Charlene Richard: Folk Veneration Among the Cajuns

By Marcia Gaudet


Charlene Richard, a young Cajun girl who died of leukemia in 1959, is regarded by many in south Louisiana as a saint. Thousands have made pilgrimages to her grave in Richard, Louisiana (a small farming community 35 miles northwest of Lafayette), though there has been no official recognition or investigation by the Catholic church. Because of the beliefs associated with Charlene and what appear to be the beginnings of legend formation, Charlene Richard has become what might be called an indigenous, regional, popular, noncanonized, folk, or local saint.

Though I had grown up in a Catholic family in Louisiana and my sons attended Catholic schools in Lafayette, where we had lived for eighteen years, I was not aware of the devotion to Charlene until June of 1989. At that time, one of my nieces, who also lives in Lafayette, was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness. Within a short time, several people had contacted her parents and grandparents (who live near New Orleans) to tell them about Charlene or to send them her prayer card, and even Xeroxed copies of the card. At that time, Charlene was apparently well-known in devout religious circles in Louisiana, but media attention had been primarily through the Catholic press, not the secular media. Shortly before the thirtieth anniversary of Charlene's death, 11 August 1989, there began a remarkable media focus on this local saint, projecting her story far beyond the local area. During that summer, I started collecting information about the devotion to Charlene and interviewed her mother as well as other family members and friends.

Charlene Richard's grave in Richard. Photo: Maida Owens.

In the past, especially before mid-twentieth century, a saint's cult (i.e., a large following of people who share a devotion to a person believed to have special powers of intercession) often formed slowly, spreading from person to person by word of mouth for more than a century. In the case of Charlene, not only has the cult formed quickly, but many people who knew Charlene as an ordinary child are still living. Of importance in considering this contemporary phenomenon are the effects of technology and the media, particularly the secular media, on the formation, expansion, and expression of cult devotion, the role of the clergy in the devotion to Charlene, and the effects of this cult devotion on the Richard family.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines saint as "a title properly given to those human members of Christ recognized by the Church, either traditionally or by formal canonization, as being in heaven and thus worthy of honor" (1967,12:852). More simply, sainthood is the state in which an individual, after death, is understood to be in the direct presence of God. Thus, as Stephen Wilson notes in Saints and Their Cults, saints are beings "whose special virtues and circumstances have made them suitable and powerful mediators between . . . the everyday human world and the distant rulers of the cosmos" (Wilson 1983:2). Wilson also points out that in the early church, all of the faithful were called "saints." During the early persecution of the Christians, the term came to be used only for martyrs. Later, belief in saints as sanctified intercessors and procurers of miracles led to cults of veneration.

While local devotion to many folk saints began during their lifetimes because of religious work or healing (see, for example, Fish 1984; Low 1988; Macklin 1988; Margolies 1988; Slater 1986; and Slater 1990), this was not the case with Charlene. Unlike many other folk saints, Charlene had not been the object of devotion or a folk heroine during her lifetime. However, local cults based on very young individuals who die prematurely are not really unusual. James Griffith's work on the Alta Pimería region includes interesting studies of young victim-intercessors believed locally to behave like saints in granting petitions, and other contemporary unofficial devotional cults (Griffith 1987; 1992).

The stories, veneration, and cult formation regarding Charlene seem to have originated with personal narratives about Charlene told mainly by the nun and priest who attended her at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital m Lafayette, Louisiana, during the days before her death. Stories of her bravery in the face of certain death and her "offering up" of her suffering for others soon spread, with tales of miraculous intercession for both healing and temporal favors.

Charlene Richard was the second of ten children in her family. Within the Cajun community, there was nothing unusual about the little girl or her family. They were hard-working people strongly devoted to their Catholic faith in a culture where unquestioning acceptance in matters of religion was the norm for children, if not for most adults. When Charlene was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia in August 1959, the family turned to the parish priest and the hospital chaplain to tell Charlene about her illness and the prognosis. Though she died two weeks after the diagnosis, her simple acceptance of her fate as God's will and her willingness to pray and "offer up" her suffering for others made a lasting impression on those who were with her during this short time. One priest in particular, Father Joseph Brennan, was impressed with Charlene's faith. A newly ordained priest from Philadelphia, he was the chaplain of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, and he visited Charlene daily. When he arrived, Charlene would ask him for whom they were to pray that day. Shortly before her death, Father Brennan told her that a beautiful lady would soon come to take her away to heaven. She replied, "Oh, you mean the Blessed Mother. When she comes, I'll tell her Father Brennan says hello" (Brown 1989:3) or "When she does, I'll say, 'Blessed Mother, Father Brennan was asking for you" (Gutierrez 1988:29).

