WWII Hero Father Verbis Lafleur — One of St. Landry’s Most Valiant Sons
COMMENTARY: At a time in which Catholics are being summoned to live our faith with greater courage and charity, this spiritual son of the French saint provides a great example and, we pray, will become a much-sought intercessor.
At the beginning of August, I traveled to Grand Coteau, Louisiana, to preach some conferences to the seminarians of the Diocese of Lafayette. I always love to go to Lafayette, not just because I have several priest and lay friends there but because within the diocese there’s a county felicitously called “St. Landry Parish” — counties are called “parishes” in Louisiana, as in Alaska they’re called “boroughs” — and in the heart of that county there’s a city named Opelousas with a majestic parish church dedicated to the same saint.
Outside of Louisiana, when I mention “St. Landry,” most people think I’m engaging in comical self-canonization. But there is a St. Landry. In fact, there are officially four: St. Landry, Bishop of Sées (405-480; feast day July 16); St. Landry, the 27th bishop of Paris (d. 661; June 10); St. Landry, bishop of Metz and abbot of Soignies and Aumont (622-700; April 17); and St. Landry, pastor of Bonneval and later a Benedictine monk who was martyred about 1050 in Lanslevillard, France (June 14).
The St. Landry after whom the civil parish and exquisite Opelousas Church is named was the bishop of Paris. He was famous during and after his lifetime for his charity, selling all his personal possessions, furniture and sacred vessels to feed the poor during the great famine of 650-51 in Paris and founding a hospital to care for the indigent (which became the famous Hôtel Dieu).
He built the Church of St. Germain L’Auxerrois, now next to the Louvre, where his relics were entombed until being destroyed by French revolutionaries. In the 1738 Paris Missal, his annual memorial is celebrated as a feast, with not only the typical proper antiphons, opening Collect, Prayer over the Gifts and Prayer after Communion to which we are accustomed today, but also a proper Preface and lengthy Sequence before the Gospel extolling his virtues.
When I was growing up, I had never heard there was a St. Landry, not to mention four. I remember my delight, however, on June 9, 1989 reading Butler’s Lives of the Saints in prayerful anticipation of the following day, when I saw the entry on “Saint Landericus or Landry, Bishop of Paris.” Several years later, when I was a seminarian in Rome, I traveled to Paris, where I was able to visit the chapels dedicated to him at Notre Dame Cathedral and St. Germain L’Auxerrois.
For my diaconal ordination, a fellow seminarian from the Diocese of Lafayette gave me as a gift a hardbound copy of the history of St. Landry Parish, which was the first time I had heard of the civil jurisdiction and parish church, and it filled me with a desire to visit. That visit happened the week after I was ordained a priest, when, in New Orleans for the ordination of a classmate, I borrowed a car and drove to Opelousas, where with seminarian friends from the diocese, I was able to celebrate my 10th Mass at the historic St. Landry Church, whose history goes back to before the Louisiana Purchase.
On one of my subsequent visits to Opelousas, I saw outside the front of the church a huge, arresting statue of Carrara marble. Initially I thought it may have been dedicated to the parish patron, but as I drew near, I saw that it was an homage, dedicated in 2007, to Father J. Verbis Lafleur, a former parishioner who had his first Mass at St. Landry Parish in 1938 and later became a heroic chaplain in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a Japanese prisoner-of-war, and ultimately died saving others’ lives on Sept. 7, 1944.
Franco Alessandrini’s statue featured on its pedestal various bas reliefs of his priestly work and close by were bronze plaques with a biography and the story of his death. It was the first I had heard of Father Lafleur. I was proud of his service to God and to our country, proud to discover the details of his heroic service as a chaplain and proud of the parishioners of St. Landry to remember him, promoting devotion to him and erecting to him such an extraordinary work of art.
I was delighted when at their annual spring Plenary Assembly in June, the U.S. bishops held a canonical consultation on his cause of beatification and canonization for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints and expressed their support for its advancement. Last week, on Sept. 7, we marked the 77th anniversary of Father Lafleur’s death.
Joseph Verbis Lafleur was born in 1912 in Ville Platte, Louisiana, the youngest of seven children. His father abandoned the family when Verbis was just a boy, leaving his family in severe poverty, and forcing his mother to take odd jobs and grow a big garden to feed her hungry kids.
When he was 14, he, his mom and the other young children moved in with his older sister Olivia and her husband, who were living in Opelousas. He soon confided to Msgr. Albert Colliard, the pastor of St. Landry Church, that he felt a calling to the priesthood, and the good priest arranged for him to enter St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in St. Benedict, Louisiana, the following year. Twelve years later, Father Lafleur celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at St. Landry Parish on April 5, 1938.
His one parish assignment was as parochial vicar to the people of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Abbeville, where he distinguished himself as a zealous priest, avid sportsman and inspiring spiritual father, pawning his watch to buy for the poor boys of the parish baseball gloves, bats, balls and other equipment and coaching them on the diamond and in life.
Three years later, in the summer of 1941, he responded to a need for chaplains in the Army Air Corps and was sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico, before being assigned with the 19th Bombardment Group to Clark Field near Manila in the Philippines, only a few weeks before it was attacked by the Japanese, hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Father Lafleur immediately distinguished himself for bravery in action, caring for the wounded and absolving the dying with abandon. While evading capture aboard the S.S. Mayton, he helped save the life of three men who had gone overboard during a Japanese bombing attack. When given the chance to evacuate he replied, “I shall stay here. My place is with the men.”
The surviving airmen were eventually captured and became prisoners of war, regularly getting moved to various POW camps. In his two-and-a-half years of captivity, Father Lafleur was in four camps, where he routinely sacrificed his meager rations and malaria medicine for the other soldiers, traded his watch and glasses for more food for the famished, suffered regular beatings for breaking the Japanese rules against visiting those in the infirmaries, and took the place of those too weak to do brutal work.
In one location, he built out of bamboo a chapel dedicated to St. Peter in Chains and, by various means, especially through the celebration of morning Mass with wine from a medicine dropper, he sought to help them maintain faith, hope and mutual charity. Nearly 200 American prisoners converted to Catholicism because of his witness and work.
When 750 men were going to be moved to do the grueling work of repairing a Japanese airstrip, he exchanged places with one of the men chosen. He wanted to provide a priestly presence. With them he boarded the freighter ship Shinyo Maru, which, because it wasn’t flying a white flag symbolic of transporting prisoners, was torpedoed by U.S.S. Paddle submarine. While the attack was ongoing, he led everyone in praying the Rosary, gave absolution and blessed them.
Franco Alessandrini’s sculpture features what happened as soon as the hatch to the hold was opened. Amid Japanese soldiers firing guns and throwing hand grenades into the ship’s hold, “Padre” Lafleur is depicted, pushing his fellow prisoners, most of whom were severely malnourished, dehydrated and weakened by heat exhaustion, to possible freedom through the one escape hatch to the deck of the sinking ship’s burning hull. He refused to ascend until they were out. He never made it. The 83 who escaped and survived the treacherous swim to shore told the story of his heroism.
At a time in which Catholics are being summoned to live our faith with greater courage and charity, this spiritual son of St. Landry is a great example and, we pray, will become a much-sought intercessor.