Digging to learn more about Mother Catherine Seals
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Archaeologist Danny Ryan Gray is digging a square hole. Next to him is a trowel, a quarter-inch mesh screen, pink flagging tape and a camera. The hole is one meter wide, with bright pink string marking the edges. Taking the soil down by tiny increments, Gray picks through occasional bits of gnarled, rusted wire, bits of bottle glass and chunks of household ceramics. He is as meticulous as a surgeon.
Gray isn’t in a Mayan jungle or Greek temple. Instead, he’s working in the shadow of a recently built home in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward amid the still-intact foundations of houses leveled by Hurricane Katrina.
On this block, an obscure relic of segregationist-era black history is being rediscovered. Gray, along with New Orleans African American Museum curator Ina Fandrich, is unearthing one of the stranger, sadder and inspiring fragments of recent New Orleans history. It is called the Church of the Innocent Blood, and it once housed one of the city’s most vibrant Spiritualist movements. The church had upward of 10,000 followers in the 1920s – both black and white. It also had a charismatic leader named Mother Catherine Seals, whose funeral in 1930 made front-page headlines, drew thousands of mourners and yet has been mostly forgotten in the decades since.
With any luck, that will change soon. Gray is searching for the long-ago demolished church’s foundation and its adjoining residential compound, which spanned an entire block. This is why today he’s painstakingly sifting through every nail, bottle cap and other household refuse he finds in the ground.
Life on the outskirts
“My interest is part of my research on a much larger project examining African American residential development in the Jim Crow era of New Orleans,” Gray says. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago (and, for the sake of full disclosure, a former employee of the author’s current employer, cultural resource management firm Earth Search, Inc.).
Gray is looking at two prominent kinds of settlement patterns that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In one scenario, blacks living in urban New Orleans began moving into government-subsidized apartments. There, Gray says, “everyone could be controlled, and authorities could decide who’s ‘normal’ enough to live in these housing projects.”
The Church of the Innocent Blood represents the other kind of settlement pattern Gray is examining. Located both socially and geographically on the margins of New Orleans’ society, the church was founded as a haven for pregnant prostitutes (whose babies were the “innocent blood” of the church). With none of what Gray calls the “prying eyes of city authority,” Mother Catherine fostered a zealous movement that rose quite literally from the swamps.
A powerful healer
Little is known about Mother Catherine. According to her obituary, she was born in 1887. She moved to New Orleans as a teenager and worked as a housemaid. Around the early 1920s, Mother Catherine suffered a paralytic stroke and went to a white faith healer to be cured. He refused because she was black. Soon after, Mother Catherine believed she received a vision from God and resolved to heal herself. It worked, and she began using her newfound powers on others.
She founded her church in 1922. Everything about it, from its congregants to its décor to Mother Catherine’s own religious practices, was fascinatingly bizarre. According to the book Spiritual Churches of New Orleans, Mother Catherine would enter the church through a hole in its roof, “supposedly to give the impression that she was sent from heaven to preach the gospel.” Inside the church sat hand-painted religious iconography, including a statue of Jehovah, a nativity scene and a Nigerian serpent spirit named Damballa. Animals wandered around, too. Dogs, goats, chickens and a sheep roamed and parrots squawked freely within the church compound. Discarded crutches, belonging to both black and white followers who had come to Mother Catherine for healing, lined the walls of the building as testimony to her power.
Mother Catherine’s presence was as eccentric as the church she created. According to the 1938 New Orleans City Guide, she dressed in exotic robes with a key dangling from her waist that followers would kiss. She walked around barefoot, because, she said, Jesus did as well. At night, Mother Catherine slept in a brass bed surrounded by bodyguards, and church members would come pray over her at midnight while she slept.
Mother Catherine’s church continued to gain prominence until her death in 1930. Her obituary in Louisiana Weekly says the funeral attracted thousands. Yet, after she died, the Church of the Innocent Blood slowly began fading.
There was no formal church fund, and at least half of Mother Catherine’s estate (valued between $3,500 and $4,000) was owed to creditors. The cash-strapped church gradually fell into ruin. And now, 80 years later, there is scarce evidence it ever existed.
