The Wondrous Life and Afterlife of Charlene Richard (2023)

The Wondrous Life and Afterlife of Charlene Richard (1)

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She died in 1959 at the age of 12. But for the Catholics in her Louisiana congregation, that was just the beginning of her incredible story — and a decades-long struggle to make her holy.

A photo of 9-year-old Charlene Richard from her family album.Credit...

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ForNathanael Rico

photographs ofStacy Kranitz

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It was 60 years before a Vatican postulator finally reached Richard last December, a lonely swampy land in Louisiana's southern rice belt. He arrived at St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church, which is the closest thing to downtown in the community, around the corner from Richard Elementary School and across from a pasture more than big enough for their dozen cows. He was greeted by the young pastor, diocesan officials from Lafayette, a coroner, gravediggers, a couple of police officers, and several brothers from the Richard family, whose sister he was planning to visit.

The postulator followed his hosts to the cemetery. At the end of the first row, behind the Thibodeaux, Babineux and LeJeunes properties, is the grave of Charlene Richard, who died of acute lymphocytic leukemia in 1959 at the age of 12. Around 10,000 people visit Charlene every year. They know her as Little Saint Cajun, although the Roman Catholic Church has yet to recognize her as such. For visitor accommodation, St. Edward stands beside the tomb, loosely arranged as if around a fire, a pair of weathered wooden Prie-Dieux, an iron bench and a rocking chair on the terrace. Behind the tomb is a discordant mailbox painted black, with wobbly chalk written on it that donations are taken daily. A long plastic box at the top of the tomb is the storage place for handwritten prayers. The petitioners leave behind plastic flowers, votive candles and children's toys: a Poppity Pop Turtle, a stuffed Elmo.

Everything was cleared for exhumation. When the gravediggers lifted the eroded marble book, they found a plain wooden coffin almost submerged in water. They pulled out an electric vacuum pump, but it wouldn't turn on. After some tweaking, it finally came to life, spouting water from the grave through a hose behind the cemetery gate. Without much effort, the men carried the coffin into the church. They removed the skeleton and placed it on an altar cloth for the coroner's examination. A rosary was wrapped around the finger bones. A sacred plastic heart hung from her collarbone and, to the amazement of onlookers, retained its color.

The coroner cut Charlene's hair and gave her older brother a curl. The Postulator collected Charlene's fingers to prepare them as relics. He ordered the skeleton placed in a new steel coffin and returned to the vault, which was again sealed with concrete.

The Postulator insisted on completing one last task. He folded the moistened altar cloth and very carefully sealed it in a Ziploc bag. Before he left town, he mailed it to Foundation President Charlene Richard, an invariably kind, soft-spoken, and patient (but not indefinitely) sixty-eight-year-old woman named Bonnie Broussard.

the emissary ofRome would never have come to Richard were it not for the tireless efforts of Broussard, who for more than three decades has devoted his life to making Charlene Richard a saint. The basic biographical facts of his life do not explain why Broussard pursued this arduous, costly and thankless goal so doggedly. She has never met Charlene, is not directly related to her and does not live in Richard. She's a devout believer, but that's not notable among the population of Acadiana, the French-speaking portion of Louisiana, which has one of the highest concentrations of Catholics in the United States.


The Wondrous Life and Afterlife of Charlene Richard (2)

If Broussard had to single out one quality that explains his intense commitment to Charlene Richard, it was his deep and abiding desire to devote himself to a cause greater - nobler, greater, more enduring - than her own. What she couldn't imagine, what she didn't understand until last year, was that she was fighting for something even greater than holiness. She fought for the soul of the church in her reserved, reserved way.

As Broussard approached 30 and still without a partner, she began to suspect that her calling in life was to become a nun. "I knew I couldn't be just one person in the world," she says today. She was drawn to the local Carmelite monastery, a closed community that practiced silence, fasting, physical labor, and constant prayer. She was making plans to join the Order when her sister surprised her one Friday night by inviting a mechanic, the divorced father of an 11-year-old boy, to her grandmother's house for gumbo and several rounds of Cajun Bourré card games. In seven months they were married. "An instant family," describes Broussard. And the family grew immediately: in the next five years they had three more children.

During this time she was dismissed as a religious education teacher in the Diocese of Lafayette. Broussard had done nothing wrong. The diocese had In 1985, she agreed to pay $4.2 million to the victims of Gilbert Gauthe, a Napoleonville priest who admitted to molesting at least 37 children. Such was the case that sparked the worldwide scandal over sexual abuse allegations against Catholic clergy, a crisis that has become the greatest threat to the Church's legitimacy since Julian the Apostate. After the Gauthe settlements, the diocese laid off most of its staff. Broussard was desperate and angry. But she soon found a new teaching position at St. Genevieve in Lafayette, led by an exuberant and charismatic Philadelphia priest named Joseph Brennan.

By the mid-1980s, Brennan had become a celebrity in Catholic circles. He was a close friend and spiritual advisor to Mother Teresa, who opened a chapter of her order in Lafayette and celebrated Mass in the sold-out Cajundome in 1986. (Mother Teresa made occasional incognito visits; Brennan would meet her at the New Orleans airport and drive her to Lafayette under cover of night.) Brennan had also become a national expert during that decade's satanic panic, conducting diocesan-sanctioned workshops as a Advised to uncover cults, published a book on the subject entitled "The Kingdom of Darkness". But Brennan was best known locally for serving Charlene Richard on her deathbed.

Broussard had heard of Charlene since childhood. Despite the Church's reluctance to consider the possibility of canonization, Charlene served as Acadiana's own guardian angel, as entrenched in the cultural firmament as Meches Bolo Reis or the adventures of Bouki and Lapin. Messages expressing gratitude for answered prayers regularly appeared on confidential pages; school bus rides to his grave; and in times of personal tragedy, prayer cards with her sixth grade yearbook photo embossed were distributed. But it wasn't until Brennan began telling Broussard about the last days of Charlene's life that she began to understand the strength of the dead girl's power.

