1492: During his first transatlantic expedition, Christopher Columbus and his crew landed on a large island in the Caribbean that Native Americans called Kiskeya, claimed it for Spain, and introduced Catholicism. One of his ships was named for the Virgin Mary, La Santa María, while the explorer renamed the island “La Isla Española” (Hispaniola).
1502: The brothers Alfonso and Antonio Trejo brought from Spain to Hispaniola an icon of Our Lady of High Grace (Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia), donating it to the parish church in Higuey.
1572: The Shrine of Our Lady of High Grace was erected in Higuey.
1791-1804: In the French plantation colony of Saint-Domingue, insurgent slaves and revolting free coloreds launched and fought in the Haitian Revolution, which they ultimately won, resulting in the creation of the Republic of Haiti, on the western third of the island of Hispaniola, the second independent nation of the Americas, after the United States of America, and the first nation of the Americas to formally abolish slavery.
1822: Haiti invaded the Dominican Republic, beginning an occupation of the neighboring nation that would last for twenty-two years; Haitian pilgrims freely flocked to Higuey during this period to venerate Our Lady of High Grace.
1841: As some believe, the Virgin Mary appeared in a palm tree on a hill by a stream near Ville Bonheur, a small town in Haiti’s rural Central Plateau province. The stream had likely already been considered sacred by local Vodouists, as are most bodies of water in Haiti.
1842: A massive earthquake devastated Haiti, transforming a mountain stream (a stretch of the La Tombe River), near the site of the 1841 Marian apparition, into two adjacent waterfalls, which would soon be named “Saut d’Eau” (Haitian Creole: Sodo; literally.: Cascade of Water).
1844: The Dominican Republic gained independence from Haiti, resulting in restrictions for Haitian pilgrims seeking to visit the shrine of Our Lady of High Grace in Higuey. This amplified the importance of Saut d’Eau as a Marian pilgrimage site for Haitians.
1849: In early July, Emperor Faustin Soulouque orchestrated a fraudulent apparition of the Virgin Mary in a tree along the Champ de Mars in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city, in an effort to bolster his ill-fated efforts to reconquer the Spanish side of the island.
1849: On July 16, the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared in a palm tree above Saut-d’Eau, as reported by a villager named Fortuné Morose, a day after the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, thus forever linking Saut-d’Eau to this invocation of the Virgin Mary and establishing the site as Haiti’s most popular pilgrimage destination. By some accounts, this apparition occurred the year prior, in 1848.
1849: In November, another apparition of the Virgin Mary was reported at Saut d’Eau, prompting Emperor Soulouque to dispatch members of his cabinet to verify the event and order that a chapel be constructed in the neighboring town of Ville Bonheur, thus forever and formally cementing the importance of the site in Haitian religious history and culture. At this time at least one Catholic priest declared the apparition to be authentic, though others had their doubts.
1885: President Lysius Félicité Salomon elevated Saut d’Eau to the status of a “quartier” (literally, a quarter, as in a formal municipality), thereby appointing a justice of the peace there “to record births, marriages and deaths.”
1891: A French Catholic priest, Père Lenouvel, cut down the palm tree where the Virgin Mary was reported to have appeared in 1849, because he believed that the apparition and resultant pilgrimage amounted to so much “superstition” that should be exposed as such and eradicated.
1904: Saut-d’Eau (actually Ville Bonheur) was formally established as a Catholic parish, “on the order of President Nord Alexis” (1902-1908). At the same time, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Julien Conan, assigned a priest to the new parish.
1915-1934: Launched and perpetuated to protect American economic interests, the first U.S. military occupation of Haiti occurred, during which time Haitian rebels invoked the name of the Miraculous Virgin of Saut-d’Eau to rally insurgency against the invaders.
1932: A tropical storm toppled trees at Saut-d’Eau that were believed to have been the sites of apparitions of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist.
1940-1941: The Catholic Church hierarchy, in consort with the Haitian government and army, orchestrated an “Antisuperstious Campaign” against Vodou, which likely caused a reduction of the number of pilgrims then flocking to Saut-d’Eau.
1964: The Duvalier regime prohibited students from making the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage out of fear that it could serve to foment anti-government demonstrations, perhaps out of awareness of the site’s inspiration of resistance against the U.S. Occupation, and hence against the sitting Haitian government, earlier in the century.
1983: As part of a Marian and Eucharistic congress, Pope John Paul II visited Haiti, famously declaring during his public homily that “something must change here,” thereby invigorating an already-flourishing base church community that was inspired by liberation theology.
1986: President Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted from power, ending his family’s thirty-five years of dynastic dictatorial rule; the base church community, along with widespread student protests, helped bring this to pass.
2004: Prayer vigils were held during the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage after a civil rebellion ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, from power.
2010: The waterfalls at Saut-d’Eau survived the horrific 2010 earthquake that devastated the Haitian capital and nearby towns, transforming the site into something of a shrine for national recovery.
2013: In conjunction with the Swiss Embassy to Haiti, the Haitian government launched a reforestation campaign at Saut-d’Eau, out of well-founded fears that local erosion of the soil was threatening the structure of the waterfalls there.
Saut-d’Eau has no known human founder, but rather the appearance of Saut-d’Eau is attributed to the Virgin Mary and Èzili, the Vodou spirit (lwa) with whom the Blessed Mother is widely assimilated in popular Haitian religion (except among Protestants, who generally demonize both the Virgin and Èzili). Pilgrimage has a long and rich history in Haitian Catholicism and Vodou, two religions that, to many practitioners and observers, seem quite like one, despite the Catholic Church hierarchy’s occasional systematic efforts to squelch “superstition” throughout the land. Tied chiefly to the Catholic liturgical calendar, there are ample opportunities and destinations for pilgrims in Haiti, and thousands go to such great lengths to participate serially that one of today’s most distinguished Vodou priests, Erol Josué, surmises that Haitians are “a people on perpetual pilgrimage” (in Lescot and Magloire 2002).
