Historical and Biographical Narrative
Father Jean Marie Biler
Martyr to His Charity, 1873 Yellow Fever Epidemic of Shreveport, Louisiana
Submitted to Very Rev. Peter B. Mangum, JCL, Diocesan Administrator
Diocese of Shreveport
Request for Formal Inquiry for the Causes of Saints
June 1, 2019
William Ryan Smith, M.A.
Cheryl H White, Ph.D.
Fr. Jean-Marie Biler was the third priest to succumb to Yellow Fever in Shreveport. A native of Plourivo, Brittany, France, he born on November 18, 1839 to Joseph and Anne Biler. Sacramental records of that village attest to his baptism two days later. He attended the Seminary at St. Brieuc, and was ordained a priest on December 17, 1864. He came to Louisiana in January of 1871 with Bishop Auguste Martin following the First Vatican Council, during which time Bishop Martin made another recruitment effort through his native Brittany. Fr. Biler was a cousin of Mother Mary Hyacinth of the Daughters of the Cross Fairfield Convent. Her correspondence speaks to a dramatic conversion of his heart and mind in his newfound mission field of Louisiana, including his initial displeasure at being in Louisiana, his difficulty in learning the English language and, ultimately, his decision to commit himself fully to the call of his ministry and to respond selflessly to the needs of the community in crisis.
Fr. Biler answered the call of Fr. Pierre to attend the sick and dying in Shreveport, from his residence three miles away at the Fairfield convent, and it was Fr. Biler who was present to provide the final Sacraments to both Fr. Quémerais (died September 15) and Fr. Pierre (died September 16). Fr. Biler contracted the same deadly illness shortly afterwards and initially appeared to be recovering, during which time he was able to continue offering Mass for the convent. At this point, he was the sole Catholic priest, and one of the very few healthy-enough religious of any stripe, to minister to more than 900 sick and dying persons. Yet, it is documented that he remained intently devoted and rested only when he had collapsed, working often until past the midnight hour of each day.
He also sent a plea for more assistance to two priests of the diocese in areas yet unaffected by the epidemic: to Fr. Louis Gergaud at St. Matthew’s in Monroe, approximately 100 miles to the east, and Fr. Francois Le Vezouet, a priest of Natchitoches, approximately 80 miles to the south. Upon receipt of the message, Fr. Gergaud in Monroe immediately, albeit briefly, responded by wire to Fr. Biler: “am leaving by stage coach this evening.” Fr. Gergaud arrived in Shreveport on September 20 and assumed the role of caregiver and priest. Soon after, Fr. Le Vezouet also arrived from Natchitoches, and was the one to administer the final Sacraments to Fr. Jean-Marie Biler who died on September 26.
Of Fr. Biler, Bishop Martin wrote to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith:
“This excellent priest, 35 years old, from the diocese of St. Brieuc, had been in our mission only two-and-half years. He had given up everything in Brittany, through the entreaties of Rev. Mother Le Conniat, his relative, to dedicate himself to this establishment to which it was impossible for me to provide a priest. At the first news of the illness of his confreres, he went to them, appointed himself their guardian, assisted them in their final moments and blessed their tombs. Left alone at the height of the plague, he called upon the charity of Messrs. Gergaud and Le Vezouet. The first arrived only a few days later to see him fall in his turn, and to provide him with the consolations which he had given to the others at the expense of his own precious life.”
Evidence of an immediate and continuous commemoration and devotion to Fr. Biler is substantiated by many examples found in the historical record and in popular devotional patterns and practices:
- Newspaper reports from more than 50 sources following his death, beginning immediately (September 26, 1873).
- A memorial letter from Bishop Auguste Marie Martin to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Paris, France), November 1873, as referenced above, which indicates that within two months of his death, there was already a popular devotion to Fr. Biler.
- Correspondence of Mother Mary Hyancinth Le Conniat, Daughters of the Cross, relating the conversion of heart displayed by the once-reluctant Fr. Biler, culminating in the zeal with which he served others in the final days of his life, and the free and willing offer of his own life.
- The report of the New Orleans Morning Star and Catholic Messenger, detailing the death of Fr. Biler and his sacrifice to the people of Shreveport in the Yellow Fever epidemic, December 21, 1873. The report refers to him as “a devoted servant to the Faith remembered by all.”
