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  • A Cajun Traiteur:Faith Healing on the Bayou
  • Karen Yochim (bio)

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Figure 1.

"Don't thank me," says faith healer Wade Theriot, "healing comes from God." Cajun traiteurs like Theriot have been treating Louisiana's sick for centuries. Photograph courtesy of the author.

[End Page 79]

In southwestern Louisiana, where the slow-running, gumbo-colored bayous and the incredibly wide-spreading mythical oaks mingle with the soft, sultry air to protect and comfort the spirit, it's easy to believe in faith healing. Cajun traiteurs (treaters), or faith healers, have been ministering to the ill and the injured around the bayous since the eighteenth century, when the Acadians migrated to southwestern Louisiana from France by way of Nova Scotia.

Some traiteurs treat any problem, while others specialize. One traiteur may treat only respiratory problems, for example, while another may heal diseases of the blood, and another, sprains and bone breaks. Wade Theriot, a traiteur who lives hard by the Atchafalaya Swamp, is one of those who treat the afflicted no matter what the problem. He reports successes over the years, even with grave, life-threatening illnesses such as cancer.

Wade lives on his late parents' farm about two miles from Bayou Portage, a tiny settlement at the western levee that borders the 750,000-square-mile Atchafalaya Swamp. When I first telephoned Wade to request a treatment, he asked me to meet him at 8:30 in the morning at an old-fashioned Texaco station on the same highway that runs by his farm, which leads to Interstate-10 and beyond toward Henderson and Breaux Bridge.

As I drove up, three gray-haired men, speaking in French, lounged outside on chairs set between the front door of the station and an open garage where tires are repaired. It was an early morning in late September, the light clear and the sun already warm. Wade stood to greet me, morning light glinting on a two-inch, iridescent oval picture of Jesus hanging from a chain around his neck at the open throat of his western shirt. As I introduced myself, I was immediately struck by the warmth of his smile and brown eyes. He pushed back his visor cap and, speaking softly and gently, invited me inside.

I followed Wade to a spot between racks of BlueBird Cinnamon Rolls and Acadiana Maid white bread, small bags of chips and wall coolers of beer and sodas. A television news show droned, and local customers in visor caps and overalls wandered back and forth, selecting their purchases or paying for their gas.

Without asking what my problem was, Wade placed his right hand on the crown of my head and gazed at the floor, his left hand jiggling change in his pocket. I felt comforting heat circulating from his hand throughout my head. He softly muttered prayers in French as the television show and daily business of the gas station continued around us. After a few minutes of this contact, Wade raised his head and passed his hand back and forth and up and down about six inches from me, making crosses the length of my body. He had to bend low in order to include my feet in the process. He then circled me, saying prayers in the same manner, until he had made multiple crosses all down my back. I remained motionless while the cash register rang and the front screen door opened and closed. The news show rolled on. [End Page 80]

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Figure 2.

In Louisiana's mystical bayou country, it's easy to believe in the magic of faith healing. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Okay," Wade said, signaling the end of the treatment. When I opened my mouth to speak, he raised a finger. "Don't thank me," he cautioned. "Healing comes from God." Wade smiled and turned toward the door. The whole treatment had taken about five minutes. It was hard to hold my tongue, and as I followed him out the front door a "thank you" slipped out. I held my hand over my mouth.

"No, no...


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