Exploring Myths And Preservation Of Traiteurs
By Shanna P. Dickens
In the time before the mass accessibility of modern medicine, healing across all cultures was done by faith and through prayers and rituals. In the Cajun culture, these men and women were referred to as traiteurs. They would travel by foot or horse to see those suffering from ailments ranging from heat strokes and shingles to blood clots and migraines. Traiteurs would lay their hands on their patients and pray in French. If they accepted payment, it would be through bartering. When they left, neither patient nor healer would breathe another word of what had occurred.
There was a dense shroud of secrecy and a rigid set of rules surrounding this sacred trade. The first being that the prayers must be kept secret. The secrecy that was intended to protect the practice nearly caused it to be forgotten. Today’s traiteurs continue to pass the gift to younger generations, but unlike those before them, believe it should be accessible to everyone. They heal by phone, they have websites and they believe fervently in the preservation of this tradition.
In 1947, an 8-year-old little girl in Catahoula, Louisiana became upset by her baby brother’s cries. With her mother playing bouree down the street, little Helen Boudreaux walked to the barn resolute to solve the problem herself. Aloud, she began to reason with her family’s cow, holding an empty bucket, she explained that she needed the bovine to show her how to milk it. Laughing, her grandfather walked up behind her to help. This was the first time in her life that she would ask for help out loud and receive what she asked for, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Boudreaux is a traiteur – a faith healer.
“It’s not ours to keep,” Boudreaux, 79, says of the tradition. “It must be preserved. I have offered to gather a small group of women and teach them all of my prayers – in French and in English. I think that the part about keeping it a secret was a myth, because in the Bible, St. Raphael stood on the side of the mountain and threw his prayers to the people.”
In 1992, Boudreaux went to Lafayette to visit her ailing Tante Eunice Boutin. Boudreaux was unaware that her aunt practiced faith healing, so she was unsure what to think when she offered her seven French prayers. She wearily accepted, but it was years before she became confident enough to begin using those prayers on others. Today, Boudreaux’s collection of prayers is staggering, she’s been gifted the prayers of friends, family, other local traiteurs and even those practiced by Native Americans. Boudreaux differs from those whose gifts she has inherited in one critical way – she doesn’t see the majority of those she prays over.
Boudreaux’s house sits in the swampland of Butte La Rose. Her walls are donned with Hank Williams posters, who is the artist you will hear her singing as she moves from room to room, and newspaper clippings from her truck driving days. It must be noted that in 1989, Boudreaux was the first female contestant to compete in the Missouri “Roadeo.” Her eyes light up and she laughs excitedly remembering her days on the road. In the corner of her living room, a small television flickers old Westerns. It’s here, from this house, where Boudreaux heals others over the telephone.
“I remind people that 100 years ago when someone was ill and too weak to walk to the traiteur, a garment worn by the sick person would be brought to the traiteur who would pray over the garment,” she explains. “Often times people lived hundreds of miles apart and travelling was difficult, so they prayed from a long distance. This is the same as praying over the phone.”
Boudreaux has a collection of prayers that cover any ailment, however she says she gets the most requests for shingles. For all of the hours she’s spent praying with and for people, she has never accepted any form of payment. Boudreaux does not believe she has helped anyone – she believes God has done the healing and it would be insincere to accept glory for the work.
“It’s in the Bible, the healing hands of God,” she says holding out her own hands modestly. “It doesn’t matter if someone charges $100,000, they still didn’t do the work – God did. When I pray over people, I tell them that God has touched them and they tell me they know; they can feel it. It’s the Holy Spirit.”
“My grandfather was a traiteur,” Becca Begnaud, 66, begins. “He healed for headaches and sunstrokes. When I was about 12, I had sunstroke. My mom called her father, my grandfather, to come treat me. I had no idea what that meant. How would I know? We never talked about it. My momma drew a basin of water and my grandfather dipped his hands in the water and ran his fingers through my hair while speaking French. Within a few minutes I was ready to play outside. Then I didn’t think about it again for a very long time.”
She didn’t think about it for 25 years. When she was 37 years old, Begnaud was diagnosed with breast cancer. While recovering from surgery at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, she developed a special bond with one of the nuns, a fellow cancer survivor, who suggested to Begnaud that she look into healing work, specifically reiki, a form of alternative medicine developed in Japan. Then, she remembered her grandfather, and the idea self healing suddenly didn’t seem so preposterous. She began to delve into the world of healing, combining what she was learning with what she already knew – Catholicism.
She began to volunteer with other cancer patients through Camp Bluebird. Because they had been through similar experiences, “in the same trenches” as she describes, Begnaud was able to build an instant rapport with the patients. Through helping them heal, she was able to heal herself.
“I didn’t come to healing work from the perspective of someone who wanted to earn a living,” she says frankly. “I came to healing as someone who didn’t want to die. If you give healing, you get healing. I believe this opportunity kept me alive, so I’m OK with cancer.”
Begnaud lives in the house where she grew up, across from Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Scott, next door is the studio where she performs healings. The space has the faint smell of incense. It is littered with crystals, stones, feathers and symbols associated with faiths from around the world, crucifixes and hamsas. Begnaud’s cornucopia of charms and symbols is a microcosm of her own beliefs; she doesn’t believe in choosing one method over another.
“Medicine versus healing, there’s no versus,” she says emphatically. “It’s not a war. We don’t have to choose; we can do everything that heals us in some way. We discovered penicillin, anesthesia and sterilization, and we thought it’d make everything go away, but we forgot to care. We forgot to truly let people heal.”
Begnaud believes the best way to promote healing is to allow it to evolve. She has a website, she’s been interviewed by countless sources, she has a CD of healing prayers and is working on a documentary. She was recently included in a book about female healers titled “Stewards.” On October 14, she will be joining the other women featured in the book at Vermillionville. There are no secrets here.
“What’s the big secret?” she asks. “As if we have anything to lose by helping people. The culture is not what it once was. I treat anybody, anytime, in the streets, in bars, at Downtown Alive. I’m only holding the space – it’s so much more simple than we want it to be.”
“Whenever I was younger, I went to my aunt’s house when my cousin was a newborn,” Colby Hebert, 27, reflects. “The baby had really bad colic and out of the blue my grandmother asked me to pray over the baby. I did, and a few days later, they called us and said the baby hadn’t had colic since.”
Hebert says that even at his young age he knew what he was doing was more than just words. It was through a conversation with his grandmother that he learned his great-grandfather had also treated babies with colic. It wasn’t until December of 2017 that Hebert truly started to practice his healing abilities. Hebert, a New Iberia native, is many things – a hatter, a healer, an old soul and an artist, but at the top of that list he is someone dedicated to the preservation of Cajun culture.
“There are certain aspects of the culture that are more in dire need of preservation that others,” he says frankly. “Traiteurs and faith healing are dying out with this generation. I want to make more noise about this so we can save it.”
Hebert is a true testament to the fact that while so much has changed in the tradition of traiteurs, much remains the same. He is the recipient of prayers passed down from older generations. Except, they are more than willing to openly discuss the prayers and practices. Boudreaux and Begnaud have both served as mentors for Hebert. He speaks to Boudreaux monthly on the phone. His first and foremost mentor is his grandmother, who first encouraged him to pray over his cousin. Though he is deceased, Hebert counts his great-grandfather as a mentor, lighting candles for him and asking for guidance.
“I don’t believe you need to be around anyone to practice healing,” he explains. “You direct the intentions from God. My healing is very much faith in manifesting my purpose and God’s purpose for me.”
Hebert is motivated by the modernization of faith healing. However, he maintains a very traditional approach. He uses the prayers that apply as they were given to him, in their respective French or English. Hebert believes that it is the same spirit that is seen in healing across cultures, but for him it comes down to the Catholic faith in which he was raised. In his hat shop, on Magazine Street in New Orleans, Hebert spends an hour or more a day cultivating a positive energy. Currently, Hebert is working on creating an organization that will preserve the practice of faith healing and make it more accessible in the modern world.
“You can move things into the world of modern technology and still maintain reverence,” he says passionately. “I’m trying to shed light on healers of Louisiana, faith healers and natural holistic healing. I want to create a platform for people who promote this kind of healing. I would highly encourage young people who have anyone in their family who they are aware of to seek the tradition with them and ask them to share it completely undisclosed. Beg for it! Whatever it takes to set the preservation of this sacred trade in motion.”