- An article honoring Fr. Biler (and the other Shreveport priests) published by The Scholastic, the official publication of the University of Notre Dame, November 29, 1873. The article refers to him as “a victim of his devotedness to his charity.”
- The report of the Shreveport Times detailing the 25th anniversary memorial Mass for Fr. Biler and other priests, held at Holy Trinity Church, December 6, 1898. Twenty-five years later, the memory of his sacrifice was marked by the faithful Catholics of the city.
- The installation of commemorative stained glass windows in 1946 at Holy Trinity Church in Shreveport honoring the memory of Fr. Jean-Marie Biler speaks directly to a cult of local devotion that had been nurtured for 70 years.
- Painting of Fr. Biler’s likeness in the ceiling fresco of Holy Trinity Church in Shreveport, completed at approximately the same time as the above.
- The commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Yellow Fever epidemic as chronicled in the Shreveport Times, October 22, 1973. In this news article, Fr. Biler and the other priests are extolled for their virtue and sacrifice for the city, evidence of an ongoing awareness for him in the historical identity of the city.
- The commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Yellow Fever epidemic and the death of Fr. Biler and other priests, observed in a memorial Mass, Holy Trinity Church, October 1973. One hundred years after the epidemic, the faithful of Shreveport marked the anniversary of Fr. Biler’s death in great numbers.
- Shape of Shreveport Television Documentary Series, “Yellow Jack Comes to Shreveport,” chronicling the death and sacrifice of Fr. Biler and other priests during the 1873 Yellow Fever epidemic, January 2015. This included the acknowledgement of patterns of devotion for Fr. Biler and the other priests that continue to be obvious in the city.
- Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Radio Documentary, Oakland Cemetery. This documentary covered the 1873 Yellow Fever epidemic, including details of the death and sacrifice of Fr. Biler and other priests, 2015, noting the devotion to him that continues to this day.
- Use of Fr. Biler’s image on a Vocations poster for the Diocese of Shreveport as an example of exemplary service and sacrifice, 2017. Many seminarians have cited Fr. Biler’s example as having profound personal influence.
- Prayer cards printed by the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans in Shreveport, Louisiana to commemorate the 145th anniversary of the death of Fr. Biler and other priests, 2018.
- Diocese of Shreveport research delegation to Brittany, France, Diocese of St. Brieuc and Tréguier reception by clergy there and their interest in following a historical investigation for the purpose of opening a cause, February 2019.
- Podcast mini-series for national audience, No Greater Love: Shreveport 1873, chronicling the life of Fr. Biler and other priests of the 1873 Yellow Fever epidemic. This project also includes a graphic novel in serial production and a book-length manuscript.
- There has been great interest and support expressed in solidarity and unanimity from the Diocese of Shreveport, as well as from the bishops of Louisiana, Archbishop Gregory Aymond, and the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, himself a native of the same region of France.
- Local patterns of devotion to Fr. Jean-Marie Biler evident in the community today include his ongoing inspiration for seminarians, pilgrimages to his grave at the Daughters of the Cross mausoleum, and its perpetual care with evidence of devotion obvious in flowers and items left in remembrance, pilgrimages to Holy Trinity Church and his effigy in stained glass, and circulation of prayer card images of him and prayers for his intercession.
Primary Source Documents
Daughters of the Cross. Victims of 1873 Yellow Fever Epidemic, Shreveport, Louisiana: Archives of the Diocese of Shreveport.
Diocese of Alexandria, Archives. Alexandria, Louisiana.
Diocese of Natchitoches Collection. South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Archives.
Diocese of St. Brieuc – Treguier. St. Brieuc, France: Archives.
Gentille, Fr. Joseph. Personal Diary. Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Shreveport, Louisiana.
Hall, Judge Henry Gerard. Personal Diary. Shreveport, Louisiana: Noel Archives and Special Collections, Louisiana State University at Shreveport.
Howard Association, Report of the Committee on the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873 at Shreveport, Louisiana. Shreveport, Louisiana: 1874.
Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Parish Records, 1873 – Present. Shreveport, Louisiana.
Le Conniat, Mother Mary Hyacinth. Letters. Shreveport, Louisiana: Noel Archives and Special Collections, Louisiana State University at Shreveport.
Martin, Bishop Auguste Marie. Journal of First Vatican Council. New Orleans, Louisiana: Archdiocese of New Orleans Archives.