Charlene Richard-Erawas born on January 13, 1947, almost seven years before Broussard and about 10 miles northwest of Lafayette, in Church Point. She was the second child of Mary Alice and Joseph Elvin Richard, two years younger than her brother John Dale. Eight siblings would follow, half of them after Charlene's death. Mary Alice was a nursing assistant for residential patients; Joseph was a sharecropper and later a dragline operator for the State Highway Department. Richard's house had two bedrooms, each with two full-size beds. The boys slept in one room, the parents and girls in another, the youngest in his cot. They didn't have electricity, but they kept the house clean and tidy. They drank from a wooden cistern and used two latrines in the backyard. Children were required to speak English at school but spoke French at home; Charlene's father never learned English.

In Brennan's 2009 book My Name Is Charlene, one of a half-dozen books published about Little Santa Cajun, the priest emphasizes that her childhood was indistinguishable from that of a Cajun farm girl. The Richards went to mass on Sundays and three other days a week. The sons were altar boys, the daughters sang in the choir. The children attended Catholic school until Charlene was in second grade when they moved three miles to their grandparents' property in Richard. (As is obvious to everyone in southern Louisiana and few outside it, "Richard" is pronounced "REE-shard".) The community is named for Charlene's ancestors, who along with the Broussards were among the first Acadian families to settle settled in Louisiana.

When the Richards weren't at school, and often when they should have been at school, they worked in the fields. They grew cotton, corn, and sweet potatoes, raised pigs, cattle, and sheep, and fished for perch in the estate's cypress swamp. Joseph grilled on a grill he had set up and stretched chicken wire over the drum of a discarded washing machine. In the height of summer, the children picked cotton until two o'clock in the afternoon, when a fluttering towel tied to the porch beam announced that it was time to pray.

"It was a very simple life," Charlene's older brother, John Dale, says today. "We Had Peace"

Charlene was exuberant, loyal, generous. At the age of 12 she was 1.50m tall, not counting her curly brown hair. Big dimples showed up when she smiled. Girls were devoted to her and boys had a crush on her. She wrote musicals starring John Dale, usually casting him as "Priest". She rode horses, danced to Little Richard and loved babies. In fourth grade she won the Richard Elementary Mathematics Prize; In the sixth grade, she was the captain of the basketball team that lost only one game. Her mother told a reporter for the diocesan newspaper The Morning Star that Charlene "hated losing."


By age 7, Charlene had memorized the rosary. She recited it every night in front of an altar she had placed on her bedside table with a crucifix, an old Bible and a rose she picked every morning. After a teacher lent her an illustrated book about Saint Teresa of Lisieux, "the little flower", who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, Charlene declared that she wanted to become a saint. "If I pray like Saint Teresa," she asked her grandmother, "will this happen?" In early 1959, while her grandmother was recovering from gallbladder surgery, Charlene massaged ointment into the cuts. It was in the spring of that year when Charlene saw the lady in black playing in the backyard.

The woman—or at least a character “in the guise of a woman,” as Charlene would say to her mother—was standing in front of an oak tree. She was tall and wore a black cap that covered her face. Though his eyes were hidden, his gaze burned.

"For God's sake," Charlene yelled, "what do you want?"

The woman flew into the sky. Charlene ran back into the house and fell into her grandmother's arms, shaking violently.

Charlene had another vision the following night. She emptied laundry tubs with John Dale in the backyard. "I'll see you again," she said, blanching.

John Dale couldn't see anything, but he believed his sister. “Many holy people have been visited by Satan in different ways,” he says 60 years later. "Is that it? I have no idea."

Around this time, Charlene bruised easily and complained of hip pain. The GP suspected growing pains. He prescribed radiation therapy. Did not help. Charlene was bleeding from her rectum and had a nosebleed so profuse that she passed out. Upon receiving the results of the blood tests, the doctor gave Mrs. Richard a sealed envelope addressed to a specialist at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Lafayette. "He will explain what to do," assured the doctor. John Dale remembers driving his grandfather's truck into town over dirt roads, Charlene on her mother's lap.

When the specialist had finished reading the letter, he called a pastor. The priest on duty that day was a young Joseph Brennan who had been ordained three months earlier. As soon as Brennan walked in, the specialist explained that Charlene's condition was terminal. "It was pure coincidence that I was the priest in the room when the news broke to Charlene's parents," Brennan writes in her book. "The shock was to be expected when her parents were told, 'Your 12-year-old daughter has two weeks to live.'"

The Richards asked Brennan to tell their daughter. "I was stunned," he writes. “We have never had such training in the seminar. What was I trying to say? When the elevator reached the fourth floor, although I prayed very fervently, I still didn't get an answer."

Brennan met Charlene in room 411 of Our Lady of Lourdes. "A beautiful lady will come to take you home," he told her.

"When she does," Charlene replied, "I will say, 'Blessed Mother, Greetings from Father Brennan.'

Charlene spent the next 13 days in unimaginable agony. When the pain became acute, her eyes rolled back, but Brennan writes she never complained. During their meetings, Brennan introduced them to the Catholic doctrine of redeeming suffering: yoking one's own pain onto Jesus' suffering to help others.

An informal daily catechism between them began. "Okay dad," Charlene asked, "who do you want me to suffer today?" Brennan suggested one candidate, usually another patient, as a terminally ill woman who refused to accept her fate. Charlene asked God to use her pain to heal.

"Without their testimony and devotion," Brennan later said, "there would have been no purpose in your suffering."

On day 12, Charlene kissed Brennan and told him she would pray for him in heaven.

On August 13, 11, 1959 she died. But, as Bonnie Broussard likes to say, that's only the day the Charlene Richard story began.


Was noteasy, 1959, to make a saint. A process of canonization, as a formal candidacy is called, could only be opened 50 years after the death of a candidate. However, the growth of Charlene's cult coincided with a movement within the Vatican to reform the process of sanctification.An Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope John Paul IIIn 1983 he shortened the posthumous waiting period to five years. 🇧🇷John Paul II himself was canonized in 2014.) The old legal model, in which a proponent debated the cause of a matter as a “devil's advocate”, was abandoned by a process more akin to writing a doctoral thesis.

