Shreveport Martyrs’ Cause Moves Forward: ‘It Is Miraculous … What These Priests Accomplished’
This year marks the 150th anniversary year of their work and deaths during the devastating yellow fever epidemic of 1873.
This month, the bishops of the United States affirmed the advancement of the cause of beatification and canonization on the diocesan level of five French-born priests known as the “Shreveport Martyrs.” The affirmative vote to continue the cause took place on June 15.
Already named “Servants of God,” these five young priests gave their lives ministering to the sick during the great yellow fever epidemic of 1873 in Shreveport, Louisiana. Servants of God Father Isidore Quémerais, Father Jean Pierre, Father Jean-Marie Biler, Father Louis Gergaud and Father François LeVézouët had recently arrived from their homeland in France to serve in the new diocese. This year marks the 150th anniversary year of their work and deaths during that devastating epidemic.
Bishop Francis Malone of Shreveport spoke to the Register about the significance of this move that will lead to further interactions with the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, which has already granted that the five priests be considered together as one cause. They have always been known and referred to collectively in the diocese as the “Shreveport Martyrs.”
“You can imagine if we had to deal with five different causes, the length of time it would take to do that,” Bishop Malone told the Register. Rome’s granting the consolidation of the five priests into one cause made the work streamlined.
He pointed out that combined with the extensive work being done on the cause, people have also written two books on these priests and produced The Five Priests, a full-length documentary film that has won awards at national and international film festivals, including the Cannes World Film Festival.
Giving Their Lives Willingly
The Shreveport Martyrs fit the new category of “martyrs of charity” promulgated by Pope Francis in his 2017 motu proprio Maiorem hac Dilectionem (The Offer of Life). Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, also called these five priests “Martyrs of Charity” during a June interview with Catholic Current. As an aside, he mentioned also that one of the priests was from his home diocese (Archdiocese of Rennes), and the first bishop at that time, Bishop Auguste Marie Martin, was from his hometown in Brittany.
Bishop Malone connected these five martyrs to something he heard when he was in the seminary from Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who was giving a retreat to the seminarians. Bishop Malone recalled Archbishop Sheen stating, “We humans come into the world to live; Jesus was the only person who came into the world to die.” Bishop Malone continued, “And in saying that, he also said, ‘We have the history of the Church of men and women who gave their lives willingly for the well-being of other people.’”
“These five priests did just that,” Bishop Malone explained. “They were told more than likely they would not survive.” Extensive records bear witness to that fact.
Members of the Catholic Church and also non-Catholics “have become well aware of the story of these five priests and what they did,” he said. “We’ve all experienced the pandemic here, to imagine what it was like” during that third-worst-documented epidemic of yellow fever in the United States. The epidemic occurred in Shreveport between late August and mid-November of 1873; the five priests died between Sept. 15 and Oct. 8.
The two French priests already serving in Shreveport remained ministering to the sick while the other three came willingly at the call for help. Each one left their safe locations, knowing they also would contract yellow fever and die from it.
Archbishop Pierre also called it “something providential in the sense” that in 1873 they endured “in circumstances not so different from what we have lived during the crisis of coronavirus.”
They helped everyone, most of whom were not Catholic, but it was a “desire to give their life for the sake of the Gospel.” Figures available show that Father Biler “gave himself fully to more than 900 sick and dying persons, not simply caring for their bodily needs but more so their spiritual needs, robbing death of its terrors as he led souls with confidence to eternal life.” And Father Gergaud ministered to more than 1,000 sick people, of which “perhaps fewer than 25 were Catholic, but, in the presence of death, it was the priest that everyone called for, and God alone knows how many souls owe their salvation to the heroism of this priest.”
‘The Stories Are So Dramatic’
Bishop Malone sees their cause for beatification and canonization affecting not only his diocese but also the Church in the United States. As for the latter, he called it “amazing how many publications have made contact with us” because of the high level of interest generated by the bishops’ action at their spring plenary assembly. What generated from there “is just remarkable,” he said. “That tells me that people are drawn to [that], and want that, in the absence of so much that is holy, and sacred and profound. … More and more people are interested. And why is it? Because the stories are so dramatic. Their story is almost unbelievable. But it is miraculous … what these priests accomplished.”
Bishop Malone also sees the strong prospects of the story of the Shreveport Martyrs inspiring vocations. During a question-and-answer session including Archbishop Pierre at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., following a screening of the documentary film on March 14, he recounted to the Register, “It occurred to me that one of the issues or things that had not been talked about a great deal was the vocation issue. It occurred to me that in the widespread use of the documentary, the books or the story itself, there might be young men who would see this and say, ‘If they can do it, maybe I can do it. Maybe the Lord’s calling me to do that.’ So I see it as a tool for vocations … to touch the hearts and minds of young people.” He added that there were religious women who also came to aid the sick and were “pretty much part of this same process.”
