Voodoo in New Orleans: Interview with Author Rosary Hartel O’Neill

Voodoo in New Orleans
"Voodoo in New Orleans" was co-authored by Rosary Hartel O'Neill.

“Voodoo in New Orleans” is a newly released book that dives into the history of voodoo practices that have long been popular throughout the world. In America, New Orleans is the voodoo capital of the nation. The book discusses, in detail, how the city’s Roman Catholic roots and blended French, Spanish, Creole and American Indian populations heavily influenced the rites and rituals that West Africans brought to Louisiana as enslaved laborers.

The resulting unique Voodoo tradition is now deeply rooted in the area. Enslaved practitioners in the nineteenth century held Voodoo dances in designated public areas like Congo Square but conducted their secret rituals away from the prying eyes of the city. By 1874, some twelve thousand New Orleanians attended Voodoo queen Marie Laveau’s St. John’s Eve rites on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. The Voodoo tradition continues in the Crescent City even today.

Authors Rory Schmitt and Rosary O’Neill researches the book by studying the altars, art, history and ceremonies that anchor Voodoo in New Orleans culture. Co-author Rosary O’Neill recently discussed the process via an exclusive interview.

Voodoo in New Orleans
Rosary Hartel O’Neill is the co-author of “Voodoo in New Orleans.”

Meagan Meehan (MM): You grew up on New Orleans, so what was your understanding of voodoo when you were growing up?

Rosary O’Neill (RO): I didn’t know anything about Voodoo. Sometimes there might have been a joke made about it. My parents’ cook used to sing in the kitchen Bible songs and sometimes made fun of Hoodoo or Voodoo interchanging them. There was a sense that Voodoo was for fools, the demonic, and the uneducated. At best Voodoo was something sinister reactionary. It was something used in the street at violent back street events. At least people seemed reluctant to talk about it and devout New Orleanians that I knew were Catholic or Protestant.

MM: How did you first get interested in voodoo and what prompted you to dive into this subject via a book?

RO: My publisher (of my Carnival Book) was very interested in Voodoo. She proposed to Rory and me that we should write about it. Rory, my colleague, had already presented her at least ten other proposals on books we wanted to do, but none of our ideas grabbed interest. That’s how it works in nonfiction—you write a proposal for a book and submit one or more completed chapters. The writers and artists of New Orleans intrigued Rory and me, but as we got into Voodoo, we discovered it is not only a deeply personal religion but also one of powerful images, music, drama, and art.

MM: How did you partner with Rory O’Neill Schmitt?

RO: She is my daughter and I have loved her since her birth. She spearheaded this project so it was totally fun to work with her. Rory has a Ph.D. In Art and mine is in Theatre but we were totally outsiders to Voodoo so we could enter this world hand and hand from the perspective of outsiders. She lives on the west coast and I was on the east coast, but we came together in New Orleans (where I now live) We had both been born and raised in New Orleans and both were ignorant of Voodoo. Rory is an administrator at USC and so totally bright (I am prejudiced) I determined she should be project leader. When you team up with a co-writer the question is always who will have the final vote; for instance, if she says yellow and I say blue, who chooses? Right it had to be Rory. Otherwise the collaboration of mother and daughter wouldn’t be equal and at one point we changed the order of the book chapters based on her (not my) instinct. While I went to New Orleans to live and do research, Rory visited frequently to take the marvelous photos in the book. Our book is really about the secret Voodoo that is going on now in New Orleans

MM: How long did it take to research this book?

RO: Almost two year of research for the two of us. I moved to the French Quarter so I could meet and talk to people and roam the streets where the Voodoos roamed now and way back to the 18thcentury.

MM: How did you meet Priestess Sally Ann Glassman?

RO: I met her through my daughter who had interviewed her and attended her ceremonies. Then when in New Orleans I fell and broke my leg and my therapy was in the Healing Center (which she partially owns) and where she has her Voodoo shop. There is a small holy world of people in New Orleans!

MM: While researching this book did you learn anything about Voodoo that you found especially surprising?

RO: The fact that Voodoos have altars in their homes and practice practically anywhere and in secret and that they rehearse weekly the music and movements of their ceremonies for up to eight hours. It is a rigorous religion for participants.

MM: What About Marie Laveau most fascinates you?

RO: Her strength. She was illiterate but totally kind and powerful. She had these fantastic events for thousands of people to raise money. That was before phones and electric lights and cars and she was doing that here in the city and on Lake Pontchartrain and also visiting the sick and taking in homeless. Also, the fact that she buried seven of her nine children—I can’t even fathom that. Her misery was only equaled by her mercy.

MM: Overall, how much does your New Orleans background influence you creatively overall?

RO: Probably 95%. A little percent of me is a New Yorker. Another a Parisian. But I’ve lived most of my life in New Orleans, in this old historic crumbling city that is so full of beauty and music and charm and food. Kind of like Notre Dame of Paris, the cathedral, New Orleans is so full of mystery and secrets. When you live here you are always tiptoeing on the verge of beauty an azalea plant bursting with purple or a marching band drumming down the cobblestone streets. And then there is crawfish bisque, chicory coffee, shrimp etoufee, and pecan pie, bread pudding, baked Alaska…

MM: How did you find a publisher and how have you been going about getting this book promoted?

RO: History Press had published both my daughter and me and we had had success with our other books. There are as you know 13 million people visiting New Orleans and their deeply spiritual and personal religion was gaining interest.

MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?

RO: I had no idea when I started this search into Voodoo how profoundly holy and good most of its participants are and the depth of love and caring that inspires the ministry of most. I also was surprised that being Voodoo doesn’t forbid you from a member of another religion. You can for instance be Catholic and Voodoo or Jewish and Voodoo. There is no written history, no book, no set words binding these prayer goers (mostly women). Voodoo is full of music, chanting, dancing, inspiration. Women guiding and helping women. Terrible movies have distorted the idea of what this religion is. Voodoo is alive and hiding and vibrant in the underbelly and over belly of New Orleans. All over the city Voodoos are praying.