The most popular pilgrimages in Haiti (and the Haitian diaspora) occur during the summer months and devotionally are focused on several invocations of the Virgin Mary, as well St. James the Greater, conflated in Vodou with the lwa of iron Ogou (Cosentino 1992), and Saint Philomena, or Lasirenn, a maritime lwa visualized/symbolized as a mermaid and a whale (Labalenn). The most important summer pilgrimages and their chief sites in Haiti (and its diaspora) are the following, with that of Saut d’Eau being the most popular in the nation:
June 27: Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (patron saint of Haiti); Port-au-Prince and Miami, Florida (Rey 1999, 2004; Rey and Stepick 2013)
July 14-17: (esp. 16): Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel; Saut d’Eau/Ville Bonheur and Harlem, New York (McAlister 1998; Orsi 1992)
July 25: Feast of Saint James the Greater; Plaine du Nord.
July 26: Feast of Saint Anne; Limonade and Anse-à-Foleur
August 15: Feast of Our Lady of the Assumption; Port-au-Prince, Cape Haitian, and Les Cayes
August 27: (or the closest Sunday): Feast of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
September 6: Feast of St. Philomena, Bord de Mer de Limonade (Rey 2005). It should be noted that formally this is now a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, while Philomena’s feast day is actually August 11 (O’Neil and Rey 2012)
Evidently, the oldest pilgrimage in Haiti is that which occurs on the Feast of Saint Anne at the church that was consecrated to her in the northern hamlet of Limonade in 1706 (O’Neil and Rey 2012:175). There are of course older Catholic churches in Haiti. The oldest, St. Rose de Lima, in Léogâne, dates to 1506 (Rey 2017). Yet there is no mention in the historical record of pilgrimage to them during the period of French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue (1697-1804), nor during the earlier period of Spanish rule over the entire island (1492-1697). The one notable exception, of course, is the shrine of Our Lady of High Grace in Higuey, on the Spanish side of the island, today’s Dominican Republic, and the great attraction that Higuey has held for Catholics and Vodouists since the shrine’s founding in 1572.
Though archival sources neither suggest nor deny that pilgrimage was popular in the colony of Saint-Domingue (1697-1804), Catholic feast days amounted to additional days off from work for slaves, over and above the Sundays that were legislated as official holidays by the Code Noir, an index of slave laws promulgated by King Louis XIV in 1685. Slaves often seized the occasion on Sundays and feast days to party and sometimes to plot revolt against their white masters. This so alarmed planters and colonial authorities that they immediately sought to deal with the menace. As early as 1710, for example, French colonial administrators took measures to reduce the number of Catholic feast days in the colony. This occurred after Dominican missionaries in the parish of Petit-Goâve, without imperial sanction, added the feast of St. Dominic to the registry of feasts and wrote to local planters that slaves should have that day off, too (Rey 2017:111). Similar legislations were passed throughout the colony to maximize slave labor and to curb the licentiousness that often swept feast day celebrations among slaves, as I have explained elsewhere:
Although these concerns with Catholic feast days seem to have been primarily driven by economics (the more feast days, the more days off for slaves) they were also rooted in fears that they were occasions for slaves to conspire to revolt.
In 1729, for instance, the superior of the Jesuit mission, Père Larcher, saw no choice but to reduce the number of feast days, “whose multitude has thus far allowed for the desertion and thievery among the blacks, neglect among whites to observe them, the former using them for debauchery and pleasure and the latter for labor and commerce” (Rey 2017:113).
Soundly understanding any form of religious practice, of course, requires paying careful attention to its history, and such is the case with pilgrimage in Haiti in general and the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage in particular. For, the “debauchery and pleasure” lamented by Père Larcher in 1729 remain part and parcel of the Saut-d’Eau experience to this day. A large nightclub, for instance, sits within walking distance from the village church and the waterfall, while hundreds of sex workers arrive in July to ply their wares (Laguerre 1989:92), along with moonshine merchants (Katz 2010) and an assortment of gamblers (Laguerre 1986, 2013). Yet, it would be a mistake to speak of such seemingly “profane” activity as being distinct from the “sacred” in Haitian religious culture, for Vodou is a religion, surely because of its deep African roots, that embraces sexuality as being as holy as anything. It is, after all, also a religion in which human beings marry spirits and sometimes devote one evening a week to sleep with them, a ritualistic and routine (albeit temporary) abandonment of their human partners. Meanwhile, as Laguerre (2013:1080) explains,
The prostitute believes herself to be a pilgrim like everyone else; that is why she does not fail to go to church to ask the Blessed Virgin to send her good clients, and if the Blessed Virgin hears her prayer, she will not fail to give back some of her money in the form of donations.
Most of the spirits love rum, furthermore, which features prominently as an offering on Vodou altars and in Vodouist communal rituals.
It is not entirely clear when exactly pilgrimage began in Saut-d’Eau. [Image at right] The waterfall itself did not exist until 1842, though at least one apparition of the Virgin Mary had been reported by the prior year (Rey 1999). The tree in which the Blessed Mother, evidently as Our Lady of Mount Carmel, is said to have appeared soon became the sight of miracles, as locals reported to Jean Price-Mars (1928:176, my translation) nearly 100 years ago: “this first miracle led to other minor miracles. The deaf could hear, the blind could see, the paralyzed could walk.” To Price-Mars, this was as much about Vodou as Catholicism, as evidenced by the food offerings to the lwa that sat adjacent to illuminated candles placed for the Virgin Mary. He was surely right about that, for, as the historical record clearly demonstrates, African religion has always been an integral part of ostensibly Catholic pilgrimage traditions in Haiti (Rey 2005b), as well as throughout much of the Caribbean and in parts of South America, especially Brazil (Greenfield and Cavalcante 2006).
In comparing the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage in Haiti with Spiritual Baptist pilgrimage traditions in Trinidad and Tobago, Stephen Glazier (1983:321) underscores how the former is of the “fixed” typology (as opposed to the “flexible” typology in which destination is not as important. Baptist pilgrims sometimes boarded busses without knowing exactly where they were going) because of the centrality of the land, which for Haitians is both “an extension of personal identity” and “the home of the ancestors and the loas” (lwa). Saut-d’Eau itself, to recall, did not exist until the land was violently shattered by the epochal 1842 earthquake, which created the waterfall whence this holy site derives its name (Rouzier 1891:262). Couple the reported 1841 apparition of the Virgin Mary with the sudden 1842 appearance of the waterfalls, and you have a remarkable confluence of miraculous events that laid the foundation for Haiti’s most important pilgrimage destination. It is also a breathtakingly beautiful place, which is perhaps best described by Alfred Métraux (1972:329):
The Tombe river, having crossed a green and laughing plain, hurls itself in one leap into the void. All the mysterious charm of tropical forests which have today disappeared survives in that dense grove where the falls gleam like jewels, darkly cased. An iridescent mist crossed by tiny rainbows rises from the foaming water, bedews the ferns and blurs the luxuriant foliage of the giant trees whose roots break the moist ground into humps and valleys. This oasis of coolness is the home of Damballah-wèdo, Grand Bossine and other aquatic deities.
For his part, and upon visiting the falls at Saut-d’Eau about fifteen years before Métraux, Melville J. Herskovits (1937:285) leaves us with an equally eloquent description of what things look like at night there:
Like the falls themselves, these spots [the forest and grove about the falls] by their very beauty awaken a sense of emotional awareness, and it is not strange that here, as at the falls, many possessions occur. At night, in particular, the great trees with their interlacing serpent-like roots, the gaping earth which at En bas Palmes [the grove] is witness to the uprooting of the palm trees where the miracle occurred, and the stream of sacred water, all make a scene of indescribable eeriness, heightened by flickering candles given as offerings, and the open lamps of those who stay to fulfill their vows.
As with most springs, pools, rivers, and cascades in Haiti, the “sacred waters” at the new cascades at Saut-d’Eau would immediately have been perceived of by Vodouists as the home of certain lwa, like those mentioned here by Métraux, as well as the Simbi, freshwater spirits of Kongolese origin, and Ayida Wèdo, who, along with Danbala, her husband, is said to own the two cascades that actually combine to form the waterfall at Saut-d’Eau (Desmangles 1992:135). Danbala is closely associated with rainbows, furthermore, which are a common feature of most waterfalls, and he stays near the water to be with his wife (Leland and Richards 1989). Trees, too, are understood to be the repositories of some Vodou spirits (Hurbon 1987:129-33; Rey 2005a; Hebblethwaite 2012), and a number of trees near the waterfalls are effectively shrines to them. That the Virgin chose to appear in trees at Saut-d’Eau, only further enhances their general sacredness for the devout in Haiti.
The site of the earliest apparition of the Virgin Mary at Saut-d’Eau is thus in effect a shrine, though no edifice has ever been constructed there (in fact, out of respect for the land and the lwa, such would not be allowed (nor is the water of the falls ever to be used for cooking). News of the 1841 apparition seems not to have circulated widely, however, for, as Michel Laguerre (1989:86) explains, “(i)t was only during the reign of Faustin Soulouque, president and then emperor of Haiti (1847-1859), that Saut D’Eau began to become a place of pilgrimage.” It is important to place this in political context, as between the 1841 apparition and the later, more famous Marian apparition of July 16, 1849, the Dominican Republic had gained independence from over twenty years of Haitian rule, in 1844. This not only effectively ended (for a while, anyway) Haitian pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of High Grace on the Dominican side of the island, but it also fueled Soulouque’s megalomania and his obsession with reconquering the neighboring nation. He would turn to the Virgin Mary to legitimate his ill-fated efforts to do so and to have himself elevated from being a mere president to being crowned an emperor. When in early July of 1849 rumors began spreading that the Virgin had appeared in a palm tree along the Champ de Mars in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, for instance, “Soulouque interpreted the event as God’s approbation for his coronation” (Laguerre 1989:87), which ultimately occurred rather opulently in an 1852 public ceremony, [Image at right] though he had assumed the title of emperor shortly after the 1849 apparitions.
Within weeks of the Champ de Mars apparition, on July 16, 1849, the Virgin Mary would make her most celebrated appearance at Saut-d’Eau, as already noted, initially to a young peasant named Fortuné Morose, who came upon the site of the Blessed Mother in a palm tree as he was looking for his wayward horse. Alarmed, he fled to the local police station to report the event, and an officer was dispatched with Morose to the scene, where a vivid image of the Virgin was indeed found to be emblazoned on a leaf of the tree in question. Upon Morose’s confirmation that the image was of the saint who had appeared to him, word spread throughout the surrounding hamlets, homesteads, and hills. The faithful and the curious soon arrived in droves to see the image for themselves, to a place known as Nan Palm (Palm Grove), which remains today, over and above the waterfall, an epicenter of the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage and an “axis mundi” of Marian devotion in Haiti (Eliade 1961).
