War hero’s cause moves forward
The movement to proclaim Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur a saint has taken an important step with the opening of his Cause for Canonization by the Vatican.
The heroic World War II chaplain, who was born in Ville Platte, is now the third person from south Louisiana to be entered into the official process of investigation for sainthood. Bishop Douglas Deshotel began the process for Charlene Richard, the young girl from Acadia Parish, and Auguste “Nonco” Pelafigue of Arnaudville in January, but the announcement for Father Lafleur was delayed by red tape.
The Cause for Canonization is a process filled with red tape that includes testimony documenting how people were affected by Father Lafleur during his lifetime and after his death. It can take years and concludes with a recommendation to the Pope on whether he should declare someone worthy of our veneration. A growing number of people in south Louisiana believe that question doesn’t even have to be asked in this case.
Father Lafleur was an Army Air Corps chaplain who died saving the lives of fellow GIs who were Japanese prisoners of war.
He was born in 1912, the fourth child of Valentine and Agatha Dupré Lafleur, and entered the seminary in 1927. He was ordained in the spring of 1938, joined the air corps in 1941, and was sent to the Philippines that July. He was at Clark Field near Manila on December 8, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Japanese planes carpeted the air base with bombs and raked it with gunfire.
Until that day, his superior officers worried about Father Lafleur. He wasn’t a very big man. He had something of a baby face—photos of him wearing rimless eyeglasses are reminiscent of Radar O’Reilly of the “M*A*S*H” television series — and still had traces of his Cajun accent. The officers thought he might have trouble earning the respect of the other men in his unit.
There was no need to worry. As waves of planes pounded the field, he calmly went about his business, doing what he could to comfort the hundreds of men who were wounded or dying.
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in May 1942 for his “courageous ministrations” during that attack. According to the citation, he “refused to seek shelter despite the intensive attacks of dive bombers and the strafing of the field.”
As enemy troops steadily advanced, he declined evacuation from Manila, even though he knew the base was about to be overrun. He stayed behind to minister to his comrades, was taken prisoner with them, and spent two and a half years in Japanese captivity. One-third of his fellow prisoners died from disease, malnutrition, and mistreatment. Father Lafleur bartered everything he had, including his glasses, for bits of food and medicine to give to those who remained.
As the U. S. began to reclaim Pacific islands that had been taken by the Japanese, he and other prisoners were crammed into a small freighter to be taken to Japan. The ship was supposed to fly a white flag indicating that it was carrying 750 POWs. It didn’t do that, and was torpedoed by a U.S. submarine on September 7, 1944.
As the ship caught fire and began to sink, Father Lafleur held a rope ladder steady while other men scrambled to safety. That was how he was last seen, helping others to get out of the burning hold as the ship was going under.
Richard Lafleur, a nephew, and his wife Carol have over the past twenty years provided information to church leaders about Father Lafleur’s life and death and urged them to consider his canonization. Father James Brady, then pastor at St. Landry church in Opelousas, and Father Mark Ledoux, now pastor at St. Peter’s in Carencro, took up the cause several years ago.
The Lafleurs said a Vatican official was to going to come from Rome for the formal opening of the canonization process, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented that. Bishop Deshotel made the official announcement.
That probably would have been just fine with Father Lafleur. I suspect he is looking down on all of this with utter amazement that someone from the Vatican would want to come to Louisiana to talk about how he did what he considered his duty as a priest and as a soldier.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.