Père Laval – Redeemer of the Blacks

Mauritius Times 60 Years Ago

2nd Year No 57

Friday – 9th September 1955

• Society is composed of two great classes: those who have more dinners than appetite,
and those who have more appetite than dinners.   
— Cervantes

An Anniversary

“Dans un de ces moments où il prie, on éprouve des impressions qu’on ne peut rendre, et on approche de lui avec un respect et une sorte de religion dont on ne peut se défendre. Ses chers enfants le regardent comme un grand saint. Je crois qu’il fera un jour des miracles. »     — P. Le Vavasseur

Scarcely a day passes when there are no devotees at the shrine of Père Laval at St Croix. At any hour of the day you will not fail to find somebody there who has come to return thanks for a cure, for a piece of good fortune or for an escape from some worldly intricacy or who has come to pray for the intercession of the father with God to save him from some impending trouble. Question him and he will tell you that miracles are wrought at his tomb. Such is the reputation that Père Laval enjoys since more than a century. Time has done nothing to sully his glory.

Père Laval was born on the 18th of September 1803 in the small village of Croth or Cro near the diocese of Chartres. He inherited from his mother, Suzanne Delerablee, that love of charity and that piety which characterized him through life and earned for him the reputation of a saint. It is said of her that she used to be so generous towards those who sought her help that she was often reproached for her lavishness. On such occasions, she used to say: “Ah! ne m’en parlez pas, plus j’en donne, plus le bon Dieu m’en rend.” Unfortunately the boy Laval lost his pious mother when he was aged only eight.

The young Laval began his studies under the guidance of an uncle who was the vicar of Tourville-la-Campagne. This uncle in the role of a venerated master moulded his education until he was aged seventeen when he was sent to the clerical school of Evreux. He had spent only some months in this institution when brooding melancholy so much soured his life that he resolved to give up studies and take to agriculture. His father, who was as severe as he was kind would not allow him to do so. It was his ambition to see his son continue his intellectual pursuits. He wanted to make him get disgusted with field work by making him experience its rigours. He put him to the toughest tasks, saying: “Ah! ça, mon ami, cela te casse la tête d’apprendre le latin? Eh bien! Moi, je vais essayer de te casser un peu le bras.”

Consequently Laval decided again to pursue his studies. He was sent to Stalinlas College, where in August 1825 he obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He then joined the medical college of Paris where in the year 1830 he became doctor of medicine. He then began life as a practitioner at St Andre. His charitable nature made him take care of his poor patients without claiming any fees. This attitude roused the hostility of another practitioner in the locality, who leagued with the chemist of the place to boycott him. During his stay at St Andre, some irreligious feelings had crept into his heart, dragged as he was by the temptations of the world. But he soon began to repent of his conduct.

In bitterness he left St Andre and settled down at Ivry-en-Montagne where he enjoyed the intimacy of an old medical practitioner – Dr Postel. He worked hard during this period of which he writes: “Je ne tenais pas à l’argent, je n’avais pas d’inclination pour le mariage, et alors je me disais souvent à moi-même : mais enfin pour qui travailles-tu, et que t’en reviendra-t-il, quand tu seras ainsi épuisé ?… Il te faut changer de façon de vivre, et travailler de façon à opérer ton salut d’abord, puis à faire un bien plus solide et plus durable à tes frères ».

These thoughts marked a turning point in his life. When he was still a child, on being asked about the choice of a career, he used to say that he would be a medical practitioner or a priest. He was destined to be both. He put an end to his medical career when he was aged thirty-two and joined the seminary of St Sulpice, where he began to pursue his theological studies. In 1839 he became the vicar of Pinterville. As soon as he arrived there he was shocked by the thin attendance of the people at church. During some ceremony he often found himself alone at church, apart from some children and those employed in the church. In the course of only two years he had infused a new religious spirit into the minds of the inhabitants of Pinterville.

In 1841 he accepted the mission of the evangelization of the blacks in Mauritius. He found, on his arrival on our shores, that the religious side of the life of the inhabitants was sorely neglected. Particularly the blacks suffered the grossest neglect. He put his shoulder to the wheel in the cause of God with his wonted zeal. He roused the fury of many a white master, who found in him an instigator of troubles in filling in the minds of the blacks ideas of piety.

He wholeheartedly indentified himself with the cause of the downtrodden, ready as a true servant of Christ, to suffer martyrdom for their sake. Those who opposed his high humanitarian and religious ideals did everything in their power to dishearten him. He was spat at, scoffed at and booed. Some white hooligans even raised their impious hands against him. But they did all to no purpose.

The work of Père Laval has amply borne its fruits. It raised Catholicism from the slough of despond in which it was found before his arrival. The mission of Père Laval has given to Catholicism that prestige which otherwise it would not have enjoyed. In a letter written by P. Libermann, tribute is paid to his work in Mauritius. The letter in question is concluded thus:

« Si le P. Laval était resté en France il n’aurait pas fait la vingtième partie du bien qu’il fait à Maurice ; et toutes ces âmes qui, avant lui, étaient entièrement abandonnées, auraient continué à l’être. »

It is today, the 9th September, anniversary of the death of P. Laval, that we get a full consciousness of the work done by him. More than a century has elapsed since he died. Yet time only increased his reputation. At Sainte-Croix, on this day, at any hour you will see huge crowds, among whom you will find not only Catholics but Mauritians of every creed and colour. In many homes in Mauritius P. Laval has become a household name.

(MT 9 September 1955)

By D. Napal BA (Hons)

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