Another person who was greatly impressed with Charlene's influence is Father Floyd Calais of Lafayette. Though he never met Charlene, he was a close friend of Father Brennan, who told him the stories about her. According to Father Brennan, the people for whom Charlene prayed while she was dying were either cured or converted to Catholicism before their deaths (Gutierrez 1988:44). Father Brennan and Father Calais, as well as Sister Theresita Crowley, director of Pediatrics at Lourdes Hospital, told others about this child's acceptance of death and the effect of her prayers. Local people began to pray to her for special favors, and she seemed to help them. Many described having "a feeling of closeness" to her and believed that she had interceded for them. Sister Theresita said, "I can't forget her. I feel her presence. I feel her smile" (Gutierrez 1988:26). She also said that she prayed to Charlene daily. Other people prayed to Charlene for medical cures, help with marital problems, help with finding jobs, and good weather to save the crops.

The cult of devotion to Charlene formed quickly. According to Mrs. Mary Alice Richard, Charlene's mother, the family first learned of the belief in Charlene's "specialness" in the hospital before she died. While there is no indication of any mass media coverage at that time, certainly the telephone facilitated the local spread of this belief from one community to another, in the same way that it enables the quick spread of rumor and gossip. A funeral prayer card with a picture of Charlene and a prayer for her soul was distributed after her death, a common Catholic practice as a memorial to the deceased. Sometime during the late 1960s or early 1970s, cards with her photograph were published that reflected the belief that Charlene had special powers of intercession. These cards include an intercessory prayer to Charlene and a prayer for her beatification. A series of articles about Charlene published in 1975 in the Lafayette diocesan newspaper, The Morning Star, greatly expanded the devotion to Charlene. The articles from The Morning Star were collected and published as a booklet in 1979, with the title "Charlene, A Saint from Southwest Louisiana?" This booklet was later updated and expanded to include testimony from over twenty people who believe they have been helped by Charlene's intercession (Gutierrez 1988).

The effect of print and media on saints' legends and cult formation m the modern world has been noted by Lydia Fish (1984:31). This effect has become even more extensive today because of the widespread availability of printing services, xerographic copying, and fax machines, in addition to "instant" coverage by satellite telecommunication and Cable Network News. The stories about Charlene's serenity during suffering and her special help to those who seek her intercession spread throughout south Louisiana and beyond. By August 1989, the thirtieth anniversary of Charlene's death, thousands were visiting her grave every year, some individually, others in organized tours. Over five-hundred thousand prayer cards with a "Prayer to Charlene Richard" and a "Prayer for Beatification" have been distributed. In August 1989, shortly before the anniversary mass, a feature article in the Sunday Magazine of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate said:

Many people say she helps them with problems in their lives, even though she's been dead for 30 years. They pray to the little Cajun girl for help with failing marriages, cures for illnesses and acceptance of whatever life throws their way. And they say she comes through for them.

One couple, kneeling beneath a black umbrella's protection against the sun, spent a quiet half-hour with Charlene Marie Richard on a recent summer morning.

They knelt in the green grass beside her marble tomb, and their lips moved silently as they spoke to her.

After Lucy Courville rose, she bent and traced her index finger around the outline of the picture of Charlene's face, which is mounted on the tomb. (Brown 1989:3)

It is significant that in Charlene's case, the stories started not with the folk, but with the Catholic "establishment." Typically, church officials tend to discourage a local saint's cult. For example, Candace Slater's study of stories about a noncanonized saint in Brazil shows much conflict between the people of Juazeiro and the Catholic hierarchy. Padre Cicero was "defrocked" before his death in 1934 because of alleged claims to a miraculous transformation of the host, and official church policy toward Padre Cicero's cult is still cool (Slater 1986). Though there is no official recognition or investigation by the Catholic Church, the clergy and religious of Lafayette diocese have been central to the devotion to Charlene beginning with the priest and nun who knew her. Soon, however, there was unofficial recognition and devotion from high-ranking diocesan personnel. For example, Gerard Frey, Bishop of Lafayette at the time the articles were published in The Morning Star, wrote in the foreword to the booklet about Charlene: "Those whose quest for sanctity leads them through a life of difficulty and pain may find strong identification with the life and death of Charlene Richard. From a simple lifestyle in rural southwest Louisiana, Charlene has to this day provided a meaningful example for many of the faithful who learned of her following her death m 1959" (Gutierrez 1988:17).

The thirtieth-anniversary mass commemorating Charlene's death was celebrated on the grounds of St. Edward's Church in Richard. Attendance was estimated at four thousand, and the event was covered by television stations from throughout Louisiana, as well as CNN. Prominent clergy, including Father Brennan and Father Calais, were co-celebrants with Harry Flynn, the Bishop of Lafayette. Bishop Flynn said during the mass: "A little girl walked among us. She taught us how to accept disappointment and suffering."

Father Brennan's homily was similar: "We are here tonight to learn what made a little girl from this community thirty years ago die well. We learn tonight a lesson in acceptance. Perhaps we can learn tonight how to handle our own suffering."

Newspapers throughout Louisiana reported on the event. The Lafayette Advertiser said the week before: "Richard-They call her the little Cajun 'Saint' although she has not been canonized by the Catholic Church and as yet there has been no official investigation begun on her behalf. But for hundreds, even thousands of faithful who have learned the story of Charlene Marie Richard, the lack of official sanction by the church is just a minor concern" (1989:5).

Following the mass, the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate reported with a front-page headline: "Thousands Attend Mass for Charlene." The article went on to say: "With teary eyes and trembling hands they placed flowers on Charlene Richard's grave, some asking for miracles, others expressing thanks to the girl many people think should become a saint" (1989:1). The article was accompanied by a color photo of a woman in a wheelchair leaning over to touch Charlene's grave. Stephen Wilson notes that cults often center on saints' remains and that visiting and touching the tomb of a person believed to be a saint is a paraliturgical/unorthodox practice associated with cults (Wilson 1983:11-14). Such stories, illustrated with color photographs, have obvious emotional appeal, and can now reach a much wider and much more distant audience.

Since then, there have been feature articles on Charlene in many newspapers in Louisiana and surrounding states, including a front-page story in the Dallas Times Herald, as well as a nine-page article in the American Airlines' in-flight magazine, American Way, in 1991. It is remarkable and somewhat ironic that the journalistic media should give such wide coverage to what was a very local devotion, particularly effective because the child was identified with the area. Though this is not limited to the case of Charlene, the media has the potential of swiftly making a local saint known worldwide. In Charlene's case, this attention started with the Catholic media but by 1989, the role of the secular media, including national television networks such as CNN, became extremely important. This media attention not only reinforced local devotion, but made this "local" saint accessible world-wide. For example, there is reportedly interest in Charlene in the former Yugoslavia, and there are plans to translate and print her prayer cards in Croatian. This is possibly also reinforced by the large number of people from Louisiana who have made pilgrimages to Medjugorje to visit the site of the alleged apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The "internationalization" of local phenomena by the secular media inadvertently promotes belief and cult formation, and potentially, undermines the role of the official Church.

Wilson also points out that saints' cults were traditionally thought of as belonging to the people, not the clergy (Wilson 1983:39-40). Devotion to Charlene apparently did not begin with the folk. It began outside her own immediate community and seemed to be strongly supported by local clergy. Maurice Schexnayder was Bishop of Lafayette at the time Charlene died. He had been chaplain at the Catholic Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and is perhaps best known outside of Louisiana as the priest who converted the poet Robert Lowell and others at LSU to Catholicism. Bishop Schexnayder is said to have visited Charlene's grave many times. Father Stanley Begnaud, pastor at St. Edward's Church in Richard from 1968 to 1975, said: "I remember we were sitting at the table . . . . During the course of the conversation Bishop Schexnayder said, 'You Italians [a reference to Msgr. Benedict and Fathers Capra and Gremaldi] have your saint in Maria Goretti, but we [a reference to the people of the Lafayette diocese] have our saint in Charlene Richard"' (Gutierrez 1988:59). Sister Theresita Crowley suggests the role of clergy in comparing Charlene to St. Therese of Lisieux, saying "I think perhaps Charlene is a lot like the Little Flower . . ." in that many "priests openly express their belief in her sainthood" (Gutierrez 1988:24).

