It is not a common occurrence for the Church in the United States, with its comparatively short Catholic history, to have a new sainthood cause introduced. Yet in recent weeks, three new sainthood causes have been opened by American dioceses.
Two of these causes were opened by the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana. On January 11, Lafayette’s Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel opened the beatification causes for Charlene Richard and Auguste “Nonco” Pelafigue.
Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie, Pennsylvania announced on December 17, 2019 that he was officially opening the cause of Dr. Gertrude Barber, a laywoman who dedicated herself to educating special-needs children in the Erie area.
Now that their causes of have been opened, the three are properly titled “Servants of God.”
Additionally, Bishop Deshotel of Lafayette is expected to open soon the cause of World War II POW Father Verbis Lafleur, who died on a Japanese transport ship in 1944. Because Father Lafleur died in a diocese in the Philippines while serving as a chaplain for the Archdiocese of Military Services, those two sees must first approve the cause. Deshotel has told local media he does not anticipate this being a problem.
Suffer the little children
Richard is the youngest of the new candidates. At 12 years old, if her cause is successful, she will be the youngest American saint.
Born January 13, 1947, the second of 10 children in a farming family, the vivacious, perfectly typical girl served as captain of her junior-high girls’ basketball squad, loved Elvis Presley and Little Richard, and giggled with friends over boys.
In the summer of 1959, though, she contracted lymphocytic leukemia. Just 13 days after learning she had the disease, she died.
During her hospitalization, Charlene offered up her pain and suffering for the salvation of souls. According to her brother John Dale Richard, each time the hospital’s chaplain, Father Joseph Brennan, would enter her room, and she would ask him, “‘Who do you want me to offer up prayers and sufferings for?”
John Dale also relates that Father Brennan said, “We need somebody who can teach us the way—how to live and how to die.”
Perhaps this is why devotion to a little child has grown to extraordinary proportions over the last 60 years. Her brother says the family has received prayer requests from Africa, the Philippines, Belgium, and France, among other places. Each year a memorial Mass is held in her honor, and thousands attend. Roughly 10,000 visit her grave each year. John Dale says every single time he drives by, regardless of the hour, someone is there praying.
In her notoriety out of obscurity, she is like St. Thérèse of Lisieux. This might be expected, since Charlene had a great devotion to the Little Flower.
“She wanted to be like St. Thérèse and bring ‘golden pennies’ to Jesus,” says John Dale. “She dedicated her life to Jesus to the best of her ability and for people who needed prayers.”
There are already possible miracles that will strengthen her cause for beatification.
One comes from a Chicago-area woman, Mary Lou Swanson, who says she made the pilgrimage in a last effort to reverse her limbic encephalitis, which can be deadly. Her health had deteriorated to the point where she could only ingest liquids, and she had made her funeral arrangements.
The day after making her graveside visit, Swanson said her symptoms began to reverse. Today, she is healthy.
“We are not sure exactly what happened, and we are not sure why it reversed itself,” said Dr. Ronald Glas, her physician at Edward Hospital, told the Chicago Tribune. “I’m not sure what to attribute it to.”
An evangelist for the Sacred Heart
The oldest of the three possible new saints is Auguste Pelafigue.
Pelafigue was born Jan. 10, 1888, near Lourdes, France. His family emigrated to Arnaudville, Louisiana, in 1889.
Auguste became aware of St. Thérèse and her “little way,” as well as devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, while a student at what is now Northwestern Louisiana State University. This inspired a lifelong dedication to Catholic action and to spreading devotion to the Sacred Heart and to Mary, a dedication that lasted until his death in 1977.
Everyone called Pelafigue “Nonco,” a Cajun diminutive for Nonc Auguste, or Uncle August. He served as a teacher in the now-closed Little Flower School in Coteau Rodaire, Louisiana, where one student remembers recalls, “He was a strict disciplinarian and a very religious person. Pelafigue would start every class with a prayer. He demanded respect from every child.”
He would also produce annual plays there for the Feast of the Sacred Heart.
Pelafigue’s great-nephew Charles Hardy tells Catholic World Report, “His directorship skills were good yet geared to the simple understanding of the children. The plays usually depicted the chapters of the Bible, and the children learned the Bible and catechism lessons through the plays he directed.”
“When they were performed,” Hardy continued, “the house was always full, and in the audience would be the school teachers and relatives, absorbing the lessons themselves in a very simple way that quite honestly worked. This community is very strongly Catholic, and a lot of that got instilled through what Nonco did.”
