The Pine Island Apparition: Cajun Values Revealed

By Wendy Whelan-Stewart


In February of 1993, a small Louisiana town off Interstate 10 made news in Acadiana: a tree shaped in the form of the Virgin Mary was drawing the devout to a farmer's rice field in Pine Island. Although the tree no longer stands and the visitors no longer make pilgrimages to the site once held holy, many Catholics in Pine Island and surrounding cities still remember the fervor the tree caused. Many believed and still believe that what beckoned the faithful to the tree was truly an apparition. Recent studies have begun seriously analyzing apparitions and the culture which is attracted to them. Brian Britt in "Snapshots of Tradition: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Georgia" (1998) has shown the merging of photography and email with the "traditional religious discourse" of the visionary. Daniel Wojeik's "'Polaroids from Heaven': Photography, Folk Religion, and the Miraculous Image of Tradition at a Marian Apparition Site" (1996) also studies the trend of a culture's use of technology at apparition sites.

These and other recent scholarly studies and publications focus on miraculous apparitions among particular folk groups. Similarly, further examination of the relationship between the Pine Island apparition and its community reveals Cajun values and beliefs; not only does the apparition validate the folk Catholic worldview of Cajuns, but also the traditional importance of family, community, and ties to the land. This essay also analyzes and assesses the structure of apparition stories, which contain the same values demonstrated in the actions of the pilgrims who visit the apparition site.

The history of the tree's transformation from a mere boundary marker of a field to a religious attraction begins with a very personal story. The Beaumont Enterprise, which dedicated a front page article to the tree on February 14, 1993, says only that a young woman, grieving her father's death, first saw the image just before Christmas and took it as a favorable sign meant for her family. Eventually, the family seemed to feel an obligation to inform the community of the apparition, for the mother of the unidentified woman told the reporter, "We spend hours looking at her. But it wasn't only meant for us" (Deggs-Cariker 1993: 3A). Rose Guidry, native to Pine Island, identifies the woman who first saw the Virgin Mary as Ms. Granger and recalls what Mrs. Granger (the young woman's mother) told her about the event. Rose Guidry recalls in a 2004 interview:

Mrs. Granger and her daughter was washing dishes and the daughter was put up the dishes in the cabinet and there was a window right there. So when she turn around, she look outside, she look at it a little while, then she said, "Mama, come see if you see the same thing I see." So the mother came, and she saw the same thing.

Heather Reed, a resident of Fenton, a neighboring town, recalled that it was not much more than a week before the personal apparition was made public, and people inside the community of Pine Island informed residents in her community. Soon word had spread to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and to Beaumont, Texas. The Lake Charles American Press claims a modest one hundred people viewed the tree on one Saturday afternoon (Brown 1993: 13), while Mrs. Granger (mother of the young woman who discovered the image) estimates a staggering three thousand visitors in the Beaumont Enterprise (Deggs-Cariker 1993: 3A). Some time after these articles were printed, the tree was cut down, although the motive is unclear. Heather Reed claims that the family felt the message had been successfully spread, while Rose Guidry claims the traffic was too much for the field. Whatever the motive, the site lost its apparition, preventing the tree from becoming a permanent symbol of Catholic faith in the area and reducing it to a collective memory among local Catholics.

Figure 1. The Pine Island apparition site. Photo by Ruthie Whelan.

In his essay "Snapshots of Tradition," Brian Britt points out several characteristics of apparitions. The first is that the "visions gain a public following" (1998: 110). It is evident from interviews and newspaper articles that the tree had a constant flow of visitors, so many that the tree had to be cut down in order to keep people from destroying the field and the livelihood of its owner. The Lake Charles American Press stated at the time, "Since the news spread about the discovery, so many people have come to the field that the property owners posted 'no trespassing signs'" (Brown 1993: 13). Asked if she remembered how long the tree attracted attention, Rose Guidry replied that it was "two months or more." Surely, this qualifies as a following for the tree.