Both Maria Goretti (1890-1902) and Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) also known as the Little Flower of Jesus, are examples of Roman Catholic girl-saints whose cults formed quickly. They were young women who lived devout lives and died prematurely. Both were canonized in an unusually short time. Maria Goretti was murdered while defending her chastity. The brutality of the crime, her willingness to offer up her sufferings, and the cures and conversions (particularly that of her attacker) attributed to her intercession led to her canonization in 1950, which was attended by her mother as well as her murderer. Therese of Lisieux became a Carmelite nun at the age of fifteen and died a painful death from a tubercular condition after offering up her suffering. Her humility and her simplicity in living, explained in her writings as her "little way" of achieving sanctity led to her canonization in 1925, only twenty-eight years after her death.

Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, was certainly a model for Charlene as a young girl saint. In Cajun and Creole areas of Louisiana, as in other Francophone regions in North America, devotion to the Little Flower is well established. Many Catholic churches in the area have statues or paintings of her near the altar. In May 1959, Charlene read a "picture-story" book about St. Therese, the Little Flower. According to her grandmother, Mary Matte, after reading the book Charlene said she wanted to be like St. Therese. She asked if she, too, could become a saint, saying, "If I pray like St. Theresa, will it happen?" (Gutierrez 1988:38).

As the devotional cult formed, Charlene's "merits" or claims to sainthood were sometimes questioned by those who knew her or her family members personally. Some who knew her were quoted as saying. "I knew Charlene, and there was nothing special about her." Over the years, this resulted in conflict in the local community and even ridicule for the Richard family. When they suffered a series of tragedies and misfortunes, some people in the community interpreted the meaning of these events negatively. For example, in 1977 Charlene's brother Gene (who was also her godchild) was killed in an automobile accident. Mrs. Richard thought at the time that she was being punished. She remembers thinking, "My God, what did I do to deserve this?" (1989). Mrs. Richard said that her children at times resented the attention, particularly when they were teenagers. Earline Richard Hollier, one of Charlene's sisters, remembers feeling that they could never live up to what people expected of them (1989). Mrs. Richard expressed the family's pain and conflict regarding their situation in 1986:

It has been hard, all these years, I felt angry a lot of times because she's my daughter and they're not leaving us alone Why can't they just leave us alone? But then I talked to a priest and he said, "She was your daughter while she was on earth, it's true. But now she is in heaven, and she's not just your daughter anymore. Now she belongs to everyone." So now I feel better about it (Gutierrez 1988:77)

When a cult of devotion forms for a local or folk saint who has lived a long life, the parents or siblings of the alleged saint would probably not be directly affected by the cult. For example, Slater's study of a non-consecrated saint from Granada (Hermanico Leopoldo, 1864-1956) shows very different dynamics. Though he died only a few years before Charlene, he had lived a long life as a Capuchin priest and the stories of miracles (and his ability to levitate) were known and told before his death. In addition, since he lived to be ninety-two years old, by the time of his death, none of his immediate family were likely to be living-certainly not his parents (Slater 1990). This is often not the case with very young saints since their families are often alive and even involved in the formation of the cult. The older sisters of Therese of Lisieux, particularly Celine Martin (in religion, Sister Genevieve), were active and influential in promoting her cause. This has not been the case with the Richard family, whose role is somewhat ambivalent. Because media coverage often includes information about Charlene's family, many visitors to Charlene's grave also go to visit her mother who lives a few miles away. She has been interviewed many times by reporters, and she has had tour buses drive up to her door. Mrs. Richard feels she has to talk to them. She said, "I always felt I had to talk about her. I couldn't leave her behind. The same thing with my son-who got killed." Charlene's brother Dean expresses the caution the family feels they must show to outsiders. He says, "I believe she's in heaven. But whether she was especially chosen by God, I believe it in my heart, but to say I definitely think it's so would open us to ridicule" (M.A. Richard 1989; D. Richard 1989).

