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Meet this Army Air Corps Chaplain, POW, and American hero

Joseph Lafleu

Public Domain

Larry Peterson - published on 06/17/21

Father Joseph Lafleur loved God, became a priest, went to war, and laid down his life for his friends. Father Lafleur is now proposed for canonization.

Joseph Verbis Lafleur was born in Villa Platte, Louisiana, on January 24, 1912.  He was the fourth child of Agatha Dupre and Valentine Lafleur.  When Joe was a young boy, he told his mother that he would grow up and become 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. The pastor at the family’s new parish, Father A. B. Colliard, quickly sensed something special about young Joe. When Joe was 14, he nervously approached Father Colliard saying, “Father, I want to become a priest. Can you help me?”

Father Colliard happily agreed to help young Joseph. First, he met with the boy 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 his calling to the priesthood. Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans ordained Joseph and on April 5, 1938, Father Lafleur celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at St. Landry’s, his home parish. Subsequently, he was assigned to St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Abbeville as an assistant pastor.

Joins the Army Air Corp as a Chaplain

In 1941, while the United States was months away from the attack on Pearl Harbor, Father Lafleur joined the Army Air Corps. Before leaving home, Father Joe told his mom that he “volunteered because all those other men being drafted had no choice.”

In July of 1941, Father Lafleur was sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was assigned to the 19th Bombardment Group. Four months later, the 19th arrived at Clark Field in the Philippines (about 60 miles from Manila).

As Chaplain, just as at St. Mary Magdalene’s parish, Father Joe went about trying to organize the men on base into different activities. He hosted baseball games for the men who wanted to play. Father Lafleur started a Holy Name Society to catechize and foster religious devotion. He started discussion groups to support the troops away from home and family.

He wrote his sister, Edna, saying, “Once I get back to Louisiana, I will never leave again. But I am not sorry I came here.” His mind was always focused on helping the men, mentally and spiritually.

Pearl Harbor attacked

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.

Imprisonment

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. Father Joe sold his watch and eyeglasses to the locals to procure more food for his brother prisoners. Continuing his work as chaplain, he even built a small chapel (called St. Peter in Chains), where Catholics and non-Catholics alike could attend daily Mass. He influenced many by the endless charity he showed others.

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, himself serving as an 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 Father Joe was 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 abandoned ship, but he refused until as many men were saved as possible. He saved no less than 83 men by helping them get out and swim to shore.

Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur leaves behind a 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.

If it’s God’s will, Father Lafleur will join the ranks of heroic and saintly American chaplains, like the Korean war chaplain Father Emil Kapuan. On September 5, 2020, he was declared a Servant of God when Bishop John Douglas Deshotel opened his cause for canonization in the Diocese of Louisiana. The US bishops voted in their June 2021 meeting to continue the formal process of canonization.

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