Shreveport Martyrs’ cause moves ahead

Fr. Carter serving in an official role for La. diocese

By Joseph Pronechen
National Catholic Register

The bishops of the United States have 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 during the spring plenary meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

And on Oct. 8, Bishop Francis I. Malone of the Diocese of Shreveport in Louisiana, presided at the Mass commemorating the 150th anniversary of the yellow fever epidemic. The Mass also served as the opening session of the diocesan phase of investigating the lives and the heroic virtues of the Servants of God, diocesan priests, and martyrs to their charity in Shreveport.

Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, who is leading a cause for sainthood in the Diocese of Knoxville, also is serving in an official role with the Shreveport Martyrs’ cause for sainthood.

Father Carter is a native of Shreveport who grew up in Knoxville. He is leading the cause for sainthood of Servant of God Father Patrick Ryan, who died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 while ministering to those ill from the contagion in Chattanooga.

Already named “Servants of God,” the five young priests who were age 26 and 27 gave their lives ministering to the sick during the great yellow fever epidemic of 1873 in Shreveport.

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.

Oct. 8 also was the anniversary of the death of one of the five Shreveport martyrs, Father François LeVézouët.

Bishop Malone spoke 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 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.

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). Cardinal 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.

Bishop Francis I. Malone of Shreveport, La., speaks June 15, 2023, during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spring assembly in Orlando, Fla. Bishop Malone spoke on advancing the cause of five Shreveport missionary priests described as “martyrs of charity” in one of the worst epidemics in U.S. history. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

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.

Cardinal 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.”

Bishop Malone sees their cause for beatification and canonization affecting not only his diocese but also the Church in the United States. He also sees the strong prospects of the story of the Shreveport Martyrs inspiring vocations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *