Louisiana is on its way to welcoming five priests, known as “the Shreveport Martyrs,” to the canonization process.
On June 15, 2023, the USCCB unanimously voted to continue the canonization process for the new “Servants of God,” who served the Diocese of Shreveport during an outbreak of yellow fever in 1873.
French immigrants Jean Pierre, Isidore Quémerais, Jean Marie Biler, Louis Gergaud, and François LeVézouët came to America and chose to serve the sick and the suffering, knowing it would undoubtedly lead to their own deaths.
The men read an ad posted to the walls of their seminary in France for priests for the newly-formed diocese:
We offer you no salary, no recompense, no holiday or pension. But, much hard work, a poor dwelling, few consolations, many disappointments, frequent sickness, a violent or lonely death, and an unknown grave.
And they still chose to serve. They arrived in Louisiana and had just begun their ministry, when the disease struck. This yellow fever epidemic was no small outbreak, but was the “third-worst epidemic of Yellow Fever in United States history.”
As many people fled the city, two of the French priests already stationed in the town stayed, while the other three chose to go into the city to serve the dying.
The outbreak began in August 1873 and within three three months, the city had lost one-fourth of its population – over 1200 deaths in total. The first frost came early that year, in mid-October, killing off the disease-bearing mosquitoes. The epidemic was over by mid-November, leaving behind devastating losses for the city of Shreveport.
Each of the priests being considered for canonization has his own story that glorifies the Lord, and while they are all up for sainthood together, it is important to get to know each Servant of God individually.
On September 9, 1847 in a small farming village in Brittany France, Father Quémerais came into this world. He received baptism as an infant and throughout his childhood, showed the desire and drive to answer God’s calling and join the priesthood. At the age of 16, he left home for the seminary, with the blessing of his parents. In 1870, before ordination, he answered the call to go to Louisiana and serve in a new diocese.
He was ordained at age 23 with “fervent missionary zeal and filial devotion to his bishop.” His first assignment led him to serve in Shreveport as the assistant priest to Fr. Jean Pierrein in early 1873 before yellow fever infiltrated the town. Father Quémarais suffered from a different illness and took time away to rest before the outbreak, but when he heard the people needed care, he immediately came back to serve the community.
He chose to minister to those in quarantine, knowing that it would lead to his own death but wanting to serve the people nonetheless. He worked himself to the point of exhaustion, contracting yellow fever and dying on September 15, 1873, after receiving last rites. He was the first priest to die during the outbreak.
Father Jean Pierre, born in Brittany, France on September 29, 1831, grew up as an active member in their parish, serving as an altar boy with a deep devotion to St. Giles and St. Blaise. He also answered the call to go to Louisiana and serve as a missionary. He first traveled around the vast and wild territory, preaching the Word of God and seeing the fruits as it took root in the hearts of many. Eventually, he accepted the assignment to the parish Holy Trinity in Shreveport and worked to educate the children as well as build the first church in the city.
When yellow fever broke out, he refused to leave the people. He ministered to them, cared for the suffering, and administered anointing of the sick to those who wished to receive it. He died on September 16, 1873, the day after his assistant, Father Quémarais. He received last rites from Father Biler who had answered Father Pierre’s pleas for help in the city.
Father Biler was born in Brittany, France on November 18, 1839 and baptized only two days later. He went on to study at seminary and received Holy Orders in 1864. After ministering in France for four years, he also answered the Bishop’s call for priests to join him in Louisiana in the new diocese. After arriving, Father Biler struggled to learn English and questioned his decision to go to Louisiana, but he eventually whole-heartedly immersed himself into the challenge and joyfully served the people.
When Father Pierre called for help in Shreveport during the epidemic, Father Biler responded first from his assignment three miles away. He went to Shreveport, knowing it would lead to his death but willing to lay down his life for those suffering.
He performed last rites for both Father Pierre and Father Quémarais. As the last priest in the city filled with suffering and people in need, Father Biler sent out another plea for help. He contracted the disease while working alone and by the grace of God, he survived until Fr. LeVézouët arrived and administered last rites to him. Father Biler died on September 26, 1873, crying out, “I am going to Heaven!”
Father Gergaud was born on March 22, 1832 in Héric, France. He attended seminary and shortly after ordination he went to Louisiana. The bishop assigned him to a parish in Monroe, where he encountered hostility due to the Catholic faith. Despite the pushback, Father Gergaud preserved in his ministry, eventually reaching many in the area, including slaves.
When he heard about Shreveport and their need for help on September 18, 1873, Father Gergaud left the same day. He said, “Write to the bishop, and tell him I go to my death. It is my duty, and I go.” Father Gerguad cared for the community and died on October 1, 1873, after Fr. Francois LeVézouët arrived and administered last rites.
Father LeVézouët was born in Brittany, France on August 10, 1833 to a wealthy agricultural family. He attended seminary and excelled in his studies. He answered the call to go to Louisiana, and was ordained in Natchitoches in 1856. He quickly learned English and constantly grew in wisdom; making him a trusted and valued assistant to the Bishop. The bishop appointed him “president of St. Joseph’s College and the diocesan Director of the Propagation of the Faith” meanwhile, he still never failed to minister to the poor.
After the Bishop informed him of the plea from Father Biler, Father LeVézouët said, “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 people loved Father LeVézouët and many gathered to see him go. Someone from the crowd said, “You are going to your death.” Fr. LeVézouët responded: “I believe it, but I know that I am taking the surest and shortest path to heaven.”
After arriving in Shreveport, he administered last rites to Father Gergaud and served the ill in the city. He eventually fell ill with yellow fever as well and the Bishop, not able to spare any more priests from his own diocese, appealed to the diocese of New Orleans for help. Two priests, who had more immunity due to having previously being exposed to yellow fever, showed up to serve. They administered last rites to Father LeVézouët hours before his passing on October 8, 1873.
All information was found on the official website for the case of canonization for the Shreveport Martyrs.