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LSUS professor, students uncover original burial sites of two famous priests

by Minden Press-Herald

Catholic priests Father Isidore Quemerais and Father Louis Gergaud were two of the heroes of the 1873 Yellow Fever Epidemic that wiped out a quarter of Shreveport’s population.

These priests, knowing death was certain, were two of five priests who died ministering to the ill and to each other during the epidemic.

Because the number of deaths far exceeded the Church’s and city officials’ capacity to properly perform and record burials, the original burial sites of these two priests were unknown.

Historical records indicated that the priests were interred in “City Cemetery” (in now what is Oakland Cemetery), but no mention of a specific location existed.

Subsequent records said both priests were exhumed, with Father Gergaud’s remains going back to his home parish in Monroe and Father Quemerais’s body first moved to Holy Trinity Church and then to St. Joseph Cemetery in Shreveport.

But where were the original burial sites?

LSUS history professor Dr. Cheryl White began with a basic presumption that the priests’ original burial sites must lie within in an existing cemetery plot of a local Catholic family.

White created a list of prominent families through the sacramental registers of Holy Trinity Church (where Quemerais was assistant pastor) and culled down the list to families known to own plots in Oakland Cemetery.

The family names that surfaced were O’Neill, Moore, Kennedy and Kelly.

White and Marty Loschen, field technician for the Spring Street Museum (an LSUS property), conducted visual inspections of these family plots, noticing a concrete base of what appeared to be a much older grave marker of a plot that had otherwise been well maintained.

On the far right of the plot, a cenotaph dating to 1872 recorded the deaths of several Kelly children.

Upon inspecting the burial register at Holy Trinity, Mary Kelly was buried on Jan. 1, 1874. Immediately beneath that register entry, the deaths of the five Shreveport priests who perished in the epidemic that fall were recorded.

After obtaining permission from living Kelly family descendants, White and Loschen used LSUS’s ground penetrating radar to determine if previous exhumations occurred on the Kelly family plot.

With the observation and assistance of LSUS history student interns Abigail Boykin and Gage Sloop, Loschen determined that two previous grave sites that sat side-by-side were exhumed at some point in the past. The investigation concluded in March.

“The use of this GPR technology supported the historical record analysis to demonstrate the original burial sites of Father Quemerais and Father Gergaud in the immediate aftermath of the 1873 Yellow Fever Epidemic,” White said. “This provides an important historical addition to the overall narrative of events by providing conclusive evidence that is based on scientific examination augmented by study of the historical record.

“It’s an exemplary interdisciplinary approach to enriching and deepening understanding of this vital aspect of city history.”

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873 is the third-most deadly yellow fever epidemic in U.S. history, wiping out around a quarter of the city’s population.

All five priests who died ministering to the ill cleared the first hurdle toward sainthood when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted this past summer that the Cause for canonization continues.

The priests became the first North Louisiana residents to ever proceed past this step.

The next step now rests with The Vatican’s “Dicastery for the Causes of Saints” for further inquiry.

LSUS student Abigail Boykin uses ground penetrating radar to determine if any of the burial plots in the Kelly family section of Oaklawn Cemetery had been previously exhumed. Ground disturbance indicated that two graves had been previously exhumed, and that in addition to the historical record points to two Catholic priests who died in the 1873 Yellow Fever Epidemic being buried initially in the Kelly family section.

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