Wednesday, September 06, 2006

St. Jude on the Night Train Express

St. Jude as he stands in the New Orleans Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe near Congo Square

On Rampart Street, just west of New Orleans's historic and sacred Congo Square, sits a sweet little Roman Catholic chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the image of the Blessed Mother Mary said to have appeared to a Mexican Indian on Tepeyac hill, just northwest of what is now Mexico City, in 1531. She is often referred to as the patroness of the Americas.

When Africans were brought as slaves to Louisiana in the early 1700s, they found it necessary to syncretize their native faith traditions with those of their European captors; it was the only way to keep their own traditions alive. This gumbo of West African and Roman Catholic practices gave birth to voudoun -- what we now call voodoo -- as well as the Brazilian tradition of candomblé, and the Latin American Santeria rituals.

As an icon, Our Lady of Guadalupe has a distinctly Mexican Indian appearance, right down to the anatomically-shaped halo that surrounds her goddess-like image. (Along the Gulf Coast of the 18th Century, Africans and American Indians formed a formidable alliance.)

A bit further along Rampart Street sits Congo Square, where Africans were periodically permitted to gather to play music. In the beginning the drum was the primary instrument, and it was with the drum that the essence of a particular spirit, or orisha, was called via the use of his or her particular rhythm. These are the rhythms that gave birth to all manner of American music, particularly jazz.

Back at the chapel, your blogstress found a setting unlike any she had ever known in a Catholic church. Over the altar hangs not a crucifix, but a beautiful, gold-embellished portrait of the Mexican Mother of God. The stations of the cross along the walls of the sanctuary reveal a brown-skinned Jesus. In the statuary grotto to the right of the altar, a more European depiction of the Blessed Mother, dressed in her customary blue and white robes, stands flanked by statues of two romanesque centurions. A small plaque notes the donation of the statues by the sheriff's department (apparently represented by the centurions).

In the grotto to the left, a forbidding statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, stands, tongue of fire sprouting from his head. (This refers to his presence at the Pentecost, when each of the apostles were blessed with tongues of fire by the Holy Ghost.) Surrounding the walls of each grotto are 7-foot-tall racks filled with 7-day candles in brightly colored glasses -- red, gold, green and blue. These are left by devotees who petition the intercession of either St. Jude or Our Lady on behalf of their loved ones. It looks like Mardi Gras.

In West African traditions, gifts are left for one's patron spirit on the eve of calling him or her forth. These are often food and drink, sometimes flowers.

On the day I met St. Jude in the chapel, he bore a half-dead bouquet still in its plastic wrapper, which read, "Flowers Make the Difference." More flowers were strewn at the foot of the statue, along with an unopened bottle of Night Train.

It is estimated that in New Orleans, at least 20 percent of the people practice some form of voodoo. At least, that was the case before the 200,000 people who have yet to come back left in search of shelter in the wake of the storm.

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