Father Louis Gergaud stared at the telegram clasped in his hands. It was a plea for help: More priests were needed in Shreveport, Louisiana, where yellow fever plagued the local diocese.
“It is my duty, and I must go!” he responded before boarding a stagecoach to the frontier town. Turning to his assistant, he exclaimed, “Write to the bishop and tell him I go to my death!”
This scene, from the new graphic novel, “The Shreveport Martyrs and the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873,” introduces readers to Father Gergaud, one of five French-born priests known today as the “Shreveport Martyrs.”
The 27-page book, being published in installments online at the website dedicated to the cause for beatification and canonization of the Shreveport Martyrs, comes as the U.S. Catholic bishops recently advanced the cause of the five martyrs.
The five young priests — Servants of God Jean Pierre, Isidore Quémerais, Jean Marie Biler, Louis Gergaud and François LeVézouët — ministered in Louisiana during the 19th-century epidemic. They served in today’s Diocese of Shreveport in Louisiana, risking their lives to care for the sick and anoint the dying.
As the outbreak spread, the five priests refused to leave in order to care for their flock. Their sacrifice cost them their lives: Each died of yellow fever.
The graphic novel tells their story.
A different type of martyrdom
The project lists four authors: Father Peter Mangum, rector of the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the episcopal delegate for all matters related to the cause of canonization of the Shreveport Martyrs; W. Ryan Smith, a local historian in Shreveport; Dr. Cheryl White, professor of history at Louisiana State University at Shreveport; and Deacon Andy Thomas, a permanent deacon ministering in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, and serving as the director of religious education at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Prosper, Texas.
The first three also serve as co-authors of the 2021 book “Shreveport Martyrs of 1873: The Surest Path to Heaven.”
Today, readers can find the complete graphic novel available for purchase as a book and for free, to read online, at Bonaventure Comics, which is founded and run by Deacon Thomas.
Deacon Thomas estimated that he finished the editing process for the Shreveport Martyrs graphic novel a year and a half ago. The project for the Diocese of Shreveport began after Father Mangum, who followed Deacon Thomas’ work on another graphic novel about St. John Berchmans, floated the idea.
Deacon Thomas then met with Father Mangum, Smith and White.
“I then was pretty sold on it because you think about martyrs more in the sense of a blood martyrdom,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “In this sense, it’s a little different because they’re not shedding blood per se, however, they’re going into a situation where you have a real epidemic. … These French priests just went in and willingly offered their lives to give the people the sacraments.”
Using a combination of information from Father Mangum, Smith, White and his own research, Deacon Thomas illustrated and wrote the graphic novel. It first appeared, page by page, in the Shreveport diocesan magazine, “Catholic Connection.” Bonaventure Comics then published it in book form.
Hope in heaven
Deacon Thomas highlighted the end of the graphic novel, which features Matthew 6:19-21, a theme that runs throughout the book. The Bible verse reads, in part: “But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”
Above the verse appears a restored photo of one of the five martyrs, Father Pierre, as he talks to a young man and points to heaven.
“Particularly with the yellow fever epidemic, that’s the hope that people have, right?” Deacon Thomas commented. “If you’re in a terrible, real epidemic where you just don’t know if you and your family members are going to get through the day, the week, the month, what have you, your hope is in heaven.”
These five martyrs, he added, could travel from house to house and minister to their flock with great joy, knowing that — regardless of whether they survived the epidemic or not — they were living the priesthood authentically.
In other words, they were true heroes.
“True heroism is self-sacrificial,” Deacon Thomas said. “It’s living the life of Christ.”
Particularly in the U.S., comic books historically attempt to teach true heroism, from Superman, with his great strength, to Spider-Man, with his special abilities, the deacon said. He called saints the real-life superheroes — superheroes that each person can strive to become.
“If we unite ourselves to Christ, each and every one of us, regardless of whether we’re even able to walk … if we’re authentically living the Christian life, we’re a hero. We can be saints,” he said.
Overcoming the challenges of our times
Deacon Thomas celebrated the announcement of the bishops advancing the cause of the five martyrs.
“It’s not a surprise because, I think, immediately you can’t help but be impressed by this group of men that sort of just all had, as part of the same mission, the desire to give the sacraments without fear of losing their own lives,” he said. “When I did hear the news, I was just really grateful for that, that they are continuing the cause.”
He added: “I’m just hoping that it will just continue to go quickly and that the exposure to these men will be edifying.”
He stressed the relevance of the five priests today following the recent COVID pandemic, a point that Bishop Francis I. Malone of Shreveport also made in his request to open the diocesan phase of investigation into the lives of the martyrs.
Most of all, Deacon Thomas hoped that his work — in the form of a graphic novel, with both text and illustrations — will draw readers closer to the martyrs and the saints in general.
“If we can learn from their lives, it really aids us on our journey toward sanctification because we have so many awesome authentic witnesses to learn from,” he said, “and these guys particularly, I think the reason this cause is happening in a timely way right now, is because Our Lord is trying to reveal something special about how they witnessed.”
“If we can learn more about them and pay attention to them and even ask for their intercession, we can overcome the challenges of our times,” he concluded, “but particularly in their case, the physical evils of the world too — how to deal with sickness and disease and do so bravely and to give other people courage in the process.”