Historical and Biographical Narrative
Father Louis Marie Gergaud
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. Louis Gergaud was the fourth priest to sacrifice his own life for the Yellow Fever victims in Shreveport. He was born on March 22, 1832 in Héric, France, near the city of Nantes, to Sebastian and Ann Gergaud. He was baptized at the local St. Nicholas Church. Fr. Gergaud attended the Grand Seminary in Nantes, and was ordained at the Cathedral in Nantes on September 23, 1854. He departed France for Louisiana without delay in October 1854 with Bishop Auguste Martin, and was assigned to the missions in Monroe, where he became the founding pastor of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church.
The historical record documents well the heroic virtue and exemplary life of Fr. Gergaud. The accounts speak also of the many challenges which he overcame in his mission of Louisiana, and how he persevered in his ministry in northeast Louisiana in a heavily Protestant environment that was at times overtly hostile to his very presence. In an account held in the Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans (Roger Baudier collection), the following narrative summarizes this anecdotally:
“One can easily imagine how painful and deplorable the situation of this young priest must have been among people who were complete strangers to him and whose tongue he was then learning. He expresses it himself in the notes which he has left, ‘The situation was one of peculiar embarrassment for a young clergyman yet unable to speak with ease the language of his parishioners, isolated from fellow priests, countenanced only by a very small number of Catholics, men who only considered the human means of success and who doubted that I would remain in Monroe but a few months.’ Fr. Gergaud was too humble to tell in his notes that frequently boys threw stones at him while he was on the streets …”
Fr. Gergaud was the pastor of the Monroe community for nearly 18 years, before answering the call of charity to go to Shreveport during the Yellow Fever epidemic. During this time, he worked tirelessly to establish Catholic schools for both boys and girls, and the first Catholic cemetery for the area. He also supervised many mission communities. His piety and charity are documented in the primary historical record, as well as the same archival account referenced above, which notes:
“Fr. Gergaud was a saintly priest, a true shepherd of souls who often left the 99 in the field to go after the lost one. He not only took care of the Catholics in Monroe, but he had mission stations in Minden, Homer, Germantown, Bastrop, Logtown, Columbia, Winnsboro, Harrisonburg, Woodville … he visited these missions, some regularly, and were very dear to his heart … Fr. Gergaud was no ordinary priest; he was distinguished in every respect and stood head and shoulders above all of the other priests of his diocese.”
In his own letter to Bishop Jacquemet of Nantes in April 1855, Fr. Gergaud relates much about the challenges he faced, but yet the great joy at his work in baptizing and evangelizing even among hostile conditions:
“I experienced some of the manners that our Protestant brothers use to address a Catholic priest, who must simply walk without taking into account the insults he is the object of, and be happy in his heart to be a little despised for the love of Jesus Christ.”
In that same letter, Fr. Gergaud also reveals his profound charity and concern for the enslaved of the American South on the eve of the Civil War:
“The slaves are almost abandoned, and we cannot reach them now, either because of the distrust of their masters, or because of the corruption that is pervasive here which makes it unable for us to get into their camps without losing our honor and reputation … we run the risk of not having the opportunity to imitate the admirable devotion of Father Claver to these people. Most of these poor people are baptized, but for most of them, it is the only symbol they have of a Christian.”
When Fr. Gergaud received the missive from Fr. Biler in Shreveport about the epidemic crisis and the deaths of Fr. Quémerais and Fr. Pierre, he did not hesitate. After sending word to Fr. Biler that he would leave by stage coach that very day (September 18), eyewitness accounts relate that as Fr. Gergaud mounted the stage coach to leave, he was thronged by citizens of that city. Those once hostile to his presence were begging him not to go. Fr. Gergaud turned to his associate pastor, Fr. Quelard, and said,
“Write to the bishop, and tell him I go to my death. It is my duty, and I go.”
