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A blessing on the bayou: River procession honors Cajun country’s Catholic roots
On Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary will be marked by a unique event in Louisiana. In its sixth year, the Fête-Dieu du Teche, a 40-mile Eucharistic procession, will take place amidst a worldwide pandemic on the Bayou Teche, a waterway that rolls through south-central Louisiana.
The difference this year is that it will be a daylong prayer specifically for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are in a climate of fear, violence, racial tension and uncertainty and grief with COVID-19,” said Father Michael Champagne, organizer of the event. “We are offering this Fête-Dieu du Teche 2020 in petition to God for the end of the pandemic.”
The event recalls the expulsion of French-Catholic Acadian peoples from Nova Scotia by the British in the mid-1700s, known as Le Grand Dérangement. These immigrants made their way down the Mississippi, establishing settlements and Catholic churches in Louisiana and became known as Cajuns.
Father Champagne, a member of the Community of Jesus Crucified based in St. Martinsville, Louisiana, is the founder of the Fête-Dieu du Teche. Having grown up on the bayou, Father Champagne was fascinated by his French ancestry, and in 2015, he organized the first procession as a “reenactment of the arrival of the Acadians who brought the Faith with them down the Louisiana bayous and had their priest with them.” This coincided with the 250th anniversary of the Great Expulsion.
The Aug. 15 event will begin with a Mass in French with Lafayette Bishop Douglas Deshotel at St. Leo the Great Church in Leonville, Louisiana. After Mass, the Eucharistic procession will begin on the Teche bayou, originally part of the Mississippi River.
Father Champagne describes the event as “a foot procession by water.” The lead boat is an incense boat, with a large thurible that uses pounds of incense to honor the Blessed Sacrament. Two bell boats fitted with church bells ring out the coming of the King. The main boat, however, is a floating adoration chapel, adorned with a 6-foot tall monstrance, a visible sign for all who see the procession.
Many participants will also follow in their own boats and also join via automobile, following the boat procession on parallel roads. While the main boat will have a microphone and speaker system, audio will be available through FM radio as well.
Prayer is constant throughout the day, with stops at additional Catholic churches along the bayou. Rosary and benedictions will be said at each stop, and hundreds of confessions are heard by teams of priests at mobile confessionals. The day will end at Our Lady of Sorrows (Mater Dolorosa) Chapel in Independence, Louisiana, with evening vespers.
Father Champagne compared the procession to similar offerings made during plagues such as the Black Death in the 14th century, which took the lives of roughly half of Europe’s population at the time. He stated that “besides good health habits, the Church has always responded with Eucharistic processions to protect the populace.”
Acadians have a long devotion to Mary under her title Stella Maris (“Star of the Sea”), which is represented by the star on the Acadian flag. The date of Aug. 15 was chosen for the procession for this reason. For the participants, it is a holy day in the traditional sense of the word, and many people take off work to attend, Father Champagne said. Around 1,500 people attend the event every year.
Pope Francis has granted a plenary indulgence for those who attend with prayerful devotion. Even those who are unable to be physically present because of health restrictions or concerns about COVID-19 can still gain this indulgence by adding their prayers to those present. Father Champagne requests this indulgence every year.
In Louisiana, Father Champagne says the Catholic faith is “stamped throughout the historic culture of the people.” Even the governor of Louisiana, himself a Catholic, called for three days of prayer and fasting to end the pandemic. Father Champagne hopes that through visible signs of the faith such as this, young people will embrace their roots and turn back the “growing superficiality” in the current culture through increased devotion to the Church.
Great spiritual fruits have come from the event in the form of “a tremendous outpouring of deep Eucharistic faith in the Blessed Sacrament and in love for Our Lady,” Father Champaign said. “It moves people young and old to see so many from various walks of life come out and spend the day as a true ‘holiday’ or ‘holy day.'”
While French Catholicism permeates Cajun culture, Father Champagne hopes the procession brings together people of all ethnic backgrounds, as did their Acadian ancestors who brought Catholicism to Native Americans and Blacks in the area centuries ago.
“We want to show that we as Catholics, young and old, black and white, can together exercise our religious freedom worshipping God publicly, safely and peacefully as an example to the rest of the country.”
Jennifer Barton writes from Indiana.