Societé de Sainte Anne
Historical Information

 

Societé de Sainte Anne
[excerpted from Gambit Feb 2003

"One of Schindler's and Poché's most intriguing collaborations, however, is the Societé de Sainte Anne, a Carnival walking club, which they started in 1969 along with their friend Jon Newlin, a freelance writer whose work is published in The Times-Picayune and Ambush Magazine. Ste. Anne appears in the Infancy Gospel of St. James, a text denoted by the Vatican as apocryphal, as the mother of the Virgin Mary. "So, I like to think of Sainte Anne as the grandmother of God," says Schindler, who recalls his own grandmother as a Mardi Gras devotee.

Hanging in Schindler's dining room is an enormous portrait of Paul Poché, costumed as The Whore of Babylon for the Ste. Anne parade. He wears a cape, through which protrude opulent, swelling prosthetic breasts and belly, and the rest of him appears to be covered in silver body paint. He also wears a traditional full-face mask to which he has added false eyelashes and a black curly wig. Poché, against a lush green background of palms, leans back his head back in apparent ecstasy. It's quite an eyeful, this painting. And it conveys perfectly the je ne sais quoi of the Ste. Anne parade.

Ste. Anne, like so many of the precious ephemera of Mardi Gras, defies attempts to define it. As a walking club, the only requirement for membership is that you know about it. Every Mardi Gras morning, a large group of people, wearing the most over-the-top costumes imaginable (including the kitchen sink), arrives at someone's house somewhere in the Bywater. Soon the Storyville Stompers show up, and everyone follows the band through the Bywater into the French Quarter up Royal Street, gathering more costumers at various points along the way, until they come to Canal Street where they await the arrival of Rex.

In Ste. Anne, everyone costumes; there are no spectators, only participants. Without any stated doctrine or structure, the Ste. Anne parade, in its spontaneity and disorganization, resembles the old Creole cavalcades that sprawled through New Orleans' streets in the 1830s, Schindler suggests.

The story of Ste. Anne's origins in the 20th century is a little easier to explain. It started as a response to the ordinance that removed the old-line parades from the French Quarter. Schindler, Poché, Newlin and a few more friends wanted to keep the parading tradition alive in the Vieux Carré, so they cooked up this idea for a walking club. Some of them were living on St. Ann Street at the time, so that name seemed to make sense. But then they discovered a tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 that Poché describes as being in "sublime decay, made from that soft mortar and river sand." This tomb was dedicated to the Societé de Sainte Anne, a benevolent society that Poché later learned had been founded by the Sisters of Charity to assist indigent American Indian girls. The nuns taught the girls to sew intricate beadwork. "So there is a connection to our group right there," says Poché, an accomplished sewer of beaded costumes himself.

Soon this group of friends made it an annual rite to gather at this crumbling tomb on All Saints' Day, where they would read aloud the Litany of the Saints in French, and then go to one of their homes to announce that year's Ste. Anne parade theme. They would decide who would host the many parties between Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras, and they would begin the work of making costumes and the ribboned hula-hoops that became a Ste. Anne trademark.

The Babylon theme held strong for a number of years, and they carried a huge gilded papier-mache calf, a representation of the god Marduke with a lapis lazuli beard. "The whole purpose was to antagonize those people who drag a cross on wheels through the Quarter," says Poché. "They were always calling us pagans, so we said we'll show them some real pagans."

True to its mystical origins, all major decisions concerning Ste. Anne were guided by a consultation with the I-Ching, and since the number seven was sacred to the ancient Babylonians, Poché says that when he was sewing costumes, he would group his stitches in clumps of seven. In the past, they would usually attend Ash Wednesday mass at the Chapel of Divine Love to receive the black mark on their foreheads. But mass just hasn't been the same since Vatican II and it was getting harder to get out of bed on Wednesday morning, so they took to burning the palms at home and administering the ashes in their own private ceremony among friends. A few other customs have changed -- Poché says he had to stop having Ste. Anne parties at his house because the place kept catching on fire. "And feathers really stink when they burn," he adds.

Ste. Anne soon became something much bigger. Newlin reports that in the mid-1980s, someone called WTUL-FM on Lundi Gras and gave the home address of the person hosting the Ste. Anne pre-parade party, and the DJ broadcasted this information. The next day, unprecedented numbers of strangers arrived, and the parade continues to mushroom -- a very friendly gathering, but no longer just a gathering of friends.

Another change for this walking club occurred in the mid-1980s. As Newlin puts it, "People were dying like flies." The AIDS crisis took an enormous toll on the Ste. Anne parade. Poché kept a "list of the dead," names of friends who had walked in the parade, that filled two columns in a large ledger book. One year, Schindler had 16 houseguests for Mardi Gras, mostly from San Francisco, many expatriate New Orleanians. "Now they are all dead, all 16 of them. Stuart Baker-Bergen was one of the first. It was the plague." Schindler adds it has become impossible to celebrate Mardi Gras without thinking of them. "The undertone is always there."

Before dying, friends asked to participate posthumously in one last Ste. Anne celebration, and so, after Rex passed on Canal Street, the Ste. Anne parade-goers would make a turn and carry their ashes to the river. On the banks of the Mississippi, Schindler, Poché and others would first dip the ribboned hula-hoops in the water and sweep them back over the people gathered behind, sprinkling droplets over the crowd in a kind of baptism. Then they would set the ashes of their friends upon the water.

It was not only AIDS victims whose ashes went to the river in this way. Poché commemorated his sister Sally at the river; Schindler also brought ashes to honor his friend Eugenie Schwartz, as well as their friend Judy Latour. And so now, even though fewer of their friends are falling to AIDS in recent years, the Ste. Anne parade still serves in part as a process of grief, even as it continues to bloom as a magnificent celebration. Back in 1969, the founders of the walking club chose to inaugurate Ste. Anne on All Saints' Day at the tomb, because it was redolent with atmosphere, not because they intended for their walking club to be so intimately linked to death and remembrance. They were young, and they were having fun. And yet in their playfulness, they displayed a remarkable prescience of their future."



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