On this particular morning, the unbearable July heat has not yet settled into the day. John Dale Richard is visiting his sister’s grave site, where he prays silently as the 55th anniversary of her death approaches.
“Patience,” Richard says. “Patience: That’s what I’ve learned from her is to be patient and to trust.”
Richard is not the only one who’s learned that lesson from his sister. Thousands of people from across the world travel to the community of Richard each year to visit her grave site and implore her to intercede for them to God.
Some have reported miracles and answered prayers through Charlene Richard. Others say they have felt a deep sense of peace in her presence.
Although the Catholic Church does not yet recognize Richard’s sister as a saint, there’s no denying that Charlene Richard, who offered up her pain and suffering for others during her final days, is the “little Cajun saint” so many have come to adore.
‘Most extraordinary ordinary person’
Richard, 69, calls his sister the “most extraordinary ordinary person” he’s ever known.
He remembers her earning an award for scoring higher than her peers in math. He remembers Charlene being called the Charlie Brown of the basketball team she captained. He remembers her listening to Elvis on that little record player their mama bought for Charlene’s 11th birthday.
Richard remembers her keeping fresh flowers in her bedroom altar and praying not constantly, but consistently.
“She didn’t see herself as a very dynamic or intelligent person,” Richard said. “But she knew she could offer up to the Lord everything she did every day if she did it to the best of her ability. And I think that’s shown in her spirit.”
Richard was the oldest of the 10 siblings, and Charlene was second-oldest, two years and four months younger than him. Richard was 14 when he said goodbye to his 12-year-old sister at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Lafayette.
It happened quickly.
One day, his sister was upbeat and full of life. The next, she was weak and bruising easily.
The family traveled to doctors in Crowley and Church Point. She needed to be seen immediately by a specialist in Lafayette. The Lafayette doctor drove the girl to Lourdes, where a doctor there told the family that Charlene had leukemia and would not recover.
That’s when the family asked the hospital’s chaplain, the Rev. Joseph F. Brennan, to share the news with Charlene. Brennan, who had only been an ordained priest for three months, didn’t know what words to use or how to speak to the girl about a topic so serious.
Before Brennan said a word, Charlene introduced herself to him. When he told the girl that she was sick and that a beautiful lady would visit her and take her home soon, Charlene said she already knew.
“And she said to me, ‘When that lady comes, I’ll tell her Father Brennan said hello,’” he said, remembering the conversation. “That wiped me out.”
Charlene died 13 days later in the hospital, but not before asking Brennan for whom she could offer her pain and suffering up in prayer.
Sharing the story
Brennan, now 83, did not expect others to believe the story of what happened in room 411 of Lourdes Hospital. He did not expect the idea of Charlene’s holiness to extend much further than himself.
Brennan shared Charlene’s story of bravery and sacrifice with her family and his friend, the Rev. Floyd Calais, who began praying to God through Charlene that he would be assigned to a parish.
That same year Calais became the priest of St. Edward Catholic Church, located beside the cemetery where Charlene is buried.
Calais began raising money to build a new church, using Charlene’s story to encourage donations. In less than three years, enough money had been raised and people began visiting Charlene’s grave regularly.
In the 1970s, cards with Charlene’s photo, a prayer dedicated to her and a prayer for her canonization became commonplace. A series of articles about Charlene ran in the Diocese of Lafayette’s newspaper in 1975, and the articles were republished into a booklet called “Charlene, a Saint from Southwest Louisiana” in 1979. The book was republished in 1988 with testimonials from those who said Charlene had helped them.
The 1988 reprint spread Charlene’s story outside of Acadiana, and hundreds of people began visiting Charlene’s grave each week. An anniversary Mass held in 1989 drew 4,000 people and was reported in news outlets across the country. Media coverage helped spread Charlene’s story on a global scale.
Today, a school associated with a Thailand orphanage bears Charlene’s name, and a Colombia hospice center under construction will soon bear her name.
“Acadiana has produced so many great things,” Brennan said. “And wouldn’t it be nice if we could produce a saint? South Louisiana has already canonized her as the little Cajun saint, but it would be so neat if she could be recognized as an official saint of the Catholic church?”
The canonization process
More than 10,000 people visit Charlene’s grave site each year. Dozens of miracles have been documented. She is recognized as a saint by local parishioners and priests but not by the Diocese of Lafayette.
The Catholic Church has a lengthy and complicated process for recognizing a person who lived and died in such a holy manner that he or she could qualify for sainthood.
“She hasn’t been canonized or beatified,” Richard said. “She has in my heart, but she hasn’t been by the church yet.”
Five years ago, Brennan published a small book about his experience with Charlene during the last two weeks of her life. His book also documents several testimonies of those who have asked for help from Charlene: a lawyer whose eyesight was restored, a woman whose colon cancer defied the doctor’s prognosis, a young man who lived through his attempted suicide.
“I wanted to put in writing what really happened,” Brennan said. “I know I won’t be around when her case comes around for canonization, but at least that’s my testimony. It’s up to the church. I wish it were tomorrow, but that’s the job of the church.”
Lafayette Bishop Michael Jarrell said the diocese is not at liberty to recognize Charlene as a saint, even at a local level.
Although members of the Friends of Charlene organization have asked Jarrell to begin the canonization process, the bishop said the process is very complex and is something he doesn’t fully understand himself.
“The process requires a great commitment of resources by way of research, people’s time, finances,” Jarrell said. “I’m still reflecting on that question, and my main hesitation is the commitment to personnel on the project.”
Just last month, another book on Charlene was published by area resident Carolyn Keith, who calls Charlene her “adopted little grandbaby.”
Keith, like so many in Acadiana, wants Charlene to be recognized by the church as a saint.
“Bishop Jarrell has to take the next step toward canonization,” Keith said. “We are expecting for the next bishop to do something.”
The 55th anniversary
On Friday, hundreds are expected to gather for Mass at St. Edward Church in Richard to honor the 55th anniversary of Charlene’s death.
Many anniversary Masses have been held through the years at the church located beside the cemetery where Charlene is buried.
Between the church and the cemetery, there is a large brick structure with a concrete center that has Charlene’s face etched into it along with the words “Charlene pray for us.”
In the small cemetery, Charlene’s grave is immediately recognizable from the crosses, trinkets and kneeling benches that surround it. The site also bears a Lucite box that holds dozens of small notes — prayers of petition from those who have visited Charlene’s grave.
During the anniversary Mass, the notes will be laid at the altar. Afterward, they will be burned.
“People are here at all hours of the day and the night,” Richard said. “I’ve come here at 10 o’clock at night when I had something I really wanted to talk to her about, and they had people here.”
It is this kind of faithfulness that Richard says is what helped the Acadians survive the Great Deportation and form a successful life in Acadiana. It is that faithfulness, he says, that has resulted in God giving Acadiana a saint to call her own.
“It’s like, finally, the Lord has sent us one of our own,” Richard said. “And how do I feel about that? I feel very Cajun. That’s the way this culture is, you know?”