Historical and Biographical Narrative
Father François LeVézouët
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. Francois Le Vezouet was the final priest to die as “a martyr to his charity” in the 1873 Yellow Fever epidemic in Shreveport. A native of Brélidy, France, Fr. Le Vezouet was born in that village of Brittany into a wealthy agricultural family, to parents Jean and Madelaine Bolloret Le Vezouet, on August 10, 1833. He was baptized at the local Church of St. Columba. Le Vezouet attended the Seminary of St. Brieuc, which he entered for formal study on October 1, 1852. Records there indicate a first tonsure on March 11, 1854 and to minor orders on June 10, 1854. In October of 1854, Le Vezouet accompanied Bishop Auguste Martin, Fr. Louis Gergaud, and seminarian Jean Pierre from the port of Havre to come to Louisiana. Ordained a priest in Natchitoches, Louisiana on May 3, 1856, Fr. Le Vezouet became president of St. Joseph’s College and Seminary for the formation of future priests of the diocese. His rapid grasp of the English language and documented intellect made him, by many accounts, the most trusted and valued assistant to Bishop Martin who normally kept him close. He worked in growing mission areas around Natchitoches and Central Louisiana, and established the first church building and cemetery in Many, Louisiana, which today is the parish of St. John the Baptist.
It was Bishop Martin who received the message from Fr. Biler in Shreveport asking for priests to come at once to relieve the suffering of Shreveport. It was therefore Bishop Martin who passed the request to Fr. Le Vezouet, along with a desperate plea contained in a separate letter from Mother Mary Hyacinth at the Daughters of the Cross convent who feared that Shreveport and its suffering people would soon be without the Sacraments, as there would be no clergy left. Documented in the primary source account of Bishop Martin’s correspondence is an exchange between the priest and his bishop, during which Fr. Le Vezouet revealed the depth and extent of his piety, charity and zeal. Bishop Martin related that Fr. Le Vezouet unfolded and examined the papers. Bishop Martin then asked him what he wished to do in response, and Le Vezouet responded, “I want to go so much that if you left the decision up to me, I would believe that in going I was acting according to my own will. I do not want to do anything but the will of God.”
Fr. Le Vezouet then spent the following day putting his personal affairs in order and visiting a few friends and families dear to him in his adopted home of Natchitoches. Like Fr. Gergaud, he was much beloved, and those who heard of his imminent departure could not help but express concern that he was going to his death, such was the fearful mortality rate of the Shreveport epidemic. Word of his determination to depart for Shreveport traveled fast, and many approached him as he was preparing to leave, begging him not to go. The following final exchange is documented in the eyewitness accounts:
“You are going to your death,” someone in a gathered crowd told him. Fr. Le Vezouet responded: “I believe it, but I know that I am taking the surest and shortest path to heaven.”
His selfless sacrifice is documented and noted in many primary sources, the most important of which include the accounts of Bishop Auguste Martin, Mother Mary Hyacinth, and is also recorded in the necrology held in the archives of the Diocese of St. Brieuc – Treguier. News sources also reported the circumstances of his arrival in Shreveport and his ensuing personal sacrifice and death.
After administering the final Sacraments to Fr. Louis Gergaud on October 1, 1873 and serving the sick and dying of Shreveport, Fr. Le Vezouet soon fell ill with Yellow Fever himself. Bishop Martin, unable to send any more priests to Shreveport, specifically requested priests from New Orleans, over 300 miles away, who had been exposed to the illness previously and would therefore presumably have more immunity. To that end, two priests from New Orleans, Fr. James Duffo, S.J. and Fr. Charles Ferec, arrived on October 8, just hours before Fr. Le Vezouet passed away and just in time to provide for Fr. Le Vezouet his final Sacraments. Just two days before Fathers Duffo and Ferec had determined they would indeed assume the grim vocation of the fallen men of the cloth in Shreveport, a New Orleans newspaper declared the Yellow Fever epidemic in the city on far northwestern corner of the state to be “fourfold worse” than anything seen by the infamously unhealthy Crescent City in decades. “God help and relieve them,” the editors pleaded. These are the conditions in which Frs. Quémerais, Pierre and Biler chose to remain; these are the conditions to which Frs. Gergaud and Le Vezouet chose to go.
In his memorial letter, Bishop Martin said of Fr. Le Vezouet:
“Mr. Le Vezouet, from a very Christian family of wealthy farmers of the diocese of St. Brieuc, was endowed with wide-ranging intelligence and a keen imagination. He had completed a brilliant course of classical and scientific studies and passed, with distinction, the examinations then required by the university … among all the careers open to him, he chose the serious and dedicated life of the priesthood and had completed his theological studies, when, in 1854, he asked to follow me … although he usually resided in Natchitoches, where his presence had become indispensable to me, he regularly fulfilled his missions with the dedicated zeal that he brought to everything that he undertook; he did this as an apostle for nine years, instructing the people, validating marriages, building and furnishing churches; and by the Divine Word and grace of the Sacraments, he elevated these unrefined people to the dignity of Christians …”
At the end of Bishop Martin’s letter, he makes a single broad and sweeping observation about all five priests, as one who knew each man well and had many occasions to observe their character, manner and virtues. He mourned the loss of them in his final summary to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, wherein Bishop Martin concluded:
“Pray gentlemen, that before my own death, I may find worthy successors to the ministry and the admirable virtues of these saintly priests.”
Devotion to Fr. LeVezouet
Evidence of an immediate and continuous commemoration and devotion to Fr. Le Vezouet 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 8, 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. Le Vezouet.
- The report of the New Orleans Morning Star and Catholic Messenger, detailing the death of Fr. Le Vezouet 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. Le Vezouet (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 diary of Fr. Joseph Gentille, Pastor of Holy Trinity Church, detailing the ceremony and well-attended procession for the exhumation and moving of Fr. Le Vezouet’s body from Holy Trinity to St. Joseph’s Cemetery, March 1884. The ongoing care of his burial site has been a practice of piety for many of the local devoted faithful.
- The report of the Shreveport Times detailing the ceremony and procession for the above exhumation and removing of Fr. Le Vezouet’s body, including the dedication of the Calvary Mound in honor of his sacrifice, March 23, 1884.
- The report of the Shreveport Times detailing the 25th anniversary memorial Mass for Fr. Le Vezouet 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. Le Vezouet speaks directly to a cult of local devotion that had been nurtured for 70 years.
- Painting of Fr. Le Vezouet’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. Le Vezouet 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. Le Vezouet 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. Le Vezouet’s death in great numbers.
- Shape of Shreveport Television Documentary Series, “Yellow Jack Comes to Shreveport,” chronicling the death and sacrifice of Fr. Le Vezouet and other priests during the 1873 Yellow Fever epidemic, January 2015. This included the acknowledgement of patterns of devotion for Fr. Le Vezouet 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. Le Vezouet and other priests, 2015, noting the devotion to him that continues to this day.
- Use of Fr. Le Vezouet’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. Le Vezouet’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. Le Vezouet and other priests, 2018.
- Diocese of Shreveport research delegation to Brittany, France, Diocese of St. Brieuc, reception by clergy there and their interest in following a historical investigation for the purpose of opening a cause, February 2019.
- Reception honoring Fr. Le Vezouet in his hometown of Brelidy, France, during the above referenced delegation, February 2019.
- Inspired by his example, there is an ongoing tradition in the Le Vezouet family of seeking religious life and holy orders. Among his living relatives in Brittany are found priests and religious sisters.
- Podcast mini-series for national audience, No Greater Love: Shreveport 1873, chronicling the life of Fr. Le Vezouet 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. Francois Le Vezouet 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 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.
“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.