Discovering Le Saint Suaire: Cajun Spirituality and an Unauthorized Devotional

By Anne Frugé


Growing up half-Cajun did not affect me in obvious or distinctive ways; it mostly hung in the air. My brother and I knew many stories about my dad's childhood so we felt vicariously connected to Cajun experience, but we had no personal interaction with the culture until my dad extended an invitation by preparing gumbo or serving boudin for lunch. In high school I wrote an essay on the history of the Cajuns, and as I researched the Acadians, I became more interested in the personal histories of my father, grandmother, and extended relations. Over the past two years, I interviewed three generations of Cajuns in my family and compiled a detailed oral history. In this essay, I use some of these narratives to discuss elements of modern Cajun identity and folk religious practice.

My family's stories, of course, are not reflective of the experiences of all Cajuns. However, I believe that I have found a telling example of French Louisiana spirituality in a little-known manuscript called the Saint Suaire, and in narratives about it. The Saint Suaire, literally translated as the "Holy Bier,"1 is a prayer book of thirty or forty pages. It is most commonly used by the oldest living generation of Cajuns, those born between 1915 and 1930. In my family, these prayers are either handwritten or typed on sheets of paper no longer than nine inches, and then bound in a small book. The copy given to me is roughly the size of a miniature address book, about three inches by five inches.

The Saint Suaire is a devotional most frequently read to the sick, the dying, and women in childbirth. My great-great aunt Duiby Martin had the prayer book on her person each time she was in labor, and she would ask whoever was available to read it aloud to her. For followers of the Saint Suaire, the prayer is, in many situations, the next best thing if a priest is unavailable. Written under Pope Clement VIII (1592 –1605), it is probably named for the Shroud of Turin, which was found around the time of its publication. The origins of the prayers themselves are unclear. Although the content is in line with many orthodox Catholic teachings, certain prayers do not seem to be taken from any Biblical texts, standard hymns or prayers. For example, the Saint Suaire promises protection in exchange for prayer and loyalty to the devotional. It does not require followers to read it, only to have it on their person and believe in its power. Many mothers encouraged their children to keep the prayer close by for protection (Echeverria 2008).

Some of the greatest promises made by the Saint Suaire are that the prayer can: permit a devout believer in the prayer to deliver five souls of his or her choosing from Purgatory; exempt a reader from Purgatory under certain circumstances; and prevent "whom so ever shall wear it" from dying a sudden death, falling into the hands of enemies, being "attacked by wild beasts," and dying "from famine or by fire." It also states that followers will be warned three days in advance of their death.2

At one time the Church published and possibly promoted this devotional. But that was centuries ago, and the Church's attitudes have changed over time. At some point, most likely at the turn of the twentieth century when the Catholic Church in Louisiana experienced an era of conservatism, these practices came under suspicion because they invested the manuscript with too much power (Echeverria 2008). From that time on, the Saint Suaire was either tolerated or actively discouraged, depending upon the local priest. As my cousin-once-removed, Lindell Martin Perez, remembers:

I just remember the family talking about that [the Saint Suaire], "Oh the Church didn't want you to be reading that." It was not part of the official church. I don't think there was anything wrong with the prayer, it was just a supplication, as I recall, praying for grace and that kind of thing…. (Perez 2008)

My great-great aunt Nella Duhon said:

In olden times, before my time…my mother would explain to us that the priests didn't believe in it. My mama's twin brother that was so determined, so deeply attached to that [the Saint Suaire]…he had a discussion with a priest…one time. And he started reading that prayer to his priest, Catholic priest. And the priest said, "Oh, my…son, if you want to put that away, destroy that, I'll give you the most beautiful— mais [but] I don't remember— object." And my uncle, my mother's twin brother, answered, "Father," he says, "you wouldn't give me nothing more treasure[valuable] than this prayer…I wouldn't accept nothing…as treasure as this prayer." (Duhon et al. 2008)

Followers fervently believe the prayer has healing powers, as evidenced in the story of my late great-great aunt Ethel. Her sister Nella Duhon recounts:

Ethel lost her mind all in a sudden…And she…was out of her head completely, crying…and she was hurting…in her head—like a stroke had taken [her]. And…she couldn't remember nothing except she thought that they would take her husband and bring him in…the forest where she would never see him again…So she didn't make no sense at all in her explanation…And then all in a sudden, my mama brought up for a certain prayer, the Saint Suaire…to read for her to try to comfort her, console her, help her. And she brought it up to her, she says, "Enna peut lire le Saint Suaire." ["Enna can read the Holy Bier."

