Shreveport Martyrs and the 1873 Yellow Fever Epidemic

by Fr. Peter Mangum, Ryan Smith and Dr. Cheryl White

In the late summer of 1873, Shreveport was besieged by the third worst epidemic of Yellow Fever that is recorded in United States history. On scale, the population loss was unprecedented. From late August until early November, Shreveport lost approximately one-fourth of its population to an illness that no one fully understood, although previous experience had taught that once the first frost arrived, the epidemic would abate. No one had yet made the connection that the virus of Yellow Fever is actually mosquito-borne, and in fact, requires the third vector of the insect to spread in a human population. Because of the unique conditions of a transient commercial population in this river port city, the density of population, and as home to a large mosquito population in the summer months, Shreveport was no stranger to the illness. However, the scale and ferocity of the epidemic of 1873 proved to be one for the history books. This year marks the 145th anniversary of this milestone in Shreveport history, but it marks a significant passage of Catholic history, as well.

Counted among the city’s dead were five Roman Catholic priests and two religious sisters of the Daughters of the Cross, as well as a young novice of that order. The sacrifice of their lives in the service of the city’s sick and dying provides compelling testimony to the Christian virtue of charity, and their willingness to die for others is a model for true selflessness. Their stories, while tragic, are yet inspiring in their witness to the very ideal given us by Christ: “Greater love has no one than this than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

The religious demographic of Shreveport in 1873 reflected a city that was mostly Protestant, but with a large Jewish population as well. Roman Catholics were but a small minority, and indeed, only three priests were assigned here at the time. Shreveport was a remote location of the Diocese of Natchitoches, founded in 1853. Its first bishop, Auguste Marie Martin, recruited priests and seminarians from the Archdiocese of Rennes in France to come to northern Louisiana. Among those men were five who could not have known at the time that their mission in Louisiana meant going to their deaths.

Fr. Jean Pierre, the founding pastor of Holy Trinity, had been in the area since 1854, when Bishop Martin first assigned him to Holy Apostles parish church in the Bayou Pierre community (Carmel, Louisiana today). Fr. Pierre built the first Catholic parish of Holy Trinity in Shreveport, and by the time of the Yellow Fever outbreak in 1873, he had only recently been joined by an associate pastor, the young 26-year old Fr. Isidore Quemerais. At the Daughters of the Cross convent, located on the site of the old Fairfield Plantation, Fr. Narcisse Le Biler served as chaplain.

With the Yellow Fever virus spreading rapidly, the Daughters of the Cross convent opened its doors as a hospital, as did Holy Trinity and many other churches, and even private homes throughout the city. Those who undertook the care of the sick and dying knew well the risks, and as the epidemic grew in both strength and numbers of lives claimed, it became apparent that 1873 was worse than the region had ever seen. Yet, the care for others did not cease. The sisters of the Daughters of the Cross worked alongside the clergy to minister to both physical and spiritual needs.

On September 15, 1873, Fr. Isidore Quemerais died of the virus. The following day, September 16, Fr. Jean Pierre succumbed as well. Two days later, on September 18, realizing that he was also ill with Yellow Fever, Fr. Le Biler sent a telegram to Fr. Louis Gergaud, pastor of St. Matthew Church in Monroe, asking for help. Fr. Gergaud boarded a stagecoach bound for Shreveport, and his final words to his assistant were, “Write to the bishop and tell him I go to my death. It is my duty, and I must go.” Indeed, Fr. Gergaud’s prophecy proved true, for he contracted the virus almost immediately upon arriving in Shreveport, and died on October 1.

Providentially, Fr. Gergaud arrived in time to provide comfort and final sacraments to Fr. Le Biler, who died on September 26. At the convent hospital, the epidemic had also already claimed the lives of Sister Marie Martha on September 17, and Sister Marie Angela on September 23. Also receiving word about the increasingly desperate situation in Shreveport was Fr. Francois LeVezouet in Natchitoches. The ensuing meeting between Bishop Martin and Fr. LeVezouet is recounted in this excerpt from a forthcoming book by these authors about the Shreveport martyrs:

Upon his return to the Natchitoches Cathedral of St. Francis on Second Street, positioned just one block from a dead arm channel of the Red River, Father LeVezouet tied up his horse at the stable near the rectory, where he was soon met by the grim face of Bishop Auguste Marie Martin.

