Statue’s trek marks the erosion of Louisiana’s coast

For more than half a century she has stared down storms that would strafe the Cajun coast, with unblinking eyes of stone. She has served as a harbinger of good fortune and safety for seamen venturing beyond the diminishing bars of the Isles Dernieres archipelago, and delivered a silent but stoic message of safer waters for those returning home.

Now she has a new home herself, a perch nearer to shore.

Tides, wind and rain that eat away the barrier islands took their toll on the sands beneath the statue some call “Our Lady Star of the Sea,” “Our Lady of the Sea” and others simply “The Lady.” And so she’s been moved for a third time to safer ground, still inspiring and protecting, but better able to survive a savage storm’s assault.

Considering the rate Louisiana’s coast erodes, the elite club of volunteers who protect her say they’re sure it won’t be the last time.

They thus agree that the statue’s changing fates constitute a bell-weather for our own.

Miracles are sometimes associated with religious statues.

This one is given no credit for healing the lame or giving sight to the blind. But those who know her full story – which involves many helping hands working over generations of local families toward a common goal – are comfortable with the suggestion that the statue’s continued safe-keeping, and therefore the continuation of what she symbolizes, is miraculous enough.

Chuck Weaver Jr., a Houma banker who is an active third-generation member of the Whiskey Pass Silver King Rodeo Association, the club that purchased and watches out for the statue that is said to watch over mariners, has no doubt that its new home is only temporary.

“Thinking about my grandfather being one of those who erected the statue in the mid-1900s and then my father in 1982 moving it to its third place and now me, his son, moving it in 2015, I have no doubt that my own children will have to move the statue again,” Chuck says. “Hopefully maybe once, but maybe more even in our lifetime due to the coastal erosion we experience.”

Killer Storm

A full appreciation of the rodeo club’s dedication requires an understanding of geography in Terrebonne Parish’s lower reaches, and the related history.

South of Cocodrie is a hodgepodge of shape-shifting islands and ridges whose presence creates a maze of waterways, some broad and vast, with others twisting and tight. Beyond these, about 17 miles south of the last place automobiles can travel, is what now makes up Last Island, the remains of what was once a solid barrier island that gave protection to the mainland from the windward open Gulf of Mexico waters.

In 1856 the island was a playground for Louisiana’s well-to-do, an oceanside wonderland with entertainment, gambling and good food. All of that came to a crashing and tragic end in August of that year, when the island took a direct hit from a fast-moving hurricane that would have been at least a Category 4 by today’s standards. More than 200 people died as hotel buildings collapsed and raging waves swept away stragglers.

When storm surge waters receded, the island was broken up into segments, never to regain its former glory.

Island Redux

Mainland Terrebonne Parish, meanwhile, continued to grow. Despite hardships caused by war and later storms, the parish prospered, with seafood, sugar and oil exploration feeding or creating fortunes. After World War II, Last Island again became a destination of sorts. Sport fishing was a favorite activity for members of local families who had made marks in law, medicine and other pursuits.

A few built camps, on a portion of Last Island’s eastern remnant, near an inlet called Whiskey Pass.

“The setting was beautiful, but rugged” recalls Houma attorney Berwick Duval, who as a child spent weekends on the island with his family. “We had no communications or a source of water. Tight-knit community out there, they helped each other out if there was a medical emergency or someone ran out of supplies. But pretty much you were on your own.”

His father, the late attorney Stanwood Duval Sr.; the late Elward Brady, formerly a state legislator; “Johnny” Jaccuzzo, a chairman of the Houma Housing Authority and operator of a Studebaker dealership on Barrow Street; and the late Jules Landry, as well as banker Chuck Weaver Sr. and Pete Duplantis are among those whose passion was fishing the tarpon and spending available time on Last Island. All were founding members of the Whiskey Pass Association, chartered in 1958. The members held an annual rodeo, at the time every Labor Day weekend. It is now held in June.

Labor of Love

Shortly after the club’s founding some members thought a beacon or signal of some sort was needed to help guide fishermen from their adventures back to the island. A number of the club members were devout Catholics, and an idea was floated for a statue with spiritual significance to help serve that purpose.

“We wanted there to be a guide, like a lighthouse, and something that would look over the fishermen–commercial and recreational–this is what we wanted,” says retired Houma businessman Pete Duplantis, one of the club members who contributed to the statue’s cost, as did Dagate Marine founder Vincent Dagate. “We wanted to put a light on top of it for the guys, myself included. We went venturing offshore in those days, maybe five or 10 miles out into the Gulf. The only instruments we had were a compass and maybe a chart that looked like it was written by Cooter Brown.”

The suggestion for a statue of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, was favored although not by all of the club’s members, as not all were Catholic, according to Duplantis’ recollection.

A Marrero importer, Hans Hasen, located an artist in Italy who could produce a suitable sculpture and she arrived in Houma May 10, 1962.

She was every bit the Blessed Virgin Mary, 6 feet tall and weighing 1,376 pounds. The sculptor of record, according to the shipping information, which Dulpantis and his wife, Billie, still have, was identified as Prof. Aldo Pern. The name, sculptors interviewed for this story said, could have been shortened. It appeared in the packing information as Pern Aldo, but sculptors familiar with Italian custom said it would not be unusual for the first and last name to be reversed.

