Binding a Family: Examining Job's Tears Rosaries as Artifacts of Kinship

By Keagan LeJeune


As a Roman Catholic man who grew up in an Acadian family in southwest Louisiana, alongside a devout mother and father, and within walking distance from my church and parochial school, I undoubtedly make a strong connection between Cajun culture and the Catholic Church. Like most children, my parents' faith became my own, but when my father gave Job's Tears rosaries to my fiancée and me one Christmas, I began to realize that the works he and others like him create provide a representation of the Cajun ideology, the importance of family and the bonds it creates. This paper is concerned with the ideas inherent in the making of Job's Tears rosaries and with the revelations about Cajun culture and, especially its notions of identity, imbedded in their production.

Job's Tears rosary in the Creole State exhibit made by Claude Oubre of Eunice. Photo: Thomas Wintz.

Richard Bauman's "Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore" (1972) argues against sweeping generalizations formed from the premise that "folklore is a function of shared identity" (32) and calls instead for a performance-centered approach. The social base of folklore must then be conceptualized "in terms of the actual place of the lore in social relationships and its use in communicative interaction" (33). The attempt will be made, then, to consider the rosaries and their production in terms of what they communicate, to whom, and in what manner. As do many religious folk activities of the area, the creation of these Job's Tears rosaries involves the union of the sacred and the profane, and like many of these activities the handmade rosaries illustrate and reinforce "kinship bonds," helping to define the boundaries of a particular folk group. Since William Bascom's important "The Four Functions of Folklore" (1954) and its stress on context and functionality, these ideas have become entrenched in folklore study, and since folklorists need not look far for a discussion, the idea will not be expanded here. However, this work will proceed mindful of Bascom's call and others for a study to be guided by concern for the relationship between social context and function.

As an artifact, Job's Tears rosaries offer several perspectives into the culture. As an object, the rosary articulates family and its desires. Dedicated to Mary the patron saint of mothers and tracing the mysteries of the life of Christ, the prayer itself is a celebration of family. Hung near the backdoor, on the wall of the living room, or somewhere in the kitchen, the rosary often takes primary position in a home. Moreover, this "family rosary," with each family member holding a section while being said, provides a central activity for the family. "A mother's rosary," which often is made of colored beads that represent the birthstones of her children, serves as another concrete reminder of family.

The rosary also functions as a marker for certain rites of passage-signaling events in the life cycle-and continues today to hold a prevalent position at many life-cycle stages. 1 One maker, when interviewed, was in the process of making a rosary for his fifteenth grandchild's first communion, and his children and grandchildren have grown to expect one of his rosaries during these significant events. For many, rosaries are common gifts for first communion, confirmation, and marriage. People often pray the rosary for an expectant mother and her child. The saying of a rosary holds an important position at a funeral wake, and often someone, an established member of the church parish who is noted for their particular skill at saying the rosary, will be called in to lead the prayer.

The Job's Tears plant used to make the rosaries also brings the bonds of family to the surface, for a complex representation of kinship is embedded in the materials it offers. Emotional connections exist between the owner of the rosary and the maker. The rosary's production emphasizes the relationship between the owner of the rosary and the owner of the yard that holds the plant, and plants grown from seeds that were gathered from a relative's yard add another level of intimacy to the product. Ultimately, the rosary-making it, praying it, and giving it as a gift-exists as an artifact that pronounces on many levels the maker's and recipient's convictions, not only of religious beliefs but also of faith in family and the connections family forms.

Artifacts, Barbara Babcock (1992) claims, are marked by their "tangible substantiality and relative imperishability" (205). She continues by explaining:

that cultures not only create, represent, and re-create their distinctive patterns through what they say and do, but through articulations of the material world, and that the former not only can be but, in many cases, can only be reconstructed and "read" through the latter. (205)

Defining the term and approaches to it, Babcock outlines a few major, identifying characteristics of an artifact: multifunctionality, multiple frames, multivocality, the employ of recycling and bricolage, and emphemerality (206-10), and naturally these qualities direct the scholarly approach. Babcock eventually calls for an approach that combines different methodologies so that a scholar might consider an artifact through the spectrum of perspectives, employing methods ranging from one highlighting classification to one that is performance-centered. Through this eclectic approach, the material world can receive adequate attention, attention that "can yield invaluable and in some cases otherwise unattainable insights into cultural life (215).

