The thesis of this book is that like Nazareth, this town hidden in the Cajun country of south central Louisiana has been the home of holy people whom an oblivious world ought to know about. And it’s true: Grand Coteau, La., makes Nazareth in Galilee look like the Great White Way. Can anything good come out of Grand Coteau?
This surprising history is due, in the first place, to the Religious of the Sacred Heart, who under Mother Duchesne (now St. Rose Philippine Duchesne) founded an academy for girls there in 1821. It became the source of Grand Coteau’s spiritual development, and in fact the academy is now the Society of the Sacred Heart’s oldest continuously operating school. Mother Duchesne was only the first of a number of saintly folk, including John Berchmans, Cornelia Connelly and Katharine Drexel, who at one time or another worked their wonders at Grand Coteau.
After setting up their school, the Religious of the Sacred Heart enticed the Jesuits to join them there in 1837 by making an offer Tony Soprano could not have refused—100 acres of free land, plus the 200,000 bricks that the sisters had been saving to build a chapel. Thus was born, a mile south of the academy, St. Charles College, which never became an academic capital but has proved its usefulness in other ways. Since 1922, for instance, it has been the novitiate of the New Orleans Province of the Jesuits, and though novitiates of the other U.S. provinces have long since migrated to the city, the Southern novitiate has stayed put. There may be many reasons for this, but the spiritual attractiveness and the history of the place are surely among them. So the young Jesuits say.
The alarums and excursions of the Civil War figure briefly in this book, but the historic event on which the author focuses from that era is what he calls the “miracle of Grand Coteau,” the appearance in December 1866 of Blessed John Berchmans to Mary Wilson, then a religious postulant at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Mary had a wasting disease, and the detailed description of it makes gruesome reading. At the crisis point, suffice it to say, she was in a fetal position with dried blood filling her mouth and stuck to her teeth. The sisters had been conducting a novena to Blessed John Berchmans, the Jesuit scholastic of notable holiness who had died in 1621 and who in 1866 lacked one miracle to complete the three he needed to be declared a saint. According to Mary’s written account, he appeared to her after she herself had offered one last desperate prayer to him. He told her that he had come by order of God, that her suffering was at an end, that she would receive the religious habit as a novice. She was instantly cured, which, considering her dreadful state, the sisters and doctors found astonishing. So did the authorities in Rome, who counted it as John Berchmans’s third miracle.
A month later, in January 1867, in a twist Flannery O’Connor might have devised, John Berchmans appeared to Mary Wilson again. He told her she had done well in writing up the attestation of the miracle and then informed her she would die soon. She died of a stroke in August 1867.
One other bit of history would have appealed to O’Connor: the career of a 20th-century Grand Coteau Jesuit, Cornelius Thensted. In some ways, Father Thensted could have been a model for the rough-hewn Jesuit of O’Connor’s story “The Enduring Chill.” Not one for elegant learning, he was the indefatigable servant of the black people of the region, and from the 1940’s to the 1960’s he wore himself out as their confessor, counselor, protector, church-builder and pastor. He corresponded with Mother Katharine Drexel and many others, from whom he received money to build a church and school. He stood up to the whites who tried to limit his work for the black people, shouting them down when necessary. By 1965 he was tired out; and by the 1970’s he had Alzheimer’s, as we now call it.
One day he escaped from the infirmary of St. Charles College and started walking up the road to the sisters’ academy. Sister Margaret “Mike” Hoffman, a registered nurse, came along in her car and asked Father Thensted where he was going. “To say Mass at the academy,” he answered. Humoring him, she put him in the car and drove to the academy and left him in the St. John Berchmans Shrine while she tended to those who needed her. In her absence, however, he persuaded some of the older sisters that he was indeed going to say Mass, so they put out the things he needed, including vestments. When Sr. Mike returned to the shrine, she found him fully vested but stock-still and silent before the altar, unable to say the words, unable to get Mass underway. She led him through the Mass, pointing to the places in the Missal as necessary, and at the conclusion of this Mass realized she was being called to continue Father Thensted’s work with the black people of Grand Coteau.
So she opened the Thensted Center the year after Father Thensted died. Sister Mike directed the center for a dozen years after that, and the center continues to this day providing home visits to the sick and elderly, emergency food pantry, thrift store, money-management instructions and career counseling. The link-up between Mike Hoffman and Father Thensted is the second, if unsung, miracle of Grand Coteau.
Religion continues to be the chief business in Grand Coteau, as the multiple photographs of the book make clear. Besides the 15 black and white historical photos from the archives of the sisters’ academy and the Jesuits’ college—photos that show more clearly than any other medium the differences between the Catholic Church then and its transformed version now—there are a dozen or more color photos of present-day Grand Coteau, its retreat houses, the novitiate and the parish church. Especially haunting are the pictures of its extensive cemeteries, with their moss-draped live oaks. Grand Coteau is lovely as well as holy, and these photographs will make you long to visit.