NEW YORK — Five Louisiana priests that sacrificed their lives to care for the sick through the 1873 yellow fever epidemic in Shreveport are officially on the path to sainthood.

Bishop Francis Malone of Shreveport announced the news on Tuesday that he got permission from the Vatican to name Fathers Jean Pierre, Isidore A. Quémerais, Jean-Marie Biler, Louis Gergaud and François Le Vézouët as Servants of God – the first step towards canonization.

“I am still within my first year here as the bishop of the 16 northernmost parishes of Louisiana, but I learned quickly of the extraordinary zeal of these earliest of missionary priests to our area, which culminated in the free offer of their lives in the yellow fever epidemic of 1873. The stories of their lives, up to their deaths in the epidemic, are truly extraordinary,” Malone said at a press conference at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Shreveport.

“It is my joy, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception and from this historic church, to announce that we may refer to them as Servants of God.”

As history tells it, between late August to mid-November of 1873 Shreveport lost a quarter of its population to yellow fever. The mosquito-borne disease causes fever, nausea, and muscle pains and can lead to liver and kidney failure.

While many people fled Shreveport for safety, Pierre and Quémerais, who were assigned to the northern Louisiana city, stayed to care for the victims. Biler, who was a chaplain at a local convent, also stayed in the city. Pierre and Quémerais contracted yellow fever and died. When Biler came down with the illness, he contacted Gergaud – a priest from a nearby town – who arrived in time to give Biler last rites. However, Gergaud, too, quickly succumbed to the virus. Hearing about the desperate situation, Le Vézouët then left Natchitoches – then the seat of the diocese – to travel to Shreveport and minister to the sick and dying. He also, quickly contracted the disease and died.

The five priests are all from Brittany, France. They were recruited to come to the United States by Bishop Auguste Marie Martin, the founding bishop of what is now the Diocese of Shreveport.

Father Peter Mangum, the rector at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans in Shreveport, said he was ecstatic when Malone told him he got the five letters from the Vatican.

“It’s wonderful. It’s big news,” Mangum told Crux. “They had a real sense that this life is just a real springboard to eternal life. With that perspective it’s great, I now know the shortest route to heaven and it’s going through Shreveport. It was never, ‘we might die.’ It was ‘I know if I enter that quarantine area I will die.’ It’s super selfless.”

Mangum, local historian Ryan Smith and Louisiana State University Shreveport history professor Cheryl White have done extensive research on the five priests and championed their story for the past four years. The culmination of that work is a podcast, holy cards and an upcoming graphic novel about the five priests and the manuscript for a book titled The Surest Path to Heaven: Shreveport Martyrs of 1873.

In a conversation with Crux, White said she had an emotional reaction to the news.

“I broke down into tears. What a rare thing in history. How privileged I am to have been a part of telling their story.” White said. “It’s almost surreal to take a step back and realize that this is something that is afforded to so few in history even though this should be the goal of every Christian to live a life that is worthy of this.”

For Smith, the news signals another step towards a larger audience for the five priests. He said it’s also another step in his own Catholic journey.

“This is just something I find quite special in my life as a convert myself. This journey just keeps growing to the next thing and the next thing and I hope that we are doing them a service and doing them right,” he told Crux.

Speaking at the press conference, Adrian Perkins, the mayor of Shreveport, called the news a sign of hope amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is hope right now as Shreveport finds itself in another pandemic where we’ve lost more than 500 of our friends and family. The courage and selflessness of these five priests is still a model for us 147 years later,” he said.

Another champion of the five priests is Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. Pierre is also from Brittany. He has prayed at their tombs in a visit to Shreveport and has always recognized the sacrifice they all made. He also wrote the foreword to The Surest Path to Heaven: Shreveport Martyrs of 1873.

In October, Pierre wrote about the need for the five priests’ story in the modern western world.

“It highlights a model of sanctity that is attainable for all of the faithful. Most importantly, it points to the salvation of souls as the ultimate horizon for us all,” he wrote. “These holy priests live on in the memory of the people not only because of their apostolic work in helping build the Church in that part of Louisiana, but above all because of their heroic sacrifices.”

Although their story is not well known nationwide, the five priests have been celebrated in Shreveport for nearly 150 years. The French clerics are honored in the stained-glass windows of the Holy Trinity church in downtown Shreveport and the city’s Pierre Avenue is named after its founding pastor.

The next step for the five priests is to be declared Venerable after an investigation at the Vatican. There has never before been any sainthood cause from northern Louisiana, but Smith is hopeful.

“The miracles are up to those five guys but hopefully us here on earth can get the paperwork straight so to speak,” he said.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg