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Regional Reports from across the state

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Cause to Celebrate

Picture a Miracle in Grand Coteau
Perusing the pages of John Slaughter’s new book, Grand Coteau, I was to learn of a remarkable story and another layer of Louisiana’s fascinating cultural history.

Grand Coteau (Big Ridge) is a very Catholic town. At the center of this small town, nine Catholic institutions rise amid the splendid beauty of centuries-old oaks with nestling camellia and azalea bushes nearby. St. Charles College, St. Charles Borromeo Church, Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House and the Academy of the Sacred Heart are among them. Grand Coteau is the site of two religious firsts for the United States. The Religious of the Sacred Heart arrived here in 1821 to found what is now the oldest continuously operated Sacred Heart Academy in the world. According to writer Patrice Melnick, Catholic faithful are drawn here as pilgrims are to Mecca to attend retreats, and public meandering with rosary beads in hand on the beautiful retreat grounds is not looked upon as something the Pharisees might do. There are some places on earth that  inhale and exhale what can be called “the Spirit,” and Grand Coteau is one of them.

To describe the second American first – and in this case, only – you must first know about St. John Berchmans, a young Flemish seminarian born in 1599 who was studying to become a Jesuit priest. Beloved for his deep spirituality, intellect and kindness, the young man was also the picture of humility  He was a lover of ordinary things to the point of mysticism and emanated the paradoxical quality of down-to-earth holiness. Portraits of  the saint show him to be a baby-faced young man not much more than a boy; he died in Rome of a fever before his 23rd birthday. Petitions for his beatification began almost immediately following his death, and by 1865 he was declared Blessed by the Vatican.

The year following his beatification, a young novice of the Society of the Sacred Heart named Mary Wilson was sent to Grand Coteau because the milder climate of Louisiana was considered beneficial for her ailing health. Her condition declined to the point that blood would reportedly spew from her mouth if she spoke. The sisters of the convent offered daily novenas to Blessed Berchmans on her behalf. Some accounts say that she silently prayed: “I ask through the intercession of Blessed Berchmans a little relief and health.” She placed an image of him on her tongue and told him that if he could work miracles, she needed one, and if he did not help her, she would not believe in him. She said that he immediately appeared to her and immediately she was healed. A doctor confirmed that she was free of disease, and the young woman pursued her novitiate and received her habit in December 1866. A month after receiving her habit, she wrote a letter to her archbishop to be forwarded to Rome chronicling the miracle when Blessed Berchmans again appeared to her. He commended the letter-writing, but he also told her that she would die before she ended her novitiate; she died in 1867.

The healing of the young novice was the third and final miracle needed for his canonization, and 1888, the young Flemish seminarian became known as St. John Berchmans. In 2006, when St. John Berchmans School was opened in Grand Coteau, it became the only shrine in the United States built on the exact location of a miracle.

If you would like to take a photographic odyssey of this sacred town, Slaughter, through the auspices of University of Louisiana – Lafayette, has produced a compilation of 35 years of his photographs of the town. In Grand Coteau, accompanied by lyrically beautiful text written by Melnick that tells the stories behind the pictures, the composition of Slaughter’s photographs and his colors and camera angles remind me of vivid impressionist paintings. He is a deft master at shadow and light, color and contrast in pictures that depict rainbows, burning houses, a Catholic priest leading a yoga session, the moon rising over a church steeple. There’s a really vivid shot of a storekeeper behind her counter amid a myriad of liquor bottles and sundries while overhead looms the larger-than-life depiction of  a loaf of Holsum bread in its signature red wrap.

Grand Coteau by John Slaughter, published by University of Louisiana – Lafayette Press

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