He Died a Hero: The Life and Death of Father Louis Gergaud

This was written for Louisiana Road Trips Magazine in 2008:

A call went out in France.  Priests were needed in Louisiana.  Louisiana was still mostly a frontier in the 1850’s, and the Catholic Church needed willing clergy to go into the backwoods to minister to the congregation.  Louis Gergaud was one of six priests who answered the call.  Born March 22, 1832 in the town of Heric, France, he arrived in Louisiana in 1855.  After spending a year as an assistant in the Alexandria Diocese, Father Gergaud was sent to Monroe as the “Pastor of the Missions of the Ouachita”. 

            Father Gergaud arrived in Monroe in April, 1856.  He had little grasp of the English language, he was in his mid twenties and the locals were downright hostile to the young priest.  The people of Monroe said he would only last a few months.  Boys threw stones at him as he walked down the street.  Gergaud took it all with quiet dignity and strength.  There was one incident though, where he showed his temper.

            Father Gergaud was in the habit of preparing his own breakfast and lunch in his small room behind the church.  He had just finished eating one day, when his door swung open.  Three men entered his home and one began to speak.  “Priest, we came to tell you that no one here sent for you.  You are not wanted here at all, and we come to tell you that you must leave this place.  You must leave on the first boat, and if you don’t leave, we’ll make you leave.”  Through gritted teeth and with eyes flashing fire, Father Gergaud opened his door, saying, “Get!  Get out of here right now, or I’ll throw you out!”  He then made a move towards one of the men and they quickly ran out the door and down the steps, never to bother the priest again!

            Father Gergaud continued his mission in Monroe for several years.  He ministered to the poorest of the poor and expanded Catholicism in Northeast Louisiana.  He set up missions all over the area from south Arkansas to St. Joseph.  His congregation grew to love him.  During the Civil War, Gergaud gathered the Sisters of Charity from Natchez, MS to run a Military hospital in Monroe.  He traveled as far away as Camden, AR to administer Mass to Confederate soldiers stationed there.  After the Civil War, he began a Catholic school for the local children.  The good Father even gave up his brand new home to the Nuns who came to teach at the school! 

            In 1871, Father Gergaud expressed to a friend that he would like to go back to France to visit his mother.  One of the richest men in the Parish, General John Frank Pargoud, just happened to be listening in.  The next Sunday, General Pargoud handed Richard Fulham a check for five hundred dollars.  He instructed Fulham to give the check to Father Gergaud and tell him it was for a trip to France.  Three weeks passed and Gergaud didn’t leave on his trip.  That Sunday, another check was passed through Fulham with the instructions that Father Gergaud MUST go to France!  Father Gergaud took the thousand and bought a square of land for a Catholic cemetery.  Today we know it as St. Matthew’s Cemetery.  He never did take that trip to France!

            Yellow Fever began to rage across the state in 1873.  One of the hardest hit areas was Shreveport.  By the end of the epidemic, over 2500 people would become infected and 759 people would die.  Shreveport’s priest, Father LeBiler, sent a desperate call for help to Father Gergaud.  “Am alone with a terrible epidemic.  Cannot hold out much longer.  Please come to my aid.”  His two predecessors, Fathers Pierre and Queremais had already fallen to Yellow Fever and he was overwhelmed.  Father Gergaud didn’t hesitate.  He tried sneaking out of Monroe on a stage, but his congregation found out.  They pleaded with their Priest not to go, but he would not be swayed.  Father Gergaud arrived in Shreveport September 20, 1873.  The two men worked side by side night and day doing everything they could to help ease the suffering.  September 25th, Father LeBiler died, leaving Father Gergaud all alone.  On October 1st at 4 a.m., the inevitable happened.  “Yellow Jack” took another victim and Father Gergaud went to his reward.  One more priest, Father LeVezouet, who had come to help from Natchitoches, would fall before it was over.  These five brave souls would forever be referred to as the Yellow Fever Martyrs.  Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Shreveport still remembers them to this day.  A garden and five stained glass windows in the church pay tribute to them.  Mass was said for them last year and there are even murmurs of nomination for sainthood.

Monroe would mourn for their shepherd and make plans to bring his body back home.  Funds were raised and on January 27, 1874, Father Gergaud’s remains were disinterred from the Shreveport Cemetery.  February 2nd they arrived by train to Monroe.  On February 4th, Catholic rites were said and the body was lead in an impressive processional to the Catholic cemetery he had created.  There, all that remained of Monroe’s martyr was laid to rest.  The newspaper article detailing the impressive funeral concludes with these words, “Priest, brother, friend, farewell – rest in peace!”

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