It was announced Thursday that Wiccan priestess Velvet Rieth had died in her home Jan. 4 at 12:30 am. For years, Rieth was an outspoken member of the Louisiana Pagan community. However, in 2008, she developed a rare condition called Pick’s disease. She was forced to retire from the spotlight, but not before she made a significant mark on the world and people around her.
Velvet was born on Nov.15,1954 in New Orleans to parents John and Dorothy West. Like many in Louisiana, she had a Catholic upbringing but, growing up in New Orleans, she was also exposed to magic and various forms of Witchcraft. Her father was also reportedly a very spiritual man, who did not turn away non-conventional or non-Catholic ideas.
She began practicing Wicca in high school. In 1968, she enrolled in the newly-established public Grace King all girls high school in Metairie, where she met a group of friends who were all interested in Witchcraft and Wicca. In a 2008 interview for The Times-Picayune, Rieth spoke candidly about her first Pagan group, explaining that the girls all shared the common experience of being victims of child abuse and pedophilia. As a result of their traumas, as she told the reporter, they formed the Crescent City Swamp Witches. This group of women stayed lifelong friends and practicing Pagan colleagues.
Although her introduction to Witchcraft came at an early age, it would be another 20 years before she took her place as a leader in the Louisiana Pagan community.
After leaving high school, Velvet attended the Charity School of Nursing at Delgado Community College. She owned a bar for some time with her mother, Dorothy. After several marriages and the birth of her four children, she eventually moved into a successful career as the director of counseling at Causeway Medical Suite, an abortion clinic in Metairie. In that work Rieth became an outspoken local activist in support of a woman’s right to choose. She was even interviewed for and quoted in a 1997 Simon and Schuster’s publication: The Abortion Resource Handbook.
It is also around this time that she met and married Gilbert Rieth, which would begin marriage that would last 25 years.
As her work in community service was taking off, Rieth also began to step out as a leader in the Pagan community. She was fondly known as the Swamp Witch. In 1994, she co-founded the Covenant of the Pentacle Wiccan Church (CPWC), which became affiliated with the Aquarian Tabernacle Church based in Washington state. CPWC performed both public and private rituals, legal weddings, hospital chaplaincy, and interfaith services. The group eventually operated teaching circles in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport, and hosted a a food bank. CPWC members followed Velvet’s lead in being very active and public in community support.
In 1996, through CPWC, Rieth began a successful Pagan prison ministry service, through which ordained members of her group could enter the state prison system to help Pagan inmates. In the 2008 Times-Picayune interview, she explained “One day, the Goddess thumped me on the head and told me to start a prison ministry.”
CPWC’s program was reportedly the only Wiccan-based prison ministry service in the state. Velvet first spent over a year working with only the Allen Correctional Center in Kinder. Then, she added five more prisons to her program, including the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. By 2003, CPWC’s Pagan ministry had to grown in size to support federal facilities as well, and she began teaching other Pagan chaplains about the work.
“My mom was happiest when she was working on something that benefited someone else,” said one of her sons, who requested not to be named. “She had a passion for humanity and believed that people could be their own salvation if they worked together.”
As the years went by, Rieth continued her service work in both the Pagan community and greater New Orleans area. She was regularly found volunteering at soup kitchens, in homeless shelters, and with other similar services. Her son said, “[My mom] wasn’t just the person to give a homeless person five dollars. She would take them home, shower them, feed them, and help them find a job. […] People I didn’t know would come up to my mom and say ‘Hey Vel. You helped me 20 years ago when I had nothing and now I’m getting out of college, or have a family. She wanted every path she crossed to be successful.” In 2000, Velvet received a commendation by the mayor of New Orleans for her work in the community.
Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. New Orleans and the region were devastated. As someone devoted to community service, Velvet got immediately to work. After evacuating herself, she pledged to help rebuild. Christopher Penczak first met Velvet during this time. He said, “Velvet was a force of nature in her community work, going above and beyond and not letting anything get in her way.”
Along with Penczak, authors Dorothy Morrison and M.R. Sellars, Rieth helped to organize relief efforts toward the rebuilding of the area, including the Pagan community. In her interview with The Times-Picayune she speculated that, prior to the hurricane, there were approximately 3,000 Pagans in the New Orleans area. After the hurricane, she said that the number dropped to around 1,000. That number has since grown over the years.
