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Saints and Spirits Print E-mail
Most Voodoo spirits in New Orleans today are, and have been for probably at least two centuries, recognized and personified as Catholic Saints.  In the same manner that time and separation have caused the original African dialects to become mostly extinct, replace first by French Creole then Americanized Yat (the idiomatic English dialect unique to New Orleans), both the names, and images, of the ancient Voodoo spirits have translated into the saints.

Legba, the guardian of the gateway to the spirit world is St. Peter holding the key to heaven. Aida Wedo, the primary female spirit, patron of all waters, is the Blessed Virgin. Ghédé, the spirit of the crossroads between life and death is St. Expedité. Different places have different interpretations, and even in the same locality the versions differ. Uniquely, in New Orleans, St. Jude with his staff, and tongue of fire, is Ogun, the warrior and blacksmith. In Haiti, Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Polish icon and a black Madonna, is Erzulie Dantor, patron of unwed mothers, protector against domestic violence and patron of lesbians.  

Today, in New Orleans it is far more common to find on Voodoo altars statues and pictures of saints that any African imagery.  Likewise, it is not uncommon to find offerings on the bases of statues of saints in Catholic churches that are as likely Voodoo, as Christian.

There is a universally repeated position that since Catholicism was forced upon Africans, and that the appearance of Catholic images, like the presumption of conversion, was merely a ruse to enable the continuation of Voodoo using the Catholic images as a subterfuge.  A historical review of this, as in the Code Noir, does find the admonition that slave owners should insure that their slaves are converted.  Further investigation, however, finds that slave owners often resisted this direction since a converted slave, especially a couple bound by the Sacrament of Matrimony, obtained certain protections that limited the owners ability to make arbitrary purchases and sales.

Even today, there is no formal conflict between the Catholic Church and African Traditional Religions (see the Africae Terrarum of Pope Paul VI in 1967). In fact, there are few practices that compliment each other so well. First, the role of the Voodoo spirits is separate from the role of God. Therefore, to assimilate the church into the Voodoo with the echelon of saints acting as spirits, and the echelon of the church itself addressing God is not a direct conflict. Voodoo always has been, and remains so today, very liberal in accepting and integrating other spiritual beliefs.  The Catholic Church is both unique and compatible in that it alone, relating to Voodoo, has both God and spirits (saints), at different echelons, and working in much the same capacities. Also, the Catholic Church stands mostly alone among Christian churches in the veneration of sacred objects, including bones, and in the belief of the transformation of a symbolic object, the Eucharist, into a true spiritual being.
 
In New Orleans the Catholic Church offered both enslaved Africans and free persons of color one of the few refuges from the secular political and social structure. In fact, some historical reports have suggested that active Catholics practices, such as attending Mass, were more generally adhered to by persons of color, than whites. 

Finally, in the case of Marie Laveau, the famous Voodoo Queen, it is alleged she attended Mass daily. While this is impossible to prove, or disprove we do know she was baptized Catholic, was married in the Catholic Church, baptized her children in the Catholic Church, named one of her daughters Marie Heloise Euchariste, maintained the Creole tradition of named all children for a Catholic patron (in this case Marie), was buried in a Catholic cemetery and tat her youngest daughter maintained she was in fact a pious and devout Catholic. A contempoary free woman of color, and probably a relative of Marie Laveau, Henriette Delille, founded an order of black nuns and is currently being considered for sainthood by the Vatican. Also, and most tellingly, Marie Laveau was know as well for her good works, as a yellow fever nurse, as spiritual advisor to condemned prisoners, as a person who took in orphans, none of which acts required her to pretend to be Catholic. 


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