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Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023

Saints of the Merciful Frost


Shreveport suffered the third worst Yellow Fever outbreak in the U.S.

Five priests martyred in Shreveport’s Yellow Fever pandemic considered for sainthood

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.”

Thus read the job notice written by Bishop Louis Dubourg of Louisiana and the Two Floridas in recruiting young French seminarians to come to Louisiana to work in early 1800.

Five Catholic priests eventually came to the area, and their work, their sacrifices, and, ultimately, their deaths are the backbone of a celebration this year to commemorate their roles in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873.

The events of August, September, October and November of 1873 will be celebrated this year in a series of events staged around the city to recall and reflect on the suffering and sacrifices of five Catholic priests and the entire region.

According to Dr. Cheryl White, professor of history at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, the project is a cultural outreach of the university. She told a press conference gathered on Aug. 21, 150 years after the first three recorded deaths of the epidemic, Shreveport holds the dubious distinction of suffering the third worst Yellow Fever outbreak in the United States.

“Three men showed up at the Market Street Infirmary the night of Aug. 20,” White recounted. “Market Street at Texas, there was an infirmary. Three men showed up, but they were turned away, presumably because there was nothing that could be done for them. The next morning, Aug. 21, 150 years ago, those three men were found dead on Texas Street between Market and Milam.”

That was only the beginning, she said.

“Because by the time of the arrival of the ‘merciful frost,’ that came in mid- November, the city had lost one-quarter of its population to an illness that was not at all understood.”

She referred to the frost of November, which ended the onslaught of mosquitoes. Little was understood about Yellow Fever then, mainly that it was transmitted by mosquitoes instead of person-to-person.

She said former Mayor Adrian Perkins’ administration stood up a commission to commemorate the events surrounding this landmark moment in Shreveport’s history. The commission was drawn from a diverse group in the community: the Diocese of Shreveport, the city of Shreveport, LSU- S, the Downtown Development Authority, several of the historic local churches that were contemporaneous with the plague, the Oakland Cemetery Preservation Society, Shreveport Regional Arts Council and Shreveport Public Assembly and Recreation, to name a few.

Mayor Tom Arceneaux told the group that those who suffered through those harrowing months reminded him of a passage from the Bible in Ezekiel. “The famous passage where the Lord asks Ezekiel, ‘Can these bones live?’

Today marks the fact that, even after this epidemic, the third largest in the United States, the question was ‘Can Shreveport live?’ And the answer is, yes. Shreveport can live. And Shreveport does live. And we together as a community can overcome any obstacles that face and challenge us if we will work together. That’s what the people of Shreveport have a history of doing.”

Bishop Francis Malone of the Diocese of Shreveport noted the five priests who were lost to the disease were recruited by one of Martin, to come to Shreveport to assist in his predecessors, Bishop Augustus Marie the effort. “Imagine coming all the way from France to Shreveport,” Bishop Malone said. “The letter written to them offered them nothing, no pay, no good place to live. These five priests were young men. They were just kids, 26 years of age.”

The bishop echoed the mayor’s sentiments in that the sacrifice of these young clerics showed that the community could, indeed, “rise above the bones,” as Ezekiel said.


Father Isadore Quémerais, Jean Pierre and Jean-Marie Biler, Louis Gergaud and François Le Vézouët.

The Catholic Church has granted a unanimous assent that the Cause for canonization continues for the five so-called Shreveport Martyrs. The Cause now goes to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Cause of Saints for more investigation into whether they can become saints of the church.


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