SHREVEPORT – An emotional tour. That’s how composer and conductor Kermit Poling describes his “The Angels Gathered Symphony,” which commemorates the heroism of five Catholic priests during Shreveport’s Yellow Fever Epidemic that killed one-quarter of the population in 1873. The symphony will premier Sunday at 5:15 p.m., at Holy Trinity Church in downtown Shreveport, part of a momentous weekend that will include a Yellow Fever Symposium at LSUS and the dedication of the Yellow Fever Memorial Moment at Oakland Cemetery on Oct. 7. Activities span the entire fall to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the epidemic and can be viewed at shreveportyellowfever.com.
The symphony centers around the actions of five Catholic priests who ministered to the sick and dying in Shreveport. Each time a priest fell ill, he called on his colleague to replace him. Each time, that colleague answered the call, providing last rites to the previous priest while expecting his own days to be numbered. Five priests died before the epidemic, which claimed approximately 1,200 people, abated enough with earlier-than-expected cold temperatures and eventually an early frost. The priests, in order of death, were Father Isidore Quemerais, Father Jean Pierre, Father Jean-Marie Biler, Father Louis Gergaud, and Father Francois Le Vezouet. The first three were stationed in Shreveport (two at Holy Trinity Church), the fourth from Monroe, and the fifth from Natchitoches.
“Those priests came to help knowing that they were going to die,” said Poling, who was commissioned by the Shreveport Summer Music Festival and Father Peter Mangum to create this symphony. “It’s hard to even think about it without choking up. “The piece is inspired by the words and actions of those five priests and the letter by (Bishop Auguste Marie Martin), which essentially eulogizes all five.”
The symphony consists of choral voices and an orchestra as Poling incorporates letters from the priests and from Bishop Martin, who was the head of the Natchitoches diocese (which included Shreveport and North Louisiana). The 40-minute piece is broken down into eight sections, inspired by various Gospels, the daily reporting from the upstart The Daily Times newspaper in Shreveport, and the priests’ words and actions.
“It’s one of the rare times I get to write a piece of choral music where they get to sing things like ‘pestilence,’” Poling said. “But all of it is taken from stuff they wrote or from observations from The Times or from (Bishop Martin).”
Poling read Bishop Martin’s letter in the book, “The Shreveport Martyrs of 1873: The Surest Path to Heaven.” Father Mangum and LSUS professor Dr. Cheryl White are two of the co-authors. Phrases like “the angels gathered him (Father Quermerais) for heaven” and “tell him (Bishop Martin) that I am going to my death, that it is my duty” are gathered from Bishop Martin’s letter. The latter speaker was Father Gergaud of Monroe informing Martin of his decision to go to Shreveport at the height of the epidemic.
Poling’s first encounter with the epidemic came nearly a decade ago on a personal tour of Oakland Cemetery by White and fellow LSUS history professor Dr. Gary Joiner. “I created a piece of music based on that tour, which premiered with The Shreveport Symphony in 2016,” Poling said. “I toured the Yellow Fever Mound … and it’s just a humbling experience to think that they are going to unveil a monument that names those in that mound.
“I’m in awe that I get to play a part in an effort to draw attention to and commemorate this anniversary. Bringing this all to life is just amazing.”
Poling will direct the Shreveport Festival Orchestra along with a trio of choirs – the Cathedral Choir of St. John Berchmans, St. Cecilia Society, and Prisma. Four opera soloists from Shreveport Opera Express will perform as well. More than 80 voices and an orchestra will perform the music, which will be aired on EWTN Global Catholic Television Network in the weeks after the concert. Poling said each of the eight sections has contrast, but the music ends the same way as the book from which he drew inspiration – with Bishop Martin telling his beloved priests goodbye.
“Adieu, dear sons. May the Lord keep you always” are the last lines of Bishop Martin’s letter.
“The piece does the same thing except it’s set to music,” Poling said. “There’s a huge dramatic climax, then there’s a pause, and the music becomes very gentle, and then the goodbye at the end. “To me that little moment of pause, the quietness of the goodbye, I think more reflects who those priests are. I hope the music echoes the true sincerity of what these men had to have been feeling to sacrifice themselves for our city.”
Representatives from the Vatican and from local and regional municipalities are scheduled to attend. All five of the fallen priests are potential saints as the cases to advance their beatification and canonization were voted upon by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops this past June. The cause now goes to the Vatican’s “Dicastery for Causes of Saints” for further formal inquiry into their lives.