A second characteristic of apparitions is the presence of "miraculous signs, especially healings" (Britt 1998: 110). Rose Guidry cites several miracles, one she saw herself and others she heard from friends and from Mrs. Granger. Mrs. Guidry talked often of the miracle of the candle wax, for instance. Mrs. Granger lit a candle while saying her novena in prayer over the apparition, and the candle wax that collected on the side of the candle revealed the face of Jesus. Mrs. Guidry saw this wax herself and was convinced of the presence of God in Mrs. Granger's home and of Mary in the tree. In addition to this miracle, she had heard talk around town that a rosary turned gold at the apparition site, a popular folk belief among Catholics in general.1

Another characteristic of miraculous apparitions is Mary's delivery of an important message. Britt says the message usually involves "divine anger at particular sins" and a "warning" (1998: 110). What may be striking to those familiar with apparitions is the one startling difference between this tree shaped like the mother of God and the better known apparitions of Medjugorje, Fatima, Lourdes, and Guadalupe. In Pine Island, there was no one individual receiving private visions of the Virgin Mary and relaying them to a faithful crowd. (In contrast, Lourdes had a Bernadette and Guadalupe had a Juan Diego.) Furthermore, because there was no visionary in Pine Island, there was no official relayed message. We will see later how this pleasant ambiguity results in each individual having his or her private interpretation of the meaning of Mary's appearance; this, in turn, allows us to infer shared cultural values.

This apparition fits in nicely with other locations in southern Louisiana deemed holy by local Catholics rather than by official decree. For example, the grave of young Charlene Richard, revered by many as a modern day saint not yet canonized, still attracts the devout to Richard, Louisiana (Gaudet 2000: 11). The young girl diagnosed with cancer who accepted a premature death and exemplified the trusting spirit of saints is known throughout Cajun country. Folklorist Marcia Gaudet writes, "By August 1989, the thirtieth anniversary of Charlene's death, thousands were visiting her grave every year" (2000: 12).2

Another holy site still visited by Catholics is the Shrine of Our Lady of Tickfaw, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1989. Talk of the apparition still surfaces in conversations among Catholics, though Gaudet notes that the thousands of people still attracted to the site include few from Southwest Louisiana.3 A third famous site is the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, where an ill Mary Wilson received a vision from a Belgian Jesuit priest to whom she had prayed a novena. She was cured and the priest was later canonized (Gaudet 2000: 14).

In addition to this considerable repertoire of local sightings and miracles are the mass pilgrimages of Louisiana Catholics to Medjugorje in the 1990s. Households still speak of the Blessed Virgin's appearances there. Heather Reed of Fenton, Louisiana, recalled that her mother, a catechism teacher, recently received a medal in the mail from Medjugorje. It is in this context that the Pine Island apparition is placed. The collective worldview of Louisiana Catholics during the 1980s and 1990s was rich in a faith fostered by visions and pilgrimages.

Any discussion of Catholicism in southern Louisiana benefits from a brief explanation of the Acadian migration (sometimes called the Grand Dérangement) and the settlement patterns of their colonies. In The People Called Cajuns, James Dormon describes the southern migration of the Acadians from Nova Scotia through the early English colonies which would become New England. Dormon stresses that the wandering Acadians often encountered hostility from Protestant English colonists who not only refused them aid, but often subjected them to "bond servitude" (Dormon 1983: 17). This experience was one of the contributing factors which allowed the Acadians to begin forming a distinct group identity (Dormon 1983: 18-19), and this realization of identity encouraged the displaced group to seek out a land and a people which shared its French heritage and Roman Catholic faith. Different waves of Acadians continued to arrive in Louisiana and settle in different areas, including south central Louisiana, west of New Orleans and close to Bayou Teche (Dormon 1983: 23). A second migration or "expulsion," as Dormon terms it, caused by new settlers, propelled groups of Acadians farther west and north, where they established new communities (1983: 29).

Evidence of this settlement pattern can still be seen today, and the rapid spread of news of the Pine Island apparition suggests that the present-day community shares its ancestors' religious beliefs and values. The two largest cities immediately west of Pine Island, Lake Charles and Beaumont, both printed an article in their newspapers on the same date. The spread of the news can partially be attributed to the presence of Interstate 10, which connects many major cities within close proximity to the apparition site; Lafayette, Lake Charles, and Beaumont are all connected via this interstate.4 Upon reading the newspaper articles, many people made pilgrimages to the site: others came because they heard through word of mouth. Residents of Welsh (a larger town so close to Pine Island that newspapers erroneously located the apparition there) probably heard about the apparition through word of mouth.