Over the ensuing decades, reports of miracles abounded, and each summer pilgrims flocked in increasing numbers to Saut-d’Eau. Because the 1849 miracle occurred the day after the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, many believed that it was this manifestation of the Virgin Mary who had appeared, and indeed the site has always been closely associated with Mount Carmel. Meanwhile, it is just as often that the saint identified among pilgrims is called “The Miraculous Virgin of Saut-d’Eau” (Lavyèj Mirak Sodo), while Vodouists, who are usually also Catholic, have always believed that Èzili Dantò resides at Saut-D’Eau, along with Danbala and Aida Wedò. Evidently, at some point in history the Virgin of Saut d’Eau was also called “The Virgin of the Palms” (Herskovits 1937:282).
The rise in Vodouist ritual practices at Saut-d’Eau did not take long to provoke the ire of the Catholic clergy, however, who had long waged war in Haiti on African and African-derived “superstitions.” Father Lenouvel, for instance, the French priest who had the tree in which the Virgin appeared cut down, in 1891, was himself felled shortly after the tree. Undeterred by the fate of the tree, and perhaps encouraged by the mysterious fate of the priest, the faithful turned their devotional attention to a second palm tree, which in turn was felled by “another priest named Father Cessens,” who “suffered a paralytic stroke and died a few months later” (Laguerre 1989:89). These occurrences amplified the attraction of Saut-d’Eau as a bastion of spirits and saints, and subsequently the Catholic Church hierarchy has largely turned a blind eye to the Vodouist devotions that pervade both the waterfalls and the Ville-Bonheur church, especially the former.
Religion played a key role in the inspiration for and triumph of the Haitian Revolution. It is thus unsurprising that the Miraculous Virgin of Saut-d’Eau, though co-opted at times by ruling regimes, would also inspire insurgency. And, whereas Vodou is usually understood as the subaltern force against social injustice, it should be said that Catholicism, often intertwined with Vodou, has contributed to this historical trend, with the Virgin Mary frequently serving as patroness thereof (Rey 2002). Many Catholic priests sided with rebel slaves during the Revolution, after all, while during the conflict’s early months one of the most successful insurgent leaders, a free black named Romaine-la-Prophétesse, received messages from the Virgin Mary, his “godmother,” and conquered two cities, killing an untold number of French planters and their loyal slaves along the way (Rey 2017). Subsequent to the Revolution, during the sometimes bellicose subsequent twelve-year period of political division (1806-1818), when the new nation was divided between a kingdom in the north and a republic in the south, the Virgin Mary would make another politically-charged appearance in a tree, only this time as a spy dressed to look like the Blessed Mother. The spy had been ordered to feign the arboreal apparition by the Emperor Henry Christophe as a sign of a blessing over his troops from the north marching southward against his foes (Rey 1999).
Given the long history of the Virgin Mary’s being thus employed to legitimate military campaigns (not just in Haiti, but throughout the Church Universal), one could reasonably expect that the Miraculous Virgin of Saut-d’Eau would appeal to insurgents who sought to resist the first U.S. military occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). “The political guerrilla leaders interpreted the U.S. presence in their country as being against the will of the Holy Virgin,” explains Laguerre (1989:97). As such, the rebels adorned themselves with medals of the Virgin Mary and scapulars that had been blessed in the waters of the miraculous cascade, which, as they believed, ensured their successful assault on the U.S. military outpost in Croix-des-Bouquets and the occupation of that nearby town in May of 1916. Aware of the inspirational role that the Miraculous Virgin of Saut-d’Eau had played for the insurgents (called the Cacos), a U.S. Marine was ordered to cut down one of the most venerated palm trees near the falls. Much like the French Catholic priest the century prior, however, doing so only invoked the wrath of the Virgin Mary, or of Èzili Dantò, who afflicted the soldier so severely that he had to be sent home to the United States for medical care (Laguerre 1989:97). A Haitian sergeant who had collaborated with the Marine by shooting at a reported apparition of the Virgin is believed to have gone mad and turned to the Virgin to seek forgiveness (Ramsey 2011:156).
In light of the dreadful fates of Catholic priests, police officers, and both Haitian and American soldiers who have sought to curtail popular religious devotion at Saut-d’Eau, it is hardly surprising that, following the U.S. occupation, the Haitian State and the Catholic hierarchy seem to have adopted a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy vis-à-vis the nation’s most popular pilgrimage site. To be sure, the Catholic Church hierarchy, in collaboration with the State, would later wage a destructive nationwide campaign against Vodou, the Antisuperstious Campaign of 1940-1941 (called in Haitian Creole the Kanpay Rejete) (Ramsey 2011:200-10), but it is unclear that Saut-d’Eau would then be targeted for attack. Seeing as the nearby town of Mirebalais was the epicenter of the Campaign, it is hard to imagine that there was not a reduction in the number of pilgrims visiting Saut-d’Eau during those years.
Although the Antisuperstitious Campaign of 1940-1941 was the last formally orchestrated effort by the Catholic Church to eradicate Vodou from Haitian society (one that ironically was brought to a halt following a shooting in the Church of Our Lady of High Grace in Port-au-Prince [Rey 1999]), the State would find cause to curtail the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage two decades later. Having assumed power in 1957, François Duvalier, “President for Life,” enacted draconian measures to squelch opposition to his dictatorial rule, which included banning university students from making pilgrimage to Saut-d’Eau in the summer of 1964 (Laguerre 1989, 98). A physician and ethnographer who had previously researched his nation’s political history and travelled across the land, “Papa Doc,” as he was popularly known, keenly recognized the power of religion to foment resistance against oppression in Haiti, hence his regime’s enactment of the ban in question.
