Jim Bradshaw: 'Cajun Saint' has touched many lives since her death
August 11 is the 60th anniversary of the death in 1959 of Charlene Richard, a little girl whom many people call “the Little Cajun Saint.” Her story is known across the globe. Miraculous cures have been attributed to her and people come daily to the community of Richard, midway between Eunice and Church Point, to pray at her grave in St. Edward’s cemetery.
Her parents knew she was very sick when the 12-year-old was admitted to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Lafayette in late July 1959. They thought she had a really bad case of the flu. Her parents were devastated when a bone marrow test showed she had advanced, uncurable leukemia. She was not.
Charlene lived for only two weeks after her diagnosis, but during those weeks the maturity of her faith astounded those who ministered to her.
The late Father Joseph Brennan had been ordained only two months and had been chaplain at Our Lady of Lourdes for less than a month when it became his duty to tell Charlene she was going to die.
“I can remember that as I made my way up to the fourth floor, I asked the Lord, ‘Please tell me how to tell a girl of twelve that she has only two weeks to live,’” he wrote in a little book about her ("My Name Is Charlene," Lafayette, 2009) “When I entered the room and gave her my name, I can still hear her saying, ‘My name is Charlene.’”
“The Lord answered my prayer as I heard myself saying, ‘Charlene, you are a sick little girl.’ She said, ‘I know that, Father.’ Then I said, ‘In a couple of weeks a beautiful lady is going to come and take you home.’ Looking at me with those brown Cajun eyes, she said, ‘When the Blessed Mother comes, I will tell her that Father Brennan said hello.”‘
Brennan visited Charlene every day until her death, and recalled ever after her child’s faith and her acceptance of the idea of offering her pain and suffering as a prayer to benefit others. Each day, he said, she would greet him with the question, “OK, Father, who am I to suffer for today?” He and others who witnessed her last days regarded Charlene as a special little girl.
Friends and family gathered each year for the next 30 years for a private memorial Mass on the anniversary of her death.
They, like Brennan, thought they were among just a handful of people who regarded her that way.
They didn’t realize how many others shared their view until 1989, when the family allowed the first public remembrance of Charlene.
They expected perhaps 500 people to come to Richard for the evening Mass. St. Edward’s seats only 400, so they decided to hold the Mass outdoors, just as a precaution.
It was a good idea. The first cars began arriving at 9:30 in the morning. People were still arriving when the Mass began at 7 p.m. Cars were parked for miles in every direction from the little crossroads community. The final estimate was 5,000 people, not 500.
“I thought no one would believe the journey of faith that happened in Room 411,” Brennan wrote. “I was wrong about that. Ten thousand people now visit her grave each year.”
Is she a saint? “That’s for others to say. But I will say that she ... has remained … in my heart and in my life,” Brennan wrote.
To his own dying day, he remembered her willingness to bear her pain in the belief that it could help others.
“You expect this from heroic people of world renown,” Brennan wrote. “But here was a simple little girl from the country who taught a course on how to die.”
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.