Sallie Ann Glassman says she was “born with the spirit.”
“I have always believed that what we see on the surface is just that – the surface,” she says. “It’s all about what lies within.”
What lies within this Jewish woman from Maine is one of New Orleans’ most famous current Voodoo practitioners.
Born to atheist parents, Glassman says her lifelong search and love for the sacred is what ultimately led her to New Orleans, and from there, Haiti, where she became one of few Americans to ever undergo the intense week-long ceremony to become a Voodoo (or in Haitian, Vodou) priestess.
Just like Glassman herself challenges misconceptions of what you would envision a Voodoo priestess to look like, she says the religion is very different from frightening, dark, curse-filled way it has been popularly portrayed.
Practiced by an estimated 50 million people worldwide, Glassman says Vodou is “beautiful, empowering and focused on healing.”
She sees her role as a priestess as a healer, and it’s one that expanded from the individual to the community level after Hurricane Katrina devastated her Marigny/Bywater neighborhood.
Looking beyond the surface of desolation, destruction and rampant crime, Glassman saw a community that needed healing.
Joining with a group of citizens, Glassman helped form the Hope and Heritage Project. Among its goals was the transformation of an old furniture building on St. Claude Avenue into a healing center.
We had three goals with the center,” she says. “The first was to revitalize the local economy. The second was to create healing at every level – economic, environmental and personal. We also wanted it to serve to unify a polarized community.”
Together with her now-husband Pres Kabacoff, CEO of HRI Properties, a real estate development company that specializes in adaptive re-use of historic structures, the 55,000-square-foot Healing Center was completed in August 2011. It is currently home to 28 businesses and organizations, including neighborhood services like a fitness center, a food co-op, a credit union and a district office for the New Orleans Police Department, as well as yoga, various alternative healing practitioners, an interfaith center and the Alliance for Alternative Energy.
The Healing Center also houses Glassman’s Vodou religious supply store and Haitian art gallery, Island of Salvation Botanica. It is here, while assisting a customer in search of “something for a broken heart,” that she expressed how proud she is of how the center has helped spur a neighborhood revitalization and serves as a place where residents come together daily to find healing and community.
“It’s amazing what can happen when all the identifiers go away,” she says. “When we can work together and relate to each other as allies and human beings.”
mentors: Definitely by spiritual mentor was Edgar Jean Louis. I also have a small but extraordinary family, which includes my husband Pres.
He has definitely introduced me to the level of creativity that goes into finances and development. As an artist I was kind of snooty I guess, I thought artists had a corner on the creativity market.
defining moments: I have three actually. The first would be during a day I spent making magic things with Edgar in Haiti. When I was young I used to hold the skein of yarn between my hands while my mother rolled it into a ball. At one point I found myself doing the exact same thing with Edgar and I thought to myself “this is not a movie, this is my life.” I was just so absolutely happy to be there in that moment.
My second moment would be holding my mother’s hand as she died. And the third would be a few years ago when, at the age of 57, I found myself in my own backyard marrying the man of my dreams.
advice for young women: Live from your passion. Find your voice and use it. Always think, ‘What about this matters to me?’
goals: I really have the same motto as the Healing Center, which is to help heal and empower. And one day I hope to go back to painting all the time.
favorite thing about what I do: To be part of someone’s or some place’s healing.