The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Servant of God Jacques Desiderius Laval

Blessed Jacques Désiré LavalLike Libermann, the Servant of God Jacques Desiderius Laval, the first missionary of the Society founded by him is to share in the honor of the altar. Father Laval, born on 18 September 1803, at Croth in Normandy, had taken up the study of medicine after finishing his classics at the college of Saint Stanislaus in Paris. During the time of his studies and also during the first years of his medical practice he was in every way a model in his performance of duty toward God and man. But even the saints are not immune from the allurements of sin. Doctor Laval gradually became indifferent to his religion and at length no longer practiced it. In its stead he desired to enjoy life in an orderly way and at the same time taste all its pleasures. Soon, however, he experienced the bitter disillusionment. The void and darkness in his heart grew ever greater. In course of time he recognized this, fortunately before the fetters of vice were fastened too strongly upon him. He suffered a grievous conflict with himself until he found courage to make a penitent confession.

Laval now desired fully to atone for the past and he resolved to become a priest. Though nearly thirty-two years of age, he entered the seminary of Saint Sulpice and after three years and a half, on 2 December 1838, he had accomplished his purpose. He went soon after to Saint Andre, near Evreux, where he had practised medicine and there celebrated Holy Mass publicly to repair the scandal he had formerly given. In his two years of labor as pastor of Pinterville, Laval won the reputation of a saint by his love of prayer, his practical love for his neighbor, and his ardent zeal in arousing the faith of the lukewarm.

The desire of apostolic work among the heathen had long taken possession of his heart. So when he heard that Libermann, whom he had known at Saint Sulpice, had instituted a society for the conversion of the Negro, he was one of the first to join it. His heart’s desire was forthwith come to fulfilment. On 6 June 1841, he set sail for the island of Mauritius in company with Bishop Collier of Port Louis.

At the time of Laval’s coming the island numbered 80,000 blacks, who for a few years back had enjoyed civil and political liberty; but at the same time had sunken into the misery of licentious living and ignorance of religion. The recognition of these sad conditions cut deep into the heart of the zealous priest. Still it was for him the desired opportunity to practise the same heroic work of charity as Saint Peter Claver, and he did not fail to correspond with this grace. Like his model he sought out the poorest in their misery, interested himself in their welfare and their troubles, helped them as much as he could and consoled them with words of affection. His medical knowledge and experience stood him in good stead with them. He was soon the idol of the formerly shy negroes. They now gladly listened to his discourses on God and the Church. He inaugurated a movement toward Christianity among the infidels. In a short time he had built fifty chapels. New helpers had to be brought from Europe. Yet the tireless priest found time for long hours of prayer on his knees before the tabernacle and in spite of unspeakable hardships and the difficulties of the climate he deemed it necessary to afflict his body with fearful penances. “I must do penance,” was his answer to those of his brethren who remonstrated.

Could it have been only chance that he was called to his heavenly reward on the feast of Saint Peter Claver, 9 September 1864? His funeral procession was the most magnificent pageant the little island ever beheld. Forty thousand men marched in it to do the last honors to their beloved Father. To this day the grateful islanders celebrate him as their greatest benefactor, their apostle. Fully ten thousand persons, among them even Protestants and heathens, make pilgrimages to his tomb every year seeking help for sufferings of body and soul.

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916