As is the case with all artifacts, religious artifacts intensely reveal a culture's view of the world. In American Material Culture and Folklife Simon J. Bronner (1985) says:

Given that objects signify culture, given that objects are distinctive evidence, then it follows that knowledge from objects can be synthesized with the whole of human experience, including spiritual, intellectual, and social life. (17)

Studying a "sacred" religious ritual or event-those activities marked and awe-inspiring-obviously provides the scholar insight into a culture's belief system, but because of its revealing and intimate nature this material often proves difficult to obtain. However, many religious activities of "Cajun Country" develop from and function as everyday celebrations of the spirit-ones that are "profane," a part of day-to-day life and outside the realm of the formal Church.

The people of this Catholic tradition have been responsible for the continuation of the faith from one generation to the next. Patricia K. Rickels explains in "The Folklore of Sacraments and Sacramentals in South Louisiana," since "the development of an effective church administration was long frustrated and delayed by a number of situations and events," (1965: 27) the people of the region-isolated by geographic factors, economic restrictions, and a shortage of priests-developed "a general do-it-yourself attitude?in matters of religion" (1965: 29). Rickels claims employing Roger Baudien's Catholicism in Louisiana as support, that "anybody baptized [and] [c]ommandants of posts performed marriages (1965: 28). A similar idea is expressed in "The Acadian Faith Odyssey" by Alexander O. Signur. This priest explains that "these hardy people preserved their faith and religious practices despite the lack of priests and sporadic administration of the sacraments" (1983: 129).

In the past this approach to religious practices existed for perhaps more dramatic or drastic reasons, but today, even if for different reasons, this mixing still persists. The contemporary altar tradition provides a more than adequate example of it. Located in at least one yard down any street of a dense Catholic neighborhood, lawn shrines are easily visible throughout the area. Altars are also present in the home. With pictures and devotional candles, altars to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to the Virgin Mary, or to other saints occupy prominent spaces in the homes of many Catholics. 2 Maintaining lawn and home altars, blessing crops or boats, these and other activities are active representations of a daily connection to religion, and these everyday expressions of belief provide revealing glimpses into the culture.

In Cajun Louisiana, studying the religious aspects of the people seems to be a crucial component in understanding them. Family drives the people, and almost without exception the religious activities of the folk stress family and create strong bonds of kinship. Cajun Country (1991), a major work about the region, describes the social organization of Cajuns as petit monde, translated literally as "little world." The term refers to the practice of forming small communities to provide support, both in times of need and plenty. From this method, Cajun families developed a social organization stressing communication and sharing between family members and neighbors. Strong ties with the neighbors surrounding a home, often members of the family, were formed. As a result, the institution of family and the expressions of the responsibilities and benefits of being a family member often determined and modified many folklife activities, from the design of the house to what is grown in the garden to religious folk practices. The coup de main, the house parties, the Mardi Gras run, the boucheries -these folk events use the nexus of family as a survival tool, use it to make manual labor manageable, to provide courting opportunities, or to stretch scarce food supplies from one home to the next. The Job's Tears rosary tradition is motivated from these same principles, an everyday approach to the sacred and the incredible drive of family. The makers of these rosaries string the seeds of the plant and their meanings together to form a rosary, and with this they create unifying religious gifts for the members of their own little world.

The Job plant shoots up in late March or early April and looks, as described by one maker, "something like a corn plant with a tassel" (Carl LeJeune). By mid-April, the plant stands almost two feet high and already contains a few green seeds. During the summer months, the plant grows to three or five, maybe even six, feet high and produces more seeds, numbering in the hundreds. The seeds, or Job's Tears, grow darker from green shades to dark browns. 3 "Some have a purplish color," and most plants have seeds with several shades of gray (Diana Babineaux). My interviewees are not quite sure on how the color of the seeds are determined, whether the soil, the time the seeds are picked, what the plant is adjacent to, or some other reason is responsible for the seeds' colors. Certain colored seeds become very desirable, and many makers experiment with various planting strategies to alter, to actively create, the color of the seeds.

