The Rev. Michael Champagne wears his vestments while traveling, so it’s not unusual for strangers to approach the St. Martinville priest for prayer and confession, which he delivers.
Now, Champagne can accommodate those wanting confessions on the go with a decommissioned ambulance that’s been transformed into a mobile confessional. The Spiritual Care Unit debuted this month, with Bishop Michael Jarrell of the Diocese of Lafayette blessing the vehicle last week.
“Priests always hear confessions,” Champagne said. “This gives it a more dignified place. It’s all set up. It’s not like you have to find a quiet place to hear confessions.”
Champagne, who heads the Community of Jesus Crucified in St. Martinville, explained that traveling priests are not a new phenomena. In early rural Louisiana, priests rode horseback throughout the countryside, administering to those who could not always make it to church. Some even traveled by boat to people living on bayous and in the Atchafalaya Basin, the Leonville native said.
He got the idea of a mobile confessional from European priests, however. Due to declining church attendance in Europe, priests visit malls, restaurants and shops “to evangelize in the marketplace,” Champagne explained.
“More and more people are not able to attend church services, so we had to go where they’re at,” he said.
Champagne helped organized the Bayou Teche Eucharistic Procession on Aug. 15, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Acadians to St. Martinville, a boat procession that began in Leonville and ended in St. Martinville with stops at Catholic churches along the way. For the event he formed the Fete Dieu du Teche, a limited liability company, and used that to purchase the ambulance.
Champagne also plans to make the boat procession an annual event.
The vehicle, which Champagne said works “like a blood bank,” hails from a private ambulance company in Texas and was stripped of its emergency medical equipment. Where once there were IVs and medical supplies, the shelves are filled with Bibles, pamphlets, rosaries and religious CDs.
The outside remains red and white so it appears like an ambulance, but this vehicle offers assistance of a different kind. The Latin words “Misericordiae Vultus,” which mean the “Face of Mercy,” are written on the side, and a painting of Jesus graces the door.
“The Latin words relate to Pope Francis’ letter calling for a Holy Year of Mercy,” Champagne said. “So (the painting of) Christ is the face of the father’s mercy. That’s what we want to do is put forward that face of mercy.”
Champagne hopes to attract more priests to work the mobile confessional and travel to special events, school festivals, housing where residents aren’t able to drive to church — even the mall.
“We call it the new evangelization, to think outside the box if you will,” Champagne said, adding with a laugh, “We’re not just thinking outside the box — we’re moving it outside.”
To find out where the Spiritual Care Unit will be, Champagne has started a Fete Dieu du Teche Facebook page and will soon unveil a website of the same name.