The stairs leading to Rolanda Delerme’s basement open onto a dazzling tableau: Pink and green feathers in jars, sequined bottles, a life-sized mannequin holding a knife, altars packed with Catholic saints.
“Welcome,” the voodoo priestess says, dressed in a headdress and flowing white robes.
Voodoo temples such as this are said to have thrived for years in the homes of Haitian émigrés in Montreal, hidden from the judging eyes of outsiders. But now devotees have started a movement to bring voodoo and its rituals out of the shadows.
“I want to open my door. I want to tell people: We exist. We are not devil worshippers,” said Ms. Delerme, a fourth-generation voodoo priestess, or mambo, who was born in Haiti but lived in the U.S. before settling in Montreal.
“We want to defend our culture and traditions,” she said in her home on an ordinary suburban street in Montreal’s West Island. “Voodoo is still being stigmatized.”
Ms. Delerme, 34, has taken on a daunting task–pulling back the veil to try to demystify one of the most secretive and misunderstood religions in the world. This month, she and a group of “voodooists” took the unusual step of holding a press conference in Montreal to announce a Canadian “national voodooist confederation.”
The group has rented a tiny office in Montreal’s multiethnic Park Extension district, printed up business cards and let the news media into their once off-limit temples.
There’s no shortage of work to do. Even as their devastated homeland struggled in the wreckage of last January’s earthquake, voodoo came under attack. U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson blamed Haiti’s suffering on its onetime slaves who “swore a pact [with] the devil.” They have been cursed ever since, he said.
His words reverberated as far as Montreal and the voodoo temple in Nirva Chérasard’s home in Repentigny, northeast of Montreal. She held a funeral wake for the earthquake’s victims.
“This is yet more negative propaganda,” said Ms. Chérasard, who also works as an employment adviser in Montreal. “It pushed us to feel we have to organize even more. We have the right to defend ourselves when we’re attacked for no reason.”
It was, followers say, typical of the misconceptions about voodoo, which is still popularly associated with zombies and pin-incrusted dolls (said to be an American pop-culture creation dating to horror movies like White Zombie in 1932). Ms. Delerme said people come to her for everything from financial and health woes to marital trouble. She said she can do ritual baths, love spells or remove bad spirits.
Voodoo is a centuries-old belief that combines African religions with Western Catholicism; in Haiti, its public rehabilitation began after it was officially recognized as a religion in 2003. In Montreal, it’s impossible to know the number of followers because of voodoo’s covert nature. One expert said he’s heard estimates ranging from 30 to 80 per cent of Haitian Canadians, overwhelmingly concentrated in Quebec.
Despite the move to go mainstream, voodoo has long been taboo in the 100,000-strong Haitian diaspora. The religion was the focus of “anti-superstition” efforts by the Catholic church in Haiti that began in the late 19th century, which pushed voodoo underground even as some Haitians clung to its practises.
“Haitians are ambivalent about voodoo,” said Emerson Douyon, a retired psychology professor from the University of Montreal who studied voodoo in Haiti for his PhD. “On the one hand, they’re very proud of their ancestors’ religion and their African roots. Voodoo is part of who they are.”
“But Haitians know Canadians don’t necessarily approve of these kinds of practises. They worry about being considered primitive. That’s why it’s kept hidden.”
That could change for good, when the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau puts on an exhibit on voodoo in 2012. It will combine artifacts collected from Haitian-Canadians along with a touring exhibit of Haitian voodoo that is currently being shown in Europe.
“Voodoo has suffered a lot from very stereotyped images,” said Mauro Peressini, an anthropologist and curator at the museum who is working on the 2012 exhibit. “It’s a religious practise and, contrary to stereotypes, black magic and zombies are a very exceptional and marginal part of it.”
He said voodoo is now in “transition” as Haitian Canadians organize and speak about it more openly. “No doubt it’s still a great mystery to many people,” he said.
Voodoo Myths Dispelled
Anna Mehler Paperny
Myth: It’s all about sticking pins in dolls to hurt your enemies.
Reality: Not so much. The idea of “voodoo dolls” was popularized in early 20th-century Hollywood fiction. But you’ll find few ill-omened pincushions lying around the house of a real voodoo priestess.
Myth: Voodoo is big on zombies.
Reality: Although practices surrounding death, the afterlife and ancestors are a big deal in voodoo theology, it’s no more zombie-centric than the traditional roots of Christianity’s All Hallows Eve.
Myth: It’s a separate religion, incompatible with strict Christian theology.
Reality: Many practitioners or believers of voodoo are also ardent Roman Catholics, especially in Haiti, where religion is omnipresent. Catholic saints play a key role in voodoo mythology.
Myth: It’s polytheistic.
Reality: Not really. According to voodoo tradition there’s only one supreme deity. But practitioners communicate with God through multiple spirits that act as intermediaries.