A Tragedy Remembered
Five Catholic priest will be commemorated at a special Mass at Holy Trinity.
Memorial planned for yellow fever victims
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
In 1873, the city of Shreveport was desperate. The yellow fever epidemic killed a quarter of the city’s population in a matter of weeks. People were dying so quickly that city officials chose to bury 800 bodies in a single mass grave in what is now Oakland Cemetery downtown.
The city of Shreveport and local historians are planning to honor the dead, including some regarded as heroes for staying to care for the sick who wound up dying of yellow fever themselves, with a memorial on the 150th anniversary of the tragedy.
Historians combed the public records and identified about 700 victims by name. Those names will be inscribed on the memorial.
Among those being commemorated are five Catholic priests – Father Jean Pierre, Father Isidore A. Quemerais, Father Jean-Marie Biler, Father Louis Gergaud and Father Francois LeVezouet – who died during the epidemic. The five have been nominated for canonization.
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.
Cheryl White, LSUS history and social science professor, discussed the significance of their efforts with 318 Forum in March of 2021.
“Their relationship with Shreveport is an important point of Old World/New World contact,” she said. “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.”
A website has been created as part of the commemoration at shreveportyellowfever.com. The website pays tribute to other heroes of the time, including U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Eugene Augustus Woodruff.
Woodruff was an Ohio native, according to the website. He and his men were ordered to leave Shreveport after a federal quarantine was put in place. Woodruff refused and wrote to his mother, “I am not the least afraid …”
Woodruff cared for yellow fever victims in Shreveport until he himself died of yellow fever Sept. 30, 1873, at the age of 31.
Other heroes listed on the website include two religious sisters and one novice of the Daughters of the Cross convent who volunteered to care for the sick and dying at the epidemic’s peak.
Earlier this year, the city council passed the 2023 Riverboat Development Fund, which is providing $100,000 of the $250,000 for the project. Other funds for the project have been raised privately. The memorial is being built on top of the yellow fever mound.
The memorial will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7, at Oakland Cemetery. Mayor Tom Arceneaux will participate. Before the dedication, a public symposium on yellow fever will be at 9 a.m. at LSU Shreveport.
Several other upcoming events have been scheduled as part of the commemoration:
Sunday (Oct. 8): A mass honoring the death of Father Francois Le Vezouet will be at 10:30 a.m. at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, 315 Marshall St. Bishop Francis Malone will officiate.
Sunday (Oct. 8): “The Angels Gathered,” a symphony by Kermit Poling, will be performed at 5:15 p.m. at Holy Trinity.
Nov. 12: Public yellow fever tours by the National Tour Association in Shreveport.
Nov. 19: “The Merciful Frost,” an 1873-themed dinner sponsored by Downtown Development Authority at The Noble Savage.
Also, a permanent yellow fever exhibit is being established at the Spring Street Museum, 525 Spring St. School groups are welcome, with a special curriculum provided by LSUS. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
For more information about the memorial and the commemoration events, visit shreveportyellowfever.com or the Facebook page @ ShreveportYellowFever.