NEW ORLEANS—It took priestess Miriam Chamani 26 years to build the Voodoo Spiritual Temple of New Orleans: collecting religious items, gathering a community of followers, and creating a sacred space. The temple is among the most beloved in the city for disciples of voodoo, a mystical religion developed by African slaves and influenced by Catholicism and Caribbean immigrants.
But it only took a stray spark for all that history to go up in flames. An electric fire last month nearly destroyed the temple, and it's not clear whether it will be able to reopen here anytime soon.
Now Chamani, an aging and eccentric priestess, has turned to a very modern tool to bankroll a rebuilding effort: online crowdfunding.
Chamani has run the temple since 1990, offering spiritual guidance, herbal remedies, and a friendly explanation of voodoo for the tourists who end up on her doorstep. It's housed on the edge of the French Quarter in a small building from 1829 with a facade of peeling peach paint and an elegant wrought-iron awning.
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The fire started in the early morning of Feb. 1, when an extension cord sparked a blaze. Tenants upstairs smelled smoke and called the fire department. By the time Chamani got there, half the roof had collapsed and one room, where she ran a cultural center, was all but ruined by smoke and water. The damage was far worse than the minimal water damage the temple sustained during Hurricane Katrina.
And the priestess, unfortunately, hadn’t invested in worldly matters like insurance.
Luckily, no one was hurt. And the fire spared the room where most of the temple's religious items are kept.
“Maybe I used up all of the house’s energy,” Chamani mused as she gave me a brief tour last weekend. A blue scarf was wrapped tightly around her head, and a silky purple shawl was draped over her shoulders. Her earrings dangled with tiny colorful stones that trembled when she talked. She speaks knowingly, sometimes in profound, near-incomprehensible statements, but often breaks into a gentle chuckle and a warm smile.
Inside the dim, musty temple room, every surface was covered in what seemed like a random assortment of knick-nacks. African masks hung from the wall and Mardi Gras beads hung from tables. Handwoven baskets were stacked haphazardly in one corner. On the other side of the room, a six-foot-tall totem pole looked down solemnly. The keys of an old piano were covered by greying postcards, dusty statuettes, and a doll wearing a Pope costume.
Visitors would leave cash when they visited the temple, but Chamani never touched it, instead letting it pile up amid the rest of the clutter. Now stacks of singles are everywhere; a blanket covered by coins lies on the ground. “It's a rainy day fund," she said. "Now is my rainy day.”
People from around the country and the world have come to the temple over the last two and a half decades, and now those same visitors are contributing to the rebuilding on GoFundMe. As of Tuesday, more than 400 people had donated over $16,750.
The crowdfunding effort was set up by Witchdoctor Utu, a Canadian student of Chamani’s (who doesn’t give out his real name). “We’re just blown away by how many people have come to give support in this dark hour,” Utu told me. Dozens of volunteers have also come in person, helping Chamani sort through the debris and ashes. "That has warmed my heart and given me strength," she said.
Sitting in the verdant courtyard behind the temple, as her neighbor’s black and white chickens ran around the yard, Chamani, who turns 73 next week, explained her circuitous life story. She grew up in Jackson, Miss., in a family of gospel-singing Baptists. Later she lived in New York and Chicago before coming to New Orleans. She used to work as a nurse and operating room technician, and first learned about voodoo from friends in Chicago, where she was ordained an official priestess.
Now she describes herself as a “spiritual surgeon,” cutting away her patients’ negative energy and helping them resolve personal crises. It’s not that different from her old hospital jobs, she says: “It's the same role, just the scene is different.”
Chamani is a star among the voodoo community here—her temple is one of the only ones in the city that is free to the public and it’s by far the most prominent to be run by a woman of color. Chamani has received numerous commendations and proclamations from city leaders (some of which burned in the fire). A former mayor even officially named a day after her temple: May 5, New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple Day.
The temple’s future is uncertain. The building owner—Chamani is a renter—plans to reconstruct, but there’s no schedule for when that would happen. In the meantime, she's closed to visitors.
After 25 years, this space has deep personal resonance for Chamani. Her husband, a Belizean immigrant and fellow voodoo practitioner, had his funeral here in 1995, with his casket laid out in the middle of the room. His spirit remains, Chamani said.
But the temple is not tied to any one spot—or even any one city, she said. Rents in New Orleans—especially the tourist-clogged French Quarter—have soared in the last few years. And voodoo isn’t an especially profitable business. "I don't know yet" if the temple will stay in the city, she said.
Voices have told Chamani that she has 30 years left to live. So in those next three decades, her mission is to create a permanent new home for her temple.
“The temple is not a physical building,” she said. "It's the intestines, the organs that go inside a physical building. It's the people you have touched."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.