Traiteurs and Their Power of Healing: The Story of Doris Bergeron

By Ellen M. Daigle


It is common in Louisiana Cajun culture to have persons who have the gift of healing, thought to be a blessing from God. These special people are known as traiteurs, and "they can be compared to the 'powow' healer of the Pennsylvania German community or the 'power doctor' in the Ozarks" (Brandon 1976: 222). They can be either male or female and are often elderly people. They do not advertise their powers. Rather, people from surrounding communities know who these healers are simply by word-of-rnouth communication. They accept no payment for their healing. Traiteurs have various stories about how they received their power. Some say it was inherited from a relative, some say they were born with it, and still others say they were apprenticed to a practicing traiteur. What they all have in common is the belief that they ultimately receive their power and their cures from God and claim that they are only intermediaries of God. Elizabeth Brandon (1964: 225) states, "According to them, God bestows the privilege of healing on the man he chooses who in turn will heal those sick people who have faith in the healer's power." Brandon has written two articles that define traiteurs and their common practices (1964, 1976). In this article, my purpose is to compare her descriptions to one specific traiteur whom I have had the privilege to meet, Doris Bergeron.

Mrs. Bergeron resides in the small fishing village of Chauvin, Louisiana, which is about eighty miles south of New Orleans. Chauvin is comprised of approximately 3,400 people who make their living from a shrimp factory, the oil and gas industry, fishing, trapping and other folk occupations. These are poor people who cannot afford a "real doctor," as the community members refer to trained physicians, every time there is a sickness in the family. Also, the closest doctor may be a thirty minute drive away. These people cannot afford to miss, a half-day of work at cither the factory or at home. These are some of the reasons why the members of the local community visit Mrs. Bergeron instead of a local medical doctor. But these are not the only reasons.' And why do people from town, who can afford to see a "real doctor," travel twenty miles to be healed by her? There is a deeper underlying reason: people come to Mrs. Bergeron and continue to come to her because they have faith in her powers. They have seen her heal others, and they trust that she can do the same for them. These people have a confidence in her that they do not have in the doctors.

Mrs. Bergeron lives approximately a thousand feet from the Boudreaux Canal in a small gray house with four rooms and a front porch. When I first visited her, I knocked at the front door and was told to "pass through the back." I entered her kitchen, which is the largest room in the house, where there were several straight back chairs and rocking chairs placed around the room as if she often had company. . . . Over the sink on the windowsill there were a couple of plastic plants and a few fresh flowers in vases. A picture of Jesus was hanging over the door leading to what looked like a living room. All of our visits occurred in this one room.

Mrs. Bergeron, who is no taller than four feet, ten inches, is better known as Mrs. Doll to the people of the community. Despite her small stature, her hands are strong and powerful; one can feel the power emanating from them. Although she is seventy-one years old, she is quite active and moves about without any problems. She has short gray hair and wears soft colored, flowered house dresses. She speaks with a strong French-Cajun accent and sometimes must pause to find the correct English words. Mrs. Bergeron has spent all her life in the small community of Chauvin. She was born to Tebille and Eva Leblanc on May 28, 1919. She has two brothers and one sister, but she is the only one that is blessed with, as she calls her power, "the God-given gift." Mrs. Bergeron attended school until seventh grade when she dropped out to marry Gustave Bergeron in 1933. She had her first daughter in 1935, and four other children followed. They were all raised in the community of Chauvin. Mr. Bergeron worked at the shrimp factory until his death in 1979. Mrs.: Bergeron still works there, "going on forty years and still ain't the oldest there." She first started to treat people outside of her family when in her mid-forties.

When asked how she gained her powers, she was. a little hesitant in replying: "I have the . . . I have the . . . God gave me the powers. . . . It's the power from; God. . . . I was born with it." Mrs. Bergeron first experienced her gift of healing rather inadvertently as a child. As she recalls, "Just as I remember . . . I was a little bitty girl. . . . My aunty comes over to my house and I climbed up on her knee and she had some ear pierced and she had . . . uh . . . nothing in it . . . and I sees that hole and I treat it for her and she says, 'You get down from there.' I was just a little girl and I remember she would give me a swat and say 'you get down from there,* she say. . . . God gave me the power. . . . I was born with it."

