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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Reader Comments:
May 21, 2013 11:54 am
 Posted by  RebMac


It's nice to see someone take an interest in events from long ago. This accident was the worst the Kansas City Southern has ever had. Thirteen souls were lost that August morning; all six employees in both locomotives, six passengers of the troop train, and the troop train's conductor. Eighty-two were injured, many seriously.

The track upon which this wreck occurred is abandoned, now - it is located a mile and a half north of the LA1 intersection you describe (the photo you published is actually of a location about two miles north of the actual wreck site). In fact, you will follow the existing tracks there north a couple hundred feet, then follow the still evident abandoned roadbed that diverges to the right/north up in to the woods. I would be sure to be prepared for the wildlife, for the area becomes heavily timbered and is swampy. The wreck location is just a hundred feet or so south of the tree line that opens upon a large open field. You will clearly be able to see the old roadbed continue across that field in a broad sweeping curve to the northeast. I don't remember anything that marks the spot, other than an eerie feeling that something terrible once happened in that place.

The worst part about this wreck is that it could have been prevented. I invite you to read the report of the ICC - (you'll have to cut and paste); it tells a story of ignorance, arrogance, and tragedy - especially in light of new technologies of the day.

Thanks, again, for covering this wreck. Thirteen forgotten souls have been remembered.

Pat McCarthy

May 22, 2013 01:26 pm
 Posted by  JMFrois

Dear Pat,

Thanks very much for your kind comments and additional details about what happened. It's very gratifying to for me to receive a sensitive and informed response like yours to one of my stories. I always wondered where exactly the wreck took place and now you've given me an excellent picture. I think some kind of marker should be there; or even a historical marker on Hwy. 1 where the track crosses, because, paraphrasing your words, these souls should be remembered. I will definitely read the ICC report--I deeply appreciate that you've sent me the link to the actual report and took the time to respond to my story.

Best Wishes,

Jeanne Frois

May 25, 2013 05:12 pm
 Posted by  RebMac


I was stunned to receive your very kind reply to my note on your piece about the wreck of the Southern Belle - so much so, if felt I should somehow respond.

So, thank you for your reply. My grandfather was a civil engineer for the KCS, and that wreck took the lives of four of his close friends. He grieved over it for years. Naturally, I was drawn to the story; I only wish he had lived long enough for me to talk about it with him.

I just ordered a copy of your book "Louisianians All," and am looking forward to reading it. Thank you, again.

Pat McCarthy
Jackson, Mississippi

May 29, 2013 02:37 pm
 Posted by  JMFrois

Dear Pat,

It was my pleasure to answer you. As a little girl I traveled the trains with my family and can still feel the spell they wove around us; your grandfather was part of the romance--and tragedy--of trains. I'm so sorry he lost four good friends in the wreck and it's only natural he would be haunted by such a loss. I understand why you would have wanted to talk about this with him. I would have loved to talk to him about it myself! Thank you so much for doing me the kindness of ordering my book. "Louisianians All" was a special project to me, a labor of love during a magical time of my life when I was surrounded by loving support on a few sides that I'll always cherish. I sincerely hope you enjoy it.


Jeanne Frois

Sep 1, 2013 03:14 pm
 Posted by  scheely

Jeanne - Thank you for the excellent article. My father is a member of the 1st 90 mm AAA Gun Battalion that served in Korea. He has published a book, "A Brief History of the 1st 90 MM AAA Gun Battalion, USMC". My father included a chapter on the train crash. The book is self-published and he makes additions as he receives photos and stories from Marines when they find out about the book. I would love to include the picture of the track now and a link to your article if you would approve? I am currently working on a 7th revision. He received photos of the crash from a Navy Corpsman, Bill Kayatta who was pulled out of the wreck by use of the rail tie. I was sad to learn of the loss of the boy on his horse. Please let me know about the photo and feel free to pass my note onto the other gentleman who posted. Thanks again for the article.

Jan 24, 2014 01:12 pm
 Posted by  JMFrois

Dear Scheely:

Just found your wonderful post this morning, nearly five months after--sorry! Congratulations about your father and the book, it sounds like a cherished, wonderful project. Give me a few minutes to run your request about the photo and link to the article by my publisher, Errol and I will let you know. Sorry to have kept you waiting so long! Best wishes and I'm so glad you enjoyed the article. Jeanne

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