Father Whitney Miller belongs to the local community as both a former resident and former religious leader. He was serving as a pastor in Welsh in 1993, the year of the apparition, and heard of the miraculous tree from local parishioners. His former administrative associate invited him to see it. Father Miller recalled in a 2004 interview:

[My associate] and his wife had heard about it, and so one afternoon he said, "You want to ride out there with me?" because it was by a piece of property that belonged to his family. So I rode out there with him and there was probably ten or twelve other folks out there at the time when we went.

The circulation of the news in Welsh can be viewed as a means by which the community collectively sought to reaffirm its Catholic tradition and direct its members to a group celebration of their common spirituality. The newspapers, perhaps unintentionally, served the same function, informing Catholics who might not have heard by word of mouth.

Before an official Catholic institution was set up in Louisiana, the Acadians brought with them and tended a Catholicism of their own. Their distinctive religious practices have been well documented. James Dormon calls their faith "a special sort of Catholicism" (1983: 34) and Alexander Sigur, who refers to himself as an Acadian parish priest, elaborates:

[S]easonal practices of the traditional faith were observed at home, with occasional distortions caused by a lack of instruction. Moreover, as folklorists have noted, there occurred an accretion of dubious practices, learned in contact with cultism both in the Caribbean and in Louisiana. (qtd. in Conrad 1983: 127-132)

This history continues to shape folk religious practices among Louisiana's Catholics today, although these traditions often deviate from sanctioned Catholic doctrines. For example, the November 7, 2004, article from the American Press describes the custom of burying a St. Joseph statue in a yard in order to effect the quick sale of a home (Price 2004: F1). Just as early Acadian settlers clung to their Catholic faith, many Southwest Louisiana Catholics today cling to such practices even against the wishes of the Church.

Although apparitions do not qualify as one of Sigur's "dubious practices," it can be argued that they represent the same power struggle between common folk and orthodox leaders (and folk religion and official doctrine). Few apparitions after the death of Christ have been officially recognized by the Church, and Fr. Rene Laurentin, author of Pilgrimages, Sanctuaries, Icons, and Apparitions, credits this sparse number to a "fear of illusion" coupled with "the offense which the seers' direct line with Heaven might give to the Church's Magisterium" (1994: 90). Those who flocked to Pine Island to witness the miracle in the tree must have been aware of this power struggle over belief to some degree. In the Lake Charles American Press article which appeared in February 1993, Ken Bartsch, a local pastor in Jennings (a town not many miles from the tree's site) commented, "If it is the Blessed Mother, she doesn't need my approval or the approval of any priest or pope" (Brown 1993: 13). In some way, visitors, without official confirmation from their leaders, make a pilgrimage to the tree, celebrate the miracle they see there, and, by their presence alone, validate their shared folk beliefs. Primarily, they are aware that a visitation to a small town not well known among Louisiana Catholics is very possible.

Besides serving as evidence that Southwest Louisiana is still a predominantly Catholic area and helping to define the type of unorthodox folk beliefs that many Catholics have joined to their orthodox beliefs, the apparition takes its place in the collective memory of both the immediate community of Pine Island and the extended community of Southwest Louisiana Catholics. Memories like these help to unite the members of a particular community, as well as connect thousands of people over large distances. In his book Mapping the Invisible Landscape, Kent Ryden discusses the connection of place to local history, saying that the "sense of local history consists of personal and intimate events: landmarks are remembered and found significant because of something striking that once happened there to the person doing the remembering" (1993: 63). Undoubtedly, a tree widely believed to be visited by the mother of Christ quickly becomes a landmark representing the community's shared beliefs. It has a powerful function, for not only does it publicly express the community's spirituality and live on in the local history, but it also becomes a personal memory for each of the faithful who make the pilgrimage. And so it is that the small community of Pine Island is connected in a deep and personal way to the Catholic communities that surround it, for they all share the same memory of the apparition and the hunger to believe in it.

