Life throws some awfully weird curve balls. While I was on the road this past month, I reflected on how lucky I was not to have a disaster starring me in the face this summer. If you think that is weird, let me explain. Ever since the turn of the 21st century, there have been plenty of tragedies in my little corner of the South — Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, one of which was the costliest disaster in U.S. history and the destruction of my home town of New Orleans and my mother’s home town of Biloxi; the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the costliest manmade disaster; and the tragic abduction and murder of a darling young girl who was a friend of my son’s.
Then July 23 arrived with the news that a lone gunman had entered a movie theater in my town of Lafayette, Louisiana, and killed someone I knew.
Needless to say, I entered Port Arthur, Texas, feeling as low as a snake’s belly. I was there to write a story about kayaking at Sea Rim Park on the Texas coast, arriving around sunset to my comfy TownePlace Suites motel for the night. The motel people were welcoming and nice, the room cozy, a bag of goodies left by the tourism folks but my heart was heavy. I knew I should drive around and check out things wearing my travel writer hat, but a cloud hung over me like a shroud.
Shuffling through the tourism pamphlets, I saw there was a “Port Arthur Faith Trail,”featuring three massive statues honoring religions. I grabbed my camera and headed out the door, not sure what I’d find or why but the light was good for photos, I told myself.
The first stop on the Faith Trail was the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a 17-foot bronze statue of Mary next to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. The impressive statue was created by artist Miguel Angel Macias from Mexico City and Texas sculptor Douglas Clark and is set upon rocks that church parishioners brought from Mount Tepeyac, Mexico City, where Juan Diego experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary. A 7-foot bronze statue of St. Juan Diego, sculpted by the same artists, sits at the bottom of the shrine, a penitent man gazing up at Mary with his hands crossed.
I’m not Catholic, and didn’t grow up with religious icons, but the image of Mary’s warm eyes brought me peace on a day when it was desperately needed.
Literally about a mile down Ninth Street is the Vietnamese Martyr’s Catholic Church & Queen of Peace Shrine and Gardens, where another larger-than-life statue of Mary exists, this time in Hoa-Binh or an area of peace. According to CatholicPlaces.org, the 20-foot-tall Mary and shrine was created "in gratitude for their escape from Asia and the city which welcomed them."
I visited this statue the following day, after my trip to the coast with Darragh Castillo of the Port Arthur Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, a delightful woman who made me laugh and forget my troubles. So I was in a better mood. This vision of Mary with her heart aflame with love appeared to wave at me and smile, giving me hope that everything would be alright.
Both churches allow visitation to their statues at no charge but daylight hours apply.
In the center of town lies the Buu Mon Buddhist temple, which moved to Port Arthur from Orange, Texas, in 1986. The Buddhists remodeled the former Vietnamese Catholic church, building stupa where there was once a steeple, and installing a 7-foot-tall bronze Buddha seated in front of a fresco mural of a Bodhi tree on a river’s shore. The Port Arthur Buu Mon Buddhist Temple is known worldwide for its tropical and hardy lotuses and water lilies, along with other species in its garden areas around the temple. They offer an annual Lotus Garden Tour, but are available through the rest of the growing season for private tours. Call ahead for an appointment.
|Sea Rim Park boardwalk|
I had been to the Buddhist Temple before, but the giant Buddha was a new addition. Again, feelings of peace and comfort, surrounded by a beautiful garden, nature at its best.
Ironically, the marshes at Sea Rim Park was too low for kayaking so I didn’t get my paddle. But we got to walk the park’s boardwalks spotting birds and other critters — even getting drenched in an afternoon thunderstorm — then enjoyed one of the best Vietnamese meals I’ve ever had at Uyen’s. Driving home to Louisiana along the coast, my heart felt much lighter.
Port Arthur, by the way, lies at the southeastern tip of Texas, below Beaumont and just north of the Gulf of Mexico. For more information on the Faith Trail and other attractions in the area, visit the Port Arthur Conventions and Visitor’s Bureau.
Cheré Coen is an award-winning travel writer specializing in the Deep South. She is the author of "Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History," "Exploring Cajun Country: A Historic Guide to Acadiana" and "Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana" and co-author of "Magic's in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets." She also writes Louisiana romances under Cherie Claire, including "A Cajun Dream" and "The Letter." Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.