US Army Chaplain’s Cause for Canonization Advances: Father Joseph Lafleur, ‘Model of a Shepherd’
Louisiana native continues on the path toward sainthood.
On June 17, nearly every one of the nation’s 300-plus bishops voted at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spring general assembly to advance the cause for canonization of Servant of God Father Joseph Lafleur, a heroic U.S. Army chaplain during World War II.
In the aftermath of the vote, Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, which is promoting the cause, told a local television station, “Father Lafleur’s exemplary life of charity is a model and inspiration for people of all faiths. He gave his life for others. There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.”
For his part, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services told the Register he was “delighted” at the progress of Father Lafleur’s cause.
The chaplain, he said, “is a model of a shepherd with ‘the smell of his sheep.’ Even though he died more than 75 years ago, he is an excellent example for priests today. I hope that the process will go quickly and we will see him raised to the dignity of the altars soon.”
Once the diocesan phase of the investigation into Father Lafleur’s life is completed, the cause will be sent to the Vatican for review.
Joseph Verbis Lafleur was born in 1912 in Ville Platte, Louisiana, where he lived until his father abandoned his family, leaving his wife to raise their seven remaining children (one son died in infancy). The mother, who spoke only French, took odd jobs and grew a garden to feed the impoverished family.
His nephew Richard’s wife, Carrol Lafleur, relates that while most people threw away the outer leaves of a cabbage, Mrs. Lafleur “kept the bottom leaves to feed the family and sold the heads for money.”
When even this wasn’t enough, the single mother moved her brood to Opelousas, Louisiana, to live with her married daughter, Olivia. That is where Verbis spent most of his prewar life.
Sometime between his ordination in 1938 and the start of World War II, Father Lafleur enlisted in the U.S. Army as a chaplain. Eventually, he was posted with the Army Air Corps at Clark Field, the Corps’ post in the Philippines, roughly 60 miles west of Manila.
It was here that the Japanese also attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, the same day as Pearl Harbor. As enemy planes furiously pounced from above, Father Lafleur ignored bodily safety to aid the wounded and give absolution to the dying. For his bravery, the Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
When given the chance to evacuate back to the States, the chaplain refused, saying, “I shall stay here. My place is with the men.”
Eventually, Father Lafleur was captured by the Japanese and made a prisoner of war. He was interred at the infamous camps at O’Donnell and Cabanatuan, among other locations.
The same bravery he showed at Clark Field was on display during his imprisonment by the Japanese. Heedless of the rules set by his enemy, he ministered to all the men under his care. When the prisoners saw their medicine and rations progressively decreased, Father Lafleur worked to ensure that everyone had enough. He even gave up his own meager rations to those who were weaker. And though he contracted malaria on several occasions, he refused medicine because there were always, he said, those who needed it more.
He volunteered for work duty, even though as a chaplain and officer he did not have to, and he often took the most brutal labor for himself.
His fellow POWs who survived the ordeal of imprisonment said Father Lafleur gave them hope and courage to press on. He also helped maintain a somewhat civilized atmosphere when otherwise the law of “survival of the fittest” may have set in. He even punched a man who stole another prisoner’s rations, and though he later apologized for it, the incident shows the passion he brought to caring for the souls under his care.
As the war worsened for the Japanese, and the Americans began retaking the Philippines, the POWs were evacuated onto merchant vessels for transport to Japan and POW camps there.
Not knowing that these ships held hundreds and hundreds of their fellow Americans, U.S. Navy submarines torpedoed them. The Japanese were going to let the prisoners go down with the ships, but an officer took it upon himself to open the hold where the POWs were kept.
Weak and emaciated, Father Lafleur could have saved himself, as many servicemen did. Instead, he labored to get as many of his fellow prisoners to the surface as possible.
The last anyone saw him he was helping yet another soldier out of the hold, on Sept. 7, 1944. His body was never recovered.
Today, a memorial to Father Lafleur sits at St. Landry Church in Opelousas, where he came to the faith and where he served his first Solemn High Mass after ordination. Every September, a memorial Mass is held there, which draws hundreds of the faithful. In 2017, it is also where — before family, the local bishop, school students and local dignitaries — Lafleur posthumously received a second Distinguished Service Medal and Purple Heart for actions on board that Japanese prisoner-of-war ship that cost him his life but saved scores more.
When asked what the bishops’ vote meant to the Lafleur family, Carrol Lafleur said, “Gee whiz, I really don’t know what to say, how to pinpoint it, other than to say that I have a hard time believing what is happening in my lifetime. There are no words that can express. It’s just beyond belief to be in a family where a family member is considered for canonization. It’s too big for me to absorb.”
Speaking of the example he gives to today’s Catholics, Carrol said, “All of us have struggled to live a life of virtue, a life for God, and that was Father Lafleur’s total life. He gave himself always. He always thought of others before himself.
“I just hope and pray that Father can serve as an example for young people to communicate with, to be in touch with. We have so many wonderful saints, but they lived so long ago that it’s hard for the young people to see that saints lived as we live. He’s close to their lifetime, and I hope that they can read about him and know the things that he did and follow the same example that he set.”
Brian O’Neel writes from Charleston, West Virginia.
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- Father Joseph Lafleur