Saturday, October 9, 2010

Samedi: Saint Expedite

All lwa in Voudon belief have a corresponding Catholic Saint. This had to do with the African religion being practiced openly under the nose of Catholic slaveholders in what is now Haiti and what was then Saint Dominique or San Domingue. A statue or picture of the Blessed Virgin in her guise as the Stella Maris would be set up as the centerpiece for an altar to the mermaid La Siren and who would be the wiser? As the process of assimilation continued, the Catholic faith leaked into the African religion. Many voudonisants and rootworkers call themselves Catholic. The famous Marie Leveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, stopped practicing hoodoo all together and “became a Catholic” in later life.

In the case of the Lord of the Ghede, Baron Samedi, the corresponding Saint is known as Expedite. This was not always the case, however, and is in fact not generally the case in Haiti. In Haitian Voudon the Ghede tend not to be represented by Saints. A cross will do nicely, particularly if it is painted black or purple. The association with St. Expedite (shown above on a prayer card) came out of the Crescent City and the story is not only amusing but a true tale of cultures mingling while they are still at crossed purposes.

In Catholicism proper there is no St. Expedite. Believe me. I was raised Catholic, did my time in CCD and have not only my jumbo book of saints for all things and days but my mother’s family Bible with the “Names of the Saints” section that includes such obscure entries as St. Cleopatra and St. Mel. Mom consulted it to come up with my name and never forgave Dad’s Creole kin for giving me a second, French version. “There is no St. Pauline,” she’d say. “She’s not in the book.” And, like Pauline, if there was a St. Expedite he’d be in one or both of these handy references.

The story goes that after the Louisiana Purchase but before Louisiana became a state, a package was shipped to St. Louis Cathedral from a Catholic Diocese in New England. The crate was stamped with the word “Expedite” as so frequently happened when mailing items to the unknown frontier but the Creole speaking Haitian men who were opening the mail had no idea what that meant. They read the word though and when they opened the crate they found a beautiful statue of a Roman soldier with golden armor, a gold halo and holding a cross. Surly, they agreed between them, this must be St. Expedite (pronounce “Ex-pa-DEET”).

The word got out and people began lighting candles before the new statue in the Cathedral. When it seemed that rootwork would be more successful and that success would come faster if St. Expedite was invoked, he got a reputation for helping things along. This, in turn, began his association with the lwa who watches over NOLA then and now, Baron Samedi. And all because of a stamp on a crate.

Is the story true? I would never be so bold as to say definitively “Yes!” because that would be foolish. As Hamlet told Horatio, there are more things in … Well; you know the rest. So for now, Au revoir ~


Charles L. Wallace said...

Saint Expedite?
Great story, probably a lot of truth therein.... shades of Kilroy and Cargo Cults!! :-)

Pauline said...

Seriously! I just love this story though, true or no.

Timmy! said...

St. Expedite should also be the patron saint of UPS, Fedex and the USPS... I'm just saying.

Pauline said...

Maybe just UPS and FedEx at this point...

Anonymous said...

This is going to come out jerkish, but in all honesty I doubt the story. Heres my question that is the root of that doubt: Who taught them how to read?

Pauline said...

In all honesty, Anony, it is a fair question.

Sarah said...

New Orleans historically has always had a large population of free people of color that were often more learned than poor whites in other parts of the country due to the cultural climate of the city. Also, since it was such an urbanized city for the time, slaves were often employed in skilled positions, and thus needed to be educated accordingly.


Before the Civil War, when slavery dominated the economy of the American South, New Orleans stood out from the rest of the nation in the way that it employed its slaves. In most southern states, and in most of Louisiana, the vast majority of slaves worked as agricultural laborers on large and small plantations. But the Crescent City, the largest metropolis in the South and one of the most important commercial centers in all of America, found many diverse ways to put its slaves to work.

"While most city slaves were domestic servants, there were also many who were highly skilled.... Many of the city slaves worked as draymen, porters, carpenters, masons, bricklayers, painters, plasterers, tinners, coopers, wheelwrights, cabinetmakers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, millers, bakers, and barbers. Most, however, were unskilled laborers often owned by brickyards, iron foundries, hospitals, distilleries, railroad companies, and Catholic convents." [John W. Blassingame, Black New Orleans,1860-1880 (Chicago, 1973), 2]

Antebellum New Orleans was also home to the largest population of free black men and women of any city in the United States. Many of these individuals shared the French, Spanish, and Catholic heritage of the city at large. Among these gens de couleur libre there were even some whose wealth and background put them into a refined upper class. Many more free black men and women, meanwhile, worked in occupations devoted to satisfying the tastes of those at the apex of African-American society in the Crescent City.

"In 1850 an overwhelming majority of the free Negro men in New Orleans worked as carpenters, masons, cigar makers, shoemakers, clerks, mechanics, coopers, barbers, draymen, painters, blacksmiths, butchers, cabinetmakers, cooks, stewards, and upholsters. ...the 1,792 free Negro males listed in the 1850 census were engaged in fifty-four different occupations; only 9.9 percent of them were unskilled laborers. Some of them even held jobs as architects, bookbinders, brokers, engineers, doctors, jewelers, merchants, and musicians." [John W. Blassingame, Black New Orleans,1860-1880 (Chicago, 1973), 10]

Pauline said...

Excellent points, Sarah; thank you so much for stopping by and adding to this post.

I have a lot of trouble with just these points in my historical fiction. It's amazing how many people outside of the greater NOLA area - and of course scholars like yourself - don't understand just how fluid Louisiana society was, particularly prior to the Civil War.

Adam Beeton said...

Very interesting blog post. Did you know that the Creoles of Reunion Island (France) (S.W Indian Ocean) have the exact same story for St Expedit, who is their patron Saint. I wonder if there was some crossover of cultures (how I don't know) between Reunion Island and Louisiana? Reunion Island also has Gris-Gris and also seems to venerate St Anthony of Padua who I understand is also important in Louisiana / New Orleans?