Former St. Mary Magdalen associate honored with monument

St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church has had its share of associate pastors and, now, one is being considered for sainthood.

Fr. Verbis Lafleur was ordained a priest on April 2, 1938 after preparing for the priesthood at St. Joseph’s Seminary and at Notre Dame Major Seminary in New Orleans. He celebrated his first mass in his home parish of St. Landry Catholic Church in Opelousas before moving to his only parish assignment for the diocese. Fr. Lafleur served the parish of St. Mary Magdalen from 1938 until he enlisted as an Army Chaplain in 1941.

St. Mary Magdalen is also hosting a replica of the statue created to honor Fr. Lafleur. The original statue is 16 feet tall and was erected at St. Landry Catholic Church in Opelousas in September 2007. The plaster replica sits on the small altar on the right side of the church. The replica on display was arranged through Carol and Richard Lefleur and Fr. Mark Ledoux, another former associate at St. Mary Magdalen now serving at St. Anthony’s Church.

The death of Fr. Lafleur occurred on a prisoner of war transport ship 64 years ago this coming September 7th. The top of the monument in Opelousas depicts Fr. Lafleur in his last act, as he calmly helped men out of the hull of their sinking ship, without regard to his own life. The base of the monument, which is not included in the display in Abbeville, shows scenes of Fr. Lafleur’s life that include a depiction of the young Associate Pastor with St. Mary Magdalen Church in the background. The replica also has the nails in it that were used as reference points for measuring to create the final statue.

Though he was born in Ville Platte in 1912, Fr. Lafleur’s family moved to Opelousas in 1926. He was the fourth child of eight born to Valentine and Agatha Lafleur. His early education was at Mt. Carmel Academy while living in Ville Platte and when the family moved to Opelousas, he informed his pastor that he wanted to become a priest.

In the pamphlet “Man Among Men” by Newell Schindler as told by Mrs. Baldwin H. Delery, the story of Fr. Lafleur describes a man of compassion and understanding; a man of bravery and courage, eager to give all for his God and his country.

“As a prisoner of war of the Japanese, he regularly gave his own food and clothing to Americans in the prison hospital. He even insisted on posing as a laborer to go on a detail with 750 other prisoners so that they would have a chaplain with them. And, later in the war, while aboard a sinking prison-of-war ship, he persuaded his men to leave the hold of the vessel before he did, blessing them as he helped them up to ladder to possible safety,” the story reads.

His Army career began six months before America became engaged in WW2. He reportedly told his mother that he wished to enlist with a request to be sent to the farthest battle fronts to make things easier on the men who had no choice of military service due to the draft. His wish for distance was honored as he was appointed the first chaplain of the 19th Bombardment Group from New Mexico and began his service at Clark Field just out of Manila Bay, the Philippines.

The attack on Clark Field began December 8, 1941, the day after the infamous Pearl Harbor attack. The booklet goes on to say that Fr. Lafleur became a legend that day. According to Col E. L. Eubanks, an Air Corps officer, “he was magnificent. With absolute disregard to his own safety, he went among the wounded soldiers giving spiritual comfort to those who desired it, assisting the doctors in giving care to the wounded and helping in their evacuation.

Never once did he take cover. Never once did he think of this own safety as he conducted himself in accordance with the highest traditions of his Church and our Army.”

The report continues saying that despite the continued strafing of Japanese fighter planes and bombing, Fr. Lafleur came through unmarked in his humanitarian efforts. His valiant efforts continued as the troops were evacuated from Clark Field and came under fire again while in convoy at sea. Again, he persisted in helping those in need, remaining unharmed as those around him were injured or killed.

Fr. Lafleur was described as a calming effect for the men as the Japanese army continued to close in on the American forces. And although he was offered a plane ride to the safety of Australia, he declined the offer to be able to stay with and continue serving the spiritual and physical needs of the American military.

The booklet on Fr. Lafleur goes on to say that the capture of the priest along with the American service men was always a trial for food, medicine and clothing. It also notes that on February 20, 1942, the priest was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross for his deeds during the December 8, 1941 attack on Clark Field. The chaplain traded everything he had with the natives, even his eye glasses and his watch, to try to get the supplies necessary for the sick. It also reports that he ate a minimal portion of his food and gave the rest to the more needy prisoners.

In letters to Fr. Lafleur’s mother after the war, one soldier said that the priest personally built a chapel on the island of Davoa and named it the Chapel of St. Peter in Chains. Even a good number of non-Catholics attended the services offered by Fr. Lafleur, according to the booklet. Other letters to his mother described how the soldiers were blind and paralysed and that he always did what he could to help them, whether it was to feeding, look after the patients or to just read to the invalid. It also reports how he would swap identities with soldiers to join the work gangs so the men would have a chaplain with them out in the fields.

By the end of 1944, the Americans were gaining the upper hand on the Japanese forces and the decision was made to transport all of the POW’s to Japan. However, the Japanese did not fly the mandatory white flag on their POW ships and an American force fired upon the ship Fr. Lafleur shared with 750 other Americans in standing room only conditions.

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