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The Miraculous Charlene Richard

Over 60 years ago, a little Cajun Catholic farm girl died in agony of leukemia. A lot of people believe that she is a saint
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What a fantastic story by The New York Times. I gripe about their coverage all the time, but when they get it right, they knock it out of the park. It's about the cause for canonization of Charlene Richard (pron. "REE-shard"), a Cajun farm girl who died in agony at age 12, in 1959. Funny thing is, a lot of people who have prayed for her intercession have experienced what they consider to be miracles. The campaign to get the official canonization process underway has taken a long time. I'm not going to reveal how this story ends, but let me give you a taste of this child's astonishing story. Excerpts:

Charlene Richard was born on Jan. 13, 1947, nearly seven years before [Charlene campaigner Bonnie] 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 nurse’s aide for homebound patients; Joseph was a sharecropper and later a dragline operator for the state highway department. The Richard home had a pair of bedrooms, each of which held two large beds. The boys slept in one room, the parents and the girls in the other, the youngest child in a crib. They lacked electricity but kept the house clean and orderly. They drank from a wooden cistern and used two outhouses in the backyard. The children were forced to speak English in school, but they spoke French at home; Charlene’s father never learned English.


After seeing two scary visions of a "lady in black" around her house, 12-year-old Charlene started to feel sick. Nothing helped. After blood tests revealed that she had leukemia, and had only two weeks to live, the hospital chaplain, Father John Brennan, entered the story:

The Richards asked Brennan to tell their daughter. “I was numb,” he writes. “We never had training like this in the seminary. What was I going to say? As the elevator reached the fourth floor, I still had no answer, even though I was praying very fervently.”

Brennan met Charlene in Room 411 of Our Lady of Lourdes. “A beautiful lady is going to come to take you home,” he told her.

“When she does,” Charlene replied, “I’ll say, ‘Blessed Mother, Father Brennan says hello.’”

Charlene spent the next 13 days in unthinkable agony. When the pain grew acute, her eyes rolled back in her head but, Brennan writes, she never complained. During their meetings, Brennan introduced her to the Catholic doctrine of redemptive suffering: the yoking of one’s pain to the suffering of Jesus to help others.

There began an informal daily catechism between them. “OK, Father,” Charlene would ask, “who am I to suffer for today?” Brennan proposed a candidate, typically another patient, such as a terminally ill woman who refused to accept her fate. Charlene beseeched God to use her pain for healings.

“Without her witness, and her devotion,” Brennan said later, “her suffering would not have served any purpose.”

On the 12th day, Charlene kissed Brennan and told him that she would be praying for him in heaven.

On the 13th day, Aug. 11, 1959, she died. But as Bonnie Broussard likes to say, that’s just the day that Charlene Richard’s story began.

Over the decades, devotion to Charlene spread beyond the Acadiana region of Louisiana, to other parts of America, and indeed the world. Among the alleged miracles attributed to Charlene's intercession is this incredible one:

The other miracle commonly asserted as proof of Charlene’s sainthood came from outside the diocese. In 1987 Jean Marcantel was diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy, and arranged to give birth at a hospital in Lake Charles where she could be attended by a prominent obstetrician.

When the baby was born, the delivery room fell silent. “This is a mongoloid child,” the obstetrician said finally, using the jettisoned term for Down syndrome. He indicated the newborn’s prominent forehead, flat features, the ears set below the eye’s lateral canthus, the single crease across the palm of her hand.

The nurses moved the baby to a darkened isolation room. Jean was brought to the recovery room, where she was surrounded by other mothers and their healthy babies. She began to pray for the 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 of lost causes and the patron of childbirth, she prayed to Charlene.

Jean awoke to the sight of her puzzled pediatrician. He told her that the baby showed no signs of Down syndrome. When her obstetrician was summoned, he burst into tears. Finally the child was brought in, her features transformed. Jean didn’t leave her daughter’s side for six weeks, fearful that her condition would reverse. Today that baby, Angelique, is a nun in Tanzania.

Read it all. It's paywalled, I think, but if you know somebody with a Times subscription, they can give you an unlocked version (I used one of mine to send it to a Hungarian friend, who told me about a local case of a miracle baby.)


We need these stories so much, especially with so much darkness in the churches today. This simple child, from a poor Cajun sharecropper family, is great in the Kingdom of Heaven. I was reading today Ed West's review of Tom Holland's blockbuster Dominion, a history of Christianity and the making of the Western world, and saw this about the changes Christianity made in the Roman world, where life was very cruel and very cheap for the weak and the marginalized (which included countless slaves):

Opposition to female infanticide and divorce made the new religion especially attractive to women, who outnumbered men in the early church. Even women of the lowest class could, absurdly, rise to heights in a way unthinkable in Roman society, even if the price was very high. Blandina, a slave girl in late second century Gaul, was tortured and executed for her faith, and yet with her courage and nobility she had triumphed in death, worshipped in churches where it was said her broken body appeared transfigured. ‘That a slave, “a slight, frail, despised woman”, might be set among the elite of heaven, seated directly within the splendour of God’s radiant palace, ahead of those who in the fallen world had been her immeasurable superiors, was a potent illustration of the mystery that lay at the heart of the Christian faith.’ 

The religion’s preference for the poor meant that every week, in churches across the Roman world, ‘collections for orphans and widows, for the imprisoned, and the shipwrecked, and the sick’ were raised by fellow-believers. Congregations grew in number, and with them a system of social security based on radical ideas about the poor. When the fourth century Martin of Tours handed his cloak to a beggar, and then dreamed that he saw Christ in those same clothes he had given away, it was a powerful statement about the individual humanity within each of us, even the lowest. This was revolutionary.

I think of this verse from the carol "O Holy Night":

O Holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope! The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees; O hear the Angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born
O night, O Holy night, O night divine!

Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth. The worth of a Gaulish slave girl, martyred by the Romans. The worth of a Cajun farm girl, tortured to death by leukemia. Both now in the pantheon of saints (though Charlene isn't officially canonized yet, it's hard for a Christian like me to read that story without believing that she is indeed in heaven with other handmaidens of the Lord). When the saints go marching in, do you want to be in that number? I sure do. Charlene, pray for us, that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.