It is not clear that Papa Doc’s successor, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka “Baby Doc,” who assumed the presidency upon his father’s death in 1971, ever similarly curtailed pilgrimage to Saut-d’Eau, but, either way, perhaps he should have. For, student protests would be one of the chief causes of his fall from power in 1986, along with the popular church movement (Tilegliz) fueled by liberation theology, though admittedly little is known of what role, if any, that Saut-d’Eau played in the protest movement at the time. Following Baby Doc’s long period of exile in France, meanwhile, the former dictator was allowed to return to Haiti in 2012 and live there freely until his death in 2014. Baby Doc actually visited Saut-d’Eau during the July festivities in 2012, much to the astonishment of many pilgrims. But, the brutality of his rule over Haiti notwithstanding, perhaps like the prostitutes he was also just a pilgrim, another spiritual sojourner, one offering penance to the spirit world on the eve of his pending death. Alternatively, perhaps he was there to thank the Virgin for having allowed him to return to his homeland in the first place, a historical development that shocked many Haiti observers.
Haiti has witnessed a great deal of social and political upheaval and environmental devastation in the post-Duvalier years (from coups d’état and civil wars, to a cholera epidemic and a catastrophic earthquake), but Saut-d’Eau has survived it all and seemingly steered clear of the nation’s divisive and corrupt political arena. On the contrary, the site and its pilgrimage have become more a source of unity and solace to the Haitian people in the wake of calamity. The division between social classes in Haiti is dire and classism frequently rears its ugly head there, while Haitians who live in the diaspora (nearly two million in all, mostly in the United States),are often spoken of derisively by those in the homeland. However, they all unite during the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage and bathe together in the pool at the foot of the miraculous falls, both to give thanks for blessings received personally and to pray for national healing in unity (as happened most notably following the tragic earthquake of 2010, which took the lives of a quarter-million people), and to protect Haiti generally. As one pilgrim put it, “I’m coming to pray to God that something like the earthquake doesn’t happen again” (Katz 2010). One could, of course, pray for such things in one’s living room or local church, but uniting with one’s people from near and far at Saut-d’Eau during the July pilgrimage enhances both prayer and national solidarity.
There are many formal Catholic doctrines pertaining to the Virgin Mary, of course, but they are generally of little concern to most of the faithful who flock to Saut-d’Eau each summer, hence there is no need to outline them them here. For, the majority of these pilgrims are not just Catholic, but they also practice Vodou, which is not a centralized religion and is largely devoid of doctrine per se, scripted or other. It is thus best instead to turn our attention presently to beliefs and rituals, toward understanding this extraordinary pilgrimage tradition.
Haitian Catholics and Vodouists conceive of the Virgin Mary as the mother of God, as the mother of Haiti, and as the mother of all human beings. She is the ultimate intercessor between humans and God. No saint in Haiti receives as many offerings as the Blessed Mother or hears as many suppliant prayers. The Virgin Mary is conceived of as the most miraculous of all saints and the saint with the greatest concern for Haiti and for Haitians. She is credited with having delivered the nation from a major small pox epidemic in 1882, for instance, and for bringing Pope John Paul II to Haiti in 1983, a papal visit that precipitated the fall of the brutal dynastic Duvalier regime in 1986 (Rey 1999; Rey 2002). Over and above the blessings that the Virgin bestows on the nation, miracles are often reported in believers’ personal lives, as virtually any form of good fortune (from winning the lottery to obtaining a green card) can be attributed to the maternal love of the Virgin Mary.
For many Vodouists, the Virgin Mary is a manifestation or at least a reflection of the most beloved of all female lwa, Èzili, who herself takes several forms, chief among them being Èzili Freda and Èzili Dantò. Although the Virgin and Èzili are thus widely conflated in popular Haitian religion, their characteristics generally are not. For instance, neither Freda nor Dantò are chaste; the former has many lovers, some of them human, while the latter is a single mother. The humility and obedience of the Blessed Mother, furthermore, is not shared by the Èzili lwas, as Freda is fond of fine perfumes and lace, while Dantò is feared for her fits of rage. One Haitian Vodouist I know actually attributes his alcoholism to the will of Dantò, while some transgenders in Haiti attribute their sexual orientation to the will of Freda (Lescot and Magloire 2002). Thus, while images, statues, and icons of the Virgin Mary conjure ideas about Èzili, and such forms of ritual paraphernalia are commonly found in Vodou temples, the saint and the lwa are generally not perceived of as being factually or existentially one and the same.
Whether pilgrims are there out of devotion to the Virgin Mary, Èzili, or both, the central beliefs that bring tens of thousands of Haitians to Saut-d’Eau each year are the following: the place is sacred, miraculous, and chosen by the saints and the spirits. Pilgrimage throughout the world is generally shaped by the human quest for spiritual purification and to deepen one’s relationship with the divine, and Saut-d’Eau is certainly no exception to this. More specifically, writes Laguerre (1989:92):
Pilgrims come to Saut D’Eau for many reasons: to make a promise or to accomplish a vow, to give thanks, to acquire good luck in order to make money, to follow the orders of Voodoo priests, to get married or beget a child. For both Catholics and Voodooists, Saut D’Eau is a spiritual centre, a place to renew good relationships with the supernatural world.
In addition to creating us humans and the world around us, God created spirits and saints, like Èzili and the Virgin Mary, to serve us and to be served (Danbala and Aiyda Wèdo are believed to be the first lwa created by God, incidentally). The spirits and saints chose Saut-d’Eau either as a place to reside or a place to appear. They make themselves known and available to their devotees, in this case the throngs of pilgrims who make the journey to this sacred grove in Haiti’s Central Plateau out of their faith commitments to this recipe of reciprocal service. And, although some pilgrims also arrive during Holy Week and for the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy in September (Laguerre 1989:85), it is during the weeks leading up to the culmination of the pilgrimage in mid-July that the throngs transform the Ville Bonheur and Saut-d’Eau into a veritable Vodouist/Catholic Caribbean Mecca.
