SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – A nineteenth-century church, built with bricks the color of northwest Louisiana’s native red clay, holds its own amongst the skyscrapers in downtown Shreveport. And it is here, in the historic Holy Trinity Catholic Church, that a symphony will gently whisper the soul-shaking story of five priests from this diocese who once gave up their lives to save the citizens of Shreveport.
This is the story of five priests, their unshakable faith in God, and a sense of empathy and love for others that was and is still, deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus.
The tragedy happened 150 years ago this month, and Dr. Gary Joiner, Chair of the Department of History and Social Sciences at Louisiana State University Shreveport, said the great yellow fever epidemic of 1873 changed Shreveport in many ways.
“It killed one-quarter of its population, and cast a long shadow even 150 years later,” said Joiner.
The yellow fever epidemic stunted the city’s growth and broke countless hearts of those who lived through it. But Joiner said that even 150 years later, art can provide healing in Shreveport and move us deeply.
“This is certainly true with Kermit Poling’s new musical work,” said Joiner. His work, marking this tragic time in our history, is perfect, invoking the past, appropriately somber, and offering that most precious of things – hope.”
Faith, Hope, and love were all present in Shreveport in 1873 when yellow fever struck suddenly and five priests gave their lives in testimony to the importance of treating others as one wishes to be treated.
Two years ago, Kermit Poling was asked to write the symphony commemorating the story of the five priests.
To write a symphony in honor of the priests’ sacrifice, Kermit Poling turned to the 23rd chapter of the book of Psalms.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
These words from the 23rd Psalm dwell in Poling’s symphony, as does the spiritual meaning of the Psalm.
In understanding the history of Shreveport in 1873, one cannot help but be empathetic to the five priests who fought against pestilence with love emblazoned upon their hearts.
As one priest fell ill, another would come to take his place and, in each instance, the next priest would arrive in time to bid their brother in Christ adieu as he passed.
“When one priest is at the death bed of another priest, he says, ‘I’m here, I’m here. You’re going to heaven,’” said Poling.
Poling said that to write the symphony, he had to connect deeply with the historic writings about the priests. He found that in correspondence between the priests and their Bishop there is a letter where a priest writes that if it is up to him, he will go to Shreveport. But the same priest obediently writes that if the bishop wants him to stay, he will stay.
The priest said he would rather be ordered to go to Shreveport because then he would be going where God wanted him to go.
A Modern Connection
People across the world have recently experienced a pandemic so serious that we wore masks and social distanced ourselves for years. And because of our recent collective experience, perhaps it is a little easier for us to understand how compassionate these priests were to those who were dying of an unknown illness in 1873.
Exposing oneself to disease and suffering in a dying city to help others, when the cause of the illness is not yet known, is now part of the justification for the Sainthood of the five priests.
“Would I ever be that brave? I just can’t imagine,” Poling said.
The composer pointed out that the yellow fever epidemic wiped out all but a few thousand who lived in Shreveport.
“They (the people of Shreveport) were blaming the circus that came to town, the steamships. They didn’t understand mosquitoes. And these priests knew they were coming to their death, but they were willing to do it anyway. They all gave up their lives for the people of Shreveport.”
Poling said that early during the symphony, he introduces a verse from the 15th chapter of the book of John, where Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
All five of the priests were from Brittany, France, and all were serving in Louisiana, the former French colony. Each of the priests belonged to the same diocese that stretched from Shreveport to Minden, Homer to Monroe, and onward to the Delta.
Each of the five priests made the choice to sacrifice their own lives and care for others. Their names were:
Fr. Isidore Quemerais died on Sept. 15, 1873.
Fr. Jean Pierre died the next day.
Fr. Jean Marie Biler on Sept. 26, a mere 11 days after Pierre.
Fr. Louis Gergaud passed on Oct. 1.
Fr. Francois LeVezouet lived for another 7 days, dying on Oct. 8.
Approximately 1200 people died in less than three months and a federal quarantine was imposed. Trained medical professionals were the first to die when the epidemic first hit Shreveport, so the need for priests was just as profound as the sacrifices those priests made to help others.
In the symphony, the greatest love imaginable, given to the people of Shreveport by the priests, is juxtaposed with descriptions of Shreveport that were recorded during 1873.
“There are articles about Shreveport from the Shreveport Times in that period, and it is horrible,” said Poling. “It’s talking about pestilence and garbage all over, dead dogs and cats, rats in the streets. It’s like—why would anyone bother to live in such a place? It’s filthy—absolutely filthy.”
Poling used these descriptions in one movement of the symphony to help bring a sense of realism to the piece.
“The Angels Gathered—those words were taken directly from a letter written by the bishop after the five priests died,” said Poling. “It’s a beautiful letter that has provided words I use in various places throughout the piece. But the title comes from the letter.”
The Angels Gathered is the name Poling chose for the symphony.
Poling said he didn’t want it to seem like he was just writing a history.
“It’s not that kind of a piece,” said Poling, who felt it was important to not write the complete story of the priests into the symphony. “It’s just little glimpses of it.”
Most of the symphony is in English, but Poling said there are a few key lines written in French. The priests all spoke and wrote in French, their native language. Poling recommends using the program book to anyone who doesn’t speak both languages.
“The final paragraph and a half, the eulogy taken from one of the letters written in 1873, starts with the words inscrutable are the ways of the Lord,” said Poling. Then he sat quietly for a moment, lost in the emotion that will find symphony attendees on Sunday. When Poling spoke again, his eyes were swimming in empathy.
“The piece ends with Adieu. ‘Adieu my sons. You’re going to heaven.’”
The Angels Gathered will premiere in downtown Shreveport at Holy Trinity Catholic Church. Seating is limited for the performance set to begin at 5:15 p.m. on October 8.