One must go straight out St. Claude below the Industrial Canal and turn south on Flood Street and go almost to the Florida Walk. Looking to the right one sees a large enclosure walled round with a high board fence. A half-dozen flags fly bravely from eminences. A Greek cross tops the chapel. A large American flag flies from the huge tent.
A marsh lies between Flood Street and that flag-flying enclosure, and one must walk. As one approaches, the personality of the place comes out to meet one. No ordinary person created this thing.
At the gate there is a rusty wire sticking out through a hole. That is the bell. But a painted notice on the gate itself reads: “Mother Seal is a holy spirit and must not be disturbed.”
One does not go straight into the tent, into the presence of Mother Catherine (Mother Seal). One is conducted into the chapel to pray until the spirit tells her to send for you. A place of barbaric splendor, of banners, of embroideries, of images bought and images created by Mother Catherine herself; of an altar glittering with polished brass and kerosene lamps. There are 356 lamps in this building, but not all are upon the main altar.
The walls and ceilings are decorated throughout in red, white and blue. The ceiling and floor in the room of the Sacred Heart are striped in three colors and the walls are panelled. The panels contain a snake design. This is not due to Hoodoo influence but to African background. I note that the African loves to depict the grace of reptiles.
On a placard: Speak so you can speak again.
It would take a volume to describe in detail all of the things in and about this chapel under its Greek cross. But we are summoned by a white-robed saint to the presence.
Mother Catherine holds court in the huge tent. On a raised platform is her bed, a piano, instruments for a ten-piece orchestra, a huge coffee urn, a wood stove, a heater, chairs and rockers and tables. Backless benches fill the tent.
Catherine of Russia could not have been more impressive upon her throne than was this black Catherine sitting upon an ordinary chair at the edge of the platform within the entrance to the tent. Her face and manner are impressive. There is nothing cheap and theatrical about her. She does things and arranges her dwelling as no occidental would. But it is not for effect. It is for feeling. She might have been the matriarchal ruler of some nomadic tribe as she sat there with the blue band about her head like a coronet; a white robe and a gorgeous red cape falling away from her broad shoulders, and the box of shaker salt in her hand like a rod of office. I know this reads incongruous, but it did not look so. It seemed perfectly natural for me to go to my knees upon the gravel floor, and when she signaled to me to extend my right hand, palm up for the dab of blessed salt, I hurried to obey because she made me feel that way.
She laid her hand upon my head.
“Daughter, why have you come here?”
“Mother, I come seeking knowledge.”
“Thank God. Do y’all hear her? She come here lookin for wisdom. Eat de salt, daughter, and get yo mind with God and me. You shall know what you come to find out. I feel you. I felt you while you was sittin in de chapel. Bring her a veil.”
The veil was brought and with a fervent prayer placed upon my head. I did not tell Mother then that I wanted to write about her. That came much later, after many visits. When I did speak of it she was very gracious and let me photograph her and everything behind the walls of her Manger.
I spent two weeks with her, and attended nightly and Sunday services continuously at her tent. Nothing was usual about these meetings. She invariably feeds the gathering. Good, substantial food too. At the Sunday service the big coffee urn was humming, and at a certain point she blessed bread and broke it, and sprinkled on a bit of salt. This she gave to everyone present. To the adults she also gave a cup of coffee. Every cup was personally drawn, sweetened and tasted by her and handed to the communicants as they passed before the platform. At one point she would command everyone to file past the painted barrel and take a glass of water. These things had no inner meaning to an agnostic, but it did drive the dull monotony of the usual Christian service away. It was something, too, to watch the faith it aroused in her followers.
All during her sermons two parrots were crying from their cages. A white cockatoo would scream when the shouting grew loud. Three canary birds were singing and chirping happily all through the service. Four mongrel dogs strolled about. A donkey, a mother goat with her kid, numbers of hens, a sheep—all wandered in and out of the service without seeming out of place. A Methodist or Baptist church—or one of any denomination whatever—would have been demoralized by any one of these animals. Two dogs fought for a place beside the heater. Three children under three years of age played on the platform in the rear without distracting the speaker or the audience. The blue and red robed saint stood immobile in her place directly behind the speaker and the world moved on.
Unlike most religious dictators Mother Catherine does not crush the individual. She encourages individuality. There is an air of gaiety about the enclosure. All of the animals are treated with tenderness.
No money is ever solicited within the enclosure of the Manger. If you feel to give, you may. Mother wears a pouch suspended from her girdle. You may approach the platform at any time and drop your contribution in. But you will be just as welcome if you have nothing. All of the persons who live at the Manger are there at Mother Catherine’s expense. She encourages music and sees that her juveniles get off to school on time.
There is a catholic flavor about the place, but it is certainly not catholic. She has taken from all the religions she knows anything about any feature that pleases her.
Hear Mother Seal: “Good evening, Veils and Banners!
“God tells me to tell you (invariable opening) that He holds the world in the middle of His hand.
“There is no hell beneath this earth. God wouldn’t build a hell to burn His breath.
“There is no heaven beyond dat blue globe. There is a between-world between this brown earth and the blue above. So says the beautiful spirit.