Rituals performed at Saut-d’Eau are so many and diverse that it would require and entire book to catalogue and describe them with any adequacy. Complicating matters is that there are several destinations where pilgrims praise and serve the saints and spirits and where they embody and perform two religions, Vodou and Catholicism, which are simultaneously dear to the vast majority of practitioners who arrive by the thousands each July. Some are “just” Catholic, to be sure, while the vast majority of Vodouists are also Catholic, as are most of the Vodou spirits themselves (Métraux 1972:332), while it is often said in Haiti that “To serve the lwa, you must be Catholic.” Be that as it may, prayer and offerings are the most common forms of ritual during the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage, and they all occur plentifully at the village church, the waterfalls, [Image at right] and at Nan Palm, the site above the falls where the Virgin is believed to have first appeared. Leslie Desmangles (1992:136) observes something of a geographic “symbiosis of ecology” at the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage, with Catholic devotions occurring primarily at and around the church in Ville Bonheur and Vodouist devotions occurring primarily at and around the falls. More recently, Vodou ceremonies are increasingly common in the town, as are raucous parties that seemingly have little or nothing to do with religion.
One hears many songs sung among pilgrims at Saut-d’Eau, some as solos, others in groups united in the singing of hymns either to the Virgin Mary or the Vodou spirits. The performance of music should thus be counted among the many rituals during the pilgrimage, both the solemn a cappella hymns accompanied by the sound of the falls and the Vodou drumming frequently heard in the surrounding groves. Benjamin Hebblethwaite (2012:26; translation in original) has collected a treasure trove of Vodouist hymns from throughout Haiti, including one specifically crafted for the Miraculous Virgin of Saut-d’Eau:
Vyèj mirak Sodo,
m vin lapriyè w.
Mwen vin mande w
pou bay moun yo travay.
Men nuit kou jou, mesy,
y ape pale male
Mwen sant m about o!
[Virgin miracle of Saut-d’Eau,
I have come to pray to you.
I come to ask you to give
these people work.
But night and day, my goodness,
they are speaking badly.
Oh I’m at the end of my rope!]
As Hebblethwaite (Hebblethwaite (2012:27) helpfully adds, “The song reveals the importance of pilgrimage to sacred places in nature and expresses the hope placed in the Virgin and the beleaguered conditions of its author.”
One of the most unique features of pilgrimage in Haiti in general is the wearing of penitential clothes (rad penitans) and the tying of colorful ropes around one’s waist, something discouraged by the Catholic hierarchy but which nonetheless brings much color to Catholic shrines throughout the nation during feast day celebrations (Rey and Richman 2010). Red and white are common choices of colors for rad penitans, with blue denim shirts and blouses also abounding, while many pilgrims carry straw sacks and wear straw hats, which are evocative of Vodou’s leading agricultural spirit Azaka, or Kouzen Zak. The wearing of rad penitans was observed at Saut-d’Eau as early as 1910 by Eugène Aubin (Laguerre 1989:83), thus it likely a very old tradition. As for the ropes, I have argued elsewhere that they could derive from Kongolese religious culture, which is, after all, a taproot of Haitian Marianism (Rey and Richman 2009; Rey 2017). In teaching about Africana religions, I have coined the term “envesselment” to explain the key belief that just as bottles, gourds, graves, trees, temples, churches, and amulets serve as vessels for the containment of supernatural power, so, too, do human bodies. What better than ropes to secure, intensify, and extend this process of envesselment?
The journey itself features various rituals, over and above the wearing of the colorful ropes and rad penitans. Many pilgrims pray or sing hymns along the way, meditate on the course of their lives and the things for which they will thank the spirits and saints upon arrival, or remind themselves of the blessings for which they will beseech them. For some, the journey also requires stopping at every Catholic church along one’s route to Saut-d’Eau, while for others visits of homage to leaders of Vodouist secret societies between the points of departure and arrival are also prerequisite (Laguerre 2013:1081).
Vodouist rituals at Saut-d’Eau take sundry forms. Once at the falls, many pilgrims strip down to their underwear, the women among them often topless, and bathe in the pool beneath the cascades and allow the cool waters to cleanse them. This bestows blessings from the lwas while also purifying the faithful, who leave various offerings for the spirits on the banks of the pool, at the base of surrounding trees and in cracks in their bark, and in dry nooks and crannies in the rock face or on boulders rising from the water. Usually before entering the water, the pilgrims remove the colorful ropes that many of them have worn during their sojourn to Saut-d’Eau and wrap them around trees, tied to be left there after they return home. The kinds of rituals and ritual paraphernalia described by Price-Mars (1928:177, my translation) nearly 100 years ago continue to abound at the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage: “Others light candles at the feet of the trees, hanging ropes and kerchiefs on sagging branches. Meanwhile, food offerings lie in countless vessels scattered about the damp shade of the trees.” One also sees Vodou priests and priestesses carrying rattles and basins of herbs, which are mixed with the sacred waters and spread over the bodies of clients who have accompanied them on the pilgrimage to be cured of some ailment or to be assured of luck (chans) for some pending endeavor.
Although it cannot be said to be a ritual per se, no description of the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage would be complete without at least passing mention of spirit possession, an experience that occurs most often in the pool beneath the cascades. In Haitian Vodou, believers are sometimes possessed by the lwa, or in the nomenclature of the religion, a possessed believer is a horse (chwal) who is mounted by its rider. This is the derivation of the title of Maya Deren’s classic study of Haitian Vodou, both the book [Deren 1953] and the film, The Divine Horsemen [Deren 2005]). Along with divination, this is the most powerful means of communing and communicating with the sacred in Haitian Vodou. Possessions can be quite dramatic, furthermore, with the human horses losing control of their bodies, trembling, salivating, yelping, and splashing about the water or writhingly collapsing into the arms of spotters.
