Faith in spiritual healing in New Orleans is more than just a story of voodoo or witchcraft, it runs deep within the traditional churches. Just take a look at the Catholic saints.
Saint Roch was a 14th-century pilgrim in Italy where he was said to have miraculously cured plague victims with prayer. When he became infected, he went into the forest, where a nobleman’s dog brought him bread and licked his wounds. He survived only to be executed later as a spy. After his death, stories of St. Roch’s healing made him sought after as people across Europe were stricken by the deadly Black Plague. Eventually he was called a saint.
When New Orleans was ravaged by yellow fear in the late 19th-century, a Catholic priest prayed to St. Roch to protect his parishioners and astonishingly, none died. In thanks, Reverend Peter Thevis vowed to build a chapel for St. Roch and he traveled to Europe to study Gothic architecture before building a fine example here.
Pilgrims started seeking out St. Roch’s chapel and praying before a statue of him accompanied by a small dog. On certain holy days, more than a thousand people crowded in to the small chapel to seek St. Roch’s healing.
Once cured, the faithful returned with prosthetic feet, legs, hands, or even artificial hearts, to thank St. Roch for his intercession on their behalf. Today, the chapel is closed while undergoing renovations but you can peer into a side window to see the dust-covered artifacts that have been left over the years.
Outside the chapel, Father Thevis established a graveyard for people from the parish. The above-ground mausoleums and wall crypts line several corridors with plastic roses and broken vases scattered along the walk.
Favorite toys and blessings are left for the newly departed by those left behind.
A visit to St. Roch’s cemetery and chapel is worth it for its historic value, but while you’re there it wouldn’t hurt to say a prayer to help an ache or pain.
A New Orleans tradition, born in a Catholic Church formed by free black men and women at a time when slavery ruled the South, and mixed with the African roots of Congo Square and the Mardi Gras Indians, was on full display recently in the Treme section of the Crescent City.
A fine array of people, mostly African-American but embracing people of all races, came together at Saint Augustine church in a vibrant tribute to one of their most distinguished leaders, Rev. Jerome LeDoux. LeDoux, a former priest at the historic Catholic church, who was loved for his loving smile and embrace, and for bringing music, song and worship together to save the church from closing after Hurricane Katrina. A banner with a portrait of him, smiling, led the procession out of the church.
Every song that had been sung, every dance that had been danced and every arm that praised the Lord inside St. Augustine and other parishes that stretched from Louisiana to Texas came out to honor Reverend LeDoux on a beautiful Saturday morning. Outside the church, the priest greeted a family member with a hug, then stood with members of the Catholic auxiliary group Ladies of Peter Claver who wore white tasseled cardboard hats over solemn expressions.
More women arrived, all dressed in white, some with the frilled parasols and lacy garments of the Baby Dolls. They formed a semi-circle around Big Queen of the Mardi Gras Indian group Guardians of the Flame, Cherisse Harrison-Nelson, her bright blue feather and bead costume dazzling. All eyes were on a white basket covered in white flowers that the priest and others opened to release three pure white doves that flew off into the cloudless blue sky.
Then the Treme Brass Band started to play, first Amazing Grace, then I’ll Fly Away. The ladies danced, smiling, happy to send off Reverend LeDoux to heaven.
.This woman seemed to swoon over a photo of Reverend LeDoux as she led the line of marchers from the church.
Marchers went to a field nearby for more dancing and piles of food served for the community. Everyone was invited.
The Vodoo Queen Kalindah Laveaux and Anita Oubre of the Mahogany Blue Baby Dolls danced to the brass band while members of the Congo Square Preservation Society looked on.
If you would like to learn more about St. Augustine church and Father LeDoux, check out his book War of the Pews that relates the early history of the church, including the tension that erupted between free blacks, whites, and creoles in the mid-19th century a process that led to a multi-ethnic congregation that we found today.
You can also learn more about the church and neighborhood at the Backstreet Cultural Museum right across from St. Augustine’s.
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.