OPELOUSAS — A large St. Landry Catholic Church congregation attending a memorial Mass commemorating the 70th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Joseph Verbis Lafleur was not dismissed Sunday morning without a final reminder by the Rev. James Brady.
“I think it was evident today that Father Lafleur’s spirit is still alive at St. Landry,” Brady said.
There was no reason to think otherwise, said Carol Lafleur, who is married to Richard Lafleur, Joseph Verbis Lefleur’s nephew.
Lafleur’s life, particularly his years as a chaplain and prisoner of war during World War II, is celebrated on the anniversary of his death each year at the St. Landry church, which is where he performed his first Mass following his 1938 ordination.
Because the anniversary fell on a Sunday this year, a larger than normal audience attended the memorial Mass than has in years past when it was celebrated on a weekday.
It was especially poignant for those who were unfamiliar with details of the priest’s life, Carol Lafleur said.
“I think this year, (the Mass) was different than some of the others since the regular churchgoers who attend this Mass every Sunday had an opportunity to see how the life of Father Lafleur was so special,” she said.
Following the Mass, some of the worshippers assembled around a tall, marble statue of Joseph Verbis Lafleur in the church parking lot and recited a prayer of adoration.
The statue, sculpted by Italian artist Franco Allessandrini, was dedicated in 2007, and one side of it depicts Lafleur stretching out a hand to help a man to safety aboard the sinking Shinyo Maru.
Lafleur, a Ville Platte native who grew up in Opelousas, was a World War II U.S. Army Air Corps chaplain who died on Sept. 7, 1944, while he was a U.S. prisoner of war and was being moved out of the Philippines by his Japanese captors.
The move began in August 1944 when the Japanese loaded the prisoners aboard two cargo ships docked near Mindanao, Philippines, for relocation into labor camps in Japan.
Lafleur and about 800 other U.S. prisoners were being transported on the Shinyo Maru when two torpedoes from the USS Paddle exploded in the ship’s hold.
The moments following the explosion were bloody and chaotic, according to the accounts by some of the 83 survivors.
On deck, Japanese guards threw grenades into the hold and fired rifles and machine guns at the Americans who scrambled to escape from the burning ship.
According to various accounts from the prisoners, Lafleur did not try to abandon the doomed ship. Instead, he was in the cargo hold of the ship where the prisoners were being held. The men would later say Lafleur tried to calm the men, while helping them find passages of escape. No one is sure how he died, whether he drowned or was killed in an explosion.
Lafleur had been interred with other U.S. soldiers at Davao and Lasang, Philippines prisoner-of-war camps, from 1941 to 1944.
For the years he was held, prisoners said Lafleur tirelessly administered to the needs of the prisoners, often bartering with the Japanese and even the prisoners for food and other items that helped meet their daily needs.
There also was an incident when Lafleur is said to have flattened another prisoner with two punches after the priest angrily confronted the man about stealing rations from other prisoners who were starving.
As a soldier in 1941, Lefleur had become well-known for his actions while he was at Clark Field in the Philippines. He helped rescue and provide aid to wounded and dying soldiers during a Japanese air raid on the base the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As the bullets, bombs and shrapnel struck the field, chaos ensued, but Lafleur, according to soldier’s accounts, ran out and pulled wounded soldiers to safety.
For those actions, Lafleur was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest honor for bravery during battle.
Monsignor Jeff DeBlanc, pastor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church in Church Point, said on Sunday that episodes from Lafleur’s life are reflected in the New Testament’s “Letter to the Hebrews.”
DeBlanc was the celebrant and homilist at Sunday’s mass.
In Hebrews, DeBlanc said, there is the example of priestly leadership, which Lafleur displayed among the other prisoners.
In his Sunday church bulletin message, Brady wrote that Lafleur’s life was “extraordinary,” especially after his capture. Laflfeur, wrote Brady, showed “selflessness, kindness and bravery, all the while he himself was being treated cruelly.”
Carol Lafleur said DeBlanc was selected to provide the homily because he helped connect the Rev. Mark Ledoux with the Lafleur family.
Ledoux, pastor of Saints Peter and Paul in Carencro, said he became interested in priests whom people admired while he was a seminarian in 1991. As he talked to people, one of the names that kept recurring was Lafleur’s.
A decade later, Ledoux had uncovered new information about Lafleur’s life.
“I felt like I was developing a friendship with someone I considered a saintly man,” Ledoux said.
With the information gathered by Ledoux, the Lafleur family and DeBlanc, a complete picture of Lafleur’s life began to emerge.
“Jeff (DeBlanc) was the person who got us together on Father Lafleur’s life,” Ledoux said. “He already knew many details of Father Lafleur’s life.”