Remote chapel a beacon for boaters

By Barbara Chenevert

The Catholic Commentator

 They come from all over the world, traveling by boat past huge cypress trees laden with Spanish moss, an occasional camp or fishing boat the only sign of human life. Five miles down the meandering Blind River in rural St. James Parish, they arrive at a small, rustic chapel, dedicated to the Blessed Mother.

 They may come to pray. They may stop for the novelty of it – curiosity seekers or tourists finding a south Louisiana gem. They may be believers or maybe not. They may bring along their prayers for the sick or mementos of deceased loved ones. They just about always bring requests for prayer.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Blind River, a 14-by-20 foot structure accessible only by boat, has been attracting visitors for the three decades since it was built by the late Martha and Bobby Deroche.

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A front view of Our Lady of Blind River Chapel which is accessible only by boat. Photos by Barbara Chenevert and Penny Saia | The Catholic Commentator

 

“My father always loved the river. When he retired he told my mother he was going to live on the river, which they did. My mother was a very spiritual woman. But they couldn’t always come up the river to go to Mass,” said their daughter Pat Hymel.

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Pat and Kenneth Hymel pray before the large statue of the Blessed Mother which is enshrined in a hollowed-out cypress tree. On either side of Our Lady are paintings, candles and statues left by visitors to the chapel.

 

Her mother started to have visions of Jesus kneeling next to a rock, with the words inscribed on it, “Upon this rock you shall build a church.” Her parents interpreted the visions as a sign that they should build a special place to pray, Hymel said.

So, on Easter Sunday of 1983 Bobby Deroche and friends started building a chapel next door to the Deroche’s river home. Some 37 volunteers participated in the construction of the chapel that is encased in 2,000 cypress shingles all cut by hand. By August, they had finished.

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Visitors to Our Lady of Blind River Chapel are invited to take finger rosaries or scapulars to aid in their prayer.

 

In its first two years, the chapel drew almost 7,000 visitors, and countless more have come since.

“My mother got finger rosaries by the hundreds and she gave one to everyone who came to visit, or maybe a scapular, and she would tell them the story of how the chapel got started. When the people would come, she would ask if they wanted her to pray with them. She would hold their hands and tell them to ask for something they really needed. She said she could often feel something – a tingling in their hands as she prayed,” Hymel said. But if they wanted to be alone, she would respect that too.

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Pat and Kenneth Hymel, caretakers of the chapel, hold a photograph of Pat Hymel’s parents, the late Bobby and Martha Deroche who built the chapel in 1983. 

 

Many times people returned to the chapel to tell her that they had received their blessing, but Deroche would be quick to tell them that it wasn’t her but the will of the Blessed Mother. Hymel tells of one incident in which a little boy who had leukemia came to the chapel. “Mom prayed for him and six months later, the family came back and said he was cancer free.”

Hymel continued, “People would come who don’t go to church. They would say they don’t believe, but before they left, there would be tears in their eyes.”

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A simple box holds requests for prayer and donations at the remote chapel.

 

The interior of the chapel is dominated by a huge statue of the Blessed Mother set into a large cypress hollow, made from a 2,000-year-old cypress tree that had been struck by lightning. The statue, itself 100 years old, came from a church in Lutcher and had been in storage for years.

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A bracelet bearing the name Laila and a pin commemorating the death of a loved one are left at the foot a statue of St. Joseph.

 

Statues, paintings, rosaries, all left by visitors, litter the interior of the chapel. A bracelet left at the foot of a statue of St. Joseph simply carries the name “Laila” forcing a visitor to wonder of Laila’s story, and to say a quick prayer that whoever she is, her prayer was answered.

Outside a shaded bench invites visitors to stay awhile to enjoy the peaceful setting, where floating lilies bloom and water laps at the dock. One can almost hear the bell tower beckoning people to come for prayer. Hymel said her mother rang the bell every Sunday.

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A cypress shingles shown on the chapel steeple were cut by hand for the exterior of the 14- by 20-foot chapel.

 

“When I come to the chapel, I see momma. She always raised us in the faith. I know what this chapel meant to her and what it means to me. Any blessing that comes, my mom would have said it was because of Jesus and the Blessed Mother,” said Pat Hymel, who along with her husband Kenneth and her son, Lance Weber, now take care of the chapel.

“I look at it as a way to keep my grandparents’ legacy alive,” said Weber, who as a child would haul buckets of dirt by boat to the construction site.

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A bell from the top of a tower beckons visitors to pray at the chapel.

 

ˆ”It’s an honor being able to take care of the chapel,” echoed Pat Hymel, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Gramercy.

Hymel relies on, but never asks for, donations from visitors for upkeep of the chapel. “My mom would say, ‘God will take care of this chapel.’ Everything that is here was inspired by her vision and it was meant to be here on this river.”

 

 

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