The creation of a saint usually begins in the candidate's diocese. Supporters initiate a publicity campaign aimed at one audience: the local bishop. You must convince the bishop that a candidate is not only virtuous but also heroic. If successful, the bishop declares the candidate a “minister of God” and thus officially opens a process of canonization.

The matter is then taken up by a postulator, a Vatican-licensed supervisor. The Postulator deliberately acts like an appellate attorney preparing a case for the Supreme Court. His client is not the church, but the candidate's petitioners, who are responsible for his fees and any expenses. The National Catholic Register has estimated that the cost of preparing a papal review process could be in excess of a quarter of a million dollars.

The Postulator analyzes evidence, interviews with witnesses, and alleged miracles. (Catholics believe that a saint in heaven can intercede with God, increasing the likelihood of a prayer gaining divine favor.) Years or decades later, he presents an account of his investigation to nine theologians reviewing the case, which “ positio". With their approval, it goes to the Vatican Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, where a panel of cardinals and bishops decides whether to submit it to the Pope.

Ultimately, the Pope makes one of four decisions. He can refuse to act. He can declare the candidate "Venerable" and affirm a life of heroic virtue. Next to the venerable "blessed" lies. In order to attain this status, known as beatification, it must be shown that the candidate interceded for the granting of a miracle - an event, typically a cure, unexplained by science. Beyond beatification is holiness.

Despite all the evidence, historical research, and liturgical debate, the process of sanctification boils down to authenticating miracles. A saint must have performed miracles. Two to be exact.

Over the years, Broussard had heard rumors of miracles attributed to Charlene. Although Father Brennan did not speak publicly about his encounters with Charlene for decades, he did confide in another novice, Floyd Calais. Father Calais dreamed of becoming a parish priest one day; Two weeks after praying to Charlene, he received an appointment as a priest from the bishop - in Charlene's own church, St. Louis. Edward. Calais, now 96, still gets goosebumps telling the story.

Calais began touring Acadiana telling Charlene's story to solicit donations for a new church. After raising the full amount in just two years, he began calling Charlene "my little money girl." During his tenure at St Edward, Calais claims he saw Charlene perform countless miracles, including for members of her family. Mary Alice, her mother, prayed to Charlene for another daughter; She became pregnant with twin girls. A former schoolmate of Charlene's named Lorita introduced Calais to a man she wanted to marry. Calais disagreed and prayed for Charlene. Two weeks later the wedding was over. Six months later, Lorita married - to John Dale, Charlene's brother.



Thanks to lecture tours of Calais, Charlene's legend grew. When Brennan and Calais held a mass in St Edward's in 1989 on the 30th anniversary of his death, around 4,000 people attended, certainly the largest crowd Richard had ever gathered. Bonnie Broussard had planned to attend but woke up with morning sickness - she was pregnant with her third child - and gave her mum the tickets. It was the last time she missed Charlene's birthday service.

The success of the fair encouraged Steven Vincent, a wealthy oilman from the southern Acadia town of Gueydan, to campaign for Charlene's canonization. Together with his wife Barbara, he founded Friends of Charlene to spread Charlene's story, raise funds and organize meetings. But he needed an editor for the group's most important function: a newsletter that would publish reports of answered prayers. In time, these collected testimonies would fill a file that could be used to secure Charlene's canonization - a library of miracles.

When asked by a church colleague to edit the Bulletin, Broussard initially declined. She knew nothing about newsletters and didn't have time between her teaching duties and raising three children under five and a teenage stepson. But she could not turn down a call to service. Within a few weeks, she would come to the conclusion that it wasn't her colleague who had called her to Charlene, it was God.

work with herKitchen table at a typewriter, Broussard served as Miss Lonelyhearts for Charlene's cult. A few dozen letters arrived every month - at first.

I've always had bladder problems and got an infection at least once a year. ... In February 1988 my husband and I traveled to Richard, Louisiana to visit the grave. … From that day on I never had a urinary tract infection. ... now I can wear nylon tights ... and I feel better than I have in a long time.

A woman wrote about her trip from Massachusetts to see Charlene's grave in 1991 after reading about her in American Airlines' in-flight magazine; She believed Charlene cured her father's prostate cancer. In the July 1992 newsletter, a correspondent credited Charlene with saving her father from permanent lung damage after his constant exposure to asbestos. In October 1992, Broussard published a letter from a Pine Bluff man who had read about Charlene in Arkansas Catholic:

My wife works at a poultry company in town and has developed what the doctor calls overworked muscles. At the time we didn't know what was going on because the company couldn't refer her to a doctor and we had agreed to only use one company doctor. ... I promised Charlene that if she would help my wife with her prayers, I would write a letter to the bishop ... to give her holiness quickly. 🇧🇷 There is only one explanation as to why your muscles healed. … Mary still works, although we pray for an easier work.

Bills worked on Broussard. She began to think about her own past. In a 1992 editor's note, she wrote about a health issue that brought her to the emergency room on her 38th birthday. “As I lay in the hospital bed waiting for the doctor to come and take care of me, all I could think about was MYSELF and MY PAIN. … Looking back on the event, I realized that God had given me the opportunity to experience intense physical suffering and pain, just as Charlene must have done. ...Now I really know how special Charlene is, and I can share with others a lesson I learned about humility and suffering."

When Radio Shack moved her sister's husband, a store manager, to Texas that year, Broussard prayed daily that Charlene would send her sister home. On the eve of the move, Broussard's brother-in-law was given a chance to work in Lafayette. "That sealed the deal," says Broussard. "Charlene wanted to be my girlfriend."

Broussard war überzeugt, dass Heiligkeit unvermeidlich war, obwohl er nicht wusste, ob es Jahrzehnte oder Jahrhunderte dauern würde. Steven Vincent, der Ölmann, der Friends of Charlene gründete, hoffte, dass sie es nicht mehr erleben würden. Broussard ließ sich nicht einschüchtern. Sie fuhr regelmäßig nach Richard, wo Charlenes unmittelbare Familie, ihre Freunde aus Kindertagen, die Väter Brennan und Calais, und örtliche Gemeindemitglieder für sie zu einer zweiten Familie wurden. „Wenn Sie ein Außenseiter in dieser Gemeinschaft sind, wissen Sie das“, sagt Broussard. „Aber im Laufe der Jahre wurde ich einer von ihnen.“ Sie hatte in den Reisfeldern von Acadiana ihre eigene klösterliche Gemeinschaft gefunden.