The Bishop wasted no time in handing LeVezouet the two documents. The parish priest unfolded the letters and examined them. One was a desperate letter scrawled by Mother Mary Hyacinth Le Conniat at the Fairfield convent and girl’s academy on the southern outskirts of Shreveport. The matron was bearing witness to the virtual eradication of the small Catholic community there and she feared Shreveport and its suffering masses would soon be without the sacraments. Both of the priests in the city were deadly sick and the strong probability was arising that they would soon die in tandem. She was concerned also there would be no clergy remaining to carry on the affairs of the mission, to offer the daily Masses, let alone minister to the multitudes of the sick and dying from the sweeping epidemic.

The second note was the even more worrisome letter from Father Le Biler himself, pastor of the convent, who in a desperate voice and shaking hand requested aid at once, as it was feared by all that he would not last much longer.

Father LeVezouet took in the contents of the dispatches and looked up at the bishop to find him searching the priest’s face as he stood before him. A great sadness was perceptible, almost tangible in the air as the moments passed.

“What would you like to do, my son?” Bishop Martin asked, at last breaking the painful silence.

“Monseigneur, if you tell me to go, I go, if you leave it up to me, I stay.”

Bishop Martin paused and thought for a moment trying to understand “the real meaning of his words.” The bishop was not convinced his priest was shirking in fear, but nonetheless did not understand his meaning all at once. He was puzzled, like a disciple on a Galilee hilltop awaiting the parable’s explanation: do you not yet understand? Some more painful moments passed.

Then, Father LeVezouet added, “I want to go so much that, if you left the decision up to me I would believe that in going I was acting according to my own will… I do not want to do anything but the will of God.”

The bishop was leveled by the piety before him. He could hardly speak any further and only told the priest to make ready to go at once in relief of Shreveport.

Fr. LeVezouet arrived in Shreveport just in time to provide viaticum to Fr. Louis Gergaud on October 1. It was not long before Fr. LeVezouet was also ill and knew his own death was near. He died on October 8, but not before two priests from New Orleans arrived. Fr. James Duffo, S.J. and Fr. J. Ferrec both had been exposed to Yellow Fever before, and their arrival in Shreveport was timed, yet again, to assure that the Catholics of the city were never without the sacraments. By that time, a third death had been recorded at the convent. Sister Rose of Lima, who was yet a novice, died October 5.

It is remarkable, and even miraculous, that the grim timeline of 1873 bears out such Providential care at work. Each priest arrived in succession, just in time to care for the one before, with the end of their lives timed so that the terminal phase was not reached until another priest could offer the sacraments. To again draw from the forthcoming book on their lives:

What is certain is that Francios LeVezouet died violently, expelling black vomit throughout his last evening on Earth. Then, through Divine mercy personified, the New Orleans priests arrived by his bedside with what was recorded as only moments to spare before his passing, knowing full well it was not only his earthly cry for help they had answered, but that they were also serving the will of God.

Within whatever parlor, boarding house room, or commercial structure the dying priest lay, Fathers Duffo and Ferrec administered Francios LeVezouet, a child of God and a devoted disciple of Christ, his final sacraments, and with little time to spare as he passed quickly thereafter. Thus the New Orleanian Jesuit and the assistant pastor to the Cathedral of St. Louis were initiated into the confraternity of the charnel house priests, with the dual missions to bring hope and peace to the dying strangers surrounding them and to continue the sacraments without a moment’s secession, to the handful of remaining Catholic faithful in northwestern Louisiana.

As this area commemorates the 145th anniversary of the Yellow Fever epidemic in Shreveport, it provides Catholics with an opportunity to foster a lively devotion to these priests and religious sisters who truly were martyrs to their charity. Their lives, and especially their deaths, provide the strongest possible witness to the fundamental call of our historic Catholic faith, which is to serve others. The population statistics underscore the poignant truth of their ultimate sacrifice: they did not question the creed or faith of the dying they comforted. They did not choose to suffer and die just for Catholics, but for any and all – because they were Catholic. Their ongoing witness to us is resoundingly clear, their sacrifices were not in vain, and may the memory of them be forever woven into the rich tapestry of our local Catholic identity.

Let us pray through the intercessions of these servants of God for divine favor for those we know who have special need of our prayer, especially the ill, as well as for ourselves and for our city. 

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