She believes that her second daughter may also have the power, but her daughter has not expressed an interest in learning the ways of healing. She believes that her daughter has a "good gift" because she has had a vision of Jesus. The first time her daughter had a vision of Jesus was when she was pregnant with her first child. She was in the bathroom, and it was filled with flowers when Jesus appeared to her and told her that she was going to bear a retarded boy. Jesus told her not to be ashamed of him and it was not to punish her, for it "just has to happen like that . . . it has to have some like that"

Mrs. Bergeron's treatments, as he refers to them, consist strictly of prayers. Most traiteurs are strong practicing Catholics, as is Mrs. Bergeron, and they reject any idea that their healing powers conflict with Church doctrine. Indeed one local parish priest, when asked what the Church believes about the traiteurs' claims that their powers come from God, said that the Church has "no quarrel with praying to heal."

When a person comes to Mrs. Bergeron with an ailment, she prays over that part of the body that is stricken. She may suggest some remedies that can ease the pain, but all the actual healing power is in her prayers. She cannot reveal what her prayers are. When I first called her she said, "Now I can't tell you my secrets . . . but I can talk with you." Although most traiteurs refuse to disclose their prayers, Elizabeth Brandon (1976) has collected several prayers from other traiteurs. She has done a comparison of the prayers and charms of French Louisiana traiteurs with other areas where faith healers are prominent, such as Pennsylvania's German communities and late eighteenth century England. In her study strikingly similar formulas were found.

If a person cannot come to Mrs. Bergeron, she can treat him by "praying on the name." She has helped people that are hospitalized or too sick to travel to her. A person must have faith in her power in order for the prayers to work, for if a person is skeptical, sees her only out of curiosity, or thinks it is all a farce, Mrs. Bergeron will sense this and her powers will not work. If the treatment does not work, the patient will be told that he or she did not have true faith in the power of prayer. Brandon (1964: 263) refutes the claim that traiteurs heal by hypnosis by citing examples of patients who were unconscious, of traiteurs who heal from a distance, and of traiteurs who perform their treatments with their eyes closed.

By healing newborn babies and those too young to understand anything but that they are in pain, Mrs. Bergeron has proven that her healing is not all psychosomatic. She tells the story of when she cured a young baby; "They had a little baby boy, he was crying and crying all. day and all night . . . all day and all night again . . . and he was only sixteen months. He couldn't breathe, he just couldn't go anymore, he was wore out. . . . He sat in that rocker there with his Mama and I treated him and when I finished treating him he looked up at me and gave me a big smile. It works right away . . . just like that."

Traiteurs concentrate their healing on external ailments and wounds, such as insect bites, rashes, swelling, warts, sprains, aches, fevers, hemorrhages, worms, and other such illnesses. They do not treat serious illnesses such as heart disease or cancer, although they may help ease the-pain of the symptoms (Brandon 1964; 265). Mrs. Bergeron cures all of the ailments listed above. She adds mat warts, hernias, swollen livers and "anything that has to melt away" should be treated in the "decline of the moon." If treated when the moon is "shrinking," these types of ailments will heal faster. Other ailments do not need to be concerned with the lunar phases. She can also help a young woman become more fertile in order to have children, although she says, once she does this, "it is up to them after that to stop having babies."

Years ago, Mrs. Bergeron only treated her own family and close relatives. Soon the word of her powers spread to the people of the community. Now individuals from all over the parish and from as far away as Houston come to be healed by her. The best place for this word-of-mouth communication to occur is in the waiting room of doctors' offices and clinics. People often sit around complaining about the money they are spending and the doctor who cannot always cure them. Mrs. Bergeron claims that her cures always work, even when the doctors fail.

Mrs. Bergeron does not accept any payment for her treatments. This is typical of other traiteurs. Brandon (1964: 264) says that the first rule when visiting traiteurs is not to offer them any money. "There is a belief that if a healer takes, money, he will lose his power." A gift will sometimes be offered in the place of money. When asked what son of. payment she receives for her services, Mrs. Bergeron replied, "Mais, I don't charge nobody. . . . I burn candles . . . I buy a few candles for the people I treat and some people I treat give donations to buy the candles, but that's all." She feels that since her power was given to her by God, she should give it back to the people.

