Artist: Bryan Brown
Storyteller: Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Mother Catherine Seals is a mysterious figure. There’s not much written about her, and only a few photographs of her exist. So a lot of what we do know about this spiritual mother is hearsay. And some say that once she created her Bethlehem in the Lower Ninth Ward, she never left.
This Bethlehem was the church and manger where Mother Catherine ministered to thousands of people, black and white, during the height of Jim Crow in the 1920s. She started her own temple, The Temple of The Innocent Blood, after a white spiritual healer turned her away for being black. After that, she was visited by a spirit that told her to create her own organization.
This experience led her to Mother Leafy Anderson, the founder of the spiritual church movement in New Orleans. Anderson trained her to be a spiritual mother, so she could follow her calling and start her own independent church. There were a lot of small spiritual churches in the 9th Ward at the time, usually run out of people’s homes. Most of these rituals were kept behind closed doors. Since spiritual practices trace back to African traditions, many white people associated these religions with Voodoo. To them, voodoo meant black. It meant backward. It meant dangerous. That’s why Mother Catherine Seals looked to the outskirts of town to build her compound, across the industrial canal, where there was still no electricity, or paved roads. She bought what’s now an entire block of Charbonnet Street in the Lower 9th Ward, built a ten-foot wall around her property, and got to work.
Mother Catherine was most known for her healing powers. She used simple ingredients like castor oil and Epsom salts to ward off or expunge disease. There are also descriptions of people having wounds healed through chickens that were tied onto their legs.
As word got around about Mother Catherine, more people trudged through knee-deep mud to visit her temple, which brings us back to the name: The Temple of the Innocent Blood. Mother Catherine related to women who were abandoned and abused by men, so she decided to service these women, first and foremost. But she also vowed to not turn anyone anyway, no matter their age, gender, or race. This is how the Temple of the Innocent Blood flattened racial hierarchies, which caused backlash, including regular arson attacks on the compound. People were not happy about an integrated healing space in Jim Crow New Orleans.
So why did white people go to her temple? Well, let’s say you didn’t have money to see a doctor, or you did see a doctor, who said there was nothing he or she could do. And then you heard there was a healer down in the Lower 9 who was curing tuberculosis? You went.
Mother Catherine Seals led the Temple of the Innocent Blood from 1922 until her death in 1930. Her Jazz Funeral was one of the largest in the city’s history, with thousands of people in the streets, and a write up in TIME magazine. Mother Rita was second in command to Mother Catherine, and kept the temple alive for another few years. Ultimately, it couldn’t survive without her. But her success inspired a larger spiritual church movement, and those churches kept a picture of Mother Catherine on their altars. In some ways, she’s the Lower 9th’s patron saint.