WASHINGTON— At their annual spring Plenary Assembly, the bishops of the United States held a canonical consultation on the cause of beatification and canonization of the Servant of God Joseph Verbis Lafleur, diocesan priest.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, and Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel of Lafayette in Louisiana, facilitated the discussion by the bishops. The bishops expressed support for the advancement of the cause of beatification and canonization on the diocesan level.
Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur was born on January 24, 1912 in Ville Platte, Louisiana, the fourth child of Agatha Dupre Lafleur and Valentine Lafleur. He spent his early years as a student at Mount Carmel Academy in Ville Platte. Early in life, he expressed an interest in the priesthood, and at the age of seven he became an altar boy. In 1926, the family moved to Opelousas, Louisiana, where Joseph Verbis attended school, but his real dream was to enter the seminary. He told his pastor at St. Landry Catholic Church of his desire and then entered St. Joseph's Minor Seminary in Saint Benedict, Louisiana. In 1927 he began his studies at St. Joseph's where he spent six years, followed by five years of study and prayer at the Notre Dame Major Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana before he was ordained to the priesthood.
Father Lafleur was ordained in 1938 and celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at St. Landry, his home parish, on April 5, 1938. He was sent to Saint Mary Magdalen Catholic Church in Abbeville, Louisiana as assistant pastor. He was in Abbeville when he joined the Army Air Corps in 1941, just months before the United States became involved in World War II.
Father Lafleur was assigned to a unit at Albuquerque, New Mexico, in July 1941. Four months later the unit, the 19th Bombardment Group, arrived at Clark Field, some 60 miles from Manila in the Philippine Islands. On December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines came under heavy attack by Japan. Father Lafleur assisted the wounded and dying, actions that earned him the United States Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Bronze Star.
Father Lafleur would later be taken captive by the Japanese and placed with other prisoners of war in various locations and camps but not without having been given opportunities for evacuation to take an easier path. Instead, he chose the path of charity for the good of the men entrusted to his spiritual care. It was in this context where he exercised countless acts of selflessness, charity, and generosity. He would exchange places with a POW to provide a priestly presence for a grueling forced work detail of 650 of his fellow POW’s who were taken for maintenance of a Japanese airstrip. Fearing liberation by American forces, the Japanese loaded the men onto a Hell Ship bound for Japan. The ship was torpedoed by an American submarine that did not realize the American prisoners of war were on board.
Survivors of the torpedo attack recall Father Lafleur’s heroic efforts as their ship was now on fire and sinking. Refusing to seek safety for his own life, Father Lafleur was last seen aiding prisoners to escape the sinking and burning ship, despite being fired upon by Japanese guards. He was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his actions immediately following the War. A second Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded in October of 2017 for his heroic actions.
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