Corpus Precori: The Peculiar Custom of Petitioning the Dead

Rosaries left on tomb. Photo: Sue Lincoln

What do a 12-year-old leukemia victim from rural Cajun country and an 80-year-old urban socialite from New Orleans, born nearly 150 years apart, have in common? Petitions and/or requests made at either of their tombs are reputed to be miraculously – or if you prefer, magically – answered.

It’s always seemed a curious thing to me, the veneration of graves. While I have felt or sensed the presence of departed loved ones, mostly visiting me in or at my home, there certainly are long-standing traditions in a myriad of cultures worldwide regarding visiting burial places to honor and remember deceased loved ones and ancestors. Japan’s Buddhist Obon Festival, held each August, is one example, as are the upcoming “Dia de Los Muertos” celebrations.

Catholicism has long embraced the idea of making anytime requests at the tombs of unrelated deceased strangers. It’s believed this practice began while the Roman Empire was persecuting early Christians. They would meet in burial caverns and catacombs for prayer and worship services, particularly seeking out the gravesites of fellow-believers and often using their coffins as altars for serving communion. Today, in south Louisiana, the practice of petitioning deceased strangers to intercede remains an acceptable and visible practice of folk catholicism and its offshoots.

As we’re nearing Halloween, let’s look first at the traditions surrounding the better known of the two females whose tombs attract unrelated visitors to present their needs and wants. Often referred to as the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans,” Marie Catherine Laveau was born in the French Quarter on September 10, 1801. A free woman of color, she was the offspring of an intimate relationship between Marguerite Darcantel, a manumitted slave, and mulatto businessman Charles Laveaux.

Her marriage at the age of nearly 18, to the quadroon cabinetmaker and freeman from Haiti, Jacques Paris, did not last long, as he died in 1820. Both daughters from the relationship also disappeared from public records after their baptisms, and it’s believed they died in childhood. After 1824, Marie Laveau referred to herself as “the Widow Paris.”

In 1826, Laveau began a domestic partnership with Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion, a scion of a prominent New Orleans family descended from French nobility. Although as an interracial couple they were prohibited from marrying, the relationship lasted nearly 30 years, until de Glapion’s death in 1855. The couple and their children (they had seven together, though only two daughters survived to adulthood) lived in the Vieux Carre, in a cottage on St. Ann Street. The home, between Burgundy and Rampart, had been built by Marie’s grandmother Catherine Henry.

This home became the center of social life for the multiracial community in pre-Civil War New Orleans, in particular for those who embraced the combined African-Haitian folk traditions known as Voudou. She hosted evening “salons”, a term which has led to some modern day confusion about Laveau’s activities. In the 19th century, it meant a regular gathering of eminent people, i.e., writers, artists and musicians, in the home of a society woman.

Yet most of today’s Crescent City tour guides tell the tale as follows. Laveau had a beauty salon business, styling hair for wealthy white society women. She also gathered information about those women from their black servants, and cultivated a reputation for mysteriously and magically knowing the society women’s troubles and secrets, and providing answers and solutions to their problems.

When mentioned (rarely, for she was a woman of color) in New Orleans newspapers, Laveau was described as “the head of the Voudou women,” “the Voudou priestess,” or “the celebrated Marie Laveau.” She was, however, a devout Catholic, having been baptized and married in St. Louis Cathedral, as well as baptizing all her children there, and attending mass there regularly. She is in diocesan records as being godmother to her nephew and granddaughter, plus she paid for the education of a boy from the Catholic Institution of Indigent Orphans. And an 1871 article in the local press tells of her visits to the Cabildo, to set up altars in the cells of condemned men, praying with them before they were hanged.

She was not quite 80 years old when she died, at home, on June 15, 1881. A priest from the cathedral presided over her funeral, and she was interred at St. Louis Cemetery #1. Her passing was noted in New Orleans papers, as well as the New York Times, which said, “lawyers, legislators, planters, and merchants all came to pay their respects and seek her offices.” Another obituary remembered Laveau as “a woman who nursed the sick, provided for those in need, ministered to prisoners, and dedicated herself to the Roman Catholic church.”

