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Monday, March 8, 2021

Road to Sainthood

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Efforts begin to canonize five Louisiana priests

The yellow fever epidemic of 1873 took a heavy toll on the city of Shreveport. Reports estimate Shreveport lost about one-fourth of its population to yellow fever. Now, a move is underway to honor five priests who gave their lives in service to Shreveport during those dark days with sainthood.

Father Jean Pierre, Father Isidore A. Quemerais, Father Jean-Marie Biler, Father Louis Gergaud and Father Francois LeVezouet, who all died during the epidemic, have been recognized as Servants of God, which is the first step in a lengthy process of being recognized as saints.

Pierre was the first Catholic pastor of Shreveport, serving Caddo, Bossier, DeSoto and Webster parishes. When yellow fever struck, he refused to leave, preferring to minister to the area’s sick and dying residents.

The other four volunteered to enter the quarantined area. Shreveport did not have a large Catholic population at the time, but they willingly served all the citizens of Shreveport, knowing what the outcome would be.

“Their relationship with Shreveport is an important point of Old World/ New World contact,” said Cheryl White, LSUS history and social science professor. “They all came from the same region of Brittany, France. They were all steeped in a deep tradition of Catholicism. And they all came to a place that was a frontier. They all came and brought Old World culture to this river port area.

“If they had done nothing else, that was significant. But all five of them made a decision to lay down their lives willingly for these people who were largely non-Catholic. It’s a reminder of what we are all called to do as a people,” White adds.

A ceremony was held recently at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in downtown Shreveport to sign the Decree of Recognition and formally announce the process toward sainthood has begun.

“These five priests were part of a minority, even more so back then,” said Father Peter Mangum, rector of the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans. “They wanted to make sure they reached out to anyone – the sick and dying. Religion had nothing to do with their service. The fact that they are being recognized for their service to greater humanity is a beautiful chapter in the history of Shreveport. As a people, we can look to them as role models.”

History of becoming a saint

The official process of bestowing sainthood on a person is canonization. Pope Gregory IX established the first official procedures for the process in the year 1234, according to the Catholic Education Resource Center’s website.

Prior to 1234, no formal process to sainthood existed. Martyrs and those recognized as holy were declared saints at the time of their deaths, the website said. Before Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, the tombs of martyrs were marked and honored, such as St. Peter. After legalization, basilicas or shrines often were built on these tombs.

But with no official standards for evaluating candidates for sainthood, the process grew lax. According to the website, the local church in Sweden once made a saint out of a monk who was not martyred but rather was killed in a drunken brawl.

So in 1234, Pope Gregory IX established procedures to investigate the life of a candidate saint and any attributed miracles, according to the website. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V entrusted the Congregation of Rites (later named the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints) to oversee the entire process. Beginning with Pope Urban VIII in 1634, various popes have revised and improved the norms and procedures for canonization.

One of those revisions came July 7, 2017, from Pope Francis, Mangum said. Pope Francis wrote a document that offered a new way to become a saint – by putting oneself in clear danger of death. Mangum said this decree “finally seemed to be an avenue declared open for them to be declared saints.”

“They really had the sense they were going to die,” he said of the priests. “Like someone who runs into the middle of a battlefield. They knew they were cutting their lives short for the good of mankind, modeling their lives after Christ by giving their lives for someone they didn’t know.”

The steps to sainthood

The bishop of the local diocese initiates the investigation of a candidate who dies with “fame of sanctity” or “fame of martyrdom.”

One of the criteria is evidence that the candidate’s intercession granted any special favor or miracle.

The candidate’s writings are investigated to see if they possess “purity of doctrine,” the website said.

The Church looks to ensure there is nothing heretical or against the faith. Once this information is gathered, a transumptum, a faithful copy, duly authenticated and sealed, is submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

If the cause is accepted by the Congregation, as in the case of the Shreveport priests, further investigation is conducted.

If the candidate was a martyr, the congregation determines whether he died for the faith and truly offered his life in a sacrifice of love for Christ and the Church. In other cases, the congregation examines whether the candidate was motivated by a profound charity toward his neighbor and practiced the virtues in an exemplary manner and with heroism.

Throughout this investigation, the “general promoter of the faith,” or devil’s advocate, raises objections and doubts that must be resolved. Once a candidate is declared to have lived life with heroic virtue, he may be declared Venerable.

The next step is beatification. A martyr may be beatified and declared “Blessed” by virtue of martyrdom itself. Otherwise, the candidate must be credited with a miracle.

In verifying the miracle, the Church looks at whether God truly performed a miracle and whether the miracle was in response to the intercession of the candidate saint.

Once beatified, the candidate saint may be venerated but with restriction to a city, diocese, region or religious family. Accordingly, the pope would authorize a special prayer, Mass or proper Divine Office honoring the Blessed.

After beatification, another miracle is needed for canonization and the formal declaration of sainthood.

“Now that they are accepted, we ask everyone to pray for intercession, hoping that someone will have something miraculous happen to them,” Mangum said. “If it happens once, it means beatification. Twice means canonization and sainthood.”

Mangum said this was a significant hurdle to clear in a lengthy journey.

“I’ve been working on this the past four years,” he said. “I am not going to see the day they are canonized. That will be for the next generation. I feel a great privilege to be part of it at this fundamental level.”

Spreading the word

While the canonization process advances, the story of the five priests and their service advances as well. They would be the first saints from this region.

“If you consider that in 2,000 years of Christianity, there are approximately 10,000 saints, this is exceedingly rare,” White said. “If you think about it from a global perspective, this gives us a very special connection not just in Catholic history, but in the religious culture of a whole region.”

Mangum said a documentary film on the priests is in the works. The LSUS Foundation has donated $50,000 to the project, which is scheduled to be released in May. Mangum also said a book has been written about the five priests.

“They were willing to stay,” he said. “It’s great to see good news about priests who led beautiful, exemplary lives that anyone should be proud of. Those are our guys.”

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