NEW ORLEANS – HexFest 2018 was met with street protests Saturday for the first time in its four year history. Conservative Catholics lined the streets in front of St. Louis Cathedral to join an action coordinated by TFP Student Action, a division of American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. They held up religious symbols, recited prayers, played bagpipes, and waved signs in protest. One sign read, “Catholics reject satanic HexFest” and another read, “Do not permit Witchcraft and the occult to trample our Catholic heritage.”The conflict began in July, nearly a month before the event, when a call-to-action flyer was published on the Catholic website SpiritDaily. This call to action was written by Cynthia Hemelt, a member of St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Metairie, which is a nearby suburb of New Orleans.
Hemelt wrote, “Please help us pray for the end of all witchcraft and occult practices and rituals that offend God and that the HexFest will be stopped, all rituals be rendered useless, and that the evil one may be thwarted in his efforts to lead souls astray.” The flyer goes on to describe the protest action, which was organized to be a series of prayer circles at the Metairie church held during the same weekend as HexFest, Aug. 10-12.
Hemelt’s call did not mention protesting at the festival site itself.
When co-organizer Christian Day was alerted to the prayer action, he contacted Reverend Christian DeLerno, Jr., the priest listed on the flyer. In an email message, Day objected to what he called “incendiary language.”
He told the Wild Hunt, “I also let him know that, just as they don’t want to be represented by the worst of Catholicism, whether it be criminal laity or abusive priests, Witches don’t want to be held accountable for every crazy person that decides to use the word Witch as a descriptor and that we do not have a Satan or an evil god in our religion.”
Day added that he believes that this communication toward reconciliation “could be a great win for mutual understanding between representatives of two faiths.”
DeLerno responded cordially, admitting that he was, in fact, involved in coordinating the prayer action. However, he said that church officials did not agree with Hemelt’s wording and that he had spoken to her about the issue. DeLerno added, “On my part, I am also sorry this came about. My only hope was to have our people pray for what we perceive to be an offense against God in the first commandment where God asks to be the one everyone chooses to love first.”
Day did not agree with DeLerno’s perspective, saying to the Wild Hunt, “Regardless of whether that email was only sent to other Catholics, it still brands us demonic for worshiping other gods when they do not use the word demonic to describe Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans, or other religious groups who do not honor the first commandment.”
Despite that point, the two Christians, by name only, ended their conversation cordially, and the issue seemed to be put to rest.
At HexFest itself, the issue of protest was raised again. Saturday morning, attendees staying at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel woke up to find a protest flyer under their hotel room door:The flyer, while not claimed by any organization, was allegedly distributed Friday night and appears to come from Catholic conservatives with the same concerns as Hemelt. Day said that he believes that the flyer was delivered to every room in hotel. However, the hotel general manager did not respond for comment by press time to confirm.
When Day was alerted to the distribution, he immediately contacted DeLerno again, writing in an email: “Because of your church’s missive of hate, someone—possibly someone from your church—left the following flyer underneath every hotel room door in the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. This [is] harassment.”
DeLerno responded, denying any and all connections or knowledge of the letter or the street protests that then followed. He did not respond to the Wild Hunt‘s request for comment.
The connection between the Metairie church’s prayer action and the Aug. 11 protests are unclear. The organizers of both may be related in some way or it may be that the prayer action flyer, which was published on Catholic news blog, inspired other organizations to act on their own.
Members of TFP Student Action, who allegedly coordinated the street protest, have not publicized the action on that group’s site. However, the group was present as shown by their red sashes, and they were joined by a number of other Catholic church organizations and individuals, but no one was reportedly there from the Metairie church.
The Mike Church Show reported live on Facebook from the street protest. Church is a podcaster, conservative Catholic radio show host, author, and filmmaker. In his video post, he writes:
Watch the video and you’ll see a peaceful and a beautiful defense of Catholic New Orleans, Our Lord and Our Lady. You’ll also see the public stopping to listen or using their middle fingers to tell us what they thought of the act of reparation. Best of all, you’ll see the minions of the Big 3, Beelzebub, Baphomet and Baguul, dressed in all black; watching the Holy Rosary being said and sung for 80 minutes instead of blaspheming Saint Anne, Our Lady and Saint Joseph in their HexFest.
Social media reactions to that post and others attracted comments of all kinds on and off Facebook.