Broussard gave all the testimonies he had received to the diocese. A priest assured her he would keep them in a special file, though he never failed to point out that each one failed to meet the church's strict authentication standards. Discouraged, Broussard stopped sharing the testimonies. But she couldn't get rid of them. She moved in with them. She kept the documents in a filing cabinet and later, when it was full, in piggy banks, which she stacked next to her boxes of stationery, prayer cards, and prayer towels. She installed the Library of Miracles in her own room next to her bed.

The reforms ofThe year 1983 brought an unprecedented gold mine in saint making. During his pontificate, John Paul II recognized 1,338 beatifications and 482 canonizations, almost 15 times more than the previous record holder Pius XII, who died in 1958, and more than the cumulative total of the previous five centuries combined. "We're becoming a factory," lamented a Vatican historian in Making Saints, Kenneth Woodward's authoritative account of canonization in the Roman Catholic Church.

But the lack of moderation was the point. “In the hands of John Paul II,” writes Woodward, “the process of sanctification became a very powerful mechanism for spreading his message”—a message of popular belief available to all believers. The Saints were one of the Church's most effective propaganda tools. They encouraged recruitment and allowed the church to tailor its gospel to local populations and specific demographics. And copyrighting a saint's name and likeness allowed the church to sell paraphernalia. Benedict kept pace with John Paul II and Francis surpassed both. in hisfirst canonization ceremony recognized 815 saints.

During this holiness boom, the United States, which has the fourth largest Catholic population of any nation, was left out. Before the end of the 19th century, no cause of the United States was opened, and only one native citizen was sanctified:Philadelphia-Erbin Katharine Drexel (1858-1955),Canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Three naturalized US citizens were sanctified, Saint Mother Teresa was an honorary citizen, and several "American" saints were born before 1776 or were foreign citizens living abroad, but this larger drawing only emphasizes scale. of underrepresentation. The canonization is expressly a symbolic gesture intended to draw attention to a heroic virtue, a martyrdom, a community. Symbolically speaking, American Catholics have been deceived.

While there are currently over 80 American candidates for sainthood, the Akkadian community has a special claim to Roman sympathies. Its Catholic population descends from what the Cajuns call "le grand dérangement": the 1755 expulsion of about 7,000 French Catholics from Nova Scotia by the British Army during the French and Indian War that broke up families and more than half of the population killed. One of the largest groups of refugees arrived in southwest Louisiana in 1765, led by Bonnie's ancestors, brothers Joseph and Alexandre Broussard.

"Holiness unites the local church with the universal church," says Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, who wrote "A Saint of Our Own" about the century-long campaign for a patron saint in the United States (Principal competitors are St Elizabeth Ann Seton and St Kateri Tekakwitha, although both were born before the country's founding). “The history of the Akkadians is the story of how a persecuted minority was transplanted here and created a new culture. Charlene's meaning goes beyond the world of holiness. It's a deeply American story.”

Since 1985, however, Akkadian history has undergone another major upheaval. In May of this year, Jason Berry published his investigation in The Times of Acadiana and The National Catholic ReporterPedophilia allegations against Gilbert Gauthe🇧🇷 Berry later expanded his reporting into a trilogy of books that traced a series of pedophilia cases in the Diocese of Lafayette to the innermost sanctum of the Vatican, revealing pervasive patterns of abuse and corruption. According to the United States Catholic Bishops' Conference, more than 7,000 clergymen have been "credibly" or "not credibly" accused of sexually abusing minors in the United States alone.

The evolution of Broussard's relationship with the church corresponded with a broader shift that was taking place in Acadiana in the 1990s, when the Gauthe case spawned dozens of other allegations in the region. Although Broussard was disillusioned with the corruption of the clerical hierarchy, she did not consider renouncing her faith; instead, she focused her devotion on the angelic child who she was sure was sitting at God's feet.

The diocese showed little interest in Charlene at the time. Even local clergy have tended to dismiss the phenomenon, despite the efforts of Brennan and Calais, who continued to transport parishioners to Charlene's grave, use her story in fundraisers, and give interviews. "In my eyes and in the eyes of many, many people, Charlene Richard is already a saint."Brennan disse ua The Catholic Digest."We're just waiting for the church to catch up." Calais still has a hard time understanding his colleagues' disinterest. "There were priests who thought Father Brennan and I were crazy," he says. Among them, he said, was his successor at St.

With no predictable path to canonization, the Friends of Charlene met less often than ever. “Nothing happened 10 years ago and people just wondered if something was going to happen,” says Broussard. “That was the hardest time just going on.” In 1999, the organization's sole remaining founding member, oilman Steven Vincent, told Broussard that he too would be leaving the organization. He asked her to take over as President. She accepted without hesitation. "I felt like there was something here," she says. People from all over the world traveled to the annual fair to witness the miracles Charlene performed beyond the grave. “That kept me going,” says Broussard. "All these people came for a reason."


Broussard began to professionalize the organization. After reading Making Saints, she understood the process better than any of the local ministers, including of course the bishop. He learned that answering letters and giving testimony was not enough. Successful causes tended to be run like political campaigns, with an administrative office, a public relations department, and a reliable source of funding. This is why most saints were ministers: the religious orders they belonged to had the means to advocate for the Vatican. What Broussard lacked in money and influence, she struggled to make up for. She turned Friends of Charlene into a tax-exempt organization, set up a website and mailing operation, took on responsibility for planning the birthday fair, and organized a weekly knitting circle led by two retirees, Louise Giroir and Lydia Babineaux, who together would produce hundreds of thousands of prayer towels. The work was her own wages - or so Broussard said to himself.

