Charlene Richard, ‘the Little Cajun Saint’

Many saints have been canonized through the official process of beatification and canonization of the Catholic Church; however, there are many saintly men and women whose causes have not found their way to the Pope despite the awe and veneration they inspire. One such cause is that of the Servant of God, Charlene Richard (REE-shard), a young Cajun girl whose sanctity through the suffering of painful illness is comparable to that of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Charlene Richard was born in 1947, the second of ten children born of Mary Alice and Joseph Elvin Richard. The Richard family lived in a small Louisiana town named Church Point, close to Lafayette. The Richards were a typical Cajun-Catholic farm family — their sons were altar servers, while the daughters sang in the choir. They regularly attended Holy Mass three days a week in addition to Sunday. Charlene and her siblings attended Catholic school until she was in second grade. If the children were not at school, they were tending to the Richard’s farm, where they raised several different types of crops and raised multiple farm animals.

The New York Times describes Charlene as “exuberant, loyal, [and] generous.”1 Charlene’s “Mom-Mom” played a major role in the young girl’s spiritual development.2 Charlene was known to pray the rosary nightly by an altar she had improvised on her bedside table. At a young age, she developed a particular devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and desired to be a saint as great as she. In 1959, Satan, in the form of a woman wearing a black bonnet covering her face, allegedly appeared to the young girl twice. Though no one else witnessed this vision, Charlene’s story was believed as she was honest and devout.

It was not long after Charlene received the strange apparitions that she began to have intense hip pain and many bruises appeared on her body. She received radiation therapy, but it provided no relief. She began bleeding from her rectum and severely from her nose. After visiting her local doctor, Charlene was sent with a letter to Lafayette to see a specialist. Once the specialist opened the letter, he asked that a priest be present while he explained Charlene’s condition to the Richards. This priest was Fr. Joseph Brennan — a young, recently ordained priest who later stated, “It was pure chance that I was the priest in the room when the news was told to Charlene’s parents.”3 After Fr. Brennan’s arrival, the doctor told Mary Alice and Joseph Elvin Richard that their daughter had acute lymphatic leukemia and had about two weeks to live. Understandably, the Richards did not wish to inform Charlene of her condition, and asked that Fr. Brennan do so instead.

Fr. Brennan reluctantly agreed to tell Charlene the heartbreaking news. He kindly told her, “A beautiful lady is going to come to take you home.” In reply, Charlene said, “When she does, I’ll say, ‘Blessed Mother, Father Brennan says hello.’”4

During the thirteen days that followed, her last thirteen days, she was in excruciating pain, but Charlene was joyful and did not complain once. Fr. Brennan spent much time with her during these days, teaching her of redemptive suffering. Each day, Charlene would ask the priest, “Who am I to suffer for today?”5 Often, Fr. Brennan would suggest that her sufferings be offered for another patient with a terminal illness or a person who was not Catholic. Fr. Brennan later stated that the sick she prayed for recovered, and the non-Catholics converted. The day before she died she kissed Fr. Brennan, and told him that she would pray for him while she was in heaven. The day after, August 11, 1959, she passed from this life.

Though Charlene’s life on earth ended over six decades ago, her story is far from over. There have been several miracles attributed to Charlene since her death, thus leading to the opening of her cause. Many people pray at her grave each year, especially those with illnesses asking that she heal them. Within fifteen years of Charlene’s death, there were cards made with her picture, as well as intercessory and beatification prayers on them.6 Her evident sanctity in life, especially in her final days, and the purported miracles after her death earned her the sobriquet, “the Little Cajun Saint.” Thanks to her proponents — Fr. Brennan; her brother, John Dale; and a witness to several miracles attributed to Charlene, Bonnie Brossard — at the beginning of 2020, Charlene’s cause was opened in the Diocese of Lafayette. If Charlene is to be canonized, she would be the first official saint from Cajun Country (provided that no other Cajun is canonized first, and two other causes have been opened).

On the thirtieth anniversary of her death, there was a commemorative Mass offered where Fr. Brennan spoke of his experiences with the young saint, saying, “Charlene taught us lessons in humility, acceptance, simplicity, and faith. We have many books teaching us how to live. Charlene wrote the book on how to die.”7 The overriding lesson of Charlene’s story is in the words of Christ Himself in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” Rather than viewing suffering as something to complain about, we can look at it as not only an opportunity for growth in our relationship with God, but also a way to help others as Charlene did, when she offered her agonizing pain for whomever Fr. Brennan requested she pray. Charlene’s life shows us that pain, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual, is truly a gift from God, as it gives us the opportunity to imitate Christ in His Passion and death, as we can see the words of St. Paul, “For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives; so too does the encouragement we receive through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5). Though she died young, Charlene has changed many people’s lives both during her life on earth and after her death, by means of her edifying story and intercessory power.

“Our Father in heaven… May Your servant and native of Louisiana, Charlene Marie Richard, be raised to sainthood by the Holy Father, Successor of the Apostle St. Peter, and visible head of Jesus’ Church on earth.”8

  1. Rich, N., & Kranitz, S. (2022, December 20). The Miraculous Life and Afterlife of Charlene Richard. The New York Times.
  2. Ball, A. (2001). Faces of Holiness II: Modern Saints in Photos and Words. Our Sunday Visitor, 91 
  3. Rich, N., & Kranitz, S. (2022, December 20). The Miraculous Life and Afterlife of Charlene Richard. The New York Times.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gaudet, M. (n.d.). Charlene Richard: Folk Veneration Among the Cajuns. Retrieved December 28, 2022
  7. Ball, A. (2001). Faces of Holiness II: Modern Saints in Photos and Words. Our Sunday Visitor, 94
  8. Excerpt from Charlene’s beatification prayer, which can be found here.