Attendee and presenter Witchdoctor Utu told the Wild Hunt: “As a foreigner that visits America as a presenter I’m always aware that things can get a little more intense in the states, where mass shootings are just a click away, so when vague threats from religious zealots are hurled I start to look both ways a bit more and it became the case for HexFest.” Utu is spokesperson for the popular Canadian band Dragon Ritual Drummers.“Most presenters and performers on the circuit have of course encountered the Christian protesters that set up shop at various events,” Utu continued, “but they don’t often promise to encroach, and these Catholics did encroach past the line and into the Bourbon Orleans Hotel to share their message on another level. Ironic that within a day or so, global headlines of their archdioceses aiding and abetting yet another in an endless saga of their priesthood preying upon children would be reported.”
Utu also noted that the Dragon Ritual Drummers, unlike other presenters, were scheduled to perform outside in the Bourbon Orleans Hotel courtyard, and band members did have some concerns that the protesters might cause a disturbance. That never happened.
Another attendee and presenter, Starr Casus, who says she “follows the witchcraft community and Christianity,” told fhe New Orleans Advocate: “Jesus was a healer. Mary was a healer. . . . are they sinners? I don’t like being called a devil, and I don’t like being called a Satanist because I am none of those.”
“I have nothing against Catholicism and I believe it to be a beautiful, powerful, and, yes, magical religion,” Day added, in reaction. “Many of our customers are Catholic. Most of them, in fact. This organization clearly doesn’t represent the kindness of the church or of its current pontiff.”
This particular religious protest of a Pagan event is unusual for its time. It is more common to see evangelical Protestant groups organizing and showing up for such actions, such as those that occurred at WitchsFestUSA or Nashville Pagan Pride. It is far less common, despite church history, to have Catholic organizations standing in protest.
However, it not surprising that this occurred in Louisiana, which boasts a large Catholic population and is considered one of the most politically and religiously conservative states in the country.
The city of New Orleans, unlike the state, is fairly progressive and a place where Catholicism, magic, mysticism and other spiritual practices intertwine. In 2015, for example, New Orleans’ mayor openly defied the governor’s executive order on religious freedom rights, saying: “I am issuing a clarifying call to the nation that New Orleans is an accepting, inviting city that thrives on its diversity and welcomes people from all walks of life with open arms . . . . In New Orleans, we believe religious liberty and freedoms should be protected and discrimination prohibited, and we have passed our own laws to reflect that principle.”
While this is the first time HexFest has seen street protestors, it is not the first time the event has had problems. In HexFest’s inaugural year 2015, the sales manager of the Steamboat Natchez, where the opening ritual was to be held, cancelled the contract on the morning before the event. It is alleged that the contact was cancelled due to the steamboat owner’s discovery that HexFest was an occult-based event. Fortunately, organizers were able to relocate quickly to another river boat, the Creole Queen.
This year, the opening ritual event, which was once again scheduled to be hosted on the Creole Queen, was moved to Mardi Gras World due to renovations on the boat. Day noted that, in an effort to help, the boat’s sales manager called the owners of Steamboat Natchez, and she was reportedly told that HexFest could not be held there because “the owner doesn’t like it.” Mardi Gras World was available.
The change in venue turned out to be a bonus for guests, Day said. They “were able to stroll through a giant building filled with lit up flights and sculptures. It was really amazing.”
Despite any inconveniences, HexFest 2018 was reportedly a success, with more than 300 in attendance according to Day.
The protesters left around noon on Saturday when it began to rain, and they never returned. Utu said, “HexFest and their staff handled [the situation] all with total professionalism and I can’ commend them, the attendees, and presenters enough for rallying and bonding to make us all feel safe and secure.”“I support the right of these individuals to protest,” Day continued, “but I condemn their incorrect use of the words satanic, demonic, and evil to describe us for it encourages persecution against us and may motivate more dangerous individuals to acts of violence. The flyers under the door, however, were a bridge too far for me and brought out my protective side when it comes to our guests who haven’t been on the front lines of Salem for thirty years like I’ve been and may feel intimidated by a letter that carries with it the emotional charge of centuries of hangings, burnings, and torture.”
He added, “However, our guests are a strong and determined people and it seemed to make the event that much more powerful that we were holding it in the face of adversity.”
Attendee Tiffani Satchel, who says she isn’t sure of her path yet, described her experience on video, saying that she is planning on returning every year. HexFest 2019 is already being planned, and will be held Aug. 9-11 at the same hotel in New Orleans.