At the Catholic church in Ville Bonheur, a Novena is prayed during the days leading up to the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, “culminating with a large gathering presided over by the local bishop” (Brockman 2011:497). During this period of time, hundreds of mendicants arrive in the town, where charitable giving to them is an important ritualistic dimension of the pilgrimage. The Masses are well attended, while throughout the remainder of the day suppliants can be found in and around the packed church at prayer. As is common in Catholic churches throughout Haiti, most of the suppliants are women, and they often pray aloud and beseechingly, arms outstretched, hands clutching candles, rosaries, or photographs of loved ones for whom they seek blessings from the Virgin Mary, or in some instances from Saint Anthony, who is also associated with this church, albeit on a much smaller scale (in Vodou, Saint Anthony is conflated with Legba, the leading trickster spirit and the keeper of the gates between the seen and unseen worlds). Offerings are left in and around the church for the Virgin, everything from candles and flowers to scripted notes and even homemade cakes. In the belief that the church should smell pleasant for the Blessed Mother (and for Èzili) on occasion a devotee might bring an aerosol can of air freshener to spray about the sanctuary. This practice is discouraged by the Catholic clergy, not because it is somehow sacrilegious, but because of the combustible danger this represents in close proximity to lighted candles (O’Neil and Rey 2012).
Finally, although they are usually associated with Lent, when they animate the streets of towns and villages throughout Haiti with upbeat music and boisterous procession, Rara bands are also a feature of the Saut-d’Eau/Ville Bonheur experience (Sérant 2014). Elizabeth McAlister (2002:3) helpfully encapsulates their scope and chief purpose:
Beginning the moment Carnival ends, on the eve of Lent, and building for six weeks until Easter Week, Rara processions walk for miles through local territory, attracting fans and singing new and old songs. Bands stop traffic for hours to play music and perform rituals for Afro-Haitian deities at crossroads, bridges, and cemeteries. They are conducting the spiritual work that becomes necessary when the angels and saints, along with Jesus, disappear into the underworld on Good Friday.
It would appear that the “spiritual work” of certain Rara bands has been extended to include periods when the saints are no longer in the underworld. The Virgin Mary is decidedly not during peak summer pilgrimage season, and nowhere more so in Haiti than at Saut-d’Eau, along with Èzili, of course.
There is a parish priest in residence at the Catholic church in Ville Bonheur, and he answers directly to the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, the capital city some sixty miles away. Though, as is to be expected, he presides over all sacramental rites throughout the year, the pastor has little to no oversight over the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage. Nonetheless, it is a very busy time at his church, which is flooded with pilgrims and mendicants who stream to the small town in mid-July. Other priests do arrive to assist the pastor, as there is no end to the items that pilgrims ask them to bless, either their persons or the ritual paraphernalia that they bring with them or purchase from the many religious goods vendors in the town for the occasion. Needless to say, Masses are very well attended during pilgrimage season, and most in attendance either wear or carry some symbol, amulet, rosary, candle, or scapular. The church is standing room only for several days.
As with all of the major feast days on the Catholic liturgical calendar, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Caramel calls for a procession, and this is organized and controlled by the pastor and any visiting Catholic clergy. Processions are highly popular in Haitian Catholicism. It is not uncommon to see thousands of believers shuffling prayerfully, often in song, behind a priest carrying the statue of some saint or behind a pickup truck carting the icon while motoring slowly about the streets on a well-worn route of faith. During the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage, a Catholic priest removes the icon of Our Lady of Mount Carmel from the church and has it placed atop a truck to lead a winding procession though the dirt roads of the village, with throngs of the faithful worshipfully sauntering in tow. Organizing the procession can be challenging, as speakers need to be fixed to the truck in order to amplify the prayers and hymns, while some years the crowds clogging the roads surrounding the church are simply too dense for the event to take place at all (Lloyd 1992).
Unlike Roman Catholicism, Haitian Vodou is not a centralized religion, though there are important lineages of priests (oungan) and priestesses (manbo). These are the highest ranking authorities in the religion, who, by virtue of having undergone extensive training and usually at least two stages of initiation, possess mastery of rituals and knowledge of symbols that has been vital to the religion’s sustenance and transmission since it was born among Africans in Saint-Domingue in the eighteenth century (though with much deeper African and Catholic roots). Oungan and manbo are important figures in the organization of the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage, but in a piecemeal fashion rather than through any sort of national committee of elders. To be specific, they will send their followers on pilgrimage, to Saut-d’Eau and elsewhere, to fulfil vows, secure blessings, serve the spirits, and/or as part of their own initiation beyond the level of the lay practitioner. Seven pilgrimages, in fact, are required as part of priestly initiation for many Vodouists seeking to become priests or priestesses [Hebblethwaite 2011: 27]). Many oungan and manbo make the journey themselves, of course, often with their assistants (ounsi) accompanying them.
It would not be inaccurate to call the ounsi a novice of sorts, someone, male or female, who is apprenticing under an oungan or manbo as a crucial part of her or his own training to possibly become a priest. This process assumes that they possess the calling and the gifts to do so, something that is usually determined by a recognized oungan or manbo. Ounsi are further divided into two classes, those who have undergone a preliminary initiation to become an assistant to a priest or priesthood, ounsi kanzo, and those who have not undergone such a rite of passage, ounsi bosal (Hebblethwaite 2007:277). Whatever their ranks, ounsi are generally important members of a certain lakou, or temple homestead, and they orchestrate necessary elements of communal rituals, having gained intimate knowledge of the songs that are sung during ceremonies and serving often as something like a cantor. Thus, there are many ounsi among the pilgrims at Saut-d’Eau, but they would not generally carry any ritual paraphernalia that would distinguish them as such, unlike many of the oungan and manbo, who alone can carry and employ the sacred rattle (asson) that is the chief symbol of their sacerdotal standing.