"Oh yes!" [Ethel] says…"Big Nan [my sister] va me lire le Saint Suaire. Ça va m'aider." [Big Nan is going to read the Holy Bier to me. That will help me.] And they had to come over here from Maurice to here in Crowley to tell Enna to come, to bring Enna back to the house where Ethel was. Daddy brought her [Enna] over there and when Ethel saw Enna, "Oh," she says, "you going to read me the Saint Suaire." Enna said, "Yes, I'm ready, we going to read it right now." And she sat by the bed where Ethel was and she started reading the Saint Suaire. And when it got to a certain place in the Saint Suaire…

Nella then reads the appropriate verses in French to me:

Si une personne est possedée du démon mettez ceci sur elle sur le champ elle en sera délivrée, ceux ou celles qui le porteront sur eux sont assuré de voir Notre Dame de Bon Secours trois jours avant de mourir. Dieu nous en fasse la grace. Ainsi-soit-il. [If a person is possessed by demons, immediately place this on him and he will be delivered of them. Those who will wear it are assured of seeing Our Lady of Good Help three days before dying. May God grant us this grace. Amen.] Nella continues

Nella continues the story:

That's the word that when Enna read these words, that [Ethel] saw a vision…And she recognized the vision naturally. And [her husband] talked to her and told her all about why she was in that state. It was, he loved her, he wanted her, and that's the reason why she could find out and get rid of her possession—situation…So she did what he told her. And he asked her not to hurt him. And she promised him she wouldn't hurt him to get better, so she could get better. It was like a promise, you see. Not like, it was a promise. And then she saw him go away…And she came back natural. Without another word…She came back to her natural [self]…. And I don't remember if she said anything else concerning, but that was the clear name and person and action and everything on those few words, that happened…. So my parents was satisfied and very grateful to our Lord…to a prayer, to bring her back without a medicine, without nothing. That's how it took place. (Duhon et al. 2008)

The Saint Suaire is also said to have protective powers. Cajuns in my family use it to guard against the elements as well as fate, as Nella and Duiby explained to me:

Nella: When you have a bad weather going on…of any…subject, any kind…A flood, tornado, pray. Take the prayer, start reading that prayer and ask to be protected, to be spared…

Duiby: And it works.

Nella: And I was still with my parents…that was before I married even, I knew how to read it. And the neighbors would run in the same house with us because their house was too weak [to withstand the storm]...And that's the first thing my mother did…She'd make me read it, she'd sprinkle the house…with holy water but it was this that was—and I'd read it and we had calms with the weather…we was protected from the flood. (2008)

Duiby Martin also recounted a personal experience with the Saint Suaire's protective powers.

I'm the youngest of the nine children…[My husband and I] were married nine days…before Pearl Harbor…And my husband was taken away from me…He went to war…Our first child was born [while] he was gone. And when he left, I made sure he had the Saint Suaire with him…And he treasured it and wore it and took it with him and he came back safe…in good health. And we had a happy life after. We had [a] lot of children after that, six more. And we're enjoying them today…He has died and I miss him...but the children are good to me…And that makes my life worthwhile. (Duhon et al. 2008)

Nella adds, "And grant it all to this prayer…Grant all her blessings to this prayer, the Saint Suaire."

One narrator, who requested to remain anonymous, explains how families taught the Saint Suaire to their children in this way:

Like my grandparents, they didn't know how to read but they had learned this by heart. So it was something that they could—Almost like trying to say the rosary it would be…I guess maybe their parents and grandparents [taught them these prayers]…All the ones that I've ever gotten, both copies [in] French and English, were handwritten like this and were just passed on down to different members of the family. And my mother carried one like this. I had written it for her real small and she would carry it on her because she couldn't always read. So she had that like a scapular or what have you that they wear. (Anonymous 2008)

This account seems to be in keeping with convention. Traditionally, mothers orally passed down the Saint Suaire to their children. According to Lindell Perez:

My mother and my aunts all have a copy of it…It was handwritten and passed around amongst the family…[It] would have been maybe…twenty small pages in a…little…wire notebook that you put your grocery list on. It would be about that size, maybe twenty, thirty pages of it. And I can recall when I was younger they would sit in a group and somebody would read it aloud. It was read in French. It was written in French and read in French. I have never seen an English copy of it…There may be some, I just haven't seen it. (Perez 2008)

