Story by Jan Risher
Leona Thibodeaux is seventy-five years old and hasn’t been to a doctor in five years.
Like many of her friends and neighbors in Catahoula, Thibodeaux prefers the healing ways of a traiteur.
“It’s our culture,” Thibodeaux said. “We just live by it.
If you doubt the prevalence of traiteurs dispensing medical treatment in St. Martin Parish, stop by a convenience store, bakery or auto repair shop anywhere in the vicinity of Catahoula, Butte LaRose or St. Martinville. Ease your conversation toward looking to feel better. If the St. Martin Parish residents don’t think you’re some uppity outsider who might mock their ways, give them about three minutes before you’ll get your medical referral.
No insurance company approval is required. Though there is the rare traiteur who requests and expects payment, generally, payment is highly frowned upon.
And whatever you do, don’t say thank you.
“If you say thank you, you’ve killed the prayer,” said Helen Boudreaux, a practicing traiteur.
Becca Begnaud, a fifty-six year-old faith healer who lives in Scott, has researched the origins of many of the prayers she uses and the culture surrounding faith healing. Her explanation for the practice of not saying thank you to a faith healer is simple.
“This is not ego-based work. It’s spiritual-based work,” Begnaud said, explaining that in the past, one person did not possess the ability to heal everything. “There wasn’t a single medicine man. Different people treated for different things. No one person could heal it all.”
In Catahoula, a stop by the convenience store verifies that the practice of going to different healers for different ailments is still very much alive.
“My brother-in-law, Howard Landry, treated someone here the other day. Was it for poison ivy or sunstroke?” Ellen Latiolais asked no one in particular, as she continued to ring up her customers at the check out counter. “He treats both. And for teething babies, you go to Red Higginbotham.”
Almost everyone has a story about the time when he or she was a kid and some old medicine man or woman treated them for sunstroke or warts or a sprained ankle.
“I used to be treated when I was a kid for sprains. And I tell you what, it worked. We’d go to this old lady. She’d wear a long, long skirt and had long, long hair. She’d say her prayers and in a day or two, it’d be OK,” said Anna Foti, owner of C’est Jolie Flowers in St. Martinville.
Helen Boudreaux, 69, grew up in Catahoula and has gone to traiteurs for healing for as long as she remembers. As the mother of eight grown children, Boudreaux now makes her home in Butte LaRose, just across the old pontoon bridge about five miles from Catahoula. She spends her time writing songs, singing and playing her guitar at the community’s Catholic church, caring for her grandchildren—and healing.
It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in August, as Boudreaux arrives home from a church singing in Butte LaRose. Wearing her trademark straw cowboy hat and with her guitar in hand, Boudreaux downplays her colorful life of driving trucks and making “strictly Cajun music.” Now it’s time to focus on her prayers. Her small country home’s interior has the air of a shrine to the Virgin Mary—visible evidence of prayer is at every angle. Even with the music still blaring, Boudreaux makes it clear that somewhere in the last decade, her prayers have taken precedence over most everything else in her world.
Boudreaux talks about her prayers like some people talk about their children. She has her favorites, and she holds those close to her heart. And she has those she’s willing to share.
If warts are your trouble, you’re in luck. Boudreaux has a prayer you can say. “If you’re a male, you say ‘peigeide, peigeide’ and tap that wart with your finger,” she said. “For a female, it would be ‘piegle.’ You can say that one yourself.”
And what do ‘peigeide’ or ‘piegle’ mean?
Boudreaux doesn’t know. Like many of the words she uses in the prayers handed down to her by her elders, she says them on faith—without any idea of the meaning of the words.
In a five-page, single-spaced explanation of faith healing that she wrote, Boudreaux explains that the prayers she uses are a combination of Atakapas-Ishak Native American, French and Spanish words.
“None are English,” Boudreaux wrote.
Begnaud said she believes many of the traiteur origins can be traced to France and the Acadian’s French heritage.
“There are people in France who treat much like the traiteurs here. And much like the traiteurs here, they’re not always obvious,” Begnaud said. “It was based in a culture where everyone knew everybody. In the twentieth century, many of us shoved away everything that wasn’t medical science. Some of what we turned our backs on was and is very beneficial—and we’re reconsidering some of that now. The intention was good, but we threw the baby out with the bath water. In modern medical science, we don’t let any illness run its course.
“If you have a cold and go to a traiteur for a prayer, you’ll be better in two weeks. If you have a cold and go to the doctor for some medicine, you’ll be better in fourteen days.”
According to Begnaud, the explanation for the continued practice and cultural acceptance of traiteurs in St. Martin Parish is simple.
“They’re a lot more rural. Many are poorer. It’s free to go see a traiteur. It costs money to go see a doctor. But beyond that, they just live their culture, rather than having experts tell them about their culture,” Begnaud said.
Historically, Begnaud said that educated people were less inclined to use traiteurs. “There’s a stigma that goes along with it. People are either afraid, skeptical or look down their nose at it,” she said.
For Boudreaux, the skeptics are always out there. “But I don’t mess with them,” she said. “On the other hand, there are a couple of doctors interested in the prayers for pain.”
She even says her healing prayers over the phone. According to her, the result is the same.
“These prayers come to me. They’re offered to me, and I don’t turn them down. I don’t ask for them. They have to be offered. I’m the only one who has some of these prayers,” she said. “Beings as I have these prayers, and I’ve prayed on so many people, it’s become a part of me—heart and soul.”
Boudreaux follows the unwritten rule of passing her prayers to someone younger.
“I have different prayers for different ailments, and I can give them to people. But you must never give a prayer to anyone older than you because you’ll kill the prayer,” she said.
According to Begnaud, another often followed tradition of handing the prayers down involves gender.
“If a man has the gift, he’s supposed to pass it on to a younger woman. If a woman has the gift, she’s supposed to pass it on to a younger man,” Begnaud said.
According to Latiolais, in her family, the traiteur tradition is to be passed only to a younger family member.
“You can only pass it from family member to family member. My brother-in-law passed it to a nephew—who didn’t want it or something. So, my brother-in-law took it back. I didn’t know you could take it back,” she said. “But I do know that it’s a spiritual thing passed from generation to generation to generation. This really is a very spiritual area. We started out very Catholic and still have it in us.”
“I’m often asked, ‘Do you have to believe for this to work?’ ” Begnaud explained. “And the answer is, no. People have used this on animals. We come from an agrarian society. You did the work on animals that you did on people. Animals didn’t believe, and it worked. It can work on people who don’t believe too.”