Blessed James Desire Laval Priest
Croth (Evreux), Normandy, September 18, 1803 – Port-Louis, Mauritius, September 9, 1864
He was born in France in 1803 to a middle-class family that pushed him to graduate in medicine. Escaping from an accident, he decided to leave the medical profession to become a missionary. Sent in 1841 on the island of Mauritius, he enthusiastically devoted himself to the evangelization of the Blacks who had been legally freed from slavery, but left to themselves. His “chosen field” caused serious conflicts with other missionaries and even with the bishop, who wanted to devote himself only to the children of white settlers. His “incarnation” in the world of “negritude” led him to value all the positive elements of local culture not, only religious, but also the indigenous. James Laval was beatified by Pope John Paul II, who stressed the fact that he had placed “on one side, the side of the last, the Blacks in a time of racism.”
Roman Martyrology: In Port-Louis Mauritius Indian Ocean island, blessed James Desired Laval, a priest, who after some years of practice of medicine, became a missionary of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit and led the blacks newly freed from slavery to freedom of God’s children
First-born of twins, James and Michael, he inherited his father’s name, James Laval, according to the custom of the time; his mother’s name was Susanna Delérablée and was born September 18, 1803 at Croth, diocese of Evreux in Normandy, France, where the father was mayor; the first name of James was added to the desired name, holy bishop of Rennes, which was celebrated on that day. He received from his family a deep religious education, particularly from his mother, though he was left an orphan at age eight, in 1811.
He was sent for three years to live with an uncle at Tourville-la-Campagne, in turn, his uncle sent him then to the Seminary of Evreux, but after a little while, he was back in the family, to pursue his studies in the College Stanislas in Paris, attending Faculty of Medicine.
At 27 he graduated in Medicine, (1830) and began to practice as a first-Saint-André de l’Eure, where he remained for three and a half and then in Ivry-la-Bataille. Dr. Jacques Desire Laval had in the meantime, set aside the religious sentiments which had animated a child and adolescent, but deep inside he felt increasingly dissatisfied.
He happened to visit an elderly, sick, person who was increasingly committed to reading the book “Imitation of Christ” and he asked to borrow the book. Reading this book of great spirituality, author unknown, but believed written by a Monk of some Italian or French abbey, and a fall from a horse, which could’ve caused him to lose his life, his vocation to the religious state, which had been asleep, resurfaced. This generated great surprise among those who knew him, though he devoted himself to charitable work throughout.
On June 15, 1835, he entered the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, speeding up the time for the studies so far devoted to other purposes, and December 2, 1838 he was ordained a priest, and a fortnight later, he was appointed parish priest of the parish of Pinterville in his diocese of origin.
The parish consisted of only 483 inhabitants, of whom only fifty attended the church, but within two years, he managed to bring in almost all those who neglected their faith.
In August 1840 he received a visit from two seminarians, and discussed with them the project of evangelization of Africans, particularly the black slaves freed by the abolition of slavery, proclaimed in 1835, and it was clear that the spiritual needs of all of this People were immense and urgent.
Jacques Desire Laval, was so learned that the convert son of a rabbi in Alsace, Francis Liberman, went to Rome for papal approval for founding a society of priests who devote themselves to the apostolate of these freed slaves.
Liberman, who suffered epilepsy, had to leave the seminary, but was ordained priest in 1841 by Msgr. Collier, Bishop of Port Louis in Mauritius, who had come to Europe to find priests and while declaring himself the protector dell’erigendo Institute, which was founded in 1841 by Liberman (1804-1852) now venerable, under the name of “Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
The pastor Laval was among the first to join this congregation, followed immediately Mgr. Collier, returned to his diocese, even before it opened a Novitiate. And so September 14, 1841, Bishop Collier, Father Laval and three other missionaries landed in Mauritius, in the heart of the Indian Ocean. The religious situation in the island was dramatic, as the British colony was populated by 140,000 inhabitants, of whom 75% were freed slaves and of these 90,000 were Catholics in the colony, there were only nine priests, committed particularly for some 15,000 descendants of the white settlers.
Father Laval immediately devoted himself to the evangelization of the Blacks, who despite having been baptized in the years 1835 to 1839, were no longer following a pastor, after five months of stay, the missionary described a situation morally tragic island was only to deal with about 80,000 Blacks, corruption was unbelievable, half were not baptized and those who were living like pagans, few were married in church, the raging drunkenness, girls abused by employers and by young whites.
The Blacks born in the colony were called ‘Creole’ and were corrupt, the poor priest turned virtually to refugees from Madagascar or Mozambique.
He had to fight with the wealthy, who saw in his apostolic activities, opportunities for loss of time for housework.
Promoted the preparation of many catechists, who enlightened understanding, called ‘advisers’, and he was also misunderstood by his superiors. Indeed in Paris meanwhile his “Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary” had melted after ten years with the Congregation of the Holy Spirit “and the new Superior General Father believed that Laval and his associates, were ‘too little missionaries and religious’.
To this were added the difficulties continue, from the Protestant British government of the colony and especially the insufficient number of brothers, seeing the immense work ahead.
The line of James Laval apostolate that followed, was to point out that Blacks are God’s children and to affirm the human dignity of all his flock, excluding the temptation to start a ‘parallel church’ only for the Blacks, he tried to to understand that all spiritual prosperity, material well-being is also promoted.
With these principles, during the cholera epidemic in 1854-1857-1862, he founded numerous hospitals, visiting the sick wherever they were. He opened schools to teach the basics, he built several chapels for spiritual formation.
His integration efforts gave encouraging results and in a few years, the Mauritian population, white or Creole, saw rise to a new social class, with mutual respect. In his private he used a hair shirt, slept on the earth, lived in a hut, used mortifications, continuous fasting and prayer during the night, privations of all kinds.
At 59 he was a man physically debilitated, suffering from apoplexy, was watched by thousands of former slaves in tears. He died September 9, 1864, before his corpse paraded 20,000 and 40,000 attended his funeral, which was a real triumph of gratitude.
His grave remained in the Church of the Holy Cross in Port-Louis, where he died, the island Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.
Father Jacques Desire Laval, priest of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was beatified April 29, 1979 by Pope John Paul II, first with the Dominican Blessed Francis Coll, of the long list of blessed this pontificate.
Author: Antonio Borrelli
Source: Santi e Beati