Wednesday, June 4, 2014

the road to devotion in catahoula

by Emerald Forrest

For some, a pilgrimage is a quest to a holy city or a chapel sacred to a particular saint, a turn through a labyrinth or a journey daily lived. For most, it's a conscious reaching to touch the divine. And yet, sometimes, one steps through a pilgrimage unaware.
     Running north from the city of St. Martinville, Hwy. 96 winds through pleasant views of pastures and sugar cane fields, a scattering of venerable homes and oak trees marking the way to Catahoula. It's a lovely drive made more so by 14 cypress shrines that turn the concrete road into a pilgrim's path.
     Starting at historic Oak and Pine Alley (its avenue once ended at the Charles Durand plantation) and ending more than 10 miles away near St. Rita Catholic Church, the Stations of the Cross have been a Good Friday tradition in Catahoula for several decades.
     The stations —also called Way of the Cross, Via Crucis or Via Dolorosa — are a series of pictures or tableaux depicting the passion of Christ, from Jesus' condemnation to death through the crucifixion and His burial in the tomb. They usually are found in a church, but can also, as is the case in Catahoula, be placed in the open air beside a road leading to a church. A special devotion is said before each. Participants walk from station to station, praying at every stop, and by so doing, spiritually recreate an actual pilgrimage to the chief scenes of Christ's suffering and death near Jerusalem. It's a devotion practiced by those of Catholicism since the 15th century.

The Catahoula Way of the Cross begins at the foot
of this ancient oak located at the head of Oak and Pine Alley
off Hwy 96. Mounted to the tree is a brass icon (right).

The stations in Catahoula are simple and modest, just open shrines of cypress wood sheltering a brass icon and candleholder. No gold. No silver or jewels. They are beautiful, yet humble, and perfect for their purpose.
     I watched for the shrines as I drove up Hwy. 96 for an interview with one of their original creators. Often there was only time for a brief glance as the car flashed by, for the stations blend well into their surroundings noticeable only to those who seek them, and revealed only at the last second. It was only on the return trip, when I stopped the barreling car and set my feet on the ground, that I saw them properly. But first there was a pilgrimage of my own to make: one into the history and faith of Catahoula.

The home of Emma Lou Bourque stands only a few hundred yards up Hwy. 96 from St. Rita's. When the car stopped, she opened the door of her screened-in porch and came forward, smiling, welcoming me with an open, friendly manner that immediately put me at ease. The past came alive in her soft voice. There was a clear light in her eyes and a clarity to her features that reminded me of snow at daybreak. And I questioned and listened and learned.
     The Catahoula stations were the brainchild of Ms. Emma's friend, Leona "Tootie" Guirard. During the mid-60's the two of them worked at the Longfellow-Evangeline Park in St. Martinville; every day, Leona met Emma Lou, and on the way they would talk and pray the rosary together.
     One day, Leona said, "Look at those beautiful oak trees. I think we should honor Jesus by having the stations from here to St. Martinville. I think we should make some shrines and put them on the oak trees."
     At that time, Leona's artist cousin, Mugsy Beckstrom, often came up from her home south of New Orleans to visit her relatives in Catahoula. Leona approached her with the idea of the stations, and Mugsy volunteered to create the 14 paintings needed for the project. The shrines were built of cypress by Leona's good friend Wilmer Blanchard and his son, Camille Blanchard. Overall, the stations took about six months to complete.

Pictured is the only surviving of the original station paintings
created by artist Mugsy Beckstrom.

From the beginning, the stations were of the community. Although originally from St. Martinville, Leona lived most of her life in Catahoula. Wilmer was born and raised in Catahoula, as was Ms. Emma. Throughout the year, the stations are maintained by Camille Blanchard and the local troop of boy scouts, and every spring the St. Rita Altar Society supplies the candles used for the Good Friday pilgrimage along the Way of the Cross.
     Ms. Emma modestly downplayed her own role in the stations' creation. "I always followed Leona like a little dog. She had the brains, and I had the brawn," she said, smiling, then laughed merrily. "So, she had things going on, and I followed her."
     Regardless of her role, Ms. Emma is an intrinsic part of the stations' history. In 1941, she helped found the St. Rita Altar Society — which is made up of the ladies of the St. Rita Catholic Church — and she is the caretaker of the sole surviving example of Mugsy's original station paintings.
     When Hurricane Andrew blew through in 1992, it destroyed many oak trees along Hwy. 96, including some sheltering the stations. Ms. Emma saved the last painting, literally, as it was being loaded with other refuse onto a truck to be thrown away. She plans to restore the icon, have a new shrine built and have it installed in her front yard. "It would be dear to my heart if I could do it before I die," she said.

After Hurricane Andrew, they salvaged some of Wilmer's shrines and had others built, duplicating his design. To replace the lost paintings, the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus commissioned and donated a series of brass icons.
     The landscape immediately around the stations is weeded and kept clear year round by the boy scouts, although special attention is given during Lent. Similarly, people may travel the Way any time of the year, but most often do so in the weeks leading up to Easter.
     The annual main procession begins at 9 a.m. on Good Friday morning. A crowd of faithful assemble at the first station at Oak and Pine Alley and, generally, walk the entire distance — those unable to do so are driven — once to the church itself, but now a few steps away to the Madonna Hall, where a white statue of the Virgin Mary oversees the devotion at the last shrine. A member of the Knights of Columbus leads the pilgrimage of the priest is ill.
     Ms. Emma had more to tell of Leona, of Wilmer, a regular jambalaya of Catahoula history and lore, much of which regrettably did not make it into this article, but which I was glad to hear and record. We talked of the local crawfish industry and the changes wrought over the past several years. I could have talked with her all day. And as our interview came to a close, I had to wonder: how much of Catahoula's intimate past is being preserved? How many of the community's elders are being asked to share the treasures in their memories? And what of other elders in other communities across the parish?

History is no dry thing, but a vibrant tapestry woven of many lives, and the hour spent with Ms. Emma was a powerful reminder that our past was once the eternal present. It must be preserved. But I digress.
     The Catahoula stations are an expression of devotion and personal love and are as relevant now as the day they were first nailed to the trees. It is worth the drive to see them, to walk the path and to remember.
     Will the stations be there in a decade? In two? I hope so, and that coming generations will tend them well. I hope Ms. Emma's words will be proven true:
     "You never lose what you do for God."

~The Acadian, October 2006