Photograph: Agatha Dupre as a young woman. (Photographs from the collection of Carola Lillie Hartley.)
Carola Lillie Hartley
Publisher and Contributing Writer
As we continue with stories about the amazing women of Opelousas for National Women’s History Month, today I want to share the story of a woman who is so special to me. My grandmother, Agatha Dupre Lafleur.
What a woman she was. She was rather reserved and quiet, an incredible mother and grandmother, a devout Catholic, proud of her French heritage and a very STRONG woman. She had to be, as sometimes it seemed she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. Well, the weight of her world, anyway.
Who Was Agatha Dupre Lafleur
The daughter of Arville Dupre and Josephine Emma Joubert, Agatha was born on November 11, 1884, in the Grand Prairie area of St. Landry Parish. She was the third of four children born into the Dupre family. Her family roots were deeply planted in that area of Louisiana. She was a descendant of some of the earliest settlers of the state, those who came directly from France in search of a new life and new opportunities in the new world. Besides Dupre and Joubert her family tree also includes names like Soileau, Stagg, Deville, Guillory, Fuselier and Pont, just to list a few.
The Dupre family was well known and respected in the rural St. Landry Parish community. They had a good life, and Josephine and Arville were looking forward to celebrating many years together. But that was not to be. When Agatha was just barely a year old, her father suddenly died of a pneumonia like illness on January 6, 1886. That tragedy would be only the first she had to endure during her life.
About two years later, during 1888, Josephine Emma married Aristide Sebastien and had ten more children. And in the early 1900s, the couple adopted another son, one of the Orphan Train children. So, Agatha was part of a very large, loving family. And that family and her religious beliefs helped her throughout her time on this earth.
Agatha’s childhood days were spend on the family farm in Grand Prairie. During her teenage years she met Valentine Lafleur from the nearby community of Ville Platte, at that time still a part of St. Landry Parish. They were married on January 7th of 1902 and settled down in Ville Platte.
The Lafleur family of Ville Platte was well known in that area of the parish. Valentine’s father and his uncle owned a partnership business. After the wedding, he went to work in that business and did very well. They lived a comfortable life, and were the parents of eight children, five girls and three boys.
Agatha was a great homemaker, a fabulous cook as well as a seamstress. She loved to decorate her home and made beautiful clothing for her children. Life was good for Agatha, but as before, that was not to last.
As the Lafleur business grew, Valentine eventually became a traveling salesman for the store. He was on the road traveling around the state, leaving his family for days at a time. Agatha was left to care for the house and family.
Valentine was a great salesman, and maybe too good of a salesman. That kept him away more and more, and for longer periods of time. By 1920, the Lafleur household was not always a happy one.
It was during that year that the youngest Lafleur son, Benjamin was born. When he was just five months old he suddenly died. That was a tragedy; one the family could not overcome. Over the next few years, Agatha was left alone to manage the family most of the time. And soon, Valentine did not come home at all. That’s when Agatha Dupre Lafleur became the sole provider for her family.
The Family Moves to Opelousas
In 1926, Agatha moved to Opelousas to be near her oldest daughter, who was married and living there. She and the younger children lived with that family for a while, and eventually, she bought her own house on West Grolee Street, at the corner of Garland’s Lane. That is where the younger Lafleur children grew to adulthood.
So much happened in the years that followed. So much good and so much sorrow. Agatha was a good provider. She raised chickens and sold eggs. She made fig preserves and sold them to neighbors and friends. She took in sewing. She did what she had to in order to support her family. Her children also helped out when they could by working odd jobs in the community.
Agatha’s joy came from seeing her children become respected and hard working members of their community. By the end of the 1930s and beginning of the 1940s, things were good. Her oldest son was a manager of one of the major department stores in downtown Opelousas, and three of her daughters were studying to become nurses. And her oldest grandson was hoping to become a priest, the second priest in the family.
Her second son, Verbis was already a priest, ordained in 1938. He was sent to Abbeville as Assistant Pastor of the catholic church there. In 1941, when it looked like the US would become involved in a war, Father Lafleur volunteered for his country, joining the Army Air Corp as a chaplain. He was sent to the Philippines, and was there on December 8 of that year when the Japanese attacked the Island, just a day after Pearl Harbor. He was later captured and became a prisoner of war of the Imperial Japanese Army.
How horrible a time that must have been for the Lafleur family. There was no contact with him for months, and they did not even know if he was dead or alive, or captured. In time they learn of his capture and his status.
The Pine Tree with Roses
Each day for almost three years Agatha prayed for her son and “his boys,” as she called them. She would sit in her rocker by the window and say her rosary. You see, when Verbis was in the seminary in North Louisiana, on one of her visits to see him, she got a small pine tree from the woods and brought it back to Opelousas. She planted it right outside that window so she could see it and think about him. It grew really tall. A rose bush planted near by, climbed onto the tree, and it became a beautiful site. A pine tree with roses. Saying her rosary while viewing that tree gave her a lot of comfort.
In November of 1944, the family gathered around her as she prayed her rosary. Before they could say anything, she told them “Verbis is dead, isn’t he? I knew that,” she said, “because on September 7th my pine tree with the roses died.” Everyone stood in disbelief. You see, Chaplain Verbis Lafleur died on that day. The ship he was on was torpedoed and went down in the Pacific Ocean on September 7, 1944. So, the pine tree with the roses became a part of the Lafleur family’s story since that time.
On a Personal Note: Remembering my Grandma
Even with all the sorrow that filled her life, by the time I got to know her, my grandmother could be cheerful most of the time. My memories of her are filled with happy times, like those from a storybook. She was funny in many ways. She did not speak English, but she understood everything that was going on, and we knew that. She was blind later in life, but her hearing was excellent, and she could hear everything, even from far away rooms. And even with her handicap, she lived alone and took care of herself.
My family would travel from Breaux Bridge to her house on Sundays, almost every other weekend. She was a fantastic cook, and prepared some of the best food ever. We looked forward to those Sunday dinners. And during the summer months, my sisters and I took turns staying at her house for weeks at a time.
I can remember so vividly my stays with her. She had those high beds that seemed to be 6 feet off the floor. We almost needed a ladder to get into those beds. She would wake up every morning at about 5AM, immediately say her rosary while listening to the news in French over KSLO Radio. And she dripped her coffee in a small pot with steaming water. The sounds of the radio and the smell of that coffee is how I awoke on those days. She always fixed coffee milk and brought it to me in bed. Than the work would begin. She had chickens that needed to be fed, and eggs to gather. She had fig trees, and those figs had to be picked, and on and on. But I loved it, and I loved being at her house.
As grandma got older, her children took care of her. When it was determined she could not live alone anymore, she would spend time with my mom, my uncle and my aunts. They would have her with them for six weeks at a time. I remember her spending time at our family home in Breaux Bridge. That arrangement went on for several years.
April 5, 1977 was the day we lost grandma. She was 92 years old. I remember that day so well. My mom came to my house in Opelousas to give me the news. She had a great memorial and her funeral attracted many from throughout the area. We buried her in Bellevue Memorial Gardens.
My grandma, Agatha Dupre Lafleur, had life experiences that were among the best and the worse one could imagine. When just a baby she lost her father. When just a young mother she lost the support of her husband. As an adult, she lost her eyesight. And she lost two sons, one as a baby and one as an American hero. But she survived; and what a life she had. She departed this earth leaving behind her large family, with many grandchildren and great grandchildren. A family who today still shares those joyful memories of a life well lived.
I loved my grandma. I miss her very much. But most important, I am so very proud of her and glad to share this story of another amazing Opelousas woman.