NEW IBERIA, LA.- When ancient farmers planted their crops, they paid homage to God, and they have been doing so ever since. Catholicism and sugarcane have been linked ever since the Jesuits prayed for sugarcane success when they first planted the crop in the Bayou State in the 1700s.
No doubt Louisiana’s colonial agricultural producers were asking heaven for its blessings 217 years ago when Jean-Étienne de Boré, against the advice of the colony’s top agricultural minds, planted sugarcane at his Audubon Plantation. De Bore’s perfection of the sugar refining method ensured Louisiana’s future.
Today’s industrialized cane farming and production methods look very different than when the Jesuits planted that first sugarcane crop. In Louisiana’s Sugar Belt, mechanized sugarcane harvesters can do the work of hundreds of laborers. Fleets of trucks stand by to carry tons of cane to the sugar mills. Louisiana’s eleven mills can process more 4,000 acres a day.
There is one thing, however, that has remained the same for 217 years: sugarcane farmers still ask for God’s blessings at harvest time. Nearly every farmer to a person will tell you that it’s not the farmer who ultimately controls his crop – the farmer must concede to greater forces.
Daniel Gonsoulin, a sugarcane producer who farms in St. Mary and Iberia Parish, said he asks for help from above more often now that he is older. Gonsoulin ruled over New Iberia’s Sugarcane Festival as the 71st King Sucrose. The 2012 festival was Sept. 26-30.
One of Gonsoulin’s first duties as King Sucrose was to attend the festival’s opening Catholic Mass, a festival tradition in the predominantly Roman Catholic area.
"The bottom line is that farmers need all the help they can get,” Gonsoulin said. "The blessing is from the good Lord who helps us produce. We need to have everything go correctly, no weather problems, no mechanical problems.”
Harvest services, blessings and celebrations are prevalent throughout the 22-parish Sugar Belt, which is bound on the north from Rapides Parish to Jeff Davis Parish in western Louisiana and eastward down through the Bayou Teche and Bayou Lafourche valleys.
Pat Cancienne, a retired electrical engineer who worked 46 years at Lula Sugar Factory in Belle Rose, is still attending the Harvest Mass held onsite in the mill’s machine shop. As a mill worker, Cancienne saw his share of mechanical breakdowns and injuries and believes that an appeal to the divine always helps.
"I’ve been coming to this Mass since 1950 before I started working here,” Cancienne said. "It’s a continuation of maybe 60-70 years that I know of. We want to bless everyone and everything that’s working here because we are concerned and don’t want anyone to get hurt during grinding season.”
Cancienne has a deep understanding of the power of prayer.
"We ask that God bless the machinery so it won’t break down, but that doesn’t really happen,” he said. "God gives you a little more humility to work on it when it breaks down and have patience to fix it.”
Jessie Breaux, a sugarcane grower from St. Mary Parish and current president of the New Iberia Sugarcane Festival Association, said the Mass is an important part of the festival and faith plays a major role in the life of the farmer.
"The Mass is part of the tradition and who we are,” Breaux said. "As farmers, we have a deep faith in what we do. The Mass blesses the crop and blesses the harvest season in the hope that we have a safe and bountiful harvest. If you know anything about what we do, some days all you can hang your hat on is your deep faith because no matter what you do, it’s in the hands of the Lord and you just have to deal with it.”
"We are thankful that we have sugarcane here,” said Father Charles Langlois in his Sugarcane Festival Mass sermon. "As we celebrate the Sugarcane Festival, we’re thankful to God, who gives us such blessings. Thank God for the productivity of the rich, black soil of south Louisiana, which gives us the gift of sugarcane.”
Father Andrew Merrick presided over harvest Masses at Lula Sugar Factory and the neighboring Westfield Sugar Factory in Paincourtville of Assumption Parish. He also said a harvest Mass for the schoolchildren of St. Elizabeth School in the Bayou Lafourche community.
"Blessing the harvest is not only blessing the hope of the fruitfulness that will come out of the harvest, but blessing the work that the people do in co-creating with God as they till the soil,” Merrick said. "We’re asking God’s blessing, but it doesn’t mean we set it in motion and there won’t be any struggle. It doesn’t mean that problems won’t happen. We’re certain that problems will come, but we ask God’s blessing to work with Him and in the midst of those trials and troubles, they become a means of growing in virtue, humility and forgiveness, perseverance and hard work.”
Sometimes growers arrange to have a blessing done by the community’s priest at a field day. County Agent Alfred Guidry said he recalls having a blessing of the crop every year since 1962 at the St. Martin Parish Sugarcane Field Day.
"We have a blessing of the crop each year at the annual sugarcane field day,” Guidry said. "The blessing began way before I started conducting field days. This year was our 50thfield day and I believe this tradition began in 1962 when the first field day was held.”
Michael Martin, associate professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the blessing of the sugar harvest can be traced back to the colonial efforts to manufacture sugar in Louisiana.
"It would have come as no surprise when the early attempts were made to plant and harvest sugarcane crops that there would have been some sort of supplication made to God,” Martin said. "Certainly the Jesuits would have asked for some blessing in the harvest. Even if it wasn’t a religious order that had planted cane, a blessing would have happened anyway. Had lay people engaged in the early harvest, they would have done the same thing, just like if they had been planting rice or corn. From the blessing of the sugar harvest and the blessing of the shrimp fleet, we know today that these traditions are still very evident and trace themselves back to a much earlier period.”
God only knows what Louisiana would look like if sugarcane had not become a viable crop. Martin said that the development of sugarcane played an important role in the development of the Louisiana colony, which the French considered a commercial failure. He speculated that without the wealth created by the early sugarcane producers, the development of the Deep South would have been different.
"As a colony, Louisiana didn’t really find its niche until De Boré came up with the process. Without sugarcane, Louisiana would have had to wait around until the 1830s and 40s when cotton agriculture took off. The places of great wealth developed in south Louisiana largely, but not exclusively, because of sugarcane. The centers of population would have been quite different without sugarcane,” Martin said.
Breaux said he is humbled by the power of nature and God and believes that the sugarcane industry could not exist if it wasn’t for the deep spiritual beliefs of its growers.
"The Mass is part of sugarcane history and culture,” Breaux said. "It’s rooted in deep faith. You have to have a lot of faith to do this some days. The blessing is part of who we are and what we do. It’s what I feel. I get goose bumps when I talk about it.”
Other south Louisiana towns also celebrate the sugarcane harvest with festivals, including:
Harvest Festival on False River, Oct. 19-21, 2012
Harvest Moon Festival, Franklin, Oct. 27, 2012
Sugarfest, Port Allen, Oct. 7, 2012
Sugar Festival, Arabi Oct 14, 2012
Other upcoming Harvest Festivals include:
Cotton Festival, Ville Platte, Oct. 9-14, 2012
Louisiana Cattle Festival, Abbeville, Oct. 11-14, 2012
Rice Festival, Crowley, Oct 18-21, 2012
Pecan Festival, Colfax, Nov. 2-4, 2012
Frog Festival, Rayne, Nov-7-11, 2012