Through those efforts, Morrison said that they ended up raising $10,000, all of which was sent to Rieth who “bought chain saws, heaters, cases of water, food and other supplies, and doled them out to those in need.” Morrison added, “It was quite a job, but she managed it.”
Rieths devotion to community service and family did not end when the clean-up efforts were over. In 2007, Velvet published My First Little Workbook of Wicca. Originally creating the book for her own grandchildren, Velvet decided to self-publish it so others could benefit.Then in 2009, she was appointed the curator of the Buckland Museum. Raymond Buckland is a family friend and looked to her to help him reestablish his museum. For several years, Rieth carried his memorabilia to Pagan events, showcasing the various pieces and sharing Wiccan history.
However, her dream of a New Orleans-based Buckland museum was not to be. It was at this time that Rieth began to show the signs of the debilitating disease that would eventually take her life. She had to retire from all public works and, over the next few years, her condition only worsened. Her son said, “My father and I did our best to keep my mom’s dignity intact despite her illness.”
In 2014, Rieth was given the official diagnosis that she had Pick’s disease, which, as defined by WebMD, is “a kind of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s but far less common. It affects parts of the brain that control emotions, behavior, personality, and language.”
Eventually, the illness affected her physically, and she had to be placed in a nursing home to receive proper care. In October 2016, Rieth was given two weeks to live. Her family brought her home on hospice.
On Jan. 4, Rieth died surrounded by her immediate family. At the exact moment of her death, the group performed a special ritual. It was led by her spiritual adviser Charlotte Pipes. Her children, husband, and sisters all participated. Her son said, “It was intimate and beautiful. We felt it was enough.”
Since announcement came of her passing, friends and colleague have been sharing memories:
Author Christopher Penczak, a colleague and friend, recalls, “My last visit with her and some friends was at the New Orleans airport. She couldn’t meet any other time during our visit, so she got up at an ungodly hour to have breakfast with us at the airport before we left. Even at dawn she was funny, smart and inspiring. I will miss her.”
Local witch Cairelle Perilloux, fondly remembers Velvet as an inspiration for her own work, calling her a tough lady but very generous. Perilloux recalls, “She took me to brunch and I told her about my plan for the Witches’ Ball and she was very supportive and handed me a $100 bill and said, ‘I believe in you and your vision. Get it going.’ She was a great motivator.”
Dorothy Morrison, a long-time family friend, said, “The Velvet I knew, though, was not only my friend, but the sister I wasn’t granted at birth. We shared secrets and laughter and tears. We shared praline cheesecake, frozen Irish coffee, long walks through the French Quarter while singing, ‘I Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,’ and never hugged goodbye without saying, ‘I love you more than biscuits and gravy.’ She was, without a doubt, one of my most cherished blessings, and I will miss her sorely.”
Her son said, “I once told my mom, if I had to use an object to describe her it would be a piece of slate. Initially, she didn’t understand or like that answer. Then I explained. Slate is sedimentary. It is the culmination of many things that creates something stronger. Slate can be marked up and covered in anything and will always wipe clean. Mom was loved by many. I will miss her every day.”
A public memorial service will be held 5:00 – 8:00 pm Friday, Jan. 6, 2017 at L.A. Muhleisen & Son Funeral Home in Kenner. The family says that all are welcome.
Although her life was cut short, Velvet Rieth lived it to the fullest. As Morrison best said, she “was many things to many people.” Velvet was a high priestess, a magical practitioner, a teacher and lecturer, an activist, a prison chaplain, a dear friend, mother and wife. Her legacy is held steady by the many people she touched over the years, and it is entrenched in the vibrancy and growth of the New Orleans Pagan community.
That legacy will live on in the very spirit of community service and the devotion to family, both which were at the heart of her Velvet Rieth’s life.
“Now I lay me down to rest.
I know today I did my best.
Into the God and Goddess’s care I’ll be.
With the guardians watching over me.”
– Rev. Velvet Reith, My First Little Workbook of Wicca
What is remembered, lives.