Though the idea of associating a lwa in Voudon with a Catholic Saint in order to “mask” the African religion from Catholic masters is a major topic of discussion in all tracts on voodoo, hoodoo and Voudon, the reverse is rarely spoken of. Discussing a Saint being transformed into a lwa is so unusual as to be found only in books and other writings specifically for and about voudonists. Curious, isn’t it?
Of course I’m not here to debate the why of it, just to give an example of the how. My favorite story of Saint to lwa is that of Filomez, the Catholic St. Philomena, who did not join the Catholic pantheon until after Haiti became a free nation.
St. Philomena is, as noted, a fairly new addition to the honor role of Catholisism and, as quickly as she was officially recognized, she was dropped from said role unceremoniously. Her relics were originally found in Italy in 1802 as the body of a thirteen year old girl with a vial of dried blood unearthed in the catacomb of St. Priscilla. Father Francis de Lucia of Magnano immediately became an advocate of Philomena, taking her body to his church and beginning a campaign of prayer and alleged miracle working (including the cure of one Pauline Jaricot of her terminal heart condition). After the visions of a nun named Louisa of Jesus revealed Philomena as a martyr, the little Saint was canonized in 1837.
The far fetched nature of all this led to St. Philomena’s demotion after Vatican II. Like St. Christopher, she was struck from the roster of the heavenly host. But her worship had become second nature, particularly in the Caribbean where she is honored not only in Voudon but in other Afro-Caribbean religions like Candomble and Santeria. In Haiti she is known as Filomez and her statues, depicting a young woman, usually wearing pink, with a palm frond or arrows and an anchor, often decorate home altars and niches in oumphors.
Some voudonists equate Filomez with prosperity, calling her the daughter of a merchant. Others, like myself, equate her with Erzulie Freda and call Filomez Erzulie’s youngest sister. In fact, when I could not find an (affordable) statue of the Virgin Mary that Erzulie would approve for my altar to her, we compromised on a statue of St. Philomena which I agreed to decorate with jewels in order to make it more pleasing to the Lady of Luxury. One rarely really “compromises” with Erzulie.
Filomez is most pleased with offerings of pastel colored flowers and her long history of miracles in both the Catholic and Voudon tradition make her a very popular lwa indeed.
Header: St. Philomena from a French prayer card