I was ordained in 1929 by Mgr. Lienart but it was the practice to do another year of studies in seminary after being ordained. When I was finally available for the active ministry in 1930 I returned to my diocese in Lille.
My brother, who had joined the Holy Ghost Fathers had finished his studies with them and had left for Gabon in the same year as his ordination in 1927. As for me, I had been appointed by Cardinal Lienart as curate in a quite important little suburb of Lille called le Marais de Lomme . There were around 10,000 parishioners almost all of them workers. It was a working class district. These workers went to work in the factories in the surrounding suburbs since there was only one within the parish boundaries. There were long streets of houses all built the same. There were a lot of people who had come from Boulogne were there was a lot of unemployment and had come to the Nord to get a job.
I had to get to know these people. I had to visit them. They hadn’t yet made contact with the parish. There was a group, a very fervent, steady parish life. Alas, of the 10,000 inhabitants there were very few who actually practised their faith. Perhaps around 2,000, however, who came to Mass on Sunday, including children.
Fr. Lefebvre with his Parish priest
I had been appointed to the parish and the parish priest had been told. He already had one curate. I got in touch with him to let him know I was coming.
“All right, here I am. What would you like me to do?”
I was the second curate and he thought about it for a while and then he said, nicely, joking a little, but he said, “Oh, I hadn’t asked for a second curate, you know, I don’t really need one. I thought
that it was enough to have one curate only!”
“Oh!” I said.
He continued, “You know, for a parish this size there’s no real need for a second curate”.
“Well, I’ll try my best to do something!”, I suggested.
To which he replied, “No, you’re very welcome, of course, you must make yourself at home and so on. We’ll give you a room…”
Two of his nieces looked after the place doing the cooking and washing and so forth. They were good women and they worked hard. Besides I already knew the first curate who had been at high school with me at the Sacred Heart in Tourcoing. So I already knew someone there but of course I didn’t know all the parish and everyone in it. It was all new to me. But I must confess that I got to like my ministry of visiting these people. Of course there were all sorts of people…
The parish was divided up into districts. The Parish Priest looked after one district, the first curate another and the second curate yet another. So we had to visit everyone. On the whole we were welcomed and received well. But sometimes there were communists who slammed the door in your face…So we would go and see the neighbour and say, “Who is the man next door? What is he? Why is he so disagreeable?”
The neighbour would say, “It’s one of those mad communists, you know, so he wouldn’t want to speak to you. But he’s not a bad man, I will try and talk to him and see if we can’t sort things out, we’ll get him to speak to you in the end.”
And indeed when I came the next time he would open the door at least.
We would try and see what sort of situation these people were in and very often, unfortunately there were people who were divorced, people who were living together without being married. The children weren’t going to catechism and so on. Well, we had to try and get these people to come back to church. It was obviously not very easy sometimes. But we did have some success because in their hearts the people weren’t bad but you had to give them the chance to get to know the parish and the priests a bit better. Once they had got to know the priests it was already better. Thus we were able to sort out all sorts of situations.
Then there were the visits to the sick, the regular visits which were very interesting. Then there were confessions, sermons to give, catechism, looking after the children, the youth and so on. There was no shortage of things to do and it was nice to come into contact with these simple, working people – they weren’t very cultured but they were good people.
But Providence had decided that I was not to stay there…
During that year, 1930-311 received lots of letters from my brother who was already a missionary in Gabon. He gave me descriptions of his work and his confrères’ work. They were completely overwhelmed. There weren’t enough missionaries. So he kept on saying, “Why don’t you come too? After all, there are enough priests in the diocese of Lille.” This phrase reminded me a bit of what the Parish priest had said to me when I arrived. He said, “We’re happy to have you, you know, of course, very happy, but really we don’t need a second curate.”
In spite of my brother keeping on I didn’t really have any attraction for the missions. I don’t know why… No, I wasn’t cut out to be a missionary far away; it didn’t appeal to me at all. I would rather have been a Parish priest or a curate in a village where I would have known everyone and would have been able to do some good for them. But trekking through the jungle, amongst the natives, learning new languages, to be in a world completely foreign to my own, I had the impression that that was beyond me, it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t really keen but when I heard the repeated pleas of my brother,.. I received a rational missionary vocation. I thought, “Oh