Local residents are aware of this. Rose Guidry commented on this in our 2004 interview after reflecting on how the apparition affected her and reminded her of her Christian duty to help others, remarking that "a lot of people all over went there, even, I heard, from Arkansas." She is linking herself to a Catholic community extending beyond the boundaries with which she is familiar. Ryden also says that local history may be either "directly experienced or learned through tradition" (1993: 63). Although the tree no longer stands, believers' experiences will be passed down to younger generations in the form of anecdotes and recollections. They in turn will inherit their parents' or relatives' memories, and the cycle linking land, religion, and family will go on. For Cajuns, it is of great importance to link the land to the people, and so the tree again plays a far greater role: the land on which it stands takes on even greater significance because it is blessed by God.

In addition to its role in bonding Catholics through shared memories, the apparition also validates the agricultural lifestyle of Southwest Louisiana's Cajuns. Pine Island is a part of what William Rushton and others call the "Cajun prairie," and the staple which supports this area is rice, though soybeans are the next second most common crop, followed by sugarcane (Rushton 1979: 123). In fact, this area produces "the nation's largest acreage of rice cultivation and fully one-fourth of the nation's annual crop" (Rushton 1979: 123). Rushton gives a lovely description of the fields: "All through the Cajun prairie, the rice lies shallow by the railroad tracks, threaded in curvilinear rows within walled and flooded ponds" (1979: 123).

It is at the edge of such a field that the Pine Island tree stands. This fact does not go unnoticed by either the Lake Charles American Press or the Beaumont Enterprise. Rose Guidry can remember the crops coming up when she made her pilgrimages. The fact that this apparition took place in a field far removed from a large city reaffirms the idea that hard work and the agrarian lifestyle are important. The pilgrimage route itself takes travelers from large cities like Beaumont, Lake Charles, and Lafayette and routes them to the interstate, where they must take smaller highways, then unnamed farm roads, which at this time were unpaved and covered in loose gravel. Like the Pine Island apparition, most famous apparition sites seem to be in rural areas.5 Tickfaw (the site of another Marian apparition briefly mentioned earlier) and Richard (the location of Charlene Richard's grave) are both miles away from larger Louisiana cities. Even on an international scale, the same is true: Medjugorje and Fatima (two well-known European apparition sites) are also in rural areas, and the visionaries are peasants.

Significant aspects of the Pine Island apparition include not only the tree's location, but whom visitors took with them to view it. Heather Reed recalls, "I went with my mom and my granny [her mother's mother]." Rose Guidry left her husband and son at home and took her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren: "So my son stayed with his dad for me and his wife and two girls went and see. That was the first time." For my first and only time, I, too, went with my mother and my maternal grandmother. There seems to be a trend of bringing one's female children and their female children to the tree.6 This is not surprising, for it was the role of Acadian women to instruct their children in the values and beliefs of their culture (Ancelet, et al. 1991). Cajun women today still seem to play this role in their families. Heather Reed remembers the small minority of men present at the field, and this suggests not necessarily that the men were unsupportive, but rather that it may have been the role of women to bring others to the tree.

The pilgrimage of women with their women kin implies several different values. First, obviously, it is the mother's job to ensure that her children practice and embrace the faith in which she raised them. Secondly, it is a way for the children to exhibit their faith. Finally, it is a group and family celebration of shared faith, somewhat akin to the required attendance of all family members at mass. The second time Mrs. Guidry visited the tree, she took her cousin and her cousin's friends, and the third time, she brought her niece and her husband. Father Whitney Miller brought his mother and father with him to see the apparition. The common denominator in all these cases is bringing a family member or members. The tree not only brings a community together, but brings families to it. It is a celebration of the family unit and their shared religious values.