The Catholic Church's biggest objection to the devotional, aside from its promises and its present status as "unauthorized," is that it promises protection even to those who do not read it. Allegedly, you can receive the benefits that would come from reading the prayer by simply carrying the Saint Suaire. This practice may derive from the high illiteracy rate in medieval times. In the modern era, however, the Catholic Church may feel the promise is too much. Additionally, by promising indulgences in exchange for belief in the prayer, the Saint Suaire preaches outdated practices. Such flirtation with Catholic taboos is likely the reason priests have tried to convince their flocks that simply wearing the devotional with blind faith, without saying the prayer, makes it a talisman. Today, the mainstream Catholic church may avoid the Saint Suaire because giving such power to an object, an unauthorized devotional at that, is too unorthodox—even in a region rich with folk (unofficial) religious practices (see Gaudet 2007, for example).

In spite of the official Church position on the devotional, many Cajuns remain faithful to the Saint Suaire and continue to carry a copy with them at all times. The narrator who requested to remain anonymous did so out of fear of reprisal by the Church. When I asked if she feared excommunication, she said (and I paraphrase), "I'll leave [the Church] before they can excommunicate me and I'll find my own way to Heaven." When I asked other narrators why the Catholic Church is opposed to the devotional, they couldn't answer my question. Nella shrugged and said:

I don't know. You know, when [my brother] Stallace died, him and his wife, him and Meion3 had a copy and they believed so much of it. Stallace would watch it like a hawk, not to be damaged. After his funeral, Meion asked [me] to let her have this copy, this little book . . . to let the priest have it to read . . . And I said, "Yes . . . I'll do that. Just so [long as] he returns it. . . . And he read it, he brought it, after the funeral he read it. He says, "It's a wonderful prayer," he says, "'just in instances, be careful." But that's all he told us. (Duhon et al. 2008)

Nor could my anonymous narrator offer a good reason for the Church's disapproval of the devotional:

I have no idea. As far as I know, we were the only family that had it. But come to find out later, that a lot of people had it. But I think the big thing was not to advertise it, not to share it. . . . I think the Catholic Church was not in favor of it at that time. And probably not now either. . . . It was something that . . . I don't know what was against it because to me everything just . . . I didn't see anything offensive in it. And everything was almost identical to the Way of the Cross and the Passion of Our Lord. So I have no idea what their big thing was. We would always kind of keep it in the family. (Anonymous 2008)

Cajuns in my family also can't explain why they continue to use it when their priests have told them to "destroy it." At one point, my anonymous narrator threw up her hands, shook her head, and said, "We're Cajun." She went on to say:

Evidently there was, from the beginning, a strong urge for us to use it or to keep on using it. And just be patient about it. And not, I guess, just not bring it out in the open and definitely not with the Catholic Church because for some reason, and I don't know the reason why, they wouldn't accept it. (Anonymous 2008)

The Saint Suaire has a long history within the Cajun culture, possibly dating back several centuries to the creation of the original document. The fact that they have kept this tradition alive through so many physical and societal migrations clearly demonstrates its value to some Cajuns. Unfortunately, the practice is disappearing with subsequent generations. Today, praying to the Saint Suaire is mostly limited to the older generations of Cajuns living on the prairies of southwest Louisiana.

Today, the troubling question is why so few Cajuns are passing it on to their children and grandchildren. Is the Saint Suaire being lost because certain oral traditions disappear as family patterns change? Or is it that the younger generation is losing their cultural identity (and their familiarity with the French language, although English versions are available)? One narrator said they never taught their children the prayer because reading it was always a private moment for them. However, this isn't representative of what has happened in the rest of my family, much less the entire Cajun population. Duiby Martin, for example, passed the prayer on to her children, but they have less faith (if any at all) in it than she does.

While the Saint Suaire practice may be dying out in my family, many similar folk religious traditions remain prevalent among other Cajuns. Many of the same reasons that attract followers to the Saint Suaire inspire people to visit the grave of "folk saint" Charlene Richard (Onebane 2000, Gaudet 1994) and make Job's Tears rosaries (LeJeune 2000). Praying to a saint, even an un-canonized one like Charlene Richard, promises security not only for yourself, but your loved ones as well . . . much like praying to a devotional, Giving handmade Job's Tears rosaries to relatives resembles passing handwritten copies of the Saint Suaire on to younger generations, in the sense that the giver is bequeathing a handmade, personal object to family members and offering them protection as well.