Although there was some opposition in the local area to the devotion to Charlene (one person was quoted as saying, "She ain't no saint"), there are many local people who believe she is special. Katie Hensgens, former housekeeper for Father Joe Lafleur, who was pastor of St. Lawrence Church in Mowata (a small community near Richard), said she heard stories "as soon as they started." Father Brennan, she says, promoted the devotion. Ms. Hensgens keeps the prayer card with a picture of Charlene in her wallet, and she reads the prayer to Charlene daily. She believes Charlene is a saint, and like many people, she thinks she will be the first from the Cajun area to be canonized. As an example of Charlene's intercession, Ms. Hensgens said that in 1990, a widow went to Charlene's grave and kneeling before the grave, she began praying to find someone to marry. Still kneeling, she met the man kneeling next to her. They talked for a while and then went into the church to pray. He telephoned her soon after, and a few months later, they were married (Hensgens 1990).

Mrs. Delia Link of Richard is the mother of Lucille Link, who was one of Charlene's closest childhood friends. Mrs. Link also knew Charlene as a student in her catechism class in Richard. She said that she is often asked, "Did you see sainthood?" Her answer is, "No, I didn't. She was just a little girl with my little girl." Mrs. Link has one of Charlene's prayer cards on her bookcase. Looking at the card, she said, "I never dreamed when they were growing up . . ." Mrs. Link related the following story about Charlene's death: "A few days before she died, she called my daughter and said, 'Come and see me.' I'll always remember her this way. She had a pretty little pair of red pajamas. . . . A few days later, she died." According to Mrs. Link, Mrs. Richard later gave her a piece of Charlene's red pajamas as a relic. One Sunday she saw a woman, whose young son was very ill, crying in church. She had come there to pray. Mrs. Link had the relic from Charlene in her purse, and gave it to the mother, who then seemed greatly comforted.

Mrs. Link relates that Charlene sometimes spent the night with her daughter, and she did not seem in any way different. She said, "She had a lot of faith, but she was raised with that background. And she was very smart." Mrs. Link also related how the nuns taught students to "offer it up" when they were sick or suffering or when they were faced with sacrifice or disappointment. They were taught unquestioning faith and acceptance. Mrs. Link does not remember when she first heard that there was something special about Charlene, but she remembers when Father Floyd Calais came to Richard as pastor a few years later. She said, "He was the one who pushed this. I think. He never knew her-came here after she had died." When asked about the reaction in the community, she replied: "They felt as I do. They knew her as a little girl. Of course, I ask her to pray with me, as a lot of people do. As somebody said, if God wants her to be a saint, it will happen." She also stressed that most people in the area do not reject the idea that Charlene is a saint, and that local people do visit her grave. For example, she said, a local carpenter prayed to Charlene when his wife was committed to a mental hospital. His wife recovered, and he has great confidence that Charlene helped through her intercession.

Mrs. Link said, "I can't say that I know of any miracles, but people will grab on to anything. People come by the busloads, from New Orleans and Houston. The media picked it up." Regarding canonization, she says: "Maybe it will happen, but not in our lifetime. I'm sure she's a saint. That's what the church teaches. But canonization - that's something else" (Link 1990).

While early saints could be canonized by local churches and bishops, since A.D. 1234 canonization to sainthood is a power reserved for the Pope. Pierre Delooz, in his study of sainthood, has said. "Sainthood depends on a community's recollections of a dead person's past existence" (Delooz 1983:194). Value judgments and recollections of the past are presented in narratives about the person's life. Pressure for canonization is expressed through official channels when there is strong enough belief to create a public cult. Delooz also discusses the special criteria for sanctity: writings, heroic virtue, martyrdom, or miracles (Delooz 1983:202). In Charlene's case canonization will depend on authenticated miracles and on the strength of her devotional cult to pursue documentation. In the Catholic church's two-stage process, beatification and then canonization, two authenticated miracles are required for each stage (The New Catholic Encyclopedia 1967, 12:82-83).

