Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Charlene Marie Richard
By Heather King
Servant of God Charlene Marie Richard (1947–1959), the “little Cajun saint” who died at the age of twelve, is a popular southern Louisiana folk hero to whom a number of miracles have been attributed.
Charlene was born on January 13, 1947, in Richard, Louisiana, a farming community thirty-five miles northwest of Lafayette. The second oldest of ten children in a devout Catholic family, she attended Mass, prayed the rosary, and was otherwise fairly unremarkable: a “normal” girl. Nonetheless, upon reading a biography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, she wondered whether she too might someday become a saint.
As a middle-schooler, she was visited by a “lady in black” who vanished, and soon afterward she began to feel unwell. Taken to a doctor, she was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia and told that she would soon die.
According to Bonnie Broussard, a representative of the organization Friends of Charlene Richard, the girl received the diagnosis with a “faith beyond the ability of most adults, and determined not to waste the sufferings she would face, she joined herself to Jesus on his cross and offered her intense pain and suffering for others.”
She was confined to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Lafayette, Louisiana. Father Joseph Brennan, the newly ordained hospital chaplain, was deeply impressed by her calm acceptance and her desire to give what remained of her life for the redemption of the world. “OK, Father, who am I suffering for today?” she would reportedly ask.
Sister Theresita Crowley, director of pediatrics at Lourdes Hospital, likewise testified to the girl’s heroic suffering.
She died only two weeks after receiving her terminal diagnosis.
By 1972 Xeroxed prayer cards bearing Charlene’s photo and a prayer for her intercession were in wide circulation. Word-of-mouth testimonies of conversions and healings made the rounds of southern Louisiana and beyond. A booklet entitled Charlene, a Saint from Southwest Louisiana was published in 1979. Devotion to her began to grow.
Thousands of people visited her grave each year. Four thousand worshipers showed up to the Mass commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of her death. Bishop Harry Flynn of Lafayette observed on the occasion: “A little girl walked among us. She taught us how to accept disappointment and suffering.”
The Catholic author Flannery O’Connor was once asked by the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne to write the introduction to a book about another purportedly saintly young girl, Mary Ann, who had died of a cancer that hideously disfigured part of her face. O’Connor, notoriously unsentimental, balked at the task, noting: “Bad children are harder to endure than good ones, but they are easier to read about.”
But after reading the sisters’ account, she came around, observing that many of us can look evil in the face—and see our own “grinning reflections”—but that the face of goodness too “is grotesque,” for “in us the good is something under construction.”
Charlene Richards is a mystery and a grace—and in some way a response to the tendency of our age “to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God,” in O’Connor’s words.
Her cause for canonization was opened on January 11, 2020.