But comparing the Saint Suaire with other Catholic folk religious traditions has its limitations. Rosaries and local saints still fall within the boundaries of mainstream Catholicism; they are not very different from, or incompatible with, official Catholicism. The Saint Suaire, on the other hand, promises the follower extraordinary gifts just for believing. For many Catholics and Catholic priests, it may lie too far on the fringes of orthodoxy. (It is perhaps more comparable to having an illness "prayed on" by a traiteur, or folk healer; many French Louisiana Catholics see this practice as consistent with their religious beliefs, while others do not.) Catholics who believe in the miracles of the Saint Suaire represent a small percentage of the global congregation.

While numerous folk religious practices still flourish in southwestern Louisiana, the Saint Suaire is losing ground in my family for several reasons. I do not think the dynamics of my family will predict the future of this devotional, but I do think they can shed light on broader trends that have done significant damage to the Saint Suaire and similar traditions.

My anonymous narrator learned from her mother that praying with the devotional was a private moment. In fact, they had to ask to be taught the Saint Suaire prayers. Following in the footsteps of her role model, my narrator did not pass it on to her children, who never showed an interest in the devotional. My narrator also worried about the consequences her children might suffer at school, since they were receiving a traditional Catholic education. This narrator explained that she wanted neither to teach her children conflicting religious practices nor to put them at risk of being denied the sacrament. At the same time, my anonymous narrator carries two copies (one in English and one in French) on her person at all times. However, by not passing the tradition on to her children, my narrator is rejecting the practice at some level. Perhaps her behavior also reflects a broader trend of denying the necessity of the Saint Suaire, thus undercutting its influence. This only exacerbates the devotional's decline by limiting its congregation. For a cultural practice to survive, it must attract a certain number of followers or else it fades over the generations. Currently, the Saint Suaire does not have a large enough following to sustain the tradition indefinitely. In my family, it is likely to be extinct within one generation.

The story of the Saint Suaire demonstrates what happens when traditions are forced into hiding. The secrecy surrounding it, while justified as a means of protection, hinders perpetuation of the prayer. This, coupled with the cultural assimilation that comes with urbanization, leaves the practice of the Saint Suaire with fewer adherents. The narrators I interviewed who live in large cities practice few folk religious traditions, especially if they left home because of dissatisfaction with their hometowns. Those who stayed in Cajun country continue to believe in the power of traiteurs and keep a copy of the Saint Suaire nearby, but it is unclear how many of their children believe in it as well.

Regardless of its current popularity, the Saint Suaire is a striking illustration of the relationship between Cajuns and the Catholic Church as an institution. It is just one example of how my family members are comfortable with taking their spirituality into their own hands, regardless of what the Church tells them. By extension, Cajuns in my family have demonstrated a natural progression away from not only folk belief systems but also organized religion as a whole.


1. A bier refers either to a burial shroud in which a body is wrapped or to the black cloth draped over a coffin during a funeral service.

2. Editor's note: The Saint Suaire offers interesting parallels to another unofficial French Louisiana prayer book, the Ti Albert (Little Albert). As described by Hewitt L. Ballowe, the mystery-shrouded Ti Albert was popular among French-speaking residents of Plaquemines Parish in the 1930s and '40s. See Ballowe's novel Creole Folk Tales from the Marsh, published in 1948 by Louisiana State University Press.

3. His wife's nickname is a phonetic spelling of Mignonne, the French word for "cute."


Anonymous. 12, 20, and 21 May, 2008; 24 and 25 June 2008. Interview by author.

Breaux, Harold. 24 June 2008. Interview by author.

Breaux, Hilda Leger. 13 May 2008. Interview by author.

Duhon, Nella Breaux. 13 May 2008. Interview by author.

Duhon, Nella, Duiby Martin, and Anonymous. 8 Dec. 2008. Interview by author.

Echeverria, Earlene Broussard. 27 Sept. 2008. Interview by author.

Frugé, Woodly. 12, 20, and 21 May 2008. Interview by author.

Gaudet, Marcia. 1994. Charlene Richard: Folk Veneration among the Cajuns. Southern Folklore 51:1553-66.

_____. 2000. Cultural Catholicism in Cajun-Creole Louisiana. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 15-16:33-20.

LeJeune, Keagan. 2000. Binding a Family: Examining Job's Tears Rosaries as Artifacts of Kinship. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 15-16:59-67.

Onebane, Donna McGee. 2000. Charlene Richard: Narrative, Transmission, and Function of a Contemporary Saint Legend. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 15-16:35-50.

Perez, Lindell Martin. 27 May 2008. Interview by author

This article was first published in the 2009 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Anne Frugé is currently a PhD candidate in comparative politics at the University of Maryland.