Conversations with these people reveal that an important part of the process involves possessing knowledge of the plant. While discussing how she makes the rosaries, one woman thought it important to note that, "the more sun the plants have through the summer months the more seeds they produce and the better they do" (Diane Babineaux). The seeds are either picked throughout the summer or gathered from the ground in early fall. Regardless, the shaft from the plant is usually left in the middle of the seeds to provide stability for the rosary wire. During winter months, the plant freezes, leaving a dried, withered stalk, and any beads left on the stalk rot from rain. The plant is an annual, but Louisiana's mild winters have, for the most part, little lasting effect on it (Carl LeJeune). New plants will usually shoot up from fallen seeds, but a rosary maker has little trouble transplanting a plant from one home to the next. And the rosary makers interviewed consider any subsequent generation of a plant merely a continuation of the first, especially if these new plants sprout in proximity to the original.

In fact, transplanting a Job's Tears plant takes on great significance. Someone beginning to make rosaries often starts by transplanting a plant from a loved one, so the seeds from that plant have a heritage, often providing a link to the person who taught them-an aunt or uncle, a cousin, a godparent, or friend. Seeds from the backyard of a grandfather or a close friend carry with them memories of that person. In one interview, Ms. Babineaux connected me to the seeds she had from my grandfather's plant and told the history of the seeds. The story started at my grandfather's yard. It then shifted to the seeds being gathered by my mother and given to Ms. Babineaux, and finally the history ended with the seeds being shown to me. Mine is not the only history she holds. On that day alone, she had six stories that were held in bags of seeds labeled with a name, a place, and a date, memories of Mr. Arceneaux in Welsh or her own yard "in the summer of 1992." A continuum of connection forms, even after the first plant dies: its seeds, the plants grown from those seeds, and those that will be grown track this history.

The rosary makers interviewed knew no other use of the plant and consider the uniqueness of the plant and the specificity of its use as an example of God's divine planning, "too perfect for the job to be a coincidence" Diane Babineaux said. Ms. Babineaux became interested enough to research the origin of "the rosary plant" (another common name which reflects the singularity of its use). She discovered that "this plant really comes from?India and they use it for?jewelry, to make not rosaries necessarily. But it gets into the Cajun country, and they turn them into rosaries." The holes present in each seed, the varnished look the seeds gain after being prayed, and the variety of colors indicate an amazing, divine design for many rosary makers.

The uniqueness of the plant is mirrored in the creation of each rosary. Each bead, selected for its size and color, is carefully chosen with the new owner in mind, as a great deal of thought is put into making a unique arrangement of beads. Even the selections of the rosary's cross and centerpieces are individualized. Each maker alters their creation to reflect the personality of the receiver. Diane Babineaux chooses wooden crosses and dark brown beads for rosaries given to the father of a family and beads the shade of mother of pearl for women. Vic Guidry, who has been making rosaries for nearly fifty years, chooses small beads for his grandchildren and makes a "pull-your-truck-out-of-a-ditch rosary," with the biggest seeds and thickest chains, for those men who will keep them in their pockets. When Carl LeJeune made rosaries to give to his children one Christmas, he included on the rosary made for "his artist son" three wooden beads to be painted, made his wife's and only daughter's rosaries with the same colored beads, and used similar crosses and centerpieces on the rosaries made for the two sons who were born a year apart and grew up together. Each gift becomes a mirror of the relationship between maker and owner, an artifact of the kinship bond, a representation of the connection between members of the same community.

The creation of the rosary is an involved process, often establishing deep connections between maker and owner. One maker says, "The process is prayerful. Sometimes I'll say the rosary for them as I'm making it" (Vic Guidry). The people whom I interviewed had detailed descriptions of the rosary making process. With intricate twists of the wrist, loops are made from the wire run through the seeds. Each loop must be smooth without crinkle so that the rosary does not turn in hand or kink while being said. Rosary makers must also be sure that the decades are even and the crosses and centerpieces are firmly attached. Looping the wire correctly, using the right amount of wire for each bead, making decades even, having each seed facing the same way, leaving enough shaft in the seed for a sturdy bead-these nuances of the trade complicate the process. And as the process complicates, it becomes meticulous, intentional, and takes on more and more meaning. Finally, the beads polish from use. As one prays the rosary, the oil in the skin shines the beads and often brings out a unique color or stripes that were not there before. So not only does the maker create the rosary, but the person who prays it adds their own individuality to the process, becomes an active participant in the creation. Later, the owner might show it to the maker to share and examine the changes in the beads. So the product is not finished until it has been prayed several times and shared, as Diane Babineaux and one of her recipients explained in an interview.

