To help pave the way to the National Eucharistic Congress July 17–23, 2024, we are thrilled to present the American Eucharistic Witnesses. These are holy men and women who lived, loved, and served on the very soil upon which we now stand. They all testify—in unique and powerful ways—to what it means to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist and go on mission with him for the life of the world. Each month from now through July 2024, we will feature a new witness. Old and young, men and women, representing different cultural families and vocations, these men and women show us—in living color—what holiness looks like. We are also thrilled to partner with American artist Connor Miller, who is creating an original woodcut print of each witness to help us visually engage with this creative new series.
From her birth on January 13, 1947, to her death on August 11, 1959, all that was really noted about Charlene Richard was her ordinary life. In the town her ancestors founded in 1764, Charlene captained the Acadia Parish Middle School girls’ basketball team, regularly stood up to bullies, and received her first Holy Communion at her town parish, St. Edward Church. She attended Mass regularly and showed her devotion to Our Lady by placing flowers she gathered on the table near where her family of twelve gathered daily to pray the Rosary.
She was bilingual in French and English, the second eldest of ten children, and the child of a sharecropper and a home nurse. In every way, her family, friends, and teachers noted her ordinariness. Yet in the last two weeks of her life, Charlene suddenly became known as one of the most extraordinary people the town of Richard, Louisiana had ever seen.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux came into twelve-year-old Charlene’s life in May 1959. Moved by her story of redemptive suffering as the 24-year-old saint succumbed to tuberculosis, Charlene asked her grandmother if she could be a saint by praying as Thérèse did.
Her grandmother answered, “All we can do is our best.”
Charlene seemed satisfied with that answer. “Then I will do my best.”
Not two months later, Charlene’s teachers noted that she was acting beside her normal, energetic, and joyful self. The young girl told one teacher that she kept seeing a woman in black. Mary Alice, her mother, took her to a doctor immediately, who diagnosed her with acute lymphatic leukemia—cancer in which lymphoid tissue circulates through the bloodstream. In 1959, this was a devastating discovery and meant she would die.
Father Joseph Brennan, the young chaplain of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, was tasked with telling the little Cajun girl that she was dying. “When it’s time,” he told her, “a beautiful lady will come to you and take you with her.”
“I know,” Charlene replied, “and I’ll tell Our Lady that Fr. Brennan says hi.”
Fr. Brennan introduced twelve-year-old Charlene to redemptive suffering during her hospital stay and was astounded by her meek acceptance of her illness. Terminal illness, especially for those so young, might be cause for grief, anger, or despair, yet Charlene focused her time left on the needs of others. She offered her daily aches and pains for the conversion of specific souls and for the healing of family, friends, and members of her community. She even made a strenuous visit home to meet her newborn godson.
Words that Charlene heard every time she went to Mass, likely in Latin at the time, held a different meaning as her condition worsened and her prayers intensified: “This is my Body, given up for you.”
As Christ instituted the Eucharist, inaugurated through his suffering and death on our behalf, we were given light incomparable. Jesus freely gave us access to himself, our Lord and Love, through a humble piece of bread. Something so small and humble offers us a pledge of future glory; it “preserves, strengthens, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism” (CCC, no. 1392).
Charlene’s introduction to this Eucharistic offering proved fruitful. Both Fr. Brennan and the Director of Pediatrics at the hospital, Theresita Crowley, noticed a sudden influx of miraculous healings and conversions to the Catholic faith as Charlene prayed. By the grace of God, she had taken her suffering and her crisis and created an astoundingly beautiful channel of prayer for others.
During the days after Charlene’s death on August 11th, 1959, letters from those Charlene had held in prayer overwhelmed the Richard family’s mailbox. The messages marveled at impossible healings, unlikely conversions, and answered prayers, and many more asked for prayers from Charlene and her family. “The Little Cajun Saint,” as she was soon called, was buried at her home parish; not long after, a priest who had been asking for Charlene’s help with a parish assignment was moved to St. Edward Church. The ordinary little Charlene had become someone extraordinary in her suffering, and her community in Richard would not soon forget that.
“Everybody is just so proud of [her],” said Charlene’s brother, John Dale Richard. “To be from our community, from our people, from our culture, that we have someone that we can talk to, that understands us, that is one of us.”
It is truly miraculous that something so frequent as an illness could create such massive waves of grace. Those who suffer with terminal illness or chronic illness know that such conditions fluctuate between manageable and debilitating each day. When all you want is for your body to work correctly, it can feel impossible, and even defeating, to offer the pain that doesn’t go away for others. Yet it can also be a source of life-giving hope (for us and for others) when we choose to make this gift of self: the hope that comes from Christ as we unite our sufferings to his.
As Charlene dealt with an incurable disease, she remained a pillar of joyful support for her family and her community. Her acceptance of her remaining time bloomed into a beautiful catalyst for God’s power. How abundantly divine grace must have been given to the Little Cajun Saint that she could offer her pain so freely!
“She was a faith-filled little girl,” said Fr. Brennan. “I see Charlene as a witness for people of all ages to the power of resignation and acceptance of God’s will. She wasn’t different in any way except that when the crisis came in her life—and it came very early—she accepted it with faith and trust and love.”
In the one crisis of her life, this “ordinary” Cajun girl left a legacy of extraordinary intercession, sacrifice, and joy. What might we be able to do in ours, so that with Christ we may say, “This is my body, given up for you?”
Colleen Schena is a writer at Relevant Radio with a passion for the stories of disciples moved to action by the Eucharist.
Help the children and youth in your life grow closer to Jesus in the Eucharist through the witness of Charlene Richard today! Download Katie Bogner’s children’s activities—perfect for home, classroom, and parish settings!