Martin, Bishop Auguste Marie. Letter to the President and the Members of the Council of the Propagation of the Faith, Paris, France. Alexandria, Louisiana: Diocese of Alexandria Archives.
Martin, Bishop Auguste Marie. Letters. South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Archives.
Martin, Bishop Auguste Marie. “Notice on Very Reverend Father Gergaud,” Catholic Propagator (English translation). South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Archives.
“Report of the Committee on the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873 of Shreveport, Louisiana.” The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Volume 66, Issue 134, 1874.
Secondary Sources and News Reports
American Catholic Historical Society. “Southern Historical Notes,” The American Catholic Historical Researches, New Series, Volume 2, No. 2 (April 1906).
Baudier, Roger. North Louisiana History. New Orleans, Louisiana: Archdiocese of New Orleans Archives.
Biever, Albert H. The Jesuits in New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley: Jubilee Memorial. New Orleans, Louisiana: Society of Jesus, 1924.
Brock, Eric J. Shreveport Chronicles: Profiles from Louisiana’s Port City. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2009.
Brock, Eric J. Shreveport. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Press, 1998.
Carrigan, JoAnn. The Saffron Scourge: A History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana, 1796-1905.
Lafayette, Louisiana: University of Southwestern Louisiana Press: 1994.
Catholic Connection, Publication of the Diocese of Shreveport, multiple dates.
Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. (multiple dates)
Daily Shreveport Times. Shreveport, Louisiana. (multiple dates)
Elford, Madeline. A Brief History of St. Vincent’s Academy and Daughters of the Cross. (Unpublished manuscript) Shreveport, Louisiana: Diocese of Shreveport Archives.
Gentille, Fr. Joseph. Personal Diary (unpublished). Shreveport, Louisiana: Diocese of Shreveport Archives.
Hildreth, Peggy Bassett. “Early Red Cross: The Howard Association of New Orleans, 1837 1878.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Volume 20, No. 1 (Winter 1979).
Holy Trinity Catholic Church. History. Shreveport, Louisiana: webpage.
Jefferson Democrat. Jefferson, Texas.
Johnson, Margaret. “The Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of Shreveport in 1873,” North Louisiana Historical Journal, Volume 30, Number 4.
Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Radio Documentary, 2015.
McCants, Sr. Dorothea Olga. They Came to Louisiana: Letters of a Catholic Mission,
1854-1882. Daughters of the Cross: 1983.
McLure, Mary Lilla and Jolley Edward Howe. History of Shreveport and Shreveport Builders. Shreveport, Louisiana: Journal Printing Company, 1937.
Miciotto, Robert J. “Shreveport’s First Major Health Crisis: The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873.” North Louisiana Historical Journal, Volume 4, Number 4.
Morning Star Catholic Messenger Newspaper, December 21, 1873.
New Orleans Picayune. New Orleans, Louisiana (multiple dates).
New York Times. New York, N.Y. (multiple dates)
Nolan, Charles E. Splendors of Faith: New Orleans Catholic Churches, 1727-1930. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.
O’Pry, Maude Hearn. Chronicles of Shreveport. Shreveport, Louisiana: 1928.
Ouachita Telegraph. Monroe, Louisiana. (multiple dates)
Partain, Fr. Chad A. A Tool Pushed by Providence: Bishop Auguste Martin and the Catholic Church in North Louisiana. Alexandria, Louisiana: 2010.
Plauche, Rt. Rev. Msgr. J.V. A Brief History of Holy Trinity Church, Shreveport, Louisiana, and of the Catholic Church in Northwest Louisiana. Shreveport, Louisiana: 1942.
Plummer, Marguerite J. and Gary D. Joiner. Historic Shreveport-Bossier: An Illustrated History of Shreveport and Bossier City, San Antonio, Texas: Historical Publishing Network, 2000.
Rapides Gazette. Alexandria, Louisiana. (multiple dates)
Shape of Shreveport Documentary Series, Ring Media Group, Shreveport, Louisiana, 2015.
Shreveport Journal. Shreveport, Louisiana. (multiple dates)
The Scholastic, South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, November 29, 1873.
Woodworth, John. Annual Report of the Supervising Surgeon of the Marine Hospital Service of the United States for Fiscal Year 1873. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1873.
Woodworth, John. Annual Report of the Supervising Surgeon of the Marine Hospital Service of the United States for Fiscal Year 1874. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1874.