Every year, Catholics in this region direct special attention toward a Cajun priest from Ville Platte who died in the Pacific during World War II.
The annual memorial Mass for Lt. Rev. Joseph Verbis Lafleur on the anniversary of his death, Sept. 7, drew people from throughout and beyond the diocese of Lafayette to St. Landry Catholic Church in Opelousas, where visitors may see reminders of the young priest inside and out.
One of those who traveled for the memorial was Archbishop Timothy Broglio. He heads the Roman Catholic archdiocese for the U.S. armed forces.
Broglio told the worshipers Monday that not long after he assumed his present ministry in 2008, a spiritual adviser shared a manuscript of Lafleur’s biography.
“Learning about him has enhanced my priesthood and my life,” the archbishop said.
Invoking the evening’s reading from the gospel of John, Broglio said in his homily that “no fruit is possible without the death of the seed.
“Christ, the grain of wheat that dies, teaches us to die to self and helps us understand the mystery of death.”
In front of St. Landry Church stands a monumental statue in front of the church depicts Lafleur on a Japanese prisoner of war transport ship helping others onto the deck after a torpedo attack. Men who survived the incident reported that the Army Air Corps chaplain declined offers to climb out of the hold and chose to stay below where he could assist others.
“That sacrifice was not made in a vaccuum,” Broglio said. “Father did not wake up on Sept. 7, 1944, and decide to be a seed.
“You and I need great figures to teach us that holiness is possible. Father Lafleur shows us the way,” the archbishop said. “You can all be justly proud to be a part of the tradition, culture and faith that gave the world this priest.”
Military veterans, Catholic and non-Catholic, talked after the war about the way he shared what little clothing and food he had with prisoners who had less. They recall his sense of humor that revealed itself in the name of the makeshift chapel he fashioned in the prisoner of war camp and called St. Peter in Chains.
Broglio reminded those present Monday that Lafleur “did everything possible to ensure a daily Mass in his imprisonment.”
His body was never recovered, but he made clear that if he were to die in service to his country he wanted to be buried in the cemetery at St. Landry Catholic Church. Visitors to Arlington National Cemetery may also find his name in the chaplain’s memorial there.
Many who attended Monday’s service — including the archbishop, Bishop Michael Jarrell of the Diocese of Lafayette, 15 concelebrating priests and dozens of Knights of Columbus, Knights of Peter Claver and Catholic Daughters of America — have heard the stories about the deeds honored with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
For Richard and Carrol Lafleur, who on occasion pray the rosary at the shrine to the priest inside St. Landry Church, they’re personal.
Richard Lafleur is a nephew, one of many in a large extended family. Earlier Monday, he and other relatives attended a funeral Mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church for the older brother named after Verbis Lafleur. There’s evidence that while deployed in the Philippines, the chaplain got a letter announcing the birth of his namesake 73 years ago.
Monday evening, Richard Lafleur greeted friends as they entered the church for the memorial Mass that bookended the day of his brother’s funeral.
“This takes the sting out of it,” he said.
The number of people in attendance, said Carrol Lafleur, “says to us that Father Lafleur is still alive. He is still here for us. There are a lot of people who think a lot of him and spent part of their Labor Day evening with us.
“We want our children and our grandchildren and the children after them to know about him,” she said. “To know that they have a little bit of the same blood.”