Then suddenly inIn 2002, three blessings seemed to come in quick succession as commanded. Michael Mouton, a Lafayette businessman nicknamed Big Mike, had a vision of Charlene Richard during open-heart surgery. A former Apollo 11 programmer, determined to raise money for an orphanage in Thailand, opened his Bible and a prayer card of Charlene Richard fell out. And a local priest, Michael Jarrell, a native of Opelousas, was appointed bishop.

Big Mike had built a successful business shipping x-ray equipment across the southern Gulf. While under anesthesia, he saw Charlene standing at the foot of his bed, a blissful expression on her face. When he woke up to find the surgery a success, he vowed to devote his life to furthering Charlene's cause. He told Broussard that he would lend his offices, administrative staff and $1 million of his personal wealth to the effort. "We're going to run it like a company," he told her. If most causes were run by religious orders, Charlene's could be headquartered in Lafayette's Performance Medical Group.

NASA programmer Reggie Bollich didn't know much about Charlene and had no idea how her prayer card ended up in her Bible. But his wife, Dottie, had stories from her pastor at St. Genevieve, Father Brennan. It occurred to both Bollich and Father Calais that the little Cajun saint could be a prolific fundraiser - his own little money girl. Within a year, Bollich had raised over $45,000, including sizeable donations from Big Mike, and the orphanage, Charlene Richard House, was built in a jungle clearing near Nongkhai.

With the opening of the orphanage and the growing international attention it was attracting, Bishop Jarrell seemed convinced that Charlene was ready for canonization. In 2007, Jarrell appointed Mons. Richard Greene, who 30 years earlier edited a major series of articles on Charlene Richard for The Morning Star to gather information for a good cause. At this year's birthday mass, to the excitement of those present, Greene announced that he would begin the canonization process. Broussard was euphoric. "I thought that's it!" she says. The unimaginable seemed inevitable.

Greene conducted a series of roundtables with stakeholders including Broussard, John Dale Richard, Reggie Bollich and Big Mike. Broussard recalls Greene listening intently to his stories and taking meticulous notes.

Someone asked how long it would take for the bishop to reply. Two or three weeks, Greene said. He's a busy man.

What happens if he doesn't approve?

So let's go through it, Big Mike interrupted.

Several petitioners gasped at the brazen display of arrogance in the presence of a diocesan official.

"And that," recalls John Dale, "was the end."

They never met Greene again. Bollich recalls that when the topic of holiness came up later in a church ceremony, Jarrell said he couldn't treat it like a business - an obvious reference to Big Mike.

In 2012, in an interview with a local writer named Carolyn Thibodeaux for a self-published book called Saint Charlene Richard: Her Continuous Consecration to God, Jarrell described the process as "kind of stalled":

Thibodeaux: Is there anything we can help with?

Bishop: No, I think the ball is in my hands right now. It's not like you can just write a letter.

Thibodeaux: How does the canonization process work exactly?

Bishop: I don't know. But there are books about it.

Thibodeaux: Yes, I read about it on the internet.

Bishop: Then you probably know more about it than I do. I mean it when I say I don't know...

Thibodeaux: When I wrote my book, I already knew that Charlene was something special. I have received so many healing stories. She deserves the title "Saint".

Bishop: Well, I'm glad you judged that. If you were the Pope, it would be done.

Thibodeaux: Are you thinking of visiting Mons again? Greene's report?

Bishop: For what purpose, to help you with your book?

Thibodeaux registers the bishop's laughter.

"It was a huge disappointment," says Broussard of Jarrell's inaction. "A big disappointment for everyone. We kept waiting, thinking maybe he would definitely make the next move – but he never did.”

Broussard anywaycontinued to prepare for the day when a future bishop might defend Charlene. She learned from Making Saints that collecting the necessary evidence for a miracle becomes increasingly difficult over time: witnesses die, memories fade, documents are lost. It was not enough, she explained to other devotees, to show that a prayer had been answered even when there had been an amazing reversal—say, a sudden recovery from an incurable disease or the conversion of an unrepentant sinner. The bar at the Vatican was much higher and seemed to be rising every year. The Pope could not be embarrassed by modern science. As forensic technologies matured, so did the Vatican's standards of evidence.


Finalist Wonders had to meet three main criteria. They had to be strictly documented. They had to be verified by objective experts. And they could only be explained by supernatural intervention. Father Brennan believed that Tara Roy's story fulfilled all three.

Tara's parents were parishioners in St. Genevieve. When Tara was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 1992 at the age of 21, Brennan took her to Charlene's grave. They came back every weekend while Tara was undergoing chemotherapy. Eleven months later, on the anniversary of Charlene's death, Tara, emaciated and hopeless, visited the grave. She traced the engraving on the tombstone and stroked Charlene's portrait. "It felt like electricity was coming from the grave, through the fingernails and all over the body," his father told journalist Barbara Gutierrez. "She had transformed before my eyes from a faded, despondent rag doll into a vivacious, energetic young woman with color oozing cheeks."

Three months later, Tara was cancer free. Her oncologist at Our Lady of Lourdes testified that her recovery was scientifically inexplicable.

However, Broussard was not convinced. "I thought it was a great story," she says. "But I didn't know if I could meet the standards of a miracle. After all, she had had surgery. She had chemotherapy.

The other miracle commonly claimed as evidence of Charlene's sanctity came from outside the diocese. In 1987, Jean Marcantel was diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy and gave birth at a Lake Charles hospital, where she was able to be examined by a prominent obstetrician.

When the baby was born, it was quiet in the delivery room. "This is a Mongoloid child," the obstetrician finally said, using the deprecated term for Down's syndrome. He pointed to the newborn's prominent forehead, the flat features, the ears set below the corners of his eyes, the single crease in his palm.

The nurses placed the baby in a darkened isolation room. Jean was taken to the recovery room where she was surrounded by other mothers and their healthy babies. She began praying for strength to raise a disabled child. She thought back to her own childhood in Richard, where she was friends with one of Charlene's sisters. She did not believe in miracles, but after praying to the patron saint of lost cases and childbirth, she prayed to Charlene.