Pelafigue was a short man, 5’3”, soft spoken, who used his hands to great effect when he spoke, and never married. He lived an extremely ascetic life in order to better model the saints he loved; his weathered, clapboard house had no electricity or running water.
He had no car, so he walked everywhere, handing out pamphlets on devotion to the Sacred Heart along the way. Walking, said one source, “was his way of doing penance, offering each step for the conversion of souls and for the poor souls in purgatory. He traveled country roads on foot in his service to God, and he walked countless times, rain or shine, to attend daily Mass.”
On feast days and Sundays, Nonco attended every Mass that was offered that day.
Being a parochial school teacher in a rural parish was not the road to wealth, and relatives often fixed him meals. He would give that food to others who had even less.
Another way Nonco evangelized was simply by his presence.
Hardy remembers that whenever his uncle was present, “there was a lot of respect all of a sudden that was shown by people around him. You’re talking about a community that was a farming community, with a lot of agricultural employees who used language people in that industry always used and the verbs and the adjectives and so on. But around Nonco there was a respect. And it was a welcoming. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, here he comes.’ It was an excited acceptance that he was there.”
If someone blasphemed, he would make the Sign of the Cross, cover his ears, and walk away.
“He wouldn’t approach the person and give them a bad time,” says Hardy. “Those that saw it, though, felt [remorse].”
So impressive was his work on behalf of the Sacred Heart devotion that in 1953 the layman received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award from Pope Pius XII, after then-Bishop Jules B. Jeanmard directed Pelafigue’s pastor to nominate Pelafigue for the honor. This honor is typically given to laity and clergy for their outstanding service on behalf of the Church.
Notably, Pelafigue died on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, June 6, 1977.
Already at least one solid miracle exists to his credit, the healing of a Houma, Louisiana, ophthalmologist who broke his neck after falling from a bicycle.
Heroic military chaplain
Father Verbis Lafleur was born January 24, 1912, in Ville Platte, Louisiana. When he was a boy, his father abandoned his family, and so his mother struggled to support her seven children.
Three years after Lafleur’s ordination, the United States entered World War II, and he volunteered for the chaplaincy corps. He served with the Army Air Corps and was stationed at an American base in the Philippines. Following the Japanese capture of those islands in 1942, he was taken as a prisoner of war and put into a POW camp.
During his incarceration, Father helped the law of the jungle from setting in by tethering men to civilization. He did this by through modeling kindness and generosity when others acted like animals. He ensured the men had enough to eat. He took the work load of those who couldn’t pull their weight due to illness or injury or malnutrition. He even built a chapel, which he named St. Peter in Chains.
By August 1944, Japan was clearly losing the war. Allied planes were harassing Japanese positions. Americans had already liberated one of the POW camps. The Japanese were determined to not let this happen to any others.
They loaded the prisoners on transport ships to take them to Japan. During the crossing, not knowing that this convoy of ships held their own men, American submarines torpedoed the boats.
A sympathetic Japanese officer opened up the ship’s hold so the men could escape. There were 500 Allied prisoners on board, and Father, emaciated and his hair overgrown, was frantically helping men to get up out of the ship and into the ocean. Then the ship broke in two and quickly sank.
The last anyone saw of Lafleur, he was still trying to rescue people. Due to his efforts, 83 men made it to shore.
All are equal in His eyes
Dr. Gertrude Barber’s efforts on behalf of the disadvantaged were not as physical as those of Father Lafleur, but they were no less heroic.
Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on September 16, 1911, she persevered through an impoverished childhood to earn a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctorate. Catholic News Agency reports that she “at one time expressed a desire to be a missionary in foreign country, but was encouraged by a superintendent to be a missionary in her home town by becoming an advocate for children with learning and physical disabilities.”
After several years as a teacher and counselor specializing in special education, Barber became assistant superintendent of schools for the Erie School District.
In the early 1950s, the conventional wisdom dictated that special needs children be institutionalized. This understandably left many parents disappointed. For Barber, it was beyond disappointing. It was unacceptable.
Starting with a small group of like-minded teachers, she set about founding a program for those with developmental disabilities. Today it is known as the Barber National Institute, and its Erie-based office serves more than 4,300 special needs students in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
For her work, Pope St. John Paul II made Dr. Barber a Lady of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the highest papal honor awarded to laypersons. She died in 2003 at age 87.
At the December 12, 2019, inauguration of her beatification cause, Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie said, “I am particularly pleased that the good work of Dr. Barber, motivated by her Catholic faith and undertaken on behalf of those in need, will now be known more fully by those throughout our region and beyond.”
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