Continuing our serialised life of Mgr. Lefebvre as told to the Sisters of the Society at St. Michel we look this month at the first years of missionary life in Gabon with the Holy Ghost Fathers. What a difference from the quiet life of the parish in Lille!
Finally the noviciate was over and I was professed 8th September, 1932 on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. And then I was appointed to Gabon. I could have been sent elsewhere but obviously, as it was my brother who had been responsible for recruiting me… Already Mgr. Tardy, the bishop of Gabon, had come and seen me in the noviciate and had said to me,
“You’re coming to join us, you know”
I said, “I know nothing about it, it depends on the Superior General.”
“Oh yes, yes, yes, I’m sure, whatever you do, don’t refuse to come. Your brother is there, you must come and join your brother.”
I replied, “If the Superior General agrees, I will come.”
Then he added, “And then, since you did your studies in Rome, you will be a professor in the seminary”.
Oh dear! That was what I was afraid of. Oh it was too bad. I liked doing pastoral work, I liked the active ministry, I felt I was made for that. But a professor, oh dear, no, no, no, professor in a seminary, no.
I told him, “You know, I’m no more capable of that than anyone else. Don’t think just because I went to Rome that I would make a better professor.”
But he just repeated, “Of course you will, yes; yes, of course.”
So, the Superior General appointed me to Gabon and I left in October. Since there were no airoplanes in those days I had to go by boat which took a fortnight to get to Gabon. I said goodbye to my parents and I left in October 1932.1 was not to see my mother again since she died in 1938. I couldn’t see her again I was still in Gabon.
I had been appointed to the seminary of which Fr. Fauret was the Rector. Then, two years later when he became the bishop of Loango in the mid Congo, Mgr. Tardy made me Rector. I was assisted by Fr. Berger who is now dead sadly. So I was responsible for all those young seminarians and it was no small job looking after all the different classes because with 15 older boys I also had 15 minor seminarians. How were we going to organize all those classes?
In order to reduce the number of classes we decided to put the courses on a cycle, year by year, so that we could deal with all the seminarians at once. It was from among those boys that today’s bishops in Gabon were taken.
There was Mgr. Ndong who was a pupil of mine and who became bishop of Oyem in Gabon. There was Mgr. Felician Makouaka who is no bishop of Franceville deep inside Gabon [actually Mgr. Makouaka has now retired and was replaced in November 1996 by Mgr. Modibo-Nzockena]. Then there was Mgr. Cyriac Obamba who is still bishop of Mouila today and who was also my pupil in Gabon [Mgr. Obamba died 7th My, 1996]. The present Archbishop of Libreville, Mgr. Anguilé on the other hand was not one of my pupils. But quite a few of the priests who are still alive were my pupils. Among the minor seminarians there were some who left, they must be 60, 65 or 70 years old. Some of them knew me very well which, thanks be to God, made it easier for Fr. Groche to start up in Gabon. It’s obvious that if my brother and I hadn’t been missionaries there, we would never have been able to start a mission there. The bishops would have pressurised the government in such a way that we would have been forbidden to start anything. Whilst it was difficult for these bishops who had been my pupils to throw me out and declared war on me. Now that was certainly a particular grace of God that the Society of St. Pius X was able to start up in Gabon. It is a great consolation for me to think that now the flame has been rekindled in Gabon thanks to Fr. Groche and the fathers who are with him who are reviving the Tradition which we gave to those bishops. What I did for them that is what we are carrying on now, that’s what Fr. Groche is carrying on.
So I did six years at the seminary: two years as a professor and four as Rector. The work was very hard and the climate was terrible. Many young missionaries who were sent to that country died after two or three years. When you went to the cemetery you could see on the missionaries’ gravestones: died aged 26, died aged 27, died aged 28. It was difficult to put up with the climate. In those days we had very little remedy against all the insects and sicknesses that there were: malaria, amoebas, intestinal worms, tsetse fly (which caused sleeping sickness) it was terrible. Then there was amoebic dysentry i.e. internal haemorrages in the liver which wasn’t working properly because of the food and the heat. Amoebic dysentry was very serious, fatal. My brother was very bad with it at the end of his second year. I got it at the end of six years and nearly died, I couldn’t carry on with my work. I had no more strength left, I was really finished.
Now strictly speaking we were not allowed to return to France until after 10 years. They let me go back in 1939. But I left the seminary earlier in 1938 and for a year I was on a mission station inland
I was happier there but I had to learn the language. I was very happy in this mission of N’djole as curate to Fr. Ndong, the future Mgr. Ndong. We got on very well and worked well together. There were nuns from Castres, from the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception who were there as missionaries. In all our missions we always had a school… In N’djole we had 80 boys and 60, 70 girls. The sisters looked after the girls who were all boarders and we, the Fathers, looked after the boys’ school. And then of course we had our trips into the bush.