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Featured Photograph: Chaplain Joseph Verbis Lafleur pictured soon after he enlisted in the military service in 1941. (Lafleur Photo Collection.)

Carola Lillie Hartley
Publisher and Contributing Writer

A memorial Mass marking the anniversary of the death of Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur is scheduled for Thursday, September 7, 2023, at 6:30pm at the St. Landry Catholic Church in Opelousas.

Jospeh Verbis Lafleur as a young child in Ville Platte, LA – c.1915 (Lafleur Photo Collection)

Joseph Verbis Lafleur
Born in Ville Platte, LA on January 24, 1912, as a teenager Lafleur moved with his family to Opelousas in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. It was there in the mid 1920s that he told his pastor of St. Landry Catholic Church he wanted to become a priest. With the help of that pastor, Lafleur entered the seminary in 1927, and after 11 total years of study at first St. Joseph Seminary in St. Benedict, LA and later at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, he was ordained a priest on April 2, 1938. He celebrated his first mass at St. Landry Catholic Church in his hometown on April 5, 1938.

Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur for his ordination to the priesthood in 1938. (Carola Lillie Hartley Collection)

Following his ordination, Father Lafleur was assigned as Assistant Pastor at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church in Abbeville, LA. He was involved in the Abbeville community. He regularly participated in community events, coached the Catholic school’s six men football team, and formed the first Boy Scout Troop in Abbeville.

After receiving permission from his Bishop, in April of 1941 Father Lafleur joined the U.S. Military, becoming a Chaplain and a 1st Lieutenant. He was assigned to the 19th Bombardment Group in Albuquerque, NM.

Chaplain Joseph Verbis Lafleur – 1941

In September of 1941, Chaplain Lafleur along with the 19th Bombardment Group was assigned to Clark Field in the Philippine Islands. Just one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, on December 8, 1941, Clark Field was attacked by Japan.

During the attack, Fr. Lafleur administered to the flock giving last rights, praying with and for the dying, and assisting the medics. His actions resulted in him being awarded a Distinguished Service Cross in 1942.

By May 1942, the Philippines were surrendered to the Japanese and the capture of U.S. and Filipino troops occurred. Lafleur, who earlier refused a chance to be evacuated saying, “I shall stay here. My place is with the men,” was captured and became a Prisoner of War, spending 29 months in different POW camps held by the Japanese.

Davao POW Camp Barracks – Photograph taken after WWII. (World War II Database photograph)

After being held as a POW for over two years, Chaplain Lafleur was among 750 men loaded aboard a ship called the Shinyō Maru, headed with a convoy of other ships to Japan. The convoy was spotted by the submarine U.S.S. Paddle off the coast of Mindanao on September 7, 1944. The Paddle believed the Shinyō Maru was carrying Japanese troops. Two successful torpedoes struck the Shinyō Maru and it began sinking. The Japanese guards opened fire on the prisoners in the hold.

Ultimately, the POWs overpowered the guards and began abandoning ship. Father Lafleur refused to leave the ship when the men had the chance to climb out. Instead, he remained behind to help the other men up the ladder from the hold. Of 750 Allied prisoners of war, 668 were killed. Those who made it to shore last saw Fr. Joseph Verbis Lafleur in waist-deep water, assisting others. He lost his life on that ship, helping others escape. His body was never recovered.

Following His Death
Over the years that followed, Chaplain Lafleur was recognized for his bravery during those difficult years of WWII. His awards and honors were many, including a second Distinguished Service Cross awarded in 2017, the country’s second-highest award for valor, only the Medal of Honor holds more prestige.

On September 5, 2020, the Diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana, led by Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel, officially opened Father Lafleur’s cause for beatification and canonization. In 2021, the Catholic bishops of the United States held a canonical consultation on the cause of beatification and canonization of the Servant of God Joseph Verbis Lafleur. The bishops expressed support for the advancement of the cause of beatification and canonization on the diocesan level. “Servant of God” is a title used in the Catholic Church to indicate that an individual is on the first step toward possible canonization as a saint. Work on Father Lafleur’s cause for beatification and canonization is ongoing.

The mass of celebration on Thursday, September 7, 2023, marks the 79th anniversary of the death of Chaplain Lafleur. Father Michael Richard, JCI, Pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Henderson and Sacred Heart of Butte La Rose Catholic Church, and chairperson of the Historical Commission for the promotion of the Cause of Father Lafleur is scheduled as the Celebrant and Homilist. The public is invited to attend.