Forty years after dying a premature death, the memory of which is sweet to the ears of Cajun Roman Catholics, Charlene Marie Richard again drew nearly 1,000 devotees to her country grave at a recent ceremony. Many gave thanks for favors they believe a girl who died at the age of 12 has purchased for them in heaven.

Those favors, some believe, include miraculous acts of lifesaving healing, such as the deliverance of 1-year-old Alyse Graham, of nearby Lafayette, whose physician believes Charlene's intercession with God snatched the newborn from death last year.

And smaller blessings, too: a new job, a safe trip, an unexpected kiss of good fortune.

Bonnie Broussard, a 47-year-old homemaker from Lafayette, believes Charlene engineered an improbable middle-of-the-night job transfer that returned her homesick sister to Louisiana.

"I talk to her every day," Broussard said. "When I'm in the car and I'm worried about something I have to do that day, I say, 'Now, Charlene, I need your help with this.' And she always seems to come through."

Charlene is to many a friend, a protector, a helpmate bringing their prayers to God.

"Our little Cajun saint," some call her in the rice farming country of southwest Louisiana.

Many think she literally is a saint. They hope the Catholic Church, so deeply woven into the fabric of life in the region, will one day begin the formal process of canonization.

Charlene, who lived a happy life as an ordinary, outgoing 12-year-old country girl, entered the lore of faith for one reason: the way she died.

Consumed by leukemia on Aug. 11, 1959, only 16 days after diagnosis, she reportedly offered her grueling last days to God in what Catholic doctrine calls redemptive suffering, the belief that joining earthly suffering to that of Jesus Christ can alter the course of lives on Earth.

Stories of her death spring from the accounts of her family and a now-retired Lafayette priest, the Rev. Joseph Brennan, who ministered to Charlene on her deathbed. The tales always emphasize the question a failing Charlene reportedly asked Brennan as he visited her each of those last days: "Who shall I pray for today?"

Within a year, the Rev. Floyd Calais was using the story of Charlene's death as a model on retreats and missions around southwest Louisiana. Calais, a friend of Brennan's, had heard his admiring stories about Charlene.

He prayed to her for relief from an unhappy assignment. Three weeks later, his bishop rescued him with a transfer to an unfamiliar country parish, with a small graveyard next to the church.

"Would you like to see Charlene's grave?" the departing pastor asked an astonished Calais on his first visit to what turned out to be Charlene's own parish.

Calais kept spreading the word, and people added their own stories of gifts from Charlene.

Within 10 years, a folk religious movement was born, one the official church in Louisiana regards with a patient, hands-off, wait-and-see attitude.

Her grave at St. Edward's Catholic Church, about 30 miles northwest of Lafayette, has become a shrine. Occasionally, a chartered bus from New Orleans, 160 miles away, will pull up and unload several dozen pilgrims.

An organization called Friends of Charlene mails out a newsletter once or twice a year to 750 addresses across the country. The newsletter is filled with testimony from believers who credit her with favors from God and with the latest news on their hopes to start the canonization process.

CAPTION: Mary Alice Richard shows some 1950s photos of her daughter, Charlene, in the family home in Church Point, La. Many in Louisiana consider Charlene a saint.