As 50 boats head down the Louisiana bayou, heavy bells set one above the other clang out from the first boat, incense wafts from the second, and the third carries a priest, an altar and a tall monstrance displaying a saucer-sized communion wafer as the body of Christ. At the altar, two people pray and meditate. The boat behind them holds a statue of the Virgin Mary, celebrating her assumption to heaven.
Other communities around the Bayou State have boat parades and boat blessings, but this is something different: a full-dress religious procession. Weather permitting, it will stop Tuesday at a half-dozen churches on a 35-mile span along Bayou Teche from Leonville to St. Martinville.
“We have so many public crazinesses these days, to give the word of God in a public way is always good,” said the Rev. Michael Champagne, who started and organizes it all.
Aug. 15 will mark the third year for the Fete-Dieu du Teche (Corpus Christi of the Teche), but only the second procession down the bayou itself. Last year’s floods made the bayou too dangerous, so the procession celebrating the eucharist went by road, Champagne said.
Champagne’s fleet of mobile confessionals — two former ambulances repainted so people will read “CONFESSION” in their rearview mirrors, and a trailer called the Church Haul, with a stained-glass wrap — will go by road, making four outdoor confessionals, including the boat, available at each stop.
At each stop, the local priest prays the rosary and, using a special vestment that lets him hold the monstrance without touching it, makes a sign of the cross with it over the heads of the outdoor congregation.
“This is not the blessing of a priest, not the blessing of a mama for her children, not the blessing of the church,” Champagne said. “It’s Jesus himself who is present in the consecrated host that is lifted over the people to bless them.”
It started in 2015 with the 250th anniversary of Louisiana’s first Acadian settlement and of its church, St. Martin de Tours in St. Martinville.
The ancestors of today’s Cajuns came down the bayou, so it seemed fitting, said Champagne. Part of the idea, he said, came from seeing a foot procession in the 1990s from the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, Italy, along a series of rafts tied together across the bay it fronts.
He said he thought, “Boy, we could have a procession by boat.”
“I wasn’t so sure the bishop would be in favor,” Champagne said, but former Bishop Michael Jarrell of the Lafayette Diocese approved it, and bishop Glen John Provost of the Diocese of Lake Charles celebrated the Mass of the Assumption that preceded the procession of 2015.
Champagne estimates that at least 2,000 showed up — a spillover crowd of 1,100 or 1,200 at the church in Leonville, which holds 900, and a couple hundred or more at every stop.
“It was such a success — that’s why we started to make it annual,” Champagne said.
Crowd size wasn’t the only measure of success, he said: he learned afterward that the occasion inspired some young people to commit themselves to life as priests, nuns or monks.
This year, Bishop John Douglas Deshotel, the current bishop of the Lafayette Diocese, will celebrate the Mass in Leonville.
The Bayou Teche procession is limited to about 50 vessels. Champagne broadcasts rosaries, psalms and scriptures to transmitters on the other boats so everyone can pray along, but the range is limited to about a mile. That’s about the distance taken up by about 50 boats in single file, Champagne said.