By Anthony Maranise, OblSB
In Southern Louisiana, deep in the bayou, there is a sacred place.
Truth be told, while I wanted to visit this sacred place and speak with its caretakers for purposes of writing this article, I really wanted to make the visit a “pilgrimage.”
For those unfamiliar with this concept, a pilgrimage is a visit to a sacred, holy, or religiously-associated place for purposes of spiritual maturity and clarity. In Islam, a pilgrimage is called a “hajj;” in Judaism, it is a “chagag;” for many Protestant Christian traditions, a “mission.” No matter what it is called, it is a journey… demanding of those who undertake it, much more than simply physical travel.
I returned to New Orleans, where I would be staying for a while, and there I enlisted the help of my brother, who lives there, in getting from point A to B, and then we set out one morning on our pilgrimage. Driving down I-10 from New Orleans, we passed the hour or so it took to drive the 45 miles to Gramercy, Louisiana (slightly West of the city, seated in St. James Parish) catching up and laughing at our usually and somehow amazingly paralleled lives.
I explained to him beforehand that when we arrived in Gramercy, our journey would only be partially accomplished. Where we were headed required not just wheels, but rudders. He began to understand this more as the interstate lowered into lowlands with water on both sides of us and cypress trees jutting from out of it.
At around 11am, we arrived at the St. James Boat Club, situated directly on Blind River, a tributary of Lake Maurepas. There, we met Patricia and Kenneth Hymel. Abundant in hospitality, they agreed to ferry us in their boat even further to Our Lady of Blind River Chapel, where they also were kind enough to show us around, pray with us, and speak with us.
Our Lady of Blind River Chapel is a one-room place of prayer and worship that also serves as a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God open at all times and available to all faithful persons who live and/or vacation along Blind River. Though the place is small, its significance for those who live on the river, in St. James Parish, in Louisiana, and I would argue, for all the Catholic world, is one steeped in theological and spiritual profundity.
From Visions to Visitors
Some thirty years ago, Patricia Hymel’s mother, Martha Deroche received a vision.
“Mama had a vision of Jesus kneeling next to a rock and she remembered what Jesus had told Peter in the Bible: “On this rock, I will build my church,”” said Hymel.
Deroche interpreted her vision to mean that she needed to build a place where all people who live or come to the river can go to pray and commune peacefully, calmly, and personally with God. Inside the chapel hangs a painting of Deroche’s vision which brings to mind the image of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His Crucifixion.
Shortly after Deroche received her vision, she reported it to her husband, Bobby, who supported her desire to build a place for prayer, next door to their home on Blind River.
Following some six months of labor that included about thirty neighbors and volunteers from around the area, a priest from the Archdiocese of New Orleans came to the chapel now named Our Lady of Blind River, to bless and dedicate this secluded, but holy site on August 21, 1983. Since then, visitors from all around Louisiana, the United States, and even some international travelers, have stopped in to spend a moment with the Lord in prayer, and have signed their names into an overflowing guestbook.
Fashioned in Faith
Arriving to the chapel, one immediately notices that this place is anything but ordinary… and in the best way possible. How often does one arrive for prayer by boat!
Just outside the chapel entrance, beneath its porch steps, is a deck which juts out onto the river, measuring out about seven feet from the shoreline.
As we dock the boat and prepare to step on-shore, Hymel explains to us: “Everything you see here is handmade. All those shingles, there – there’s about 2,000 of them covering the whole [chapel] – were cut from cypress we found along this river.”
Moving up the three steps from shore to porch, (Patricia) Hymel’s husband, Kenneth, notes that the steeple-top of the chapel is more special than what is visibly perceptible. “Inside that steeple are hundreds of handwritten prayer intentions from the people who helped build this place… there are even some behind some of the siding and roofing shingles,” he said.
Hymel explained that this chapel has survived in the same condition, in the same location for more than the thirty years of its existence – weathering hurricanes, including the catastrophic Katrina, and floods.
“Of course,” I thought to myself, “it’s surrounded by the prayers of the faithful and protected by God’s divine providence.”
This revelation, before I had even stepped foot inside the chapel, moved me in spirit. Who would ever have guessed that built into the exterior of the chapel were so many prayers.