Mother Catherine’s forgotten legacy
This, says African American Museum curator Ina Fandrich, is an outrage. She is writing a book that focuses heavily on the church’s history. She says, “[Mother Catherine] was the founder of a national religious movement – an interracial religious movement – as a black leader. A black woman leader. She should be known.”
She says New Orleans has gone through a “tremendous amount of revisionist history,” and, considering the devastating effects of segregationist laws in early 20th century New Orleans, African Americans’ contributions have been underrepresented.
Asked how she feels about blacks being mostly forgotten, Fandrich says solemnly, “It’s typical. When it comes to African American history, there is no surprise for me anymore. I expect the worst before anything.”
Fandrich and Gray’s research has been a hard slog through a patchwork history with scarce details. Depending on where you look, Mother Catherine was born in Houstonville or Huntsville, Ky. She also went by numerous names.
Her last name appears in articles and official documents as “Seal,” “Seals,” “Fields” and “Jenkins.” Fandrich says Seals was a name Mother Catherine gave to herself and that Jenkins was her married name at one point.
Similarly, Gray, who must get permission from landowners before excavating their property, has been frustrated trying to find owners of the 16 lots on the block where Mother Catherine’s compound sat. “Trying to figure out who can give me permission to work there just ends up in a dead end,” he says.
The Katrina effect
Hurricane Katrina was no help. Pre-storm, Gray says, multiple generations of families had lived in the same neighborhood for years. It was the kind of place, he muses, that “Mother Catherine would have been very impressed with the extent to which there was a community rooted there.” By contrast, Fandrich notes, about half the neighborhood’s population left and never returned.
That is why Gray’s current research is so important, Fandrich says. While the houses above ground shifted, crumbled and washed away, remnants of the Church of the Innocent Blood stayed in place. Gray hasn’t found much in the archaeological record, at least in the early stages of his excavations.
“So far, the things that obviously have to do with Mother Catherine’s church are some engraved stones,” Gray says. These artifacts, called Ex-voto stones, come from the Catholic tradition of engraving hand-size chunks of rock with words of thanks for particular saints. Many of Mother Catherine’s religious practices, as well as her followers, came from Catholic backgrounds; so to Gray, finding these artifacts makes sense. Aside from property records, these stones are the only tangible evidence that the Church of the Innocent Blood existed here.
Plans for the future
Gray is currently gearing up for summer-long excavations at the church site, assisted by undergraduate students and volunteers. Meanwhile, Fandrich continues to research property records and other official documents in search of Mother Catherine’s sanctuary. Aside from the book she’s writing, Fandrich wants to memorialize Mother Catherine’s final resting place.
After Mother Catherine’s death, her remains ended up in St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery. But when her supporters could no longer afford its upkeep, the priestess’ bones were removed and the vault was sold to another party.
Fandrich insists that her effort to have Mother Catherine’s grave remade is just part of righting what she considers a historical wrong.
“When you hear about her, it’s really upsetting,” Fandrich says, sitting in an upstairs office at the museum. “I found her so fascinating – everything about her.”
Sing out, sweet chariot
True to New Orleans tradition, music became a big part of the Church of the Innocent Blood. Songs such as “Lord, Lord, Lord,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Precious Lord” rang out from the pulpit. Mother Catherine Seals blew her trombone on occasion and the “innocent” children of the church also participated in the services and celebration.
Many local talents have roots in the Spiritualist movement, and specifically Mother Catherine’s church. Local trumpet player Ernie Cagnolatti, (whom Mother Catherine called Angel Gabriel) began his career in the church. He later played with the Eureka Brass Band. While young, he became an early sidekick to Harold “Duke” Dejan.
Dejan, who played during some of the church’s services, led the Olympia Brass Band for nearly half a century. Jazz drummer Herlin Riley’s grandfather, Frank Lastie, was a deacon and played drums during the services in the 1920s.
Some credit her and the church for helping to take music from sacred spaces into the streets of New Orleans. Until her death, music remained a part of the community. At her funeral in 1930, as thousands mourned and marched, a brass band led the crowd.
– Samantha Hyde