On the Trail of History: France and the Priest-Martyrs of 1873

by Fr. Peter B. Mangum

As many are aware, I have been working on a project over the last two years to explore and raise awareness of the lives of five remarkable priests who gave their lives in the Shreveport Yellow Fever epidemic of 1873. This project has taken many forms, including the writing of a book-length manuscript for publication in the near future, as well as a graphic novel that is being published serially in the pages of The Catholic Connection. In addition, there was a special limited-edition podcast series produced to highlight the lives of these priests, which was released last fall under the title of “No Greater Love: Shreveport 1873.” Collaborating with me on this project have been author W. Ryan Smith and historian Dr. Cheryl White. Our ultimate goal is to develop rich and compelling biographies of these men to bring to the attention of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. These men were exemplary in their devotion to others and were truly “martyrs of their charity,” as all of them willingly died in the service of the sick and dying of Shreveport.

The roll call of names is by now becoming more familiar to us all: Fr. Isidore Quemerais, Fr. Jean Pierre, Fr. Jean Marie Biler, Fr. Louis Gergaud, and Fr. Francois Le Vezouet, all of whom died of Yellow Fever in the short weeks between September 15 and October 8, 1873. The search to know as much as possible about their lives led me to the region of northern France known as Brittany, to picturesque rolling fields and small villages and towns that these men once called home. That is, before they each answered the missionary call of the first Bishop of Natchitoches, Auguste Marie Martin, also a native of St. Malo in Brittany. In the mid-1850s, and again following the close of the First Vatican Council in 1870, Bishop Martin made a trip through Brittany to recruit young missionary priests for an area of Louisiana that was still very much a wilderness. All of them came to the uncertainty of Louisiana, leaving behind family and the only lives they had ever known, which is itself no small measure of sacrifice.

St. Nicholas Church in Heric, France, where Fr. Louis Gergaud was baptized in 1832.

In late February, I traveled to France with a small delegation that included project co-author Dr. Cheryl White, as well as Chantal Dickson (who served as translator) and her son, Michael. The primary purpose was to meet with the bishops of three dioceses – Nantes, Rennes and St. Brieuc to forge closer relationships over our shared priests and common historical link. Dr. White and I also hoped to be able to acquire more primary source information through archival research. An equally important purpose was to have the opportunity to visit the hometowns of these priests, dotted across the Brittany countryside: Heric, Plourivo, Lanloup, Brelidy, and Pleine-Fougeres.

The trip was a resounding success on all accounts! Not only did Bishops Jean-Paul James of Nantes, Alexandre Joly of Rennes, and Denis Moutel of St. Brieuc warmly welcome us, they had already made archival inquiries before we even arrived. The hospitality they extended to us was extraordinary indeed. Additionally, Bishop Moutel called a press conference for our visit, which resulted in coverage by French National Television, Catholic radio and several regional and national newspapers. Bishop Moutel also arranged for us to meet with officials from each of the hometowns, where again, we were warmly welcomed by townspeople eager to know more about their native sons. To be able to visit the churches where the priests were baptized (and in the case of Fr. Gergaud, the Cathedral of Nantes where he was ordained), added broad new dimension to telling their stories.

The baptismal record of Fr. Louis Gergaud held in Blain, France.

In exchange, we have shared with these dioceses of Brittany our graphic novel in a French translation, and are making plans to share much more over the coming months and years leading up to the 150th anniversary in 2023. Little did I know that I would return to the Diocese of Shreveport with much more than the historical record of previously unknown letters and documents, but with new friendships rooted in a story that we now share. I greatly look forward to the continued strengthening of our ties, and being able to honor the five priest-martyrs of 1873 with even greater fervor!  •

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