Spirited Travel

South Louisiana’s religious shrines are destinations with history, heart and plenty of glorious mystery
Travel 01

Shrine of Saint John Berchmans at Grand Coteau’s Schools of the Sacred Heart

Like so many people suffering from poor health and living in a cold climate, Mary Wilson of New London, Canada, headed south in the hopes of more agreeable weather healing what ailed her. The Catholic novice arrived at the Society of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau on Sept. 20, 1866, but her health continued to deteriorate.

She was admitted to the Sacred Heart infirmary in October vomiting blood and suffering from fever and violent headaches. She barely ate and drank little and by December, her end appeared near.

Wilson was so weak she couldn’t speak so she placed the image of John Berchmans on her mouth and thought, “If it be true that you can work miracles,” she instructed the Jesuit scholastic who died in 1621, “I wish you would do something for me.”

The response she received, according to her testimony, was “Sister, you will get the desired habit. Be faithful. Have confidence. Fear not.” The figure of John Berchmans appeared to Wilson and she was immediately healed.

Her doctor’s sworn statement of Feb. 4, 1867, was, “Not being able to discover any marks of convalescence, but an immediate return to health from a most severe and painful illness, I am unable to explain the transition by any ordinary natural laws.”

The Catholic Church deemed John Berchmans a saint in 1888 based on his miraculous healing of Wilson and it remains the only documented and Vatican-approved miracle in the United States. Visitors may visit the Shrine of Saint John Berchmans at Grand Coteau’s Schools of the Sacred Heart, as well as Le Petit Musée dedicated to the history of the academy. The campus consists of both the Academy of the Sacred Heart for girls and Berchmans Academy of the Sacred Heart for boys.

The shrine and museum are part of the St. Landry Parish Spiritual Trail, a guide to the parish’s many historic churches, cemeteries, shrines and the Creole Heritage Folklife Center.

“Your soul will enjoy the encounters with Christianity, heritage, art, music and more along the trail,” said Herman Fuselier, executive director of St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission.

Naturally, the trail includes the Sacred Heart campus.

“The Academy of the Sacred Heart is celebrating 200 years of guiding young women in faith and learning,” Fuselier said. “The school’s history is interlaced with the Civil War and the impact of slavery. Today, students from as far as China and South America are learning at the Academy. The past and present at Sacred Heart are rich testimonies to the culture of south Louisiana.”

In nearby Acadia Parish, a young girl waits for canonization.

Charlene Marie Richard of Richard grew up like many in her small Cajun community and among her large family: She attended middle school and participated in sports. Charlene was a devout Catholic and, after reading a book about St. Therese, wondered if she could become a saint if she prayed hard enough.

At age 12, Charlene was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia and hospitalized. She died two weeks later but accepted her fate with grace, praying unselfishly for others to be healed.

Richard died on Aug. 11, 1959, and is buried at St. Edward Catholic Church Cemetery in Richard. From her death until today, people visit “the Little Cajun Saint’s” grave to ask for intercession in matters that range from healing to employment. Many have claimed miracles.

Her petition for sainthood, which may take years to acquire, remains in process but last year Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel of the Diocese of Lafayette advanced the causes for Richard’s canonization.