Jean woke up to see her perplexed pediatrician. He told her the baby showed no signs of Down syndrome. When his obstetrician was called, he began to cry. Finally the child was brought in with changed features. Jean did not leave her daughter's side for six weeks, fearing her condition would reverse. Today that baby, Angelique, is a nun in Tanzania.

The Marcantels didn't tell anyone what happened at the hospital, except, belatedly, the priest. At his suggestion, Jean sent a confidential report to the diocese stating that it should only be used if it would help Charlene's cause. Broussard wasn't sure if that would happen.


As Broussard selected his library of wonders, Charlene Richard's cult continued to grow. Reggie Bollich, the NASA programmer who was ordained a deacon in his retirement, helped open Casa Charlene, a homeless shelter in the Colombian Andes funded by Cajun community members. Next was Charlene Soup Kitchen in El Tigre, Venezuela. Pilgrims, not all Catholics, started to St. Edward from Brazil, France, Philippines, Australia. Charlene Richard's canonization has become a global concern.

Still, Broussard feared she was not doing enough. She kept the organization alive, preserving all testimonies and sending out tens of thousands of prayer towels, but Bishop Jarrell was unmoved. If she couldn't convince him of Charlene's cause, how could she convince a postulator, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints or the Pope?

2016, afterJarrell resigned when he was 14. His successor, Rev. J. Douglas Deshotel, was born at Basile, 20 miles west of Richard. Months after his ordination, Deshotel accepted an invitation to attend Charlene's 2017 birthday mass - the first bishop to attend since 1989. These were promising signs, but Broussard was cautious. Like many of his predecessors, Deshotel was soon embroiled in church scandals, with priests in the diocese being accused, arrested, or convicted of serial sexual abuse of minors, possession of child pornography, and sexual abuse of an altar boy. In 2019, after resisting calls from journalists for three years, Deshotel released the diocese's list of known sex offenders (although it withheld the names of accused nuns, religious priests and teachers). Deshotel did not attend another birthday mass, and Broussard heard nothing from the diocese about the prospect of Charlene's canonization. But at the 2019 Mass, Monsignor W. Curtis Mallet, the diocesan Vicar General, drew Broussard aside in the St. Louis Sacristy. Edward, just before the ceremony begins.

"I want you to know that the bishop is considering bringing Charlene's case," he told Broussard. "But we must act quickly."


The bishop plans to make the announcement soon, he said. If Broussard could submit a formal letter of petition, the bishop would appoint Charlene "Servant of God": the process of holiness would finally begin. Mallet warned her not to tell anyone.

Before she could respond, Broussard was called to the podium to give her presentation. As she gave her usual speech about Charlene's exemplary suffering, she tried to unravel the emotions that were gripping her. She realized that what she felt most was neither joy nor relief. It was fear. She understood immediately that what had been the work of private obsession for decades was about to be taken away from her.

“The whole time,” she says today, “I was alone. I had the support of the community, but as far as the association was concerned, I was secretary, treasurer, president. I did everything myself to make sure everything is correct. But I knew that once Charlene became a servant of God, she no longer belonged in the fellowship. It becomes the property of the diocese. I would have to relinquish control. The Church would certainly call the shots.”

At a ceremony at the Diocese's Immaculate Chapel on November 17, 2021, in an unprecedented wave of canonical efforts, Deshotel opened up to Charlene Richard and another candidate, August Pelafigue, an Arnaudville professor known as Nonco, who embraced a life of rural poverty. 🇧🇷 (The case of a third Cajun candidate, J. Verbis Lafleur de Ville Platte, a World War II cleric who gave his life to save other prisoners of war, opened a few months later.) “Our culture needs a boy Saints,” Deshotel said. "Now more than never."

Broussard regards Charlene's appointment as the Servant of God as the high point of his life, although even then his joy was marred by a deep sense of loss. "I knew it was the end for me," she says. "I had the satisfaction of doing everything I was asked to do just to move on. But I knew I wouldn't be able to go all the way."

After the ceremony, she handed over her entire file. The diocese has sealed it off from the public. The postulator, Father Luis F. Escalante, directed Charlene's brothers to surrender ownership of their sister's body to the church. In June the St. Edward informed parishioners that Charlene's grave was "under the protection and administration" of the diocese. Any item left in the tomb would be checked to see if it conformed "to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church." Broussard was not invited to attend the exhumation of the body, nor was any member of the community or family present other than immediate siblings.

After the exhumation, the young pastor of St. Edward, Reverend Korey LaVergne, called Broussard into his office and told him not to tell anyone what happened. "If anyone asks why the tomb looks like this, it's because we're just making improvements," he told her. “Technically, it's not a lie, because we're going to make improvements. But you can't tell them about the exhumation of the body.

One thing was clear: after decades of apathy, discouragement and belittlement, the Diocese of Lafayette took a very serious interest in the successful and speedy canonization of Charlene Richard.


Bishop Deshotel confirmed this. The Diocesan Chancellery, a complex of four brick buildings arranged around a plain courtyard on the eastern outskirts of Lafayette, was once a seminary where he attended high school (Gilbert Gauthe was his classmate). Deshotel's wood-panelled office on the second floor was his second study. With its potted index cards, leather sofas, and large, uncluttered desk, it could represent a judge's private quarters or a senator's regional headquarters.

The bishop has an amiable, unassuming manner, with a slight slump and a bright smile. He served as a Dallas priest for almost four decades, long enough to lose his accent but not his Cajun sympathies; His closest friends are his old high school classmates from Lafayette. Deshotel is as wary of miracles as most high-ranking church officials. "There are many kinds of miracles," he said in an interview. “Not everything is spectacular physical healing. There are also miracles of heart change or conversion.” He noted the miracle of accepting the human condition: making peace with the unrelenting cruelty of suffering. What is more wonderful than coming to terms with the certainty of death?

"Someone reading Charlene's story might be wondering what inspired her to do this," he said. "They might think maybe I should dig a little deeper into the issue of faith and what is behind her being able to accept her illness."

