Charlene Marie Richard was born on Jan. 13, 1947, the second of 10 children of Mary Alice and Joseph Elvin Richard, of Richard. By all indications, Charlene was a normal Cajun girl, devout Catholic (it has been reported that she and her brother John Dale would “play Mass”), a good student interested in sports, horseback riding, music and dancing.
According to Marcia Gaudet’s account, “Folk Veneration among the Cajuns,” in January, 1957, she read a book about St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse had been a young French woman who suffered and died from a debilitating disease. She offered her suffering through prayer to God, and was canonized. Charlene then asked her grandmother if she could also become a saint by praying like Thérèse.
One afternoon, after playing outside, Charlene reported to her mother that she had just seen a tall woman in black who seemed to speak to her, although Charlene could not see her face. The woman drifted away under the trees after a time.
Shortly afterward, Charlene’s teacher at Richard Elementary School, where Charlene attended sixth grade, alerted her parents that Charlene was “not herself.” They took Charlene to seek medical treatment, and she was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia. Two weeks later, on Aug. 11, 1959, Charlene died in Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Lafayette.
Her demeanor in the hospital caught the attention of the Director of Pediatrics, Sister Teresita Crowley, and the hospital’s chaplain, Rev. Joseph Brennan. They observed that although the young girl was in constant pain, she would offer up her suffering for others, praying for their healing or conversion even as she died.
Crowley and Brennan spread word about Charlene’s “specialness” to others, including Brennan’s good friend Rev. Floyd Calais. Although he never met Charlene, Calais was convinced of Charlene’s extraordinary influence, having heard Brennan speak of people for whom she had prayed while in the hospital. They had been either healed or converted to Catholicism before their death. In 1961, Calais began praying to Charlene for a new parish. In that same year, he was assigned to St. Edward Church in Richard, Charlene’s home parish.
Word quickly spread of Charlene, and local people began devotions to her, visiting her grave and praying. Prayer cards and petitions began circulating, and the sphere of influence of “The little Cajun Saint” went beyond Acadiana, beyond Louisiana and beyond even the United States. Testimonials of people who were helped by Charlene also began circulating.
On Aug. 11, 1989, the 30th year since Charlene’s death, an outdoor Mass was celebrated, with over 4,000 people attending. Local church officials have consistently supported her devout nature and suggested for years the possibility of her canonization.
Charlene Richard has garnered national media attention. In 1999, the television series “Unsolved Mysteries” featured her story, along with the stories of people who claimed to have been cured by praying to her.
Among them, Nicole Price of Morgan City, a small girl who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and expected to die within months. She lived nine more years with Charlene’s intercession, her family said.
Donald Leger was a sergeant in the Army when he had an accident shattering both of his heels. Doctors gave him no hope of ever walking again. Leger prayed to Charlene. Within a few weeks, he was walking, even running. He attributes his recovery to Charlene.
Tara Roy developed colon cancer when she was 21. She tried to go to college but continued to feel worse. She and her parents went to Charlene's grave on several occasions, in hopes of having a miraculous recovery. On the last time they did so, she traced the letters of Charlene's name with her fingers. Almost immediately, she felt better. She soon discovered that her cancer had gone into remission. She later finished college, received a master's degree, and got engaged. The Roys believe that visiting Charlene's grave helped her recover. There are dozens of similar stories of people being healed and having intentions granted by devotion to Charlene.
In January 2020, Bishop Douglas Deshotel officially opened the cause of Charlene Richard’s sainthood at Mass in Lafayette, along with two other Acadiana candidates, Auguste Nonco Pelafigue and Rev. J. Verbis La Fleur. Charlene and Pelafigue were named “Servant of God”
after the mass, which is the first step in sainthood.
Aug. 11, 2021, is the 62nd anniversary of Charlene Richard’s Death. There will be a Mass of Petition commemorating the date at 6 p.m. at St. Edward’s Church in Richard. The pastor of St. Edward Church will be the main celebrant. The celebration will begin at 5:30 with a Rosary.
According to Bonnie Broussard, president of the Charlene Richard Foundation, the road to sainthood for Charlene continues. The cause has been put on the agenda of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in November, for endorsement. “We’re happy, because our cause is moving fast, and this endorsement will give us more momentum. Our postulate in Rome, Father Escolante, has been very encouraging,” Broussard said.