Tourism has long been a part of the culture of New Orleans, but more people are visiting the state’s swamps and bayous than ever before.
In Blind River, one local woman’s expression of faith has become an attraction - one that her family keeps going.
Our Lady of Blind River is a little church on the banks of the Blind River, about 50 miles from New Orleans. It’s become a popular site for kayakers lately, but it’s long been a fixture in the local community.
It’s a little cypress-shingled chapel, tucked away deep in the swamp. For outdoorsy types - it’s a cool thing to check off your “must see” list - but it actually came to be because of one family’s deep faith.
Patricia Hymel is the caretaker. She greeted me with a hug at her home in Gramercy, Louisiana, on the Mississippi River. She was born and raised there. Pat is a proud grandma. She can’t make it through a sentence without laughing.
The car she had as a teenager is in the driveway, a perfectly restored 1964 Mustang. She’s been lots of places. Her small ranch home is full of photos from when she toured the country as part of a women’s basketball team in the 1960s and 70s - The All-American Redheads. They only played against men and they won most of the games.
These days Hymel stays close to home. At least once a week she tends to the Catholic chapel her mother, Martha, started more than 30 years ago. “Mamma had visions,” she says. “She was a very faithful woman, you know, a very religious woman.”
After Hymel was grown, her parents, Martha and Bobby, moved out from town into a little house on Blind River - no roads to get there. Her dad fished. Her mom got religion. “She told my daddy, she said ‘Bobby I been having these visions of Jesus kneeling by the rock… I think the good Lord is telling me to build something here. I want something here where I can go and pray and if people want to pray they can stop and pray.’”
So Martha convinced her husband to build her a prayer chapel in the swamp. It wasn’t easy. People came from all over to help - floating supplies down the river and cutting thousands of cypress shingles by hand. Some of the neighbors might’ve thought she was crazy, but not all of them. “Because when they started it a lot of people went, like, ‘Wow!’ and before you knew it the word spread.”
Both of Hymel’s parents passed away a few years ago. Pat’s taken on Our Lady of Blind River as her own devotion to them.
It’s a lot of work to get out there. Hymel’s husband, Kenneth, backs his little Toyota down a ramp to launch the boat. Pat says, “You can only get there by river.”
The breeze from the boat ride cools down the sweltering day. Spanish moss dangles from tall cypress and water lilies bounce up and down in the boat’s wake. We pass little houses on the water, fishing camps. About three miles in, we turn a bend and see the church.
It’s one-room, raised up on wood stilts a few feet above the water, its steeple reaching heavenward among the trees. Its dock reaching out into the river.
Hymel’s husband Kenneth docks the boat and Hymel calls out to some visitors who’ve just been inside. She’s always game to talk about the chapel. She walks up the platform to greet them and asks how they enjoyed the chapel.
Shawn Boudreaux responds, “It was nice, I really like it, I could see that they really put a lot of time and effort into it.”
Boudreaux found the chapel through a geo-tagging game. He grew up Catholic. He likes to bring friends when they visit. For many it’s a novel pilgrimage. Pat sees it as her mother’s legacy.
Hymel asks if he asked for a blessing, and Boudreaux says, “Of course. I lit a candle for my sister.” To which Hymel responds, “Thank you, thank you, I hope your blessing comes true.”
Hymel wants people to visit. There’s a little welcome sign out front and a sign above telling you it’s Our Lady of Blind River. The paint is peeling on the steeple and some of the shingles are falling off. Hymel pushes hard to open the door, which is sticky and jammed. The floor and doors have all been damaged by frequent flooding. It’s hot inside. She rushes to turn on the AC.
People come and go throughout the day; lighting candles at the feet of the second-hand Madonna - bought and then donated from another church. “These all these pews were made out of cypress. Now this tree that the blessed mother is enshrined in is over 2,000 years old. It was hit by lightning.”
Mother Mary is nestled in a hollowed out cypress trunk. A hole at the base of the tree is filled with scraps of paper. Hymel explains, “This little knot - you can see all the paper in there. That people leave their little petitions, or their blessing, and leave it in there.”
They’re private - she would never read them. But sometimes people tell her their wishes - one woman prayed to get pregnant, another asked that her disabled child could walk again.
The guest book shows people from around the country, she says, even from around the world. As Hymel and her husband age, the chapel has become both a blessing and burden. It’s flooded four or five times. People along the bayou check on Our Lady of Blind River after heavy rain. They need to raise the building higher, freshen up the outside.
Husband Kenneth Hymel says, “You’ve got to be a believer. It’s like anything in life - you’ve got to be able to believe that things will happen and it’ll come true. And that’s the way she feels about this, her mamma instilled that in her, and she’s just carrying the message on.”
And he’s carrying her on, as Pat sees out her mother’s vision and legacy - mother Martha’s private chapel now open to whoever the water brings by.
Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.