318 | Developments
New book and documentary relate account of 1873 Shreveport priests
A new book from local authors Father Peter Mangum, W. Ryan Smith and Dr. Cheryl White relates the account of five Roman Catholic priests who gave their lives caring for victims of the 1873 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Shreveport. “Shreveport Martyrs of 1873: The Surest Path to Heaven” has been published by the History Press of Charleston, S.C., and serves as the basis for a forthcoming fulllength feature documentary, “The Five Priests,” by award-winning filmmaker Chris Charles Scott. The documentary will premiere at the Strand Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 4, and tickets may be purchased through the Strand box office.
The Yellow Fever Epidemic of Shreveport in 1873 is reportedly the third-worst on record in United States history. It claimed the lives of nearly one-quarter of the city’s population within mere weeks.
The two Roman Catholic priests of the city, Father Jean Pierre of Holy Trinity Church and his assistant pastor, Father Isidore Quemerais, went to work immediately as volunteers to care for the sick and dying before contracting the disease themselves. Father Jean Marie Biler from the Daughters of the Cross convent at Fairfield then became the third priest to fall in the epidemic, but not before he summoned two others to assist in the relief of Shreveport.
Father Louis Gergaud of St. Matthew’s Church in Monroe and Father Francois Le Vezouet of Natchitoches both responded to the call for help, and each in their turn also fell as martyrs to their charity. In addition, two sisters and a novice from the Daughters of the Cross (Sister Mary Martha, Sister Mary Angela and Rose of Lima) also contracted the illness. They died while caring for fever victims, representing the exemplary efforts of many caregivers across the city.
The deaths of the priests all occurred within three weeks, and their response to Shreveport’s critical need has never been forgotten. Countless commemorations of their ultimate sacrifice fill the pages of Shreveport’s history; five stained glass windows at Holy Trinity Church mark their memory. Pilgrimages to the church and their gravesites have been continuously recorded across the 148 years that have passed since the epidemic.
On Dec. 8, 2020, Bishop Francis Malone of the Diocese of Shreveport declared all five priests of 1873 to be Servants of God. This is the first step in the Vatican’s canonization process, noting the ongoing devotion to their memory and their selfless sacrifice of their own lives to the needs of others. This was made possible by a motu proprio issued by Pope Francis in 2017, Maiorem Hac Dilectionem (No Greater Love), which put forward the free and voluntary offering of one’s life as a way to sainthood.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States (Vatican ambassador), wrote the foreword to the book, and he also appears in the documentary film. He is from the same area of Brittany, France, as the five priests of 1873 and has been an advocate in support of the efforts to make this story known.