Tuesday, August 15, 2023

A beautiful Louisiana Eucharistic tradition along Bayou Teche


Eucharistic Vessels: Fête-Dieu du Teche Bayou Once Again Coincides With Assumption Solemnity

Local Catholics await 37-mile voyage in the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana.

The faithful kneel in the bow of a boat, prayerfully adoring our Eucharistic Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

The gold monstrance glistens in the sun as the craft traverses the waterway, carrying Christ further along the bayou.

These are among the reverent scenes from the annual Fête-Dieu du Teche South in the Pelican State.

In this time of Eucharistic Revival, as proclaimed by the U.S. bishops, organizers see the event as a way to bring Christ into the public square, inspire faith and encourage conversions.

The ninth Fête-Dieu du Teche, a 37-mile Eucharistic procession by boat up the Bayou Teche in the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, will be held on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Aug. 15.  

The procession will begin with 8am Mass in French — the language spoken by the region’s first Catholic residents — celebrated by Bishop John Douglas Deshotel of LaFayette in the historic Church of the Assumption in Franklin.  

   The procession will then proceed on foot from the church to the nearby Bayou Teche, which runs a winding route not far from the Mississippi River, and then powers by boat upriver, making three stops along the way and ending at St. Peter’s Church in New Iberia.  

 “This is a way to bring the faith out to the people,” explained Father Michael Champagne of the Community of Jesus Crucified (CJC) and the lead organizer of the event. “We also have found that when the Blessed Sacrament comes out, the graces begin to flow.”

With diocesan approval, Father Champagne launched the Fête-Dieu du Teche in 2015 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Louisiana Acadians (Cajuns), or French people who fled persecution by the English in Nova Scotia, at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. In 1765, French Capuchin Father Jean-Francois Civrey established St. Martin de Tours Church in St. Martinville, the diocese’s oldest church and the third oldest church in the state of Louisiana.  

As the French arrived by boat and the Bayou Teche was a prominent waterway in the area, Father Champagne recalled, “I had an idea: ‘Let’s do a Eucharistic procession by boat rather than by foot.’”                                                                         

In the past few hundred years, multiple churches have been built facing the bayou, hence the practice of stopping at selected sites to pray the Rosary and Benediction along the way of the procession.  

“That first year we inspired a lot of devotion; people were lining the banks of the bayou crying,” recalled Father Champagne.

Among those inspired that first year was Sister Marie-Therese Schmidt, who subsequently joined the Community of Jesus Crucified Sister Servants and today serves as its superior. 

“It has been immensely impactful in my life. … I remember how this day with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament changed my life,” she remarked.

Many now gather annually for the Fête-Dieu du Teche, she continued, as it “turns heads, makes people think and stop in their tracks. We bring Jesus out in procession on this day to draw souls to him and honor him. It’s a great day of peace and joy every year.”

Father William Blanda, pastor of St. Peter Church in New Iberia, which will host the closing activity of the procession, said the parish was “honored” to be part of the Fête-Dieu du Teche. Many of his parishioners as well as students from the city’s Catholic high school who have participated in previous bayou processions have been “enriched and edified” by the public celebration of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.  

Parishioners with homes along the bayou are being encouraged to build devotionals in their backyards and show “reverence and respect” when the Blessed Sacrament passes by on Tuesday.

Malise Buford participates in the procession annually “in thanksgiving for the gift of my faith that was preserved and carried down by the Acadians when they were persecuted for their Catholic faith.” She said her participation has helped her deepen her love for Eucharistic adoration to which she was introduced in her youth and only returned “much later in life.”  

“This beautiful and profound procession of Our Lord drew me deeper into the source and summit of our faith, the Eucharist.”

Father Champagne grew up in Leonville, north of Lafayette and through which Bayou Teche runs. He recalled playing along the waterway as a boy. He joined the CJC community in 1988 and was ordained a priest in 1994. His community has eight priests and five sisters; the community assists at parishes and operates a retreat center. Father Champagne also teaches at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

The procession has grown since its inception and now draws about 3,000 participants and 60 to 70 boats.  

The faithful can participate in one or more of the stops along the way, walk in the processions to and from the bayou or register to ride on a boat. 

The event will conclude at 5:30pm, with solemn vespers and Benediction at St. Peter Church.  

Pope Francis has granted participants the opportunity to obtain a plenary indulgence through participation in the morning Mass and one or more of the subsequent devotions. Confession is required to receive the plenary indulgence; mobile confessionals will be located along the route so that the faithful may receive the sacrament. About 200 participants went to confession at the 2022 event; Buford was among the volunteers who set up the mobile confessionals and prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet with penitents as they waited in confession lines.

Although the weather is hot in the bayou, it is a picturesque route, according to Father Champagne, “with beautiful oak trees that are as much as 400 years old.”

An army of volunteers is required to put on the event, he explained, including 40 altar servers, people to carry statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph and the canopy over the monstrance, and even young girls to drop rose petals in front of the on-foot portion of the procession.

The special petition of this year’s event, Father Champagne said, is for the end of gun violence, which has begun plaguing some small towns of the region: “We want to beseech the Prince of Peace to bring peace into our hearts and communities. Only God can give us the peace that we seek.”

In a first for the annual Eucharistic procession, in 2024, organizers will take it to the region’s largest waterway, the Mississippi River. The two-day, 130-mile boat procession will begin in Baton Rouge and head to New Orleans, making use of large tugboats and barges. A Host in a 15-foot monstrance, currently under construction, will be the centerpiece of the event. 

Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the procession, and the aim is, according to the priest at the helm, to “usher us into the missionary phase of the National Eucharistic Revival.”

For her part, Buford awaits the reverent festivities this year. The Bayou Teche route passes behind her home, she noted, and “I wait in great anticipation for our Eucharistic Lord to radiate his glory as he passes by in procession on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, patroness of the Acadian people.”

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