One of the widely known stories about Charlene's intercession, and the case many believe to be a miracle, involves a young child from Morgan City Louisiana, named Nicole. Though Nicole's physicians have said that the remission of her cancer (neuroblastoma) was a medical cure that required no miracle, her story is often related as an example of Charlene's intercession. According to Nicole's grandmother, the child repeatedly asked for Charlene, though no one had mentioned the name to her. When she showed the prayer card to Nicole, the child allegedly identified the photo as "Charlene." Nicole participated in the 1991 anniversary mass for Charlene, during the Offertory portion of the mass, by carrying the basket containing the written petitions to Charlene up to the altar. In addition, there is a belief that patients who were treated in Room 411 of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, the room where Charlene died, always recovered from their illnesses.

Many of the marks of the early cults to the saints remain today and are apparent in the devotion to Charlene. Among them are the belief in the special powers of the saint's remains or objects with which the saint had some contact. Relics from a saint, pilgrimages to the saint's tomb, and images of the saint are often part of the practice of veneration. David Hufford has noted the emphasis in Roman Catholicism on healing and on the meaning of suffering and death, still vigorous today (1985:194-95). He says, "The traditions of healing among Roman Catholics today are as vigorous as they are ancient . . ." (207). He notes that temporal favors, as well as spiritual favors, are also sought from saints and alleged saints. Petitions to Charlene seldom have to do with spiritual matters or the saving of one's soul. Rather, they deal with health and healing and with practical matters, such as finding jobs, finding mates, and passing exams.

Wilson also notes the importance of images of the saints in cults (1983:15). In the case of Charlene, prayer cards with her picture have been widely circulated at least since 1972 (with the notation, "For Private Devotion only"). Xerographic copies of the prayer cards are often sent to others in need of special help. It is certainly true that south Louisiana is very much given to visible expressions of religion-votive candles, processions, pilgrimages to Medjugorje, St. Joseph's Day altars, yard grottoes, published notices in newspapers of thanksgiving for a favor granted, and so on. The use of votive offerings (ex voto) such as flowers, plants, objects, engraved plaques, handwritten notes, pictures, and lighted candles is especially important in devotion to Charlene. Wilson refers to ex voto as "authentic popular expression" (1983:234). In her study of Italian ex voto, Elisabetta Galanti says that "the religious custom of offering an object to a divinity 'ex voto suscepto' and putting it m the place dedicated to that divinity has pre-Christian origins" (1988:79). According to Galanti:

Votive offerings, or ex voto, are not subject to any precise ecclesiastical disposition-they are the voluntary expressions-private or public individual or collective-of a debt of gratitude to a divinity, either in pursuance of" a vow for a prayer answered or as a thanksgiving for an unexpected divine intervention. They may take the form of a object or an action such as a procession or a pilgrimage, or the offerer may make a gift of himself and devote his life to God. (Galanti 1988:78)1

All of these dimensions of ex voto are evident in devotion to Charlene as expressions of gratitude or as symbols of special requests. Votive candles are still very popular in rural areas of south Louisiana, and there are votive candles inside the church in Richard. Many people go into the church after visiting the grave to light a votive candle to Charlene. Most ex voto offerings, however, are centered upon Charlene's tomb, and the Richard family must again negotiate between their private sensibilities and the public devotion to Charlene. For example, notes and messages have been left on Charlene's tomb for many years, usually weighted down with stones or other objects. The parish now has a padlocked box near the tomb for "Petitions to Charlene." These notes and letters have been collected by the parish priest and brought in boxes to Charlene's mother. Any money left in the petition box is given to the church. Mrs. Richard says that she has many boxes of letters and notes left for Charlene. She does not read them, but she does not feel she can dispose of them either. Engraved metal plaques have also been attached to the tomb without the permission of the family. These also are removed after a time and kept. The family agreed, however, to have the parish build a concrete slab around the tomb to accommodate wheelchairs. Charlene's grave is actually what appears to be a "half tomb," built over her grave. Most of the graves in the cemetery in Richard follow this modified version of burial in above ground tombs, traditional in most of French Catholic Louisiana. Cemeteries in the prairie Cajun region tend to have in-ground burial, with a tomb only a few feet high built over the grave. (The word tomb [in French, la tombe] is commonly used in preference to the term grave.)

