been the Patron Saint of all Mauritians. We can ask him today to keep us close to God and his Church through prayer and the sacraments."
The Most Rev Maurice Couve de Murville, Archbishop Emeritus of Birmingham S eptember 9 marked the anniversary of the death of Father Jacques Desire Laval, a French missionary to the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. He was a member of the Holy Ghost congregation and he died in 1864 in his parish in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius.
Jacques Desire Laval hailed from the village of Croth, in the Normandy region of France. He studied medicine and started practising as a doctor in 1830 near Evreux. As a doctor he always advised his patients, where he thought it was necessary or useful, to see a priest. He thought that the doctor and the priest went hand in hand for body and soul.
Although a good and wellrespected doctor, Jacques Desire Laval did not think that medicine was his true calling. In June 1835, at the age of 32, he entered the St Sulpice seminary in Paris to try his vocation. He was ordained priest on December 2, 1838, and returned to his own Diocese of Evreux, where he worked at the parish church in the small village of Pinterville.
Father Laval aspired to work as a missionary in the developing countries and in this context read and was highly influenced by the life of St Peter Claver, who gave himself fully to the service of slaves in Latin America by living among them and sharing their awful Lives.
A development was to take place in which Father Laval saw the hand of providence at work. The Diocese of Mauritius was in search of missionaries. Although Mauritius was Frenchspeaking, it was entrusted to the English Benedictines' representative to the Holy See, Bishop William Collier, who knew that he had to recruit French-speaking priests for the success of his missionary work in Mauritius. After negotiations with the French ecclesiastical authorities and the Bishop of Evreux, Father Laval was reluctantly released for missionary work in Mauritius. He set off for Mauritius on Ash Wednesday 1841 via London, where he would catch the boat sailing to Bombay, calling at Mauritius en route. After a three-month journey, he reached Mauritius on September 13 of that year.
In Mauritius, Father Laval was given the specific apostolate of caring for the freed slaves and began straight away to learn Creole, a form of French patois which was, and still is, the lingua franca among the various ethnic groups in Mauritius. His way of life was as poor and as simple as that of the average black person: he lived in a hare little but and not in the well-furnished European-style room which he could have had, Slowly the fear and suspicion the freed slaves had for Father Laval started to give way to trust and they began to regard him as a friend.
As the freed slaves were 'all illiterates, Father Laval thought it imperative to educate them and therefore set about organising classes for them. Soon after, Father Laval started to instruct them in the faith, beginning with the simple prayers and then organising a Mass for them at noon, when the white settlers and rulers of the island were having their siesta. His way of life and the amount of time he spent with the freed slaves became a source of resentment for the white minority, and he became the target of several
physical attacks and assaults, some more vicious than others. Th6 white plantocracy had no wish to see the treed slaves being edu
cated and growing in selfrespect and dignity. The work of Father Laval among the freed slaves was perceived as a threat and a sure way of undermining the values and the social structure of society, which at that time fostered white supremacy. The white ruling class feared that Father Laval's closeness with the freed slaves would spread dangerous ideas about democracy and equality. And so Father Laval was considered a traitor to the white cause.
For Father Laval, the freed slaves were children of God whose development and growth had deliberately been stunted by inhumanity and injustice and this, along with his simple life of prayer and sacrifice, formed the backdrop of his apostolate.
His main preoccupation all along was to instil and foster in the former slaves a sense of their own worth as human beings in the eyes of God. He also started a parish fund to help the most needy and he was involved in opening schools. He was not there to improve living conditions, however, but to preach the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ and to do so by identifying with the poor. As a result, the freed slaves responded to his ministry in ever greater numbers.
The congregation continued to grow and the central parish in Port Louis had more than 3,000 adult parishioners and thriving organisations for men. women and children as well as a choir. Baptism, first communion, confession, Stations of the Cross and the rosary became part of the parishioners' lives and were on the increase everywhere on the island. More and more of the white population went back to practising the
faith, while the black population went to church two or three times a week.
As more missionaries arrived on the island. Father Laval received much-needed help with his ministry and was even able to assign a priest to work with the white population, who felt they were being neglected in favour of the black population. There is also documentary evidence of happenings at the time, which may be classified as miracles flowing from the actions and prayers of Father Laval.
All the years of hard work and self-sacrifice began to take their toll and Father Laval had a first stroke, from which he recovered. But by 1860 ill health forced him to leave his but and move into the presbytery. He refused to go to France for treatment. His voice weakened and his eyesight failed due to cataracts, but he still managed to preach at the blessing of the new Holy Cross Church in Port Louis. He died peacefully on September 9, 1864, after a most fruitful apostolate of 23 years in Mauritius. It was the feast day of St Peter Myer, the man who had so inspired him.
Since his death, there has been an annual pilgrimage to his tomb by thousands of Mauritians of all denominations. The Apotre des Noirs (Apostle of the Blacks), as he is affectionately known, is held in high esteem and is the subject of an ever-growing devotion. He is called "the holy man" by non-Catholics who, throughout the year, come to his tomb to pray for their intentions. The number of graces and favours attributed to the intercession of Father Laval is infinite.
In 1979 Father Laval was , beatified in Rome by Pope John Paul 11, who placed his pontificate under the protection of Father Laval; ten years later, on a visit to Mauritius, the Pope prayed at the tomb of the Blessed Father Laval. Mauritians of all denominations now pray and wait in earnest for the day when Father Laval is canonised as the Apostle of Mauritius.
This event will be the one thing that galvanises all the denominations of this multicultural country into one people. It will be a fitting tribute to a great and holy man.
Clency Mariapa is secretary of the Pere Laval Association (UK)