NEW ORLEANS, La. — In the early morning hours of Feb. 1, an electrical fire broke out at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple of New Orleans. Located on N. Rampart Street in the French Quarter, the Temple sustained severe damage to the structure and contents. While no one was injured, the incident has left the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, which has been serving the community for 26 years, with an uncertain future.“This horrible situation is new and unprecedented, its more catastrophic than what was dealt by Katrina and is so much so that the temple’s very legacy is in jeopardy,” said Witchdoctor Utu, a student of the temple, the founder of the Niagara Voodoo Shrine, and a member Dragon Ritual Drummers. He has been a member of the temple for nearly 14 years, studying under both co-founder Priestess Miriam and member Priest Louis Martine.
Utu added that this learning “is something that is continual, there is no plateau, and its lessons learned though the trials of life and community, much like what is before us now, and what was before us after Katrina, no amount of spiritual or magical training is complete without truly having to enact them when real life challenges face us.”
The New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple was founded in 1990 by Priestess Miriam and her husband Priest Oswan Chamani. It was originally located in a building a few blocks west of its current location, but after only one year moved into 828 N. Rampart Street. The temple has been there ever since. As advertised on the website, it is the “only established Spiritual Temple with a focus on traditional West African spiritual and herbal healing practices currently existing in New Orleans.”
While the temple is only twenty-six years old, the building, a traditional Creole cottage, is far older and is listed on the city’s historic registry. It was built in 1829 by property owner Pierre de Vergès and has largely remained well-preserved as it was handed down and sold over the years. Utu said, “Much of [the cottage] from floors, walls, stairs and balconies are still original. The courtyard out back is unique and beautiful. There are several living quarters in the outbuildings that surround the courtyard, and two apartments above the temple too.”
He also added that the courtyard, one of the largest in the area, was once used for ritual. Priestess Miriam has continued that tradition over the last twenty-five years, hosting an array of services and events in that historic space from weekly religious rituals to full weddings.Priestess Miriam’s own story and spiritual journey also run far longer than that of the temple itself. Born in Jackson, Mississippi to a family of Baptists, faith healers, and gospel singers, Miriam spent most of her youth engaged in that community’s spiritual life. However, as the story goes, she was aware of other spiritual forces and “their ability to heal and help a person transform.”
Miriam eventually left the South, spending time both in New York City and Chicago, where she further explored her spirituality. In 1975, she left her Baptist church and joined the Angel Angel All Nations Spiritual Church, eventually becoming a Priestess. While in Chicago she also met her husband, Priest Oswan Chamani, a Belize-born herbalist and diviner.
After they were married, Miriam and Oswan moved to New Orleans and began doing bone readings on Jackson Square. Charles Gandolfo, also known as “Voodoo Charlie,” was impressed by their work and invited them to do readings and facilitate ceremonies at his famous New Orleans Voodoo Museum. Priestess Miriam said that this was the “turning point” for her.
She remembers Gandolfo fondly, recalling that he once visited the temple with a kitten found at the tomb of Marie Laveau. Utu said that “this kitten is now a full grown cat and a strong one too, still out there causing trouble. She survived three weeks on the roof of Miriam’s house when they had to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina.”
In May 1990, Miriam and Oswan decided to leave the museum to venture out on their own. In doing so, they birthed the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and opened up shop on N. Rampart Street. In 1991, the couple move their operation a few blocks down into to its current location at 828 N. Rampart Street.
But it wasn’t long before Oswan became ill. In 1995, he died from pneumonia, leaving Miriam to tend the temple by herself. For one night, Oswan’s body was returned to the property for his funeral rites, which were performed by Priest Louis Martine. During that night, Temple members drummed beside the body until the morning hours. Utu said, “Priest Oswan is one of the spirits that protects the temple, and in all reality, considering the fact that the most sacred and pertinent items of the temple were spared fire, we know he was doing his work yet again.
Despite the loss of her partner and husband, Miriam continued the temple’s work, building a community and what Utu describes as “cultural center celebrating not only west African and African American spiritual practices but the New Orleans tradition of drum and dance, song and trance much like what was practised across the street from the temple in the historic Congo Square.”
Over the past 26 years, the temple’s influence has only increased. Priestess Miriam’s students now live around the world, practicing the tradition and sometimes even opening their own religious centers. Blogger Lilith Dorsey has been a longtime student of the temple. In a recent post, Dorsey wrote, “Priestess Miriam has been a teacher, a godmother, and a friend to me for over two decades. She presided over the funeral of my daughter, and then, as always, she helped to save my life.”On the morning of Feb. 1, at 3:30 am, the tenants living above the Voodoo Spiritual Temple smelled smoke and called the fire department. An electrical fire had broken out. It wasn’t until Priestess Miriam arrived for a day of work, hours later, that she learned what had happened. The botanica and cultural center were completely destroyed in the fire. But the actual temple space, which was badly damaged by water and smoke, had not been harmed by the flames. Fortunately, for that reason alone, the temple’s beloved resident python Aiyda made it out unharmed.
When it was finally safe to enter, volunteers helped Miriam in recovering what was left of the temple’s rare artifacts and religious items. That work is ongoing with many people arriving to assist. In fact, in her blog post, Dorsey wrote that she would be helping out this weekend.
However, Utu added that, “Mold is an issue at the best of times in NOLA, after a few hours of being continually soaked by water, well it’s a recipe for disaster […] Its already face-mask time.” A good portion of the temple’s property has been lost.According to Utu, there is no insurance to cover any of the damage, and the building itself is now being condemned. However the owner, reportedly, is determined to rebuild. And, Miriam herself is equally as determined to keep the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in that space. While at first she thought she would have to shut down completely during this rebuilding, it may now be possible for her to continue offering some services while construction goes on.
However, officials and building experts still need to assess the full extent of the damage to determine what can be saved and what exactly needs to be done next. Nothing is final at this point. And, with the coming of Mardi Gras on Tuesday, all talks and decisions have been put on hold.
In the meantime, Priestess Miriam and Utu have launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help offset the cost of reestablishing the Temple. In just four days, the campaign has raised nearly $11,000. Utu said, “One way or another we will overcome this and again be celebrating the spirits of New Orleans with drum, song and dance at the temple on 828 N. Rampart St. Come hell or high water it will be done. High water already came via Katrina, hell has come via fire, but the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple gods willing will still triumph and be anew again.”