The uniqueness of the rosary plant provides a real-world example of God's fatherly care. The varied colored seeds with "a shape and smooth surface perfect for holding" (Diane Babineaux), the hole included in each seed for the wire, the polish each bead takes on while being said are all examples of His divine design. The histories held in these plants, the heritage of their seeds and the genealogy of their roots, also endow meaning for rosary makers and owners, and in the end the process and the product take on special significance, not only because of the religious beliefs involved, but also because of the bonds to family and home that the process entails and the memories of loved ones and tradition that the product rekindles. This one activity gives meaning to the commonplace, makes sacred the everyday activities of home and family.

In Grasping Things Bronner (1986) says, "My subject is the material life of Americans. I am concerned with their bonds to the things around them-houses, art, food-and the ways those things are produced and consumed (Preface xi). Because of the connection between what is done and how it affects family, these handmade rosaries are important for the bonds they create. With seeds picked from the gardens of loved ones, the rosaries can become complex reminders of home and family. Their making provides many with a creative way of expressing faith in religion and family and a contemporary opportunity to join their day-to-day with the sacred.


Ancelet, Barry Jean, Jay Edwards, and Glen Pitre. 1991. Cajun Country. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Babcock, Barbara. 1992. Artifact. In Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments, ed. Richard Bauman. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Babineaux, Diane. 21 Mar. 1998. Interview by author.

Bascom, William J. 1954. The Four Functions of Folklore. Journal of American Folklore 67: 333-49.

Bauman, Richard. 1972. Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore. In Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, ed. Americo Paredes and Richard Bauman. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Bronner, Simon J. 1985. American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue. Ann Arbor: UMI Research.

-----. 1986. Grasping Things. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

de Caro, Frank. 1990. Folklife in Louisiana Photography. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

DelSesto, Steven, and Jon L. Gibson, eds. 1975. The Culture of Acadiana: Tradition and Change in South Louisiana. Lafayette, LA: University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Dorson, Richard M. 1972. Introduction. In Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, ed. Richard Dorson. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Guidry, Vic. 20 Apr. 1998. Interview by author.

LeJeune, Carl. 19 Apr. 1998. Interview by author.

Post, Lauren C. 1962. Cajun Sketches from the Prairies of Southwest Louisiana. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

Sigur, Alexander O. 1983. The Acadian Faith Odyssey: Impressions of an Acadian Parish Priest. In The Cajuns: Essays on Their History and Culture, ed. Glenn R. Conrad. Lafayette, LA: Center for Louisiana Studies.

Rickels, Patricia. 1965. The Folklore of Sacraments and Sacramentals in South Louisiana. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 2 (2): 27-44.

Walls, Robert E. 1990. Folklife and Material Culture. In The Emergence of Folklore in Everyday Life, ed. George H. Schoemaker. Bloomington, IN: Trickster Press.


1. A discussion of rites of passage, because of the amount of work on the subject and of its extensive relationship with folklore, will not be included here.

2. For a few general discussions and illustrations of traditional religious practices of the region see among others Folklife in Louisiana Photography by Frank de Caro, The Culture of Acadiana: Tradition and Change in South Louisiana by Steven DelSesto and Jon L. Gibson, Cajun Sketches from the Prairies of Southwest Louisiana by Lauren Post, and "The Folklore of Sacraments and Sacramentals in South Louisiana" by Patricia K. Rickels.

3. Other than quoted material, this section's information is an amalgamation of knowledge gained from informants and the author's own experience

This article was originally published in the 2000 issue of the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany and is reprinted with permission. Keagan LeJeune is a folklorist at McNeese State University in Lake Charles.