Devotion to these priests continues to grow — including at St. John the Baptist Church in Many, Louisiana, where parishioners have been praying for the intercession of Father LeVézouët, who “was the very first pastor that we had here at our parish,” devotee Shirley Rivers told the Register.
At the same time the church was celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2021, she said, “The cause became more special to us, so we developed an interest in all five of them, especially in our Father LeVézouët. Before he established this church, he would come to the area and say Mass in the home of a local resident, so he was … actually the first pastor of St. John the Baptist.” The home is still in the same family, and for the 150th anniversary celebration, with the permission of the owner, Rivers explained, “We were able to actually celebrate Mass in the same home where Father LeVézouët celebrated Mass between 1865 and 1870. That was a really special moment for us.”
And the prayers of the parish’s heroic first pastor have made a difference of late.
At the height of the COVID pandemic, “two parishioners were very ill and very close to death,” Rivers recounted. “The families weren’t given much hope. We began to pray, through the intercession of Father LeVézouët and asked him to intercede that they be healed … and they were healed. Miraculously, they are still with us.”
And that’s not the only intercessory intervention. Rivers recalled a former pastor who was from India, and after returning to his homeland, he called the Louisiana parish, asking for prayers for his sister-in-law, who was very ill with different conditions, including a stroke; she was near death, without hope of any recovery. Rivers recalled, “We told him to seek the intercession of Father LeVézouët, and we began to pray to him. Three days later, she was discharged from the hospital.”
The parish invited Archbishop Pierre for its 150th anniversary celebration, as Father LeVézouët was from the same area of France as the apostolic nuncio. The parish was pleased the archbishop attended.
“We’re small. We’re rural,” Rivers added. “Because Father LeVézouët worked so hard to try to establish a parish here, we just feel that, in some form, we are special to him. We feel like he’s praying for us.”
One of the five requirements for the martyrs-of-charity category is the standard miracle for beatification. In the general cause for canonization, those reporting a miracle have to show that they were praying to a particular candidate as an intercessor.
Bishop Malone explained, “That has to be specific: this particular one or this group of candidates. That’s an important thing that Rome requires. Be specific. And that’s what we are encouraging people: to pray to the Lord, through these individual priests. Hopefully, we’ll get the miracle.”
Archbishop Pierre was very optimistic in the video interview about the prospects for this cause, saying, “I’m sure that they will be eventually beatified.”
“And all goes back in history of the lives of the saints, you see?” concluded Bishop Malone, referring to how the saints’ heroic actions in various times and places have been edifying and have inspired others to emulate them. “That’s one of the important things that should not go unmentioned.”
Another Cause Moves Along
The cause for the canonization of the La Florida Martyrs, comprising more than 50 priests, laity and Indigenous converts, is also taking a big step forward in the coming weeks. These martyrs suffered martyrdom while evangelizing in the large expanse known as La Florida, which included not only present-day Florida but lands beyond today’s borders.
Father Len Plazewski, pastor of Christ the King Church in Tampa and vice postulator for the cause, said a “mega meeting in Tampa” of 35 people, including bishops, will comprise the “final push” for the cause, which is scheduled to close at a large ceremony on Oct. 12, the eighth anniversary of the day the cause was officially opened. The cause will then proceed to Rome. The prospects “seem really good to me,” Father Plazewski told the Register. “We’re excited to get this sent in. I think things will move relatively quickly.”
Since these martyrdoms occurred in the 16th through 18th centuries, “some struggles with some of the documentation for some of those initially in the cause” caused a delay, the vice postulator told the Register. Therefore, only those martyrs supported by strong documentation comprise this group, including written testimonies from witnesses. “We’re going forward at this point with 57 individuals for beatification,” Father Plazewski said.
Among those individuals is Dominican Father Luis de Cáncer, who was martyred on June 26, 1549, in what was likely present-day Safety Harbor, Florida. His detailed diary in his own writing was given to another priest, an eyewitness to his death. Another candidate, Jesuit Father Pedro Martínez, martyred in 1566, was the superior of the first Jesuits bound for Florida and has long been considered the proto-Jesuit martyr of the Americas. Others include Apalachee converts in northern Florida and Spanish laypeople killed in a 1647 uprising. Among them were the lieutenant governor, his wife, daughters and one daughter’s unborn child. They all were brutally tortured and martyred in a newly established mission. Together, the British and Native tribes carried out the massacres. Franciscan Father Juan de Parga is another candidate; he was killed at a mission in what is now Tallahassee.
Also moving along are the designs and fundraising for a shrine. At present, it will be called the Shrine of Our Lady, Queen of the Martyrs. As the cause moves along and if the martyrs are beatified, the name will be changed to the Shrine of the Martyrs of La Florida.
As for the prospects, Father Plazewski is optimistic. “I feel really strongly about the cause,” he said. “I think it’s going to go pretty quickly.”