On one visit to Mrs. Bergeron, I brought along my sister, Laura, who had had a bad case of warts on her fingers for several years. The doctors had tried to bum them off but the warts always returned within six months. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to observe Mrs. Bergeron perform her treatments. When she welcomed us into her home she took each of our hands, squeezed them tightly, and looked into our eyes as if to find any hidden pain. She seemed very glad to see us. Laura was told to sit in a rocker that was placed in the middle of the kitchen. Mrs. Bergeron made the sign of the cross and took Laura's hand in hers. She used the tips of her fingers to hold Laura's hand gently but firmly. With the middle fingers of the other hand, she made several circles over the infected area. Next, she made the sign of the cross over it. All the while she was moving her lips in prayer unheard by anyone. This continued for about five minutes and, during this time, the room was silent. When she finished, she made the sign of the cross again, and looked into my sisters' eyes and smiled. Other traiteurs use similar methods of treatments. What they all have in common is the placing of the hands on the ailing part of the body and nibbing it slightly (Brandon 1964: 264). Most say their prayers or charms in French and in such a low voice that no one can hear or understand them.

She continued to hold my sister's hand as she made small talk. She asked how old she was (when Laura replied twenty-one, she said, "And you ain't married yet, cher",) where she went to school, and other such questions. Then she treated Laura a second time in the same manner. Before we left she told Laura to take a piece of white bread, break it into two pieces and make the sign of the cross on each finger with one of the pieces. After this she was to feed the bread to a cat or a dog. "Now don't you watch it or else it won't be healed," Mrs. Bergeron told Laura. She told us it would take about six weeks for it to completely heal. One week after our visit there was a visible difference in the size of the warts. They were definitely shrinking. In six weeks they had completely disappeared.

At first Laura was very hesitant when I suggested she have her warts cured by a traiteur. She had the common misconception that traiteurs were associated with "witchcraft" I convinced her otherwise. She was still a little leery. When Mrs. Bergeron greeted us at the door, Laura felt more comfortable, but she still did not believe. "As soon as she made the sign of the cross I felt much better. I realized she was not a witch. . . . I found myself believing more and more with each circle she made. By the time she was finished I truly believed that her powers were from God. During the second treatment, I found myself praying along with her. I realized she was not a witch at all but just a sweet old lady with a special gift from God." While Mrs. Bergeron was treating Laura, a woman from Montegut came to have her shoulder healed. She had pulled some muscles shucking oysters. When I asked her why she came to Mrs. Bergeron and not a doctor from town she said, "Them doctors can't tell you what's wrong. . . . Mrs. Bergeron doesn't need to know what's wrong, she just heals it." When this woman's daughter was a young baby she was very ill and the doctors could not diagnose what was wrong: "They had been treating her like a guinea pig. Just trying everything and nothing was working." Then she brought her daughter to Mrs. Bergeron, and she was completely well that same day. She said, "I don't bother with the doctors. She saved my little girl's life. She's four years old now and she is as happy and as healthy as she can be. I know where to go now."

The tradition of traiteurs in South Louisiana is slowly dying out. This is evidenced by the small numbers still practicing and the fact that the younger generation has not taken an interest in learning the healing prayers. One possible factor contributing to this is that modern medicine is becoming more readily available to the poor. But as long as belief in God continues, and doctors are unable to cure all illnesses, there will be a need for alternatives. Mrs. Bergeron, and others like her, are the alternatives. Mrs. Bergeron truly cares about the people she treats. It makes her happy to know she is making other people healthy and happy. She is a warm and gentle lady committed to doing what she sees as God's work and spreading God's word. "Come back soon," Mrs. Bergeron says to us as we leave. "Take care now and may God bless you."


Brandon, Elizabeth. 1964. "'Traiteurs' or Folk Doctors in Southwest Louisiana," in Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States, pp. 261-266. Ed. Richard M. Dorson. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

1976. "Folk Medicine in French Louisiana," in American Folk Medicine, pp. 215-234. Ed. Wayland D. Hand. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

This article was first published in the 1991 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.