From my point-of-view as a theologian, this speaks volumes: Just as the chapel steeple draws the viewers’ eyes heavenward, so the prayers of those who built this chapel ever ascend with each glance of the steeple that contains them.
In this way, it is very sacramental. It seems as if though one thing is occurring (that we can sense), when in reality, something else far more beautiful, far more real, far more holy, is at work.
Stepping inside the chapel, visitors see eight cedar-hewn pews, four on each side of the single-room space such that it forms an aisle down the center.
At the end of that aisle is one step that leads up to the most beautiful of sights: the main altar.
Situated perfectly at the center of this main altar is a large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her sweet smile and sensitive eyes ever-drawing visitors to come closer in prayer. Surrounding Mary is a massive and now-hollowed out cypress tree trunk which has been polished and stained.
Hymel said, “Shortly after we started building here, we found this huge cypress tree that had been hit by lightning. We salvaged the trunk since it hadn’t been burned up and floated it down the river right here where we hollowed it out to make a grotto for Mary.”
“When they cut the trunk away, we looked at the rings to get an estimate of how old it [the tree] was. It’s about two-thousand years old!” she noted.
Could it be that this tree which now forms a grotto surrounding an image of the Mother of God incarnate is just nearly as old as Jesus and His mother themselves? For me, nothing was impossible at this point.
I even, at that moment, remembered the wisdom of the great Dominican theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas who once wrote: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary; to one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
“Ask for your Blessing”
Though the sacred space is small, there is so much history therein, so much faith from so many persons, and so much to catch the eye.
All around the large statue of Mary on the main altar are other items of Catholic material culture including paintings, icons of Jesus, statues of various saints, flowers, Crucifixes, and candles.
The votive-candles are especially unique in that the Hymels replenish the stock of twelve as often as needed in the chapel. In Catholic spirituality, one lights a candle as a sign of a prayer intention. For as long as the candle burns, the intention, like the smoke from the flame, ascends to God in a continuous prayer.
Hymel, noticeably proud of and moved by the memory of her mother, Martha, recalled her mother’s guidance to all visitors to Our Lady of Blind River.
“Mama always encouraged anybody who came here to talk to Jesus and “ask for your blessing” through the intercession of Our Lady of Blind River,” she said.
Hymel went on to explain that her mother would always stock the chapel with the large candles for people to light along with their intentions and would also provide for all visitors single-decade “finger Rosaries” or scapulars for them to take with them after they finished praying and making their pilgrimage.
Speaking directly to me and pointing toward Mary’s grotto and the large cypress hollow, she added: “See that wood-knot there? There’s a hole in the wood below it. Sometimes people write their prayers down and leave them there at Mary’s feet. You can if you want.”
Of course, without hesitation, I did.
The Hymels, then, left me, my brother, and my girlfriend who accompanied us as well, in the chapel to spend some time in prayer as they went next door to Patricia’s mother and father’s old house (now inhabited by a cousin as her mother, Martha, wanted the home and the chapel to stay in the family).
Quietly, the three of us sat, marveling at the handiwork and the holiness of this place. We offered our own personal and private prayers and even said a few together as each of us lit a votive-candle for our own special intentions.
Taking the advice of Mrs. Martha Deroche, which still echoes through the chapel and through the heartfelt kindness of her daughter, Patricia, we all “asked for our blessings.”
On a personal note, I wish to personally thank Mrs. Patricia and Mr. Kenneth Hymel for carrying on the legacy of Mrs. Martha Deroche, as well as for their kindness and hospitality in affording to myself, my brother, and my girlfriend a truly moving and positively memorable experience wherein friendships, relationships, and faith all were strengthened.
It is quite clear that the Lord is at work in Our Lady of Blind River and in those who have dedicated themselves to its continuation.
I encourage all persons of faith, whether Catholic or not, to consider making a pilgrimage to this special place if ever they are in the New Orleans or surrounding areas.
I also wish to thank my brother, David, once more, for driving to and from the chapel while we visited; as well as my better half, Missy, for sharing the experience with me.
For More Information
Those interested in visiting Our Lady of Blind River Chapel and/or contributing financially toward offsetting the cost of upkeep and maintenance are encouraged to visit its Facebook page.
Anthony Maranise is an editor with The Galleon and is with the Master of Arts in Catholic Studies Cohort at Christian Brothers University.