He Loved God, family, and Country. He became a priest, went to war, and laid down his life for his friends

Joseph Verbis LaFleur: The Priest Who Laid Down His Life For His Friends

By Larry Peterson

Joseph Verbis Lafleur was born in Villa Platte, Louisiana, on January 24, 1912.  He was the fourth child born to Agatha Dupre and Valentine Lafleur.  When Joe was a young boy, he began telling his mom that he would grow up and be a priest. He was so sure of his calling that he became an altar boy at the age of seven.

“I want to be a priest. Can you help me?”

During the early 1920s, the family came upon hard times and were forced to move to Opelousas, about 20 miles from Ville Platte. Their new parish would be St. Landry Catholic Church. The pastor was Father A. B. Colliard. The priest quickly sensed something special about young Joe and paid close attention to him. When Joe was 14, he nervously approached Father Colliard and said to him, “Father, I want to become a priest. Can you help me?”

Father Colliard happily agreed to help young Joseph. First, he met with Joe and his mom. After receiving her approval, the priest made arrangements for her son to enter St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in St. Benedict. From there, Joe moved on to attend Notre Dame Major Seminary in New Orleans.

Joseph Lafleur never doubted for a moment his calling to serve as a priest. He received the Sacrament of Holy Orders from Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans. On April 5,1938, Father Lafleur celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at St. Landry’s, his home parish.  He was then assigned to St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Abbeville as an assistant pastor.

Joines the Army Air Corp as a Chaplain

While still an assistant pastor at St. Mary Magdalene church, he joined the Army Air Corps. The year was 1941, and the United States was months away from the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In July of 1941, Father Lafleur was sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico. His unit was the 19th Bombardment Group. Four months later, the 19th arrived at Clark Field in the Philippines. This was about 60 miles from Manila. Father Joe had told his mom before leaving that he “volunteered because all those other men being drafted had no choice.”

Just as it was at St. Mary Magdalene’s parish, Father Joe went about trying to organize the men on base into different activities. He would organize baseball games for the men who wanted to play baseball. He wanted to start a Holy Name Society for the men. He organized discussion groups so the guys could share their feelings of loneliness being away from home and family. His mind was always focused on helping the men, mentally and spiritually. He wrote his sister, Edna, that “once I get back to Louisiana, I will never leave again. But I am not sorry I came here.”

Last Letter Home

That was the last letter the family ever received from him. On December 7, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Clark Field in the Philippines was struck shortly after. Life was forever changed for Father Joseph Lafleur and many others on December 8, 1941. In May of 1942,  the Japanese conquered Mindanao, and the last of the American soldiers on the island were taken, prisoner. Among them was Father Joseph Lafleur.

POW

From May of 1942 until September of 1944, Father Joe never ceased ministering to his fellow POWs. He contracted Malaria several times and refused medicine because he believed others needed it more than him. He sold his watch and eyeglasses to the locals to procure more food for his brother prisoners. He even managed to build a small chapel called—St. Peter in Chains, where Catholic and non-Catholics alike could attend daily Mass. The ongoing, upbeat love and care he showed others, influenced many.

A POW named Bill Lowe had abandoned his Baptist faith. He watched how Father Joe never gave in and never despaired. He was always upbeat, loving Jesus, and doing his best to spread the Good News. When Lowe returned home, he became Catholic, and his son grew up to become a Catholic priest and Air Force Chaplain. Lowe reported that many became Catholic because of Father Joe’s example.

Gives his own life to save 83 men

On September 7, 1944, while being transported on a Japanese ship to Japan with 750 other Americans, the ship was struck by torpedoes fired by an American submarine. The sub’s captain and crew had no idea Americans were on board. Father Joe could have gotten off but refused until as many were saved as possible. He was credited with saving at least 83 men by helping them get out and swim to shore.

Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur leaves behind an unbridled legacy of love and compassion for others, including the Catholic faith he loved so much. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (twice), The Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart.

On September 5, 2020, he was declared a Servant of God when Bishop John Douglas Deshotel opened his cause for Beatification in the Diocese of Louisiana.

copyright©Larry Peterson2021