Local folk religious beliefs were nost evident when visitors were asked to interpret the message of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At Pine Island, no official message was delivered to any one person by the Virgin Mary; instead, the purpose of her appearance is left up to individual interpretation. One interpretation was that Mary hoped to lend support against the troubles plaguing her followers. Roxanne Butts told reporter Sunny Brown, "In a world where things are just the pits, the Virgin Mary is saying . . . we're with you, we're going to help you get through it'" (Brown 1993: 13). Another interviewee, Olga Mudd, echoed Butts' words: "If she can convert lives and touch hearts, she's served her purpose...We hear all the bad things about people in life, but this is a plus" (Brown 1993: 13). In this interpretation, Mary is seen as the mother who protects, who buffers her children against the harm of the world. In fact, a favorite name given to her by Catholics in general reflects this: the Blessed Mother. Olga Mudd captures the importance of this aspect of the Virgin Mary and her relationship to Louisiana Catholics when she speaks for her community, saying: "And who to us is more important than the Blessed Mother?" (Brown 1993: 13).

Father Whitney Miller seems to agree with this interpretation. When asked to interpret the meaning of the apparition, he mused and felt his way to this answer:

[It is a] coming to assure us, [to] be a sign of God's presence, of God's care, of God wanting to be with us. I felt more the apparition in Medjugorje, it felt more kind of . . . repentance and sinfulness. With this, I didn't get that sense from this, it was more, well I think because it was local, you know, because it was here in Southwest Louisiana, it was kind of consoling and comforting. . . . "I'm with you."

As he suggests, this type of atmosphere is distinctly different from that of other apparitions. Location is cited as one of the reasons for this difference. Because the apparition is local and intended for locals, the message is not a negative one replete with warnings and pleas for change. For the people of Southwest Louisiana, the Virgin Mary's message is one of support and tenderness, perhaps because of the memory of hardships dating back to the settlement of the area, or because of the difficult agricultural lifestyle of many in this area. Because the predominant faith in Southwest Louisiana is Catholicism, it may be more important to reinforce the faith of the local community, to witness something tangible of a mostly intangible faith, rather than focus on issues that extend outside the boundaries of the community, like abortion, Communism, and lack of prayer.7

Other explanations for Mary's appearance were more specific, highly personal, and centered on answering the prayers of one family. This is the interpretation accepted most commonly by members of Pine Island or of towns in very close proximity to Pine Island. When Heather Reed was asked to reflect on the meaning of Mary's appearance, she told the story of the younger Ms. Granger washing the dishes and seeing the image in the tree:

Her father had recently died. And she said that she'd been so upset and had been praying, you know, for a sign that he was in heaven that she, you know, just wasn't at peace. She wanted to know. And one day, while she was washing her dishes, she looked out her window and in the tree she saw Mary's outline. And that was like the sign to her that her husband, I mean her father, was in heaven and she was really happy and touched by that.

In this interpretation, Mary is clearly seen as a messenger sent by God to touch the lives of one family whose prayer has been heard. The relationship between God and humankind demonstrated by this belief is a close one; God is not above answering one small request in a very large way. With this kind of belief, it is not difficult to see why many people believe apparitions can occur in such small towns, for God is believed to be present where his most loyal followers congregate. However, the Granger family is careful not to assume too much about their importance, as evidenced by Mrs. Granger's reply in the Beaumont Enterprise: "It was a special blessing for us. . . . We spent hours looking at her. But it isn't only meant for us" (Deggs-Cariker 1993: 3A). The women also refused to be identified by name in the paper, showing a desire for privacy and also exhibiting humility.

A third interpretation of the apparition's purpose is reminiscent of other apparition sites and reinforces beliefs commonly held by Catholics throughout the world: the need for believers to become more fervent in prayer and for the end to government-sanctioned abortions. This is a stark contrast to the idea among Pine Island residents that the apparition was meant for a more personal and intimate reason, such as the death of a loved one. The reason given here is more global, less intimate and, interestingly, is given by those distanced from Pine Island, Fenton, and Welsh. These interpretations reflect of one of the characteristics Brian Britt lists in his study of Marian apparitions: the issue of a warning relayed through the visionary. The Beaumont Enterprise recorded several opinions of believers stating that the Virgin Mary was appearing in order to condemn abortions. Liz Moreau, a fifty-five year-old woman during the time of the apparition, is quoted as saying, "With her holding the baby, I don't know what else it would be except to be about all the abortions in this country. . . .The child in her arms is the symbol for all of the ones who've been aborted" (Deggs-Cariker 1993: 3A). A younger woman of twenty-two referred to only as "Angela" is recorded by the writer as one who also saw Mary holding and looking down on an infant and "interpreted Mary's visit as a condemnation of abortion" (Deggs-Cariker 1993: 3A). Wilma Styron, eighty years of age, repeats the sentiments of the others but adds a greater sense of urgency to the Virgin Mary's message: "I really think she's appearing because of all this abortion. And I just feel like it's getting near the end of time and people better start living right. If other people feel like I do, they better get right with God. (Deggs-Cariker 1993: 3A)

All three of these women lived in different locations of Southwest Louisiana and came from different age groups, yet all three shared the Catholic belief that abortions are significant enough to elicit a divine appearance.8 No other specific cause was given to explain the apparition. It cannot be assumed that these three women spoke with each other, but what can be inferred is that the site provoked discussion among onlookers and provided the Catholic community with an opportunity to share interpretations of the apparition and personal beliefs. The discussion, however, is not confined to the site of the apparition, but is also brought into neighboring communities by means of newspapers. Although there is no way to know how many visitors saw a child in the arms of the apparition or emphasized the importance of ending abortions, the fact that these opinions are described and relayed in a single newspaper also implies that the writer and/or many of the readers might share these same ideals, and thus the same worldview. These interpretations seem to convey the importance Catholics in Southwest Louisiana place on children, parenting, and family life in general.

The Beaumont Enterprise gives similar details about the site: "Some followers put red silk roses or live carnations near the tree. Burned-out candles rested among the flowers. . . ." (Deggs-Cariker 1993: 3A) It is not uncommon for Catholics to equate roses with the Virgin Mary or her apparition sites, but the leaving behind of carnations is more unconventional. The article continues in its description and captures an original item in some detail. On the flowers and near the rosaries was "a small, clear plastic bag containing a young boy's hand-printed prayer and a cross with a blue-yarn chain. . . . Blessed Mother Mary,' the scrawled notebook message said, . . . Please heal my ear'" (Deggs-Cariker 1993: 3A). The idea of visiting "holy sites" and "healing shrines" to effect a cure for an ailment is characteristic of folk medicine in which spiritual practices (the reciting of prayers, for instance) often merge with medicinal treatments (Hufford and O'Connor 2001: 28). This simple act of leaving behind a prayer suggests the community's belief in miraculous healings.9

A final way to deduce the values of a religious people is through analyzing their memorates. Folklorists have been studying first-person narratives of a speaker's encounter with the supernatural in order to understand people's beliefs since 1964, when Lauri Honko's "Memorates and the Study of Folk Beliefs was published (Cartwright 1982). In ". . . To the Saints Which Are at Ephesus. . .'", Christine Cartwright analyzes a Pentacostal memorate but emphasizes the danger of assumed superiority and subjectivity to which she claims many scholars fall prey:

Honko showed that what might once have been considered the simple products of imagination or suggestibility can be studied in ways which shed valuable light on the cultural concomitants and interpretations of apparently supernatural experiences. (1982: 57)

Of those interviewed for this study, Mrs. Rose Guidry's memorate is the most descriptive and emotional. Ironically, it centers not on her experience with the Pine Island tree, but rather on viewing the candle Mrs. Granger and her daughter lit while saying the novena, after first seeing the apparition. Although Mrs. Guidry does not come in contact with a supernatural figure (such as the Virgin Mary or Christ), she does in fact come into contact with a candle (a profane Roman Catholic artifact) which has been made sacred because God has used it to speak to his devout followers. Mrs. Granger tells the story of the melting wax as though she were there to witness the miracle; however, she was shown the candle only after the miracle had occurred. The story begins after Mrs. Granger has agreed with her daughter that she, too, sees the image of the Virgin Mary in the tree:10

She said "We're not going to tell nobody about it. We're going to say a novena." Alright, so after they finished the novena, the vase that the candle was in, about that high and about that much to the top, the glass broke a hole like that in the vase and the wax collect on the side all in white. And what do you think I saw? Jesus' face. And the lady from Crowley was with me and she saw the same thing. And Mrs. Granger said, "I'm not going to get rid of that candle." So you were there when the candle burned?11 No, she told the story after it happened, you know. I heard about it and asked her, so she went get the candle, and bring it to us, and show it. If I wouldn't see that, I don't think I would believe it. But now, I believe. My religion means more to me than I thought before. It make me . . . feel happy to see that, and it make me feel I want to reach out to somebody that need help that I could help. So it's something very interesting to know about, you know, things like that.

