NEW YORK – Last January, when Chris Charles Scott made a documentary about five French priests who cared for the sick during the 1873 yellow fever epidemic in Shreveport, Louisiana, he didn’t expect him to has a place at the Cannes World Film Festival this year.
The expectation, Scott said, was regional and Catholic audiences. While now that the documentary’s reach extends far beyond those boundaries into secular and sacred spaces, it recognizes that the timing of its November premiere was crucial.
People have identified with making a personal sacrifice in a pandemic situation.
“We were [filming] strike in the midst of our own pandemic and see how we are, hopefully, in the later stages of this disease; the priorities of many people have been realigned; a lot of people’s paths have been reshaped and I think that’s why people resonate with this story, ”said Scott Node. “It’s a timeless story of what God’s people do when bad things happen. “
The documentary, “The Five Priests,” is the culmination of years of work by three Catholics in Shreveport to disseminate the story of the sacrifice of the five priests and lead them on the path to holiness. The five priests – Fathers Jean Pierre, Isidore A. Quémerais, Jean-Marie Biler, Louis Gergaud and François Le Vézouët – became Servants of God in December 2020.
As the story goes, between late August and mid-November 1873, Shreveport lost a quarter of its population to yellow fever. The disease transmitted by mosquitoes causes fever, nausea and muscle pain and can lead to liver and kidney failure.
While scores of people fled Shreveport for safety, Pierre and Quémerais, who were assigned to the northern Louisiana town, remained to care for the victims. Biler, who was a chaplain in a local convent, also remained in the city. Pierre and Quémerais contracted yellow fever and died. When Biler fell ill, he contacted Gergaud – a priest from a nearby town – who arrived in time to give Biler the last rites. However, Gergaud also quickly succumbed to the virus. Hearing about the desperate situation, Le Vézouët then left Natchitoches – then the seat of the diocese – to go to Shreveport and care for the sick and dying. He also quickly contracted the disease and died.
The five priests are all from Brittany, France. They were recruited to come to the United States by Bishop Auguste Marie Martin, the founding bishop of what is now the Diocese of Shreveport.
“It parallels the conditions of the world today,” said Cheryl White, professor of history at Louisiana State University Shreveport. Node. “Five priests who made the decision to give their lives in an epidemic for strangers, and we live here in a global pandemic, trying to seek examples of human virtue.”
White has done extensive research on priests over the past four years alongside Father Peter Mangum, rector of St. John Berchmans Cathedral in Shreveport, and local historian Ryan Smith. Their research resulted in a documentary and a book, 1873 Martyrs of Shreveport: The Surest Way to Heaven, which was released in October 2021.
White received an email from Cannes announcing the official selection for the documentary on January 5. The festival takes place in May. It won the award for best feature documentary at the European Film Festival. He is a finalist at the Texas Film Festival. The Roma Prisma Independent Film Festival and the Christian Film Festival also named the documentary official selection.
“The most exciting part for me is not the creative aspect, but the fact that it affirms for me the universality of the story of these five priests,” White said.
The Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Bishop Francis Malone of Shreveport and Mangum are the members of the clergy featured in the documentary. Pierre, who wrote the preface to the book, is from Brittany, France, and has long championed the cause of the five priests.
White and Smith are also featured in the documentary, as is Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins, a native of the town who considers it important to share this story as a community leader in difficult times.
“Anyone can take away the fact that during a pandemic, or during any crisis for that matter, we are so much stronger when we come together and think of each other,” Perkins said. Node. “If we think about others, at the end of the day we will all be so much better off. “
Likewise, Scott said it was important for them to look at the human suffering that took place during the yellow fever epidemic of 1873 to really highlight the sacrifice the five priests made. Showing this dichotomy between the horror of the disease and the greatness of their sacrifice, he said, compelled people because deep down “we all have this capacity to serve.”
The next step for the five priests is to be declared venerable after an investigation in the Vatican. It is the primary cause of holiness in northern Louisiana. In the meantime, White, Mangum, and Smith will continue to share the story. They are in the process of adding French subtitles to the documentary, which they will then share on a trip there after Easter.
“I don’t know what will follow but I know it will be spectacular; it will be awesome, ”said Smith. “I think it’s going to continue for a while, maybe intermittently, but it’s here to stay. These guys will be venerable, I have no doubts.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenbourg