One priest's desire to "wake up our Catholics," has become "a true 'feast day' in the old sense of the word."
“To be Cajun is to be Catholic,” says Father Michael Champagne in a pleasant baritone that gives evidence of his own Acadian roots. He notes that “the culture, even here in Louisiana, has become very secularized … we’re maybe too quiet about manifesting our faith.” In an effort to change that, Fr. Champagne sought a way to “prime the pump, and to kind of wake up our Catholics, who are very devout at a deep level, but have been kind of shy.”
His solution was an ingenious one: Why not celebrate the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Cajuns into Louisiana with a Eucharistic procession down a 37-mile portion of the Bayou Teche — stopping at several towns along the way to process by foot into the communities — and invite the faithful to Adoration?
Since that first event in 2015, the procession-by-boat has been repeated each year on August 15, becoming an annual part Acadiana’s observance of the Assumption of Mary.
“We need a day that is a true ‘feast day,’ in the old sense of the word,” Champagne explains to America in this engaging video. “A holiday that’s truly a Holy Day … where we can really, all day long, have a feast day.”
As a Jesuit priest with a journalism and production background, America’s Jeremy Zipple had the opportunity to interview Fr. Champagne and to film what looks to have been a busy and exhilarating day for everyone involved. He agreed to talk with Aleteia about the experience.
How did you learn about the river procession, and for how many years has it been going on?
In 2015, Louisiana marked the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Acadians with a year of celebrations. Fr. Michael Champagne, a very dynamic and very Cajun priest from the hamlet of Leonville, Louisiana, organized the procession as a way of recognizing the religious import of the anniversary, and has now turned the Fete-Dieu du Teche, as it’s officially called, into an annual thing. So last week was the third annual Fete, with a caveat: Heavy rains rendered Bayou Teche unnavigable last year so the procession was moved to an overland route. Thus, this year was the second time on water.
I learned about the Fete through an America magazine author, Sonja Livingston, who spent some time with Fr. Champagne’s community — the Community of Christ Crucified in St. Martinville, Louisiana — and has written about Champagne and his ministry in this week’s issue of America magazine. I also did my two years of Jesuit novitiate in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, another Cajun town a bit north of Lafayette, so had a strong familiarity with and love for the Cajun culture already.
The Cajun culture is fascinating and often mysterious, but there is a history of deep Catholic devotion and even activism there, is there not?
Yes, southwest Louisiana has to be the most fiercely and resolutely Catholic region of the country. As Fr. Champagne suggests in the video, “To be a Cajun is to be a Catholic.” The region hasn’t secularized to the same degree as other parts of the country. The Acadians were persecuted for their faith and endured much hardship during their forced relocation [from Canada and northern Maine] to Louisiana in 1765. The cultural memory of that experience remains pretty strong. Plus the community is rural and relatively isolated. So loyalty to family and community is fierce, and I think these things have kept the faith vibrant. Faith and culture reinforce one another in a positive way. Plus there’s the incredible music and food and good humor. Cajuns don’t take themselves too seriously — there’s a whole genre of humor devoted to self-mockery, “Boudreaux-Thibodeaux” jokes — and they know how to have a good time.
Another interesting dynamic is that it’s a fiercely Catholic population surrounded by a fiercely evangelical Bible Belt. There are some some tensions, of course, some mutual distrust, though not much as there once was. One guy I met at the Eucharistic procession sang Fr. Champagne’s praises by joking, “I even know evangelicals who think Fr. Champagne might be saved!” But the strong faith of Protestants can also help Catholics to be stronger and more intentional about their faith.
The procession made several stops along the river. What sort of turnout did you encounter at each stop?
Great turnout. At each town or village on the route, a hundred or more folks gathered on the bank of the river — schoolchildren in uniform, police officers, young, old, black, white. At each stop there’s a Eucharistic procession, a Rosary, and Benediction then back to the boats. The procession covers a lot of ground — five towns, 37 miles — so Fr. Champagne kept his foot on the gas, literally: He was behind the wheel of the boat that carried the Blessed Sacrament in a large monstrance. It was an awesome sight, far as I’m concerned: A priest in a heavy, ornate cope and stole steering a pontoon down the bayou. Man, I love Catholicism.
There’s another delightful tidbit I didn’t get to include in the video. I was downriver from the procession, awaiting its arrival in the town of St. Martinville, when I noticed a commotion on a steel bridge about a quarter mile upriver — a half dozen guys walking around in oranges vests, loud creaking and mechanical sounds, etc. I asked a young woman from the local tourism board what was up: “The engineers are opening the drawbridge so the boats can get through,” she says. “Does it normally take 20 minutes to open it?” I ask. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen it opened before and I’ve lived here my whole life.” I thought that was pretty cool. The Teche was once a critical waterway for the Cajuns to transport goods and themselves, and in creating a unique and beautiful devotion, Fr.Champagne is also opening up the past, reminding Cajuns of forgotten elements of their culture.
It looked like prayers were being announced along the way, or was music being broadcast? Any Zydeco hymns?
No Zydeco. That genre is heard at parties aplenty but not at liturgical celebrations. There were, however, traditional hymns in French along with French rosaries and other prayers. All broadcast on a local radio station — a station, incidentally, that daily broadcasts a ton of French programming — so you could tune in anywhere along the route.
Was there something in particular you observed during gathering that particularly moved or impressed you, or struck you as hopeful?
I found the whole thing incredibly moving. It was beautiful to see an entire town coming together for prayer. It’s a sense of communal identity we just don’t see much anymore in the Western world. I’m not a Benedict Option-type Catholic because I think there are downsides to Catholic communities that are too insular, too tribal. But the way the Cajuns live community — not taking themselves too seriously, enjoying the good gifts of life, faith, family (and food!) — is something I find really hopeful.
We think Cajun, we think a party, crawfish, and of course Zydeco. After Benediction, was there a celebration, and if so what was it like?
The day didn’t end with a party, though maybe they should think about that in future years! I think by the time 7 p.m. rolled around everyone was pretty wiped.
Zipple’s obvious admiration and affection for the Acadiana community is apparent throughout his video, and the day carried another adventure, too. Three big downfalls interrupted the procession, at one point causing his drone camera to catch in a tree 25 feet above the bayou. Recapturing it required the use of many 5-foot dowels and duct tape, and a good deal of exertion, but he finally prevailed. “I felt pretty Cajun in that moment since those guys can fix anything and make anything from scratch.”