One of the most interesting aspects of this narrative told by Mrs. Guidry is her ability to merge two stories that occurred at different times. In telling the story of how she first heard of the apparition, she begins with a narrative of how Mrs. Granger and her daughter discovered the apparition. There is a simple explanation for why Mrs. Guidry has done this. She must include the moment when the candle becomes more than an object, when God uses it to communicate with Mrs. Granger and her daughter as they pray the novena. She is reliving the story of this miracle as though she herself were there. Once the interaction between the divine and the mortal has taken place and been presented to the listener, Mrs. Guidry abruptly turns the focus of the story back to herself and her relationship with the candle and God. She is moved deeply by the vase and the wax, and throughout the interview, she often referred back to the miraculous change.

The memorate's structure is arranged so that the presenter's message will be readily received and (hopefully) believed by the listener. The initial demonstration of suspicion (or at least hesitation) by the story's characters plays a large role. It shows the reader that these individuals, when confronted with the supernatural, questioned what they first saw. The younger Ms. Granger hesitates to believe what she sees in the tree, so she defers to her mother's opinion, although her mother does not seem sure either. Hope of providential guidance in their judgment is probably the catalyst for their praying the novena. In addition, Mrs. Guidry, the storyteller, admits similar reservations herself, although she does this in the middle of the story: "I heard about it and asked her. . . . If I wouldn't see that, I don't think I would believe it." The hesitation or suspicion shown by the characters allows the listener to equate his or her doubts to those in the story. Again, a certain amount of doubt is acceptable to the speaker, and so the listener is allowed to experience the same journey toward belief as the characters in the narrative. Notice also that characters in the story express doubt throughout most of the story, until the very end. This might mimic the fluctuation the listener (or reader) experiences in his or her ability to believe.

In addition, there seems to be some attention to detail in order to lend credibility to the story. Mrs. Guidry goes into detail about the candle, using her hands to show the height of the candle and the height of the vase surrounding it. She tells of the hole created in the side of the vase (indicating with some uncertainty the cause). All these details help to present as accurate a picture as possible, all for the sake of offering proof. Detail is often a way to erase suspicion. As a second way to promote credibility, Mrs. Guidry tells the reader that another character (unnamed) also experienced the melting of the wax into Jesus' face at that time. Further proof remains in the promise made by Mrs. Granger to keep the candle always as evidence of the miracle.

A second characteristic of memorates is the spiritual change the speaker undergoes in the conclusion. Mrs. Guidry, after witnessing the wax's transformation and identifying it as proof of God's presence in her life and the lives of those around her, reflects on her spiritual change. Her religion has come to mean more to her, and her experience with the candle has enlivened and strengthened her faith. In addition, she feels the power to reach out and touch others' lives. Whatever help she can administer as a ninety-year-old woman, she is willing to do. This later sentiment reflects the Cajun belief in community help; community members are generally expected to lend a hand to others.

This memorate, like the apparition in the tree, can reveal much about Cajun religious beliefs. Primarily, this story highlights the importance of using religious artifacts such as candles in conjunction with a novena (a formulaic prayer usually repeated over several days). In this case, the novena must be accompanied by the lighting of a special candle. Not all novenas, after all, are said in the presence of a burning candle. Marcia Gaudet makes reference to such blessed candles as "folk sacramentals," those items and practices which are not officially taught by the Church but practiced by the folk (Gaudet 2001: 5). She also describes the importance of novenas in Cajun religious practices. Gaudet cites an example of novenas' widespread use: Lafayette's mainstream newspaper, The Advertiser traditionally prints the Novena to Saint Clare for nine consecutive days (Gaudet 2001: 7). Prayers are submitted by readers and printed on the ninth day (Gaudet 2001: 8).