Much is traditional in the cult devotion to Charlene, but there are also components that seem to be interesting variations of the route to sainthood, along with new dimensions provided by contemporary technology. It is interesting and somewhat unusual that the local Catholic clergy not only supported the devotion to Charlene, but also seem to have led it. There was also some conflict within the community regarding Charlene, though this was often aimed at the clergy or others, not Charlene. After all, she was only a twelve-year-old child when she died, and she had never claimed any special powers in her lifetime. In addition, there are the effects on her family of the large devotional following thirty-five years after her death. Perhaps most significant is the profound impact of technology and telecommunication on devotion to a "local" saint. Not only are cults formed so quickly that they can have a profound impact on the family and friends of the saint, but the very nature of the hierarchy of steps to recognized sainthood is affected. Folk or local saints have been given private (i.e. not in the church) veneration by local communities, often with no official steps taken toward candidacy for beatification. Those beatified, called "Blessed," are entitled to public veneration locally. Saints are canonized by the Pope and are entitled to universal veneration in the Church. The rapid communication of the contemporary world seems to negate the significance of the "official" requirements of the Church because it is fairly easy to become known far beyond the local community. For example, Charlene has had visitors and letters from places such as Africa and Australia, though she is not yet officially a candidate for beatification. Furthermore, the question of private or public veneration seems moot when the veneration has the support and participation of the diocesan hierarchy and when this veneration is televised on a national news network.

The rapid growth of the devotional cult to Charlene may also reflect the widespread phenomena of belief in angels as celestial messengers in modern life. The need for intermediaries between Heaven and Earth and the "rediscovery" of a higher power is both a popular and scholarly topic (Berger 1970). Charlene can be the equivalent of a personalized angel for the Cajun culture. The fact that she died as a child is important. Her innocence is appealing, particularly at a time when Catholicism in south Louisiana has been recently rocked to its foundations by lawsuits in the 1980s against the Catholic church concerning pedophilic priests. Ironically, such priests were often "hidden" away in rural church parishes. (No such charge, however, has ever been brought against the priests who served in Richard.) The painful need of the Catholic Church in Louisiana to present a more acceptable image is helped by its association with a child saint untouched and untainted by scandal. The devotion to Charlene may reflect a need to return to Catholicism as a central force in the Cajun culture, in spite of widespread anticlericalism and conflict. Jason Berry says in his study of priests and the Cajun culture: ". . . cut off by geography and language from the urban Creole aristocracy, the Cajuns were an insular people, bonded to a code of absolute values: land, faith, and family" (Berry 1992:6).

These "absolute values" as well as the beliefs, stories, and local conflict about Charlene reflect a basic worldview of the culture of the Cajuns in south Louisiana. Though people disagree on the role of the clergy and on whether Charlene is really a saint with special powers, in times of need they are quite willing to pray to her-just in case she is a saint. This combination of both conflict and acceptance is typical of the practical attitude of the Cajuns about life in general, in addition, there is the definite feeling among the believers that since Charlene is from their own culture, she is approachable and understands their needs.

At this time, Charlene has not yet been beatified-the first step toward canonization, though there are several recorded stories of alleged miracles whether she is ever canonized or not, it is likely that the devotion to her will continue in south Louisiana, and beyond.


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I presented an earlier, shorter version of this paper at the American Folklore Society meeting in Berkeley in 1991. My thanks to Patrick Mire for his help in clarifying several points regarding Charlene and the Richard community, and to the readers for their guidance and expertise, so generously shared.

1. For a fictional account of the use of ex voto in a local saint's cult, sec Isabel Allende's short story, "A Discreet Miracle." Though the tone is humorous, the portrayal of votive practices is interesting and accurate for the culture. There is the pilgrimage to the grotto of Juana of the Lilies, pictures of the saint, medals, flowers, candles

This article was first published in 1994 Southern Folklore. Marcia Gaudet is a folklorist in Lafayette, retired from the English Department, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.