Fr. Louis Gergaud died of Yellow Fever in Shreveport on October 1, 1873, ministered to in his final moments by Fr. Francois Le Vezouet who had recently arrived from Natchitoches. In his letter to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Paris, Bishop Martin remembered Fr. Gergaud this way:
“Fr. Gergaud was a true “Homo Dei.” Endowed with a very energetic nature, an elevated and cultivated spirit, patient and ardent zeal, a tender and generous heart protected by a prudent and reserved manner, Mr. Gergaud was a torch spreading light and heat around him. In a place where never before had a priest resided, where I had nothing to offer him but the unfinished skeleton of a chapel and a few diffident Christians and where I doubted that he could live, Mr. Gergaud founded and leaves behind him a flourishing mission … He lived only 10 days in Shreveport, welcomed by all as a God-sent angel, he overextended himself during one week to satisfy all the needs; he exerted himself beyond measure. There were more than 1,000 sick people, of that number perhaps fewer than 25 were Catholic, but, in the presence of death, it was the priest that everyone called for, and God alone knows how many souls owe their salvation to the heroism of this priest.”
Some months after his death, Fr. Gergaud’s mortal remains were moved from the public cemetery in Shreveport to his home parish of St. Matthew’s in Monroe, Louisiana, to be interred in the cemetery he founded. The records of that parish relate the transferal of his remains:
“Father Gergaud insisted on going to Shreveport to attend the sufferers from Yellow Fever, now bereaved of their pastor Rev. Father Pierre, who was a victim of the disease. A few months later the body of the beloved father and friend reached Monroe. Every store in town was closed, and every person in town, irrespective of creed, attended en masse the imposing obsequies.”
Profound evidence of the strong, if nascent, devotion to Fr. Gergaud is evidenced in a December 1873 petition from the Catholics of Shreveport that the bishop would permit his mortal remains to be buried in Shreveport with the other priests. The original marble tombstone over Fr. Gergaud’s grave in the churchyard cemetery of St. Matthew’s reads that he “died a martyr to his charity.”
Devotion to Fr. Gergaud
Evidence of an immediate and continuous commemoration and devotion to Fr. Gergaud 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 (October 1, 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. Gergaud.
- The report of the New Orleans Morning Star and Catholic Messenger, detailing the death of Fr. Gergaud 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. Gergaud (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 petition of the Catholics of Monroe, Louisiana, to Bishop Martin asking permission to transfer Fr. Gergaud’s mortal remains to his home parish of St. Matthew’s, citing the profound devotion to their pastor of nearly eighteen years.
- The subsequent report of the Catholic News Messenger describing the petition of the Catholics of Shreveport that Bishop Auguste Martin would permit Fr. Gergaud’s mortal remains to instead be buried in Shreveport with the other “martyrs to their charity.”
- The parish records of St. Matthew’s Church in Monroe, describing the procession to return Fr. Gergaud’s remains to Monroe, and the reverence and devotion shown by those of the community, Protestants and Catholics alike.
- The report of the Shreveport Times detailing the 25th anniversary memorial Mass for Fr. Gergaud 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. Louis Gergaud speaks directly to a cult of local devotion that had been nurtured for 70 years.
- Painting of Fr. Gergaud’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. Gergaud 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. Gergaud 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. Gergaud’s death in great numbers.
- Shape of Shreveport Television Documentary Series, “Yellow Jack Comes to Shreveport,” chronicling the death and sacrifice of Fr. Gergaud and other priests during the 1873 Yellow Fever epidemic, January 2015. This included the acknowledgement of patterns of devotion for Fr. Gergaud 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. Gergaud and other priests, 2015, noting the devotion to him that continues to this day.
- Use of Fr. Gergaud’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. Gergaud’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. Gergaud and other priests, 2018.
- Diocese of Shreveport research delegation to France, Diocese of Nantes, 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. Gergaud 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. Louis Gergaud evident in the community today include his ongoing inspiration for seminarians, pilgrimages to his graveside 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 Nantes, 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.