Again, the idea of community seems to play another role nearly hidden in Mrs. Guidry's memorate. News of the Guidrys' private prayer and God's miraculous message was able to spread beyond the town and into other cities (also predominately Catholic) because of two factors: shared spiritual beliefs and shared French culture. This memorate makes visible the French-Catholic network of communication stretching across Southeast and South-central Louisiana. Keep in mind that much, though certainly not all, of the Southwest Louisiana prairie is inhabited by Cajuns12, and that knowledge of the apparition spread mostly by word of mouth. It is a stranger, remembered only as "a woman from Crowley," who accompanies Mrs. Guidry to Mrs. Granger's house. Crowley is a town outside of the larger city of Lafayette, yet it is well-known among Southwest Louisiana residents. Mrs. Guidry felt comfortable enough to share her most private news with this stranger, most likely because she believed in the cultural network linking her to the stranger. Furthermore, Mrs. Granger herself is telling her story to someone (myself) she can trust will not mock her beliefs because, like Mrs. Guidry, she believes in the solidarity of those who are a part of the French-Catholic network. Any listener assumed to know the casual reference to Crowley, understand Catholic terms like "novena" and "candle" with no explanation given, and be interested in apparitions is trustworthy. A sense of community and shared religious values is evident among the characters in the story (all from different locations such as Crowley and Pine Island) as well as among the listeners, characters, and speaker (variously from Lake Charles, Crowley, and Pine Island).

The Pine Island apparition lives on in the memories of Southwest Louisiana Catholics and provided spiritual rejuvenation for community members. On another level, it was an opportunity for a group to celebrate and validate its shared beliefs, Cajun values hinging on religion, family, community, and place. For scholars, it provides a means by which to study these values. By analyzing the location of the apparition and the patterns of communication about the site within the group, we can conclude that the ties which bond land and family members are still held important. Studying the interpersonal relationships of the pilgrims also conveys the importance of family and community. The interpretations of the apparition's meaning as well as the things left behind by visitors provide additional insight into these values. Finally, memorates offer another way to examine the values of Cajun pilgrims. Other apparition sites, if studied in this way, may reveal a worldview of a particular folk group. For Cajuns, the Pine Island apparition is one in a series of religious events which continue to embody and validate their worldview.


1. Britt makes reference to the "changing colors of rosary beads" at the Conyers apparitions which took place in Conyers, Georgia.

2. For more on Gaudet's study of Charlene Richard as a regional saint, see her article "Charlene Richard: Folk Veneration among the Cajuns" in Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco.

3. None of the three persons interviewed for this paper (Rose Guidry, Whitney Miller, and Heather Reed) was aware of the apparition in Tickfaw, LA.

4. Actually, the Cajuns and the French have been migrating to Texas since the 1700s (LaGarde 2003: 159). See The French in Texas: History, Migration, Culture by Francois LaGarde for more information on the French migration.

5. Catholics have flocked to Clearwater, Florida, where the Virgin Mary's image appears on the windows of the Seminole Finance Corp Building. This apparition site deviates from the tradition of rural apparition sites.

6. Though I do not have enough information to support this claim, I believe it to be largely true.

7. Recall that Catholics also have the Eucharist, which also represents a tangible sign of God's presence. There seems to be a need among members of this faith for visual or tactile evidence of God.

8. These cities are Eunice, Jennings, and Lake Charles. (The cities are listed in the order in which their residents appear in the paper.)

9. In "Cultural Catholicism," Marcia Gaudet examines this aspect of Cajun and Creole belief in her brief summary of traiteurs (folk healers).

10. The first part of the story can be found earlier in this paper.

11. The italicized text in block quotations represents the interviewer's words.

12. Although Southwest Louisiana and its culture are often associated with Cajuns, the region's population includes Creoles, Native Americans, African Americans, Anglo-Americans, and many others who contribute to the region's distinctive culture. Catholisim remains culturally dominant here, but many residents today belong to Protestant or evangelical denominations.


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Wendy Whelan-Stewart teaches creative writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. This article was first published in the 2009 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.