Three Cajun Catholics from the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana are on their way to becoming canonized saints after a historic ceremony on Saturday, January 11.
During the ceremony, Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel of Lafayette officially opened the causes of two Louisiana Catholics, Miss Charlene Richard and Mr. Auguste “Nonco” Pelafigue.
The cause for a third candidate for canonization, Lt. Father Verbis Lafleur, was recognized by the bishop, who said he intends to open the priest’s cause after he seeks the necessary collaboration with two other bishops - extra steps the result of Lafleur’s military service.
Present at the ceremony were representatives of each candidate, who presented short accounts of the person’s life to the bishop as well as an official request for their cause to be opened. Bonnie Broussard, a representative from the Friends of Charlene Richard, spoke at the ceremony and highlighted the precocious faith of Charlene at such a young age.
Charlene Richard was born in Richard, Louisiana on January 13, 1947, a Cajun Roman Catholic who was “an ordinary young person” who loved basketball and her family, and was inspired by the life of St. Therese of Lisieux, Broussard said.
When she was just a middle schooler, Charlene was given a terminal diagnosis of leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow and lymphatic system.
Charlene handled the grim diagnosis with “faith beyond the ability of most adults, and determined not to waste the sufferings she would face, she joined herself to Jesus on his cross and offered her intense pain and suffering for others,” Broussard said.
In the last two weeks of her life, Charlene asked Fr. Joseph Brennan, a priest who came to minister to her every day: “Ok Father, who am I to offer my sufferings for today?”
Charlene died on August 11, 1959 at the age of 12.
“After her death, devotion to her spread quickly, many testimonials have been given by people who have benefitted by prayer to Charlene, Broussard said.
Thousands of people visit the grave of Charlene each year, Broussard added, while 4,000 attended the Mass at for the 30th anniversary of her death.
The second cause for canonization approved on Saturday was that of Auguste “Nonco” Pelafigue, a layperson whose nickname “Nonco” means “Uncle.” He was born on Jan. 10, 1888, near Lourdes in France, and emigrated with his family to the U.S., where they settled in Arnaudville, Louisiana.
Charles Hardy, a representative of the Auguste “Nonco” Pelafigue Foundation, said Auguste eventually earned the nickname “Nonco” or Uncle because he was “like a good uncle to everyone who came into his (circle) of influence.”
Nonco studied to become a teacher, and taught public school in a rural area near his hometown before becoming the only lay member of the faculty of the Little Flower School in Arnaudville.
While studying to be a teacher, Nonco also became a member of The Apostleship of Prayer, an organization that originated in France and whose charism is to promote and spread devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to pray for the pope. His devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus would come to color Nonco’s whole life.
“Nonco was known for his passionate devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary,” Hardy said.
“He devoutly attended daily Mass and served wherever he was needed. Perhaps most inspiringly, with a rosary looped around his arm, Nonco traversed the highways and byways of his community, spreading devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
He would travel country roads on foot to visit the sick and those in need, and would refuse rides from neighbors even in the harshest of weather, because he considered his walks an act of penance for the conversion of souls on Earth and the purification of those in purgatory, Hardy added.
“He was truly a door-to-door evangelist,” Hardy said. On weekends, Nonco taught religion to public school students and organized The League of the Sacred Heart, which distributed monthly pamphlets around the community about the devotion. He also organized creative plays for Christmas time and other special feasts that portrayed biblical stories, lives of the saints, and devotion to the Sacred Heart in dramatic fashion.
“By the use of drama, he shared a passionate love of Christ with his students and the entire community. In this way, he opened not only the minds but the hearts of his students,” Hardy said. Nonco’s pastor referred to Nonco as another priest in his parish, and Nonco was eventually awarded the Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice medal by Pope Pius XII in 1953, “in recognition of his dedicated and humble service to the Catholic Church,” Hardy said.
“This papal decoration is one of the highest honors awarded to the members of the lay faithful,” Hardy added. “For 24 more years until his death in 1977, at the age of 89, Nonco continuously spread devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for a total of 68 years until the day he died on June 6, 1977, which was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” Hardy said.
Fr. Mark Ledoux, a representative for the Friends of Fr. Joseph Verbis LaFleur, said at ceremony on Saturday that the military chaplain is most remembered for his heroic service during World War II.
“Fr. Joseph Verbis LaFleur lived an extraordinary life in just 32 years,” Ledoux said.
Lafleur was born on January 24, 1912 in Ville Platte Louisiana. Although he came from “very humble beginnings…(and) a broken home,” LaFleur had long dreamed of being a priest, Ledoux said.
During his summer breaks from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Lafleur would spend his time teaching catechism and first communicants.
He was ordained a priest on April 2, 1938 and requested to be a military chaplain, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Initially, his request was denied by his bishop, but when the priest asked a second time, it was granted.
“As a chaplain he displayed heroism beyond the call of duty, earning the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest honor for valor,” Ledoux noted.
“However it was as a Japanese prisoner of war that Lafleur would reveal the intensity of his love” and holiness.
“Though kicked, slapped and beaten by his captors, he always sought to better the conditions of his fellow POWs,” Ledoux said.
“He even let pass opportunities for his escape in order to remain where he knew his men needed him.”
Eventually, the priest ended up on a ship with other Japanese POWs that was torpedoed, unwittingly, by an American submarine that did not realize the ship was carrying POWs.
“He was last seen on Sept. 7, 1944, helping men out of the hull of the sinking ship for which he posthumously earned a Purple heart and a Bronze Star. And in October 2017, for his actions as a POW, Father was awarded a second Distinguished Service Cross,” Ledoux said.
The body of Lafleur was never recovered. Bishop Deshotel on Saturday stated his intent to officially open the priest’s cause one he has received the proper permissions from the other bishops involved in the cause.
Lafleur was recognized in a keynote to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, on June 6, 2017, by Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the military archdiocese, who said: “He was a man for others right to the end… Father Lafleur responded to his POW situation with creative courage. He drew on his virtue to care for, protect, and fortify the men imprisoned with him.”
“Many survived because he was a man of virtue who gave unstintingly of himself. To speak of the greatness of our country is to speak of men and women of virtue who gave of themselves for the benefit of all. We build for a new tomorrow when we draw from that wellspring of virtue.”