Two Chapels In The Woods
08/17/2018 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: Two Chapels In The Woods [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
Hidden Pieces of Heaven In AcadianaBy Shanna P. Dickens | Photos By Fusion Photography
Little Helen’s Chapel
Erne Plessala Sr. doesn’t remember exactly when God began speaking to him, but one thing is for certain, he receives his messages loud and clear. A few years ago, God began asking a 75-year-old Plessala to build things. The requests began simple enough…God wanted a bridge.
When you turn at the Marshfield Boat Landing, you’ll take a dirt road flanked on one side by sugar cane. Then you’ll cross over a rustic bridge that doesn’t look as if it’s equipped to handle modern vehicles. All the while, fishermen troll down the Marshfield Canal casting their lines. When you make it to the other side of the bridge, you see it – a diminutive white chapel, nestled alongside a small lake, shaded by archaic tress dripping with Spanish moss.
Plessala hops out of his truck with his tiny white dog, Sophie, at his heels. On the property he also keeps two Jerusalem donkeys - a mother and baby. This breed is known for the marks on their backs in the shape of crosses. Plessala becomes emotional as he pets the donkeys and tells the story of how they came to bear the cross. It’s easy to see why he never denied any of God’s requests.
“The Good Lord first asked me to build a grotto like the one in Charenton,” he says gesturing toward the large structure that sits near the church. “I went to measure the grotto and I forgot a pencil. God told me he’d imprint it in my mind and I’d never forget – 25x10x8. Jesus told me he wanted a statue of his mother as our Lady Guadeloupe. I was donated a statue of our Lady Guadeloupe, and as soon as I placed it in the grotto, I heard the Holy Mother say to me, ‘I want a chapel on that mound.’”
So, he set to work – no questions asked. Plessala was often working on the chapel in the cold, wet winter months, and because of this, from start to finish the construction took nearly three and a half years. Inside of the chapel, there are rows of pews, altars and religious art. Plessala can explain how each piece came to find its home at Little Helen’s Chapel. Sophie and a tiny black cat named Ali (after Mohammed Ali because of her propensity to playfully tap Sophie’s face.) run through the aisles and bat spiritedly at rosaries dangling from the pews. Plessala becomes tearful as he explains that he named the chapel after his littler sister Helen, who passed away at only six months old in 1938 when Erne himself was just 8 years old.
Plessala may be 80 years old, but he certainly isn’t slowing down. He wants the chapel to serve as a place for families to come to enjoy the beauty of the land and the peaceful nature of the chapel. A testament to the divine energy can be found in the fact that on a sweltering south Louisiana summer day, a cool breeze blows constantly around the doors of the little chapel.
“God told me that when I have 12 people come together here, I will start construction on a gazebo. The rest will be history,” he says resolute. “What the Good Lord, the Holy Mother and all of the blessed saints want, I will do everything I can to make happen. I have so much further to go, you wouldn’t even believe it.”
St. Joseph’s Chapel in the Woods
It’s strange how many times you can drive up and down a road without truly knowing what sits just out of sight. Travelling Highway 182 in Cade, you would never know it was there. There are no signs or indicators that just behind the rows of sugar cane is a sanctuary tucked away in the woods. The only directions you will be given are “turn when you see the old bus.”
There is an archway cut out in an immense row of holly bushes. Stepping through it is similar to wandering through the wardrobe into Narnia. You are suddenly standing in a clearing alongside a small pond. There are immense oak trees so sprawling that the entire clearing is shaded. In front of one of the trees sits a statue of the Virgin Mary. Then, there’s the chapel – a petite structure made of the same wood as everything that is old and dear in Acadiana.
“My father, Doctor Harold Reaux, loved to tear down old cypress buildings and barns,” explains Andy Reaux, a second-generation veterinarian. “He did that as a hobby and I would help him. Eventually, we ended up with a barn full of old wood. We couldn’t fit another piece in there! We loved to travel together and look at old buildings on the weekends. We would marvel at all of these old country churches. We decided, ‘Hey, let’s build a church.’”
Together, the father and son looked through the book “Religious Architecture of Louisiana” until they decided to create a Lilliputian sized version of a church found in Weldon, Louisiana. They began work with circulating teams of friends and family who would donate their carpentry skills on the weekends. Reaux likens the process to that of a barn raising in Amish country. The chapel was completed in 2007 after four and a half years of construction.
“My father was still living when we finished the chapel,” Reaux explains. “He and my mother were both able to attend mass in the little chapel. He got to see his wood put to good use and see the church in use. It was very special because the first mass was for our little nephew, Lance Joseph Tally, who was killed in an accident. My father didn’t typically show a lot of emotion, but you could tell that was very special to him.”
The chapel is named in honor of their nephew. The inside of the chapel is pristine antiquity in the truest sense. It feels both rustic and regal. The pews were donated by St. John Berchmans church in Cankton, Louisiana. One of the stained glass windows is from the first church at Weeks Island. Being in the chapel, or even in the small clearing, is like being in a bell jar – there’s a quiet, calm isolation.
“It’s quaint. It’s hidden,” describes Reaux. “The sugar cane acts as a big noise barrier. If you come here on a Sunday morning when the sugar cane is up, there’s no road traffic. The silence is almost deafening. You can think so deeply. It’s a hidden piece of heaven.”