She was snow white, made of Carrara marble, meaning the stone was quarried from the same 17-mile mountain range whose like treasures were used by Michelangelo and Donatello.

“She was of a theme, the very patient family waiting on shore, scanning the seas to see if their sailors were really coming back,” Billie Duplantis says.

The statue was erected on the western shore of Last Island at Whiskey Pass, atop a 12-foot tall cement pyramid.

The placement was a labor of love; men remained on the island for the better part of a week building the pyramid, and then performing the backbreaking task of raising the statue to the top of that base.

“We got a cement mixer out there and and everything was done by hand,” Pete recalls. “We hand-pulled and we poured 17 yards of cement, with reinforcing rods and rebars in it.”

Our Lady of the Sea

A mass was celebrated by the Rev. James Caillouet at the site, which was attended by Catholic and non-Catholic members. The statue, its sponsors declared, would offer a way for all who traveled the waters and viewed her to give thanks to the almighty for safety during the year. Comment at the time, according to published accounts, was made of how the men who raised the statue did their work without regard to their own religious denominations, focused instead on the bigger, broader message the statue might convey.

She has been called by several names, most published accounts at the time have said her name was “Our Lady of the Sea.”

It was the sea that nearly took her, when the waters drew too close within just a few years and the land disintegrated beneath the pyramid, so plans were made for the statue to be moved.

The move came in 1967, after the Louisiana Land and Exploration Company gave permission for land it owned to be used for the statue, on the narrowing island’s interior. Club members sweated and strained, using draglines and brute strength, rescuing the sculpture, with a series of pilings as her perch.

Then in 1982 a move was required again.

This time, on a narrow spit of land thought secure enough, the statue was raised on a piling almost 60 feet high. By that time two, and in some cases three generations of Whiskey Pass association families had assisted in protecting the lady who protected. Arlen Cenac and his son, Benny, of Cenac Towing in Houma, were among those who played an active role in the actual transport. Indeed it was Arlen who had flown the Rev. Caillouet out to Last Island for the very first mass celebrated in the statue’s honor.

In 2014 club members came to a distressing conclusion. The statue would be safe nowhere on Last Island; an inland move would be required.

But where could she stay?

More Helping Hands

The members wanted a spot where the function she had done for so long could still be accomplished, serving as a beacon of faith, and observed for purposes of thanks, by as many who travel the water as possible.

The aid of Conoco-Phillips, corporate heir to LL&E, was sought by the association. A corner of land abutting the junction of Bayou Petit Caillou and the Houma Navigation Canal – 16 miles north of where the statue had been – was considered. But an agreement could not be made.

Houma attorney Jerri Smitko and seafood dock owner Roxanne Sevin came to Our Lady of the Sea’s rescue, offering a spot on land they own across from Sevin’s RCP Seafood, adjacent to the desired Conoco property.

For those who look sharp, Our Lady of the Sea is now visible from the terminus of La. Highway 56, watching over waters routinely traveled by sport fishing boats, shrimping vessels, offshore oilfield boats and ships.

Arlen and Benny Cenac had lent their resources yet again, as did Dupre Brothers Construction. The Cenacs carried the statue from her former location on a barge to the mainland, and she was then restored and cleaned by experts. It was a delicate job, made necessary due to the effects of salt on Carrara and what appeared to be unfortunate scars from errant pellets of shot to her feet.

Dupre Brothers then floated the statue on a spud barge to her new home, drove a 40-foot piling into alluvial clay for a base – with 15 feet remaining above ground – and then lifted the statue, encased within a protective armature, using a 50-ton crane on May 12.

“We were happy to help, it is something we wanted to do,” Dupre Brothers operations manager Kevin Parfait says.

Stars Lining Up

On June 7, the Sunday that marked the last day of this year’s Whiskey Pass Silver King Rodeo Association rodeo, members gathered at the RCP Seafood dock with the Very Rev. Robert Rogers for a special blessing.

“We pray that those who travel on the water will be safe from all harm, especially from weather and bad storms, that their property be protected and lives protected,”

Rogers says.

The priest boarded Chuck Weaver Jr.’s 25-foot fishing boat and traveled the width of Bayou Petit Caillou, aspergillum in hand, and sprinkled holy water as the vessel bobbed on gentle ripples of waves, offering more prayers.

Rogers called the statue “Star of the Sea,” a tribute to the way mariners once used stars to guide them on the planet’s vast rolling waters.

Among those on the boat were Jerri and Roxanne, as well as members of Chuck’s family.

“I have been seeing that statue all my life when I have been out on the water, so this is so very special to me,” Jerri says. “She was always there and now to have her here is a great honor.”

Accompanying Chuck were his mother, Liz Bass, his wife, Kelly and their two sons, 14-year-old Jules and 12-year-old James.

“It was an unbelievably fulfilling moment,” Chuck says. “There was a connection between the grandfather I never knew, my father of course and then my children, being right there. To feel that unity, knowing that something has been done, it was like the stars lining up.”

Our Lady of the Sea – or Our Lady of the Stars – had her back to the admirers when the prayers were said at the seafood dock. But that, Rev. Rogers noted, was in all ways appropriate, because she faces to the south, the direction of the wind and the rain and of those she will protect, whether from this new home or wherever the children of those gathered last month will take her next.