St. Charlene would also help the church, Deshotel acknowledged. A Cajun saint, particularly a lay saint, "would affirm the rich faith of this Akkadian community." More importantly, it would serve as a "catechetical tool for myself and the priests in our diocese." Charlene would help the church "appeal to the young people of our diocese who are being called in all sorts of directions by secular society." Charlene would be an excellent recruiting tool, Deshotel argued, especially for the youth of Acadiana.

With Acadiana's youth, the Church needed all the help it could get.


several months agoBonnie Broussard received bad news from Rome: the postulator rejected the two most important miracles for papal considerations. Tara Roy's cancer cure was ruled out because, Broussard feared, the fact that she was being treated medically meant that a scientific explanation could not be ruled out. Angelique Marcantel's miracle was disqualified by a genetic test. The Tanzanian missionary traveled 18 hours by bus to a clinic in Dar es Salaam that analyzed her DNA. To the Postulator's disappointment, no extra chromosomes were discovered.

This discovery did not surprise the Marcantels. Of course there was no extra chromosome - why would God leave it in its perfection? But they took it well. Validation by the Vatican "is not necessary for me," says Jean. "It doesn't change my belief."

The Postulator is chasing a new string of miracles, including a miraculous cure from Covid and the case of Troy Hebert, a Lafayette realtor whose childhood cancer was cured after he and his mother met a stranger at Charlene's grave who they thought was an angel . But disputes over forensic examinations only emphasize how far the church class has moved from true believers in the rice paddies, who need no experts, no genetic testing, to prove Charlene is a saint. The Vatican can do nothing to strengthen or weaken their conviction.

“I'm a scientist,” says Bollich, Apollo 11's programmer. “I'm always skeptical. I need facts. But you reach a point where the fact becomes irrelevant. I believe that prayer can or cannot make a difference in someone's life. Does this happen often? Do not. But there are people who have been healed through prayer to Charlene. We know this. We saw it.

Father Calais found the whole process embarrassing. "The guy from Rome doesn't know anything about Charlene Richard," he says. "I wasn't impressed with him at all. I didn't see any enthusiasm in him."

As Jean Marcantel puts it: “It is more important for the church hierarchy that these miracles be proved than for the people who experienced them. You know what they say: if you don't believe, no proof is enough. In this case, no proof is required. She laughed. "I don't want to be in Father Escalante's shoes."

Broussard himself has moved on. After handing over her life's work to the diocese, she announced her resignation as President of the Charlene Richard Foundation. She devoted herself to caring for her grandchildren. "I will always love Charlene and do what I can to help her," she says. "But the fire for me was put out." After decades of fighting indifference and deterrence and waiting for the diocesan hierarchy to take action, she cannot hold her ground as a youngster.

In addition, Broussard believes that he has already achieved his goal. Charlene will not be forgotten. Unofficially, she is still not a saint, but she has attracted a worldwide following that goes beyond not just Akkadian but Catholicism as well. She inspires faith, devotion, and healing actions so profound they work miraculously. Bonnie Broussard cannot give them what the Vatican wants, what the diocese urgently needs. She gave them her papers, but she can't give them that.

Nathaniel Rico,Co-author of the magazine, he is the author of Losing Earth and Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade.Stacy Kranitzis a photographer based in Tennessee and a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow. His monograph As It Was Give(n) To Me was shortlisted for the 2022 Paris Photo-Aperture First Book Prize.


Continue reading the main story


Where is Charlene Richards buried? ›

What did Charlene Richard do? ›

Charlene Marie Richard (January 13, 1947 – August 11, 1959) was a twelve-year-old Roman Catholic Cajun girl from Richard, Louisiana, (30°25′18″N 92°18′46″W) in the United States. She has become the focus of a popular belief that she is a saint—a person who is in heaven—who has performed a number of miracles.

Was Charlene Richard canonized? ›

Her humility and her simplicity in living, explained in her writings as her "little way" of achieving sanctity led to her canonization in 1925, only twenty-eight years after her death. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, was certainly a model for Charlene as a young girl saint.

Where is the Little Cajun saint buried? ›

Edward Catholic Church Cemetery in the community of Richard, La. Charlene, known as the “Little Cajun Saint,” is among three area people in the Diocese of Lafayette whose causes for sainthood have been advancing for the past two years.

Is there a Saint Charlene? ›

Each year as many as 10,000 people visit Charlene. They know her as the Little Cajun Saint, though the Roman Catholic Church has not yet recognized her as one. To accommodate the visitors, St.

Are there any American saints? ›

Elizabeth Ann Seton. The ​first native-born American citizen to be canonized as a saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton is best known for her role in starting children's parochial education in America. ​Born on August 28, 1774, on Staten Island, Elizabeth was originally raised in the tradition of the Episcopalian church.

What saint is from Louisiana? ›

Our Lady of Prompt of Succor is the patron saint of Louisiana, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the City of New Orleans, and Catholics in Louisiana continue to pray to her to save them once again whenever a hurricane threatens.

What area is acadiana? ›

Acadiana is the name given to the traditional twenty-two parish Cajun homeland, which in 1971 the Louisiana state legislature officially recognized for its unique Cajun and Acadian heritage (per House Concurrent Resolution No.

Who is the patron saint of the colon? ›

He is the Patron Saint of bowel disorders – as it is believed that was the cause of his childhood illness that nearly took his life. St. Bonaventure's life teaches us many things.

Who is the patron saint of acadiana? ›

Our Lady of the Assumption - Our Lady of the Assumption (the Blessed Virgin Mary and the mother of Jesus Christ) was chosen as the patron saint of the Acadians by delegates at the first National Acadian Convention held in Memramcook, New Brunswick in 1881.

Where is St Catherine's body? ›

St. Catherine of Siena died at age 33 in Rome, and most of her body is buried there at Santa Maria sopra Minerva basilica. Her mummified head is in a reliquary near her thumb in the church of St. Dominic in Siena, while her foot and three of her fingers are holy relics in Venice.

Who is the Cajun patron saint? ›

A Big Step towards God

Buried there is a young girl, who died at the age of twelve, whom many worshipers consider to be a saint. For the Catholic population of the region, the name Charlene Richard is synonymous with staunch faith and a source of Cajun pride.