Most people who practice Vodou in Haiti never undergo any initiatory rite, either because they simply are not called to do so or because the sometimes exorbitant costs of the training and rituals are beyond their means. With that said, there are two other positions of leadership in the religion that generally do not require one to undergo an initiatory rite of passage, those of the medsin fey (literally: leaf doctor) and the prètsavann (literally: bush priest). The former is essentially an herbalist, one often trained by an elder member of her/his extended family, while the latter is a clerical assistant of sorts who is often charged with the task of reciting the Catholic prayers that usually mark the beginning of communal Vodou rituals, in French and on occasion in Latin. There are surely many medsin fey and prètsavann in attendance at the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage, which would be attractive to them for reasons over and above those of the lay pilgrim. For one thing, there are innumerable communal Vodou ceremonies that take place in the town and throughout the area surrounding the falls, and thus the services of the prètsavann are in high demand; for another, some of the holiest leaves and holiest waters in Haiti are found at Saut-d’Eau. The enterprising prètsavann thus makes it a point to collect some to bring back home following the pilgrimage.
Two serious challenges currently face Saut-d’Eau: environmental degradation and a new wave of religious intolerance.
The healing waters of the beautiful waterfalls at the pilgrimage site still cascade marvelously during the rainy season, whereas during other parts of the year they are reduced to a veritable trickle. As one Haitian journalist put it: “The water at Saut-d’Eau is drying up. Saut-d’Eau risks becoming but a memory. An attraction only during the rainy season. Or, worse yet, an archeological site commemorating its past” (Anonymous 2013). It is unclear whether or not the catastrophic 2010 earthquake contributed to this problem, but it has long been known that deforestation in Haiti has grave environmental and economic consequences, soil erosion paramount among them, and it was only a matter of time that one of the most beautiful and celebrated places in Haiti would find itself imperiled.
Saut-d’Eau has gained international recognition both for its religious significance and for its natural beauty, and it is increasingly common to find foreign tourists and journalists visiting the pilgrimage site, especially during the July celebrations. For Haitian minister of the environment Jean-Francois, “(t)he falls at Saut-d’Eau are among the seven most beautiful waterfalls in the world” (Anonymous 2013). Thus, recognizing the site as a veritable national treasure and an important source of tourist revenue, the Haitian State, in conjunction with the Swiss Embassy to Haiti, launched a reforestation initiative in 2013. Erosion around the falls has worsened in recent years to such a degree that experts feared that their very structure was on the brink of collapse; hence this focused effort at environmental sustainability. In addition to the planting of up to a million saplings, the initiative also called for a community restaurant with seating for 500, a place for pilgrims and other visitors to relax and/or grab a hot meal at a reasonable price, rather than eating outdoors, as most people tend to do during pilgrimage season.
Since the 2010 earthquake, religious intolerance has once again reared its ugly head in Haiti, with a notable return of the persecution of Vodouists at the hands of Christians. However, unlike at previous junctures in Haitian history, it is now mainly evangelical Protestants, and not the Catholic hierarchy, who are denouncing Vodou as satanic. Just prior to the earthquake, in fact, the Catholic Church hierarchy had been reaching out to Vodouist leaders in efforts to promote dialogue (Richman 2012), though, to be sure, some Catholic priests continue to rail against Vodou. One of the most popular among them, Father Jules Campion, actually prophesied the earthquake and blames Vodou, along with homosexuality and a general lack of prayer among the faithful, for provoking the wrath of God to such seismic proportions (Rey forthcoming).
But, the main anti-Vodou force in Haiti today is clearly Protestant, and not necessarily of the foreign mission variety but rather an indigenous one. Haiti’s most powerful national creation myth is of a Vodou ceremony at a place northeast of Saut-d’Eau called Bois Caïman in August of 1791that was led by an oungan named Boukman Dutty and a manbo named Cecille Fatiman. Legend has it that they sacrificed a pig and stirred the slaves present to rise up and strike back against their white French masters, thereby sparking the Haitian Revolution. Not surprisingly, Bois Caïman has become a pilgrimage site all of its own for Vodouists each August. In recent years, however, they have been confronted there by large crowds of evangelical Christians who have bought into the narrative that the 1791 ceremony was actually a Faustian pact with the devil that is to blame for Haiti’s subsequent two centuries of misfortune. This narrative first began stirring in Haitian Protestant circles in the 1990s (McAlister 2012). Although there is no evidence that evangelicals have gathered en masse to denounce Vodouists during the Saut-d’Eau pilgrimage, it seems only a matter of time before they do. Meanwhile, some Protestants actually visit Saut-d’Eau to seek blessings clandestinely, while one member of the nearby Seventh Day Adventist church has recently been in charge of the speakers during the procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ville Bonheur (Walcam 2015).
Finally, although supposedly it could be debated whether or not this actually represents a sort of challenge, it deserves mention that, as of 2015, the magnificent and miraculous waterfalls at Saut-d’Eau have served as a backdrop for an annual “Hot Bikini” photo shoot (Anonymous 2016). Unlike many of the women who visit the falls out for more perceivably spiritual quests, the models at the shoot never appear to be topless. One of them did, however, for good measure apparently, pose wearing a baseball cap bearing a Vodou symbol! This is just one reflection of a secularizing trend that has played out over the years at the sacred falls, as the most devout pilgrims at Saut-d’Eau these days often find themselves outnumbered by revelers who are there simply to party. One wonders what the Virgin Mary and Èzili think about the future of this remarkable sacred site.
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24 October 2017