“When we die, where does the breath go? Into trees and grass and animals. Your flesh goes back to mortal earth to fertilise it. So says the beautiful spirit.
“Our brains is trying to make something out of us. Everybody can be something good.
“It is right that a woman should lead. A womb was what God made in the beginning, and out of that womb was born Time, and all that fills up space. So says the beautiful spirit.
“Some are weak to do wisdom things, but strong to do wicked things.
“He could have been born in the biggest White House in the world. But the reason He didn’t is that He knowed a falling race was coming what couldn’t get to no great White House, so He got born so my people could all reach.
“God is just as satisfied with the damnation of men as He is with their salvation. So says the beautiful spirit.
“It is not for people to know the whence.
“Don’t teach what the apostles and the prophets say. Go to the tree and get the pure sap and find out whether they were right.
“No man has seen spirit—men can see what spirit does, but no man can see spirit.”
As she was ready to grant blessings an evil thought reached her and she sat suddenly on a chair and covered her face with her hands, explaining why she did so. When it passed she rose, “Now I will teach you again.”
Here the food was offered up but not distributed until the call came from the spirit.
St. Prompt Succor brought the basin and towel at a signal. She washed her hands and face.
It is evident that Mother Seal takes her stand as an equal with Christ.
No nailing or building is done on Friday. A carpenter may saw or measure, but no nailing or joining.
She heals by the laying on of hands, by suggestion and copious doses of castor oil and Epsom salts. She heals in the tent and at great distances. She has blessed water in the barrel for her followers, but she feels her divinity to such an extent that she blesses the water in the hydrants at the homes of her followers without moving out of her tent.
No one may cross his legs within the Manger. That is an insult to the spirit.
Mother Catherine’s conception of the divinity of Christ is that Joseph was his foster father as all men are foster fathers, in that all children are of God and all fathers are merely the means.
All of her followers wear her insignia. The women wear a veil of unbleached muslin; the men, an arm-band. All bear the crescent and M.C.S. (Mother Catherine’s Saints). They must be worn everywhere.
In late February and early March it rained heavily and many feared a flood. Mother Seal exhorted all of her followers to pin their faith in her. All they need do is believe in her and come to her and eat the blessed fish she cooked for them and there would be no flood. “God,” she said, “put oars in the fishes’ hands. Eat this fish and you needn’t fear the flood no more than a fish would.”
All sympathetic magic. Chicken, beef, lamb are animals of pleasing blood. They are used abundantly as food and often in healing. A freshly killed chicken was split open and bound to a sore leg.
All of her followers, white and colored, are her children. She has as many of one race as the other.
“I got all kinds of children, but I am they mother. Some of ’em are saints; some of ’em are conzempts (convicts) and jailbirds; some of ’em kills babies in their bodies; some of ’em walks the streets at night—but they’s all my children. God got all kinds, how come I cain’t love all of mine? So says the beautiful spirit.
“Now y’all go home in faith. I’m going to appear to you all in three days. Don’t doubt me. Go home in faith and pray.”
There is a period in the service given over to experiences.
One woman had a vision. She saw a flash of lightning on the wall. It wrote, “Go to Mother Seal.” She came with pus on the kidneys and was healed.
A girl of fourteen had a vision of a field of spinach that turned to lilies with one large lily in the middle. The field was her church and the large lily was Mother Catherine.
Most of the testimony has to do with acknowledging that they have been healed by Mother’s power, or relating how the wishes they made on Mother came true.
Mother Catherine’s religion is matriarchal. Only God and the Mother count. Childbirth is the most important element in the creed. Her compound is called the Manger, and is dedicated to the birth of children in or out of wedlock.
Over and over she lauds the bringing forth. There is no sinful birth. And the woman who avoids it by abortion is called a “damnable extrate.”
Mother Catherine was not converted by anyone. Like Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, the call just came. No one stands between her and God.
After the call she consecrated her body by refraining from the sex relation, and by fasting and prayer.
She was married at the time. Her husband prayed two weeks before he was converted to her faith. Whereupon she baptized him in a tub in the backyard. They lived together six months as a holy man and woman before the call of the flesh made him elope with one of her followers.
She held her meetings first on Jackson Avenue, but the crowds that swarmed about her made the authorities harry her. So some of her wealthy followers bought the tract of land below the Industrial Canal where the Manger now is.
God sent her into the Manger over a twelve-foot board fence—not through a gate. She must set no time for her going but when the spirit gave the word. After her descent through the roof of the chapel she has never left the grounds but once, and that was not intentional. She was learning to drive a car within the enclosure. It got out of control and tore a hole through the fence before it stopped. She called to her followers to “Come git me!” (She must not set her foot on the unhallowed ground outside the Manger.) They came and reverently lifted her and bore her back inside. The spot in the yard upon which she was set down became sacred, for a voice spoke as her feet touched the ground and said, “Put down here the Pool of Gethsemane so that the believers may have holy water to drink.” The well is under construction at this writing.
© 1934 by Zora Neale Hurston. From The Complete Stories by Zora Neale Hurston.