of 500-year-old cypress, Champagne talks about the bayous’ significance as a habitat for fish, migratory birds, and animals, and its cultural significance to Louisianans who rely on it for food, recreation, and their livelihoods. He entertains us, too, with the legend of the locally celebrated pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte, who is said to have hidden his treasure nearby.
Nods to the famed French buccaneer along Louisiana’s coast are almost as abundant as the Catholic churches and schools that dot the landscape, built by the Acadians and even earlier Catholic settlers. Some of the first Catholic priests to arrive in the New World came through New Orleans, the second oldest diocese in the United States after Baltimore; and Ursuline nuns founded the country’s oldest Catholic school in south Louisiana in 1727.
“Southern Louisiana, unlike other areas of the South, is a place where Catholics are the norm,” writes Marcia Gaudet, a Louisiana folklorist and professor of English at University of Louisiana Lafayette. “In the culture of the Cajuns and Creoles, the sacred and secular are often conflated. The Church and its rituals are central in the life cycle and throughout the calendar year.”
Until the oil industry peaked and transportation was improved after World War II, the Cajun communities remained fairly isolated. In an attempt to Americanize them, the Louisiana legislature made it illegal to speak French in schools and public buildings, though most spoke only French well into the 20th century — and many still do.
“I remember my mother saying, ‘Do not eat crawfish in front of people you don’t know,’ and ‘Do not speak French in front of people you don’t know,’ “because our French — ‘Cajun French,’ they called it — was considered very archaic,” says Marcelle Bienvenu, a native Cajun author from St. Martinville, near Lafayette.
But in their enclaves, on front porches where families and neighbors gathered to tell stories and share memories, the traditions remained alive.
“Family is everything,” says Hurley, a lifelong parishioner of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Lake Charles, where despite the subtropical climate, the men and boys still show up to church in suits and ties, the ladies in dresses and hats. “It’s what our faith teaches; not just to honor our mothers and fathers but to honor [our ancestors, and] everyone who came before.”
If not for the storytellers, or raconteurs, the history of the French Acadians — of their idyllic lives in the bountiful north Maritime Provinces before the deportation — might have been largely forgotten. “It was something that wasn’t written about in the history books,” says Bienvenu.
But it was written down in other ways: namely “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.” In this epic poem from 1847 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the heroine wanders Louisiana searching for her love, Gabriel. Only as an old woman and Sister of Mercy caring for the sick does she finds him; he dies in her arms.
“Evangeline” helped put a face and a name to the tragic story and inspired a renaissance among the Acadians, both in Canada and the United States. Adaptations of the story, as well as streets, restaurants, and parks called “Evangeline,” pay tribute to the families who were separated and the lives that were lost before the Acadians came to south Louisiana. Bienvenu’s hometown, St. Martinville, even holds an annual celebration for couples who have been engaged underneath the famed Evangeline Oak.
In 1971, the Louisiana legislature officially adopted the name “Acadiana” for the 22-parish region just west of New Orleans to the Texas border, and since then Acadians have reunited through the Acadian World Congress, the first of which in 1994 in New Brunswick drew 300,000 attendees. The great many festivals held throughout south Louisiana also continue to celebrate Acadian heritage and bring the distinctive Cajun culture to the fore.
This month in the small Acadian town of Eunice, for instance, residents and visitors will spend several days celebrating Cajun Mardi Gras. During the festival leading up to Lent, hundreds of costumed and masked participants will ride on horseback through the countryside seeking donations of chicken, sausage, rice, and onions to be used in a communal gumbo, prepared outdoors in giant pots in the town center. The day’s festivities end with a fais-do-do (dance) and lots of gumbo for Mardi Gras revelers.
Mardi Gras ends abruptly at midnight February 16, when Lent begins. On Good Friday, residents will walk a traditional procession — the Way of the Cross — from Catahoula to St. Martinville, in the heart of Acadiana.
“The traditions, the culture, the cuisine, everything revolves around our Catholic heritage,” says Bienvenu, who has written two books that center on history and food: Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine and Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?
One site of Catholic significance is the former Convent of the Society of the Sacred Heart in nearby Grand Coteau, where the miracle that led to the canonization of St. John Berchmans occurred. Bienvenu remembers going there with her mother at age 5. “We have to go to the chapel where the miracle happened,” she recalls her mother telling her.
Today, Catholic schoolchildren in uniforms roam the hallways of what’s now the Academy of the Sacred Heart, but the small chapel remains on the site that was once the convent’s infirmary, where in December of 1866, a young postulant named Mary Wilson lay dying.
It was here, says Sister Barbara Moreau, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart, that Wilson prayed to Berchmans and was healed. “Mary was in bed in this room,” says Sister Barbara, pointing to a corner of the small shrine where Wilson’s bed was.
“I was dangerously ill with constant fever and violent headaches,” wrote Wilson in a diary now kept in the convent’s archives. “I do not think I had eaten an ounce of food for about forty days. I endured the pangs of death….”
While the rest of the community was at Mass, Wilson said a small prayer to Berchmans for relief from the pain, health, or “patience to the end.”
“Then, standing by my bedside, I saw a figure,” she wrote. “He held in his hands a cup, and there were some lights near him, at this beautiful sight I was afraid. I closed my eyes and asked: ‘Is it Blessed Berchmans?’ He answered: ‘Yes, I come by the order of God. Your sufferings are over. Fear not!’”
Her strength returned immediately and she was restored to perfect health, Sister Barbara says. Pilgrims continue to go to the shrine to pray, and tours are offered by appointment.
There is certainly no shortage of intriguing stories in Cajun Country, whether in a small convent infirmary or the wide, wet expanse of the Mississippi Delta. As our swamp tour nears its end, Champagne, steering his flat-bottom Cajun pirogue swiftly through the thick weeds, tells us of an uncle who, he says, found one of Lafitte’s buried pots of gold along the edge of a nearby swamp. Champagne lowers his voice, as if he’s sharing a secret, and we can hardly hear him over the light rain tapping on our ponchos. After finding the gold 30 years ago, Champagne says, his uncle was visited by the ghost of a man who’d sit in the branches of a tree outside his window.
His uncle, Champagne says, didn’t talk much about the pot of gold or what he did with it after he pulled it from the swamp. But to this day, says Champagne, a big black cracklin’ pot still sits in the yard. If we drive past the house, he promises, we’ll see it. Right underneath the oak tree where his uncle left it. CD
Photos by Traci Neal
Photos: Grammy-award winning zydeco musician Terrance Simien entertains a small crowd during the Boudin & Blue Jeans Festival in downtown Lake Charles; the shrine to St. John Berchmanns inside the former Covenant of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau; Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach being bossed around by pirates during the Contraband Days Festival