Not a saint, but by all accounts, a good woman, despite detractors of her day who referred to Laveau as “the prime mover and soul of the indecent orgies of the ignoble Voudous.” Of course, Laveau’s death came after the Civil War and Reconstruction, when women in the northern states were agitating for suffrage and white men in the southern states were writing and passing Jim Crow laws. Once dead, Laveau, as a non-white woman known for her influential leadership of an extensive social group, was the perfect target for a campaign of demonization.

That denigration of the reputation of the original Marie Laveau was no doubt helped along by a self-proclaimed successor, who used the same name, was a hairdresser, gathered secrets of the wealthy, and used them to extract more money from her clients. Despite voluminous research, no one has been able to track down the records or real identity of this second Marie.

The blossoming of tourism as an industry in the mid 20th century gave rise to a “tradition” promoted by some tour guides and French Quarter shop clerks. One would be told, in a whispered voice, that Marie Laveau’s spirit was known to grant wishes. Simply visit her tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1, and mark it with three Xs, turn around three times, knock on the tomb, and yell out the wish. Once the wish was granted, you had to return to the tomb, circle your Xs, and leave an offering.

By early 2015, unsupervised public access to the Laveau tomb and all the others in St. Louis Cemetery #1 was ended by the archdiocese, to halt vandalism such as the XXX markings. This came after a person or persons unknown covered the entire Laveau tomb with pink latex paint in December 2013, requiring pressure washing and re-plastering to restore it.

Now, some other method must be used to have requests granted by Madame Laveau, or supplication must be made to another intercessor.

Entrance to St. Edward Church graveyard. Photo: Sue Lincoln

The gate to the graveyard at St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in the Acadia Parish crossroads community of Richard stands wide open, with a snowy white Carrara marble bas-relief affixed to a brick arch next to the walkway. The more-than-four-times lifesize bust of a smiling girl in her early teens greets visitors, as do the sculpted words “Charlene Pray For Us,” which halo her image.

Inside the cemetery, the tombs and gravestones bear distinctively Cajun surnames: Richard, Doucet, Lejeune, Thibodeaux, Benoit, Savoy, Cormier, Melancon, Leger. There is also a Smith. It is quiet and peaceful here, with only sounds of the cicadas sewing up their cares, and flags, snapping in the breeze.

Charlene Richard grave. Photo: Sue Lincoln

This is the final resting place of Charlene Marie Richard, a 12 year-old girl who, in 1959, died of leukemia. Should the process formally begun in January 2020 succeed, Charlene Richard could officially become what many in Acadiana have taken to calling her – “the little Cajun Saint.”

Born January 13, 1947, Charlene was the second of Joseph Elvin and Mary Alice Richard’s ten children. By all accounts, she was typical of her generation’s girls growing up in rural Acadia Parish; interested in horses and sports, a good student in public school, and also a devout Catholic. Reportedly, she often played church with her siblings, pretending to serve mass rather than tea parties, and using a sweet potato crate as the make-believe altar.

It’s not included in any of the narratives of her life, but it is likely young Charlene was exposed to movies such as 1943’s “Song of Bernadette” and “Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima,” released in 1952. Both movies are credited with prompting surges in girls developing vocations for service within the Catholic church’s sisterhood orders. Charlene’s grandmother spoke of a question the girl asked her in late spring 1959. After reading a book about Therese of Lisieux, Charlene asked whether she could become a saint, also, by praying as Therese had.

(Beatified in 1925, Marie Francoise-Therese Martin was born in 1873 in Alencon, France, and – following the path of two of her sisters – entered the Carmelite order in 1888, at the age of 15. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, but is credited with efficacious prayers leading to the conversion of a notorious murderer just prior to his guillotining, and, as part of practicing “the little way of spiritual childhood,” prayed regularly and fervently for priests. Some biographies of the singer Edith Piaf say that she was blind until the age of seven, when she was cured following a 1922 pilgrimage to the grave of Therese of Lisieux, prior to the nun’s formal canonization.)

Charlene’s question for her grandmother came about the same time the little girl’s schoolteacher and family members started noticing something was not quite right with her. She was weak and feeling chronically fatigued, and had been reporting visitations by a tall woman in black, who then would vanish. Her mother took the little girl to the doctor. A series of tests resulted in her being diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. While research and improved treatments over the past 60 years now mean a 90% survival rate for children diagnosed with this blood and bone marrow cancer, at the time there was little hope or help for Charlene. She was admitted to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Lafayette.