Where are the saints buried? ›

List of the Saints and their resting places
Saint's nameResting place
1Modern formChurch
2* Saint AlbanSt Albans Cathedral
3* Saint ColumbaDunkeld Cathedral
4* Saint CuthbertDurham Cathedral
33 more rows

Is the name Charlene Irish? ›

Charlene is a girl's name of Old German origin, meaning "free" or "free thinker, spirit, and man." It is considered the feminine version of Charles and a variation of the given names Charlotte and Caroline.

Who was saint Charlene? ›

Charlene Richard, a young Cajun girl who died of leukemia in 1959, is regarded by many in south Louisiana as a saint.

Who is St Melissa? ›

Based on the ancient stories, Melissa was the daughter of the Cretan king Melisseus and one of the nymph nurses of Zeus when he was an infant.

Are there any black Catholic saints? ›

St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639) is perhaps the best-known black Catholic from the Western Hemisphere. His father was a Spanish nobleman, his mother a black former slave. De Porres worked on behalf of the poor throughout his life.

Who was the 1st saint? ›

Ulrich of Augsburg was the first saint to be formally canonized, by Pope John XV. By the 12th century, the church officially centralized the process, putting the pope himself in charge of commissions that investigated and documented potential saints' lives.

Who was the first female saint in USA? ›

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first American to be canonized as a saint. She was raised Episcopalian, but later converted to Catholicism. Through the struggles and tragedies she faced in life, she remained devout.

Are all Cajuns Catholic? ›

The Cajuns were and are mainly Roman Catholic. Experts suggest that the traditional culture cannot be understood unless the central role of the Catholic church is considered. On the one hand, their Roman Catholic beliefs set the Cajuns apart from the surrounding population, which was mainly Baptist and Methodist.

Why is Louisiana so Catholic? ›

From 1762 to 1801, it was known as the Viceroyalty of New Spain. From 1801 to 1803, it was again under French control. These shifts brought a Roman Catholic influence to the area, and parishes were established throughout the territory while it was under alternating French and Spanish rule.

Who was the first black saint? ›

Martin de Porres is best known for his charitable work. His piety allowed him access to the Dominican order of his country, and his acts of compassion for the sick became part of the justification for his canonization as the first black saint of the Americas.

Which US state has the most Cajuns? ›

The Cajuns (/ˈkeɪdʒənz/; French: les Cadjins or les Cadiens [le ka.dʒɛ]), also known as Louisiana Acadians (French: les Acadiens), are a Louisiana French ethnicity mainly found in the U.S. state of Louisiana.

Do Cajuns still speak French? ›

The word Cajun popped up in the 19th century to describe the Acadian people of Louisiana. The Acadians were descendants of the French Canadians who were settling in southern Louisiana and the Lafayette region of the state. They spoke a form of the French language and today, the Cajun language is still prevalent.

What is the most Cajun city in Louisiana? ›

Lafayette, LA is at the heart of Louisiana's Cajun & Creole Country, an area known as the Happiest City in America. A short drive, but a world away from New Orleans, our history dates back to the 18th century, when Canada's Acadians were expelled and settled in Louisiana.

Who is the saint of anxiety? ›

Dymphna: Patron Saint of Stress, Anxiety and Mental Health. Especially at this time of the year, stress and anxiety may run high for you or someone you love, and St. Dymphna can be a source of inspiration and devotion.

Who is the saint of obesity? ›

Charles Borromeo. Specifically, he is considered to be the patron saint of obesity and dieting.

What saint has depression? ›

Today, Dymphna is known as the patroness of nervous disorders and mental disease, depression and incest, but she is not the only saint who can help the faithful in times of mental anguish.

Is there a patron saint of drunks? ›

Maximilian Kolbe. Venerable Matt Talbot (1856–1925) is the patron saint of alcoholics. He was one of twelve children born into extreme poverty in the tenements of Dublin, Ireland. His father was a heavy drinker who could not provide for his family, and so he moved them from place to place.

What saint is for divorce? ›

St. Helena is the patron saint of difficult marriages, divorced people, converts, and archaeologists. Her Feast Day is August 18.

Which saint was drunk? ›

Matt Talbot
Venerable Matt Talbot O.F.S.
Died7 June 1925 (aged 69) Dublin, Ireland
Resting placeOur Lady of Lourdes Church, Seán McDermott Street, Dublin
Venerated inCatholic Church
PatronagePeople who struggle with alcoholism Addictions
4 more rows

Are incorrupt bodies real? ›

Occasionally, it has been found that a body apparently did not succumb to the usual forces of putrefaction, and such a seemingly divinely preserved corpse is deemed "incorruptible." The title is reserved for bodies that one would expect to rot naturally—in other words, embalmed corpses and bog bodies need not apply.

Why was St. Catherine tortured? ›

Saint Catherine was tortured on a wheel by the Emperor Maxentius for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. The wheel broke and Catherine was eventually beheaded instead. Her martyrdom is remembered in the firework called the 'Catherine Wheel'.

Which female saint is in a glass coffin? ›

Bernadette herself moved away from Lourdes and joined a nunnery in Nevers, where she lived the rest of her life. She died in 1879 of tuberculosis. As part of the canonization process, her body was exhumed three separate times, in 1909, 1919, and finally in 1925, when she was moved to the crystal casket.

Is Princess Charlene Roman Catholic? ›

Wittstock, who was raised a Protestant, converted to Roman Catholicism, despite it not being a requirement in the Constitution of Monaco.

Is there a saint Julianna? ›

Saint Juliana of Nicomedia is said to have suffered Christian martyrdom during the Diocletianic persecution in 304. She was popular in the Middle Ages, especially in the Netherlands, as the patron saint of sickness.

Is there ST Julianna? ›

Juliana. Clement XII canonized her in 1737, and extended the celebration of her feast on 19 June to the entire Church. St. Juliana is usually represented in the habit of her order with a Host upon her breast.

What is St Jeffrey known for? ›

He was the chief author of a life of St. Bernard in five books, furnishing materials for the first two books, revising them, and adding three of his own (P.L., CLXXXV, 225 sqq.)


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