The family had asked their parish priest and the hospital chaplain to be the ones to tell Charlene she was going to die. The hospital pastor, Father Joseph Brennan, was a newly-ordained priest from Philadelphia, and the girl’s calm acceptance impacted him deeply. Visiting her daily, he said she didn’t ask him to pray for her, but instead would eagerly inquire who they – together – were going to pray for that day. According to official statements later made by Father Brennan and the then-director of pediatrics at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital, Sister Teresita Crowley, everyone that Charlene Richard prayed for was either healed, or became a Catholic, or both.

Father Brennan recounted that, shortly before Charlene died on August 11, 1959, he told her that soon a beautiful lady would be coming to take her away. The girl reportedly replied, “You mean the Blessed Mother? I’ll be sure to tell her Father Brennan says hello.”

Father Brennan’s further testimony was that, following Charlene’s death 16 days after her admission to the hospital, he turned to her in prayer in the room she had occupied, asking for help with another terminally ill patient, a lapsed Catholic who refused any pastoral care. That very evening, the man requested a priest and the final sacraments.

Father Floyd Calais of Lafayette never met Charlene Richard during her leukemia-shortened life, but he became Father Brennan’s close friend. He found Father Brennan’s and Sister Teresita’s stories of the girl moving, and when Father Calais himself became ill in 1961, he asked Charlene’s spirit for help in getting well, and then for a posting to a new parish. In two weeks, he said, he was healthy and notified he’d be going to St. Edward’s in Acadia Parish, just north of Church Point. That was, of course, Charlene’s home church, and her burial site. Father Calais, too, began telling Charlene’s tale of offering up her own suffering to God, in order to alleviate the suffering of others, and took to referring to her as “my little girl friend.”

In the early years after Charlene’s death, her parents were discomfited by the attention. Mary Alice Richard, Charlene’s mother, and the girl’s siblings would generally respond to reporters and the curious public, “Why can’t you leave us alone?” Charlene’s father, Joseph Elvin Richard, steadfastly refused to participate in any inquiries made regarding his deceased daughter’s alleged saintliness. Neighbors in the Richard community said either, “she was just like all the other girls,” or “she weren’t no saint.”

Charlene Richard grave — prayer card. Photo: Sue Lincoln

In the intervening years, though, the Richard family, and Charlene’s mother in particular, became more involved in the campaign to have the girl officially recognized as a saint. A decade after the brown-eyed, brunette girl’s death, the traditional prayer card that had been issued at her funeral, was reprinted – still with Charlene’s photo, but now with the card including both a prayer to Charlene, and one for her beatification. Close to a million of those prayer cards have been distributed.

In the 60-plus years since Charlene Richard’s demise, healings and miracles attributed to praying for her intercession with the Virgin Mary have accumulated, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette has been collecting testimonials about these things since 1991. They include:

– Angelique Marcantel, diagnosed with Down Syndrome at birth. Her mother, Jean Macantel of Lake Charles, devastated by the news, prayed to Charlene. The next day the pediatrician pronounced the baby “perfectly normal.”

– Alyse Graham, a preemie baby born to a Lafayette family was removed from life support. Her grandfather placed a prayer card to Charlene on the baby’s chest, and the graying infant turned a healthy pink, while her family and attending medical personnel saw the monitors indicate Alyse’s blood oxygen level rising from 20% to 95%.

– A woman from North Aurora, Illinois, who, in December 2017, stated she had visited Charlene Richard’s grave. While there, woman ran her fingers over the tombstone. Doing so, she told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, cured her of limbic encephalitis, an autoimmune disorder.

Testimonial on miraculous cure, posted at Richard’s gravesite. Photo: Sue Lincoln

On January 9, 2020, Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel of the Lafayette Diocese presided over a mass officially opening the cause of sainthood for Charlene Richard. Following the service, the girl was officially named “Servant of God”, which is the first formal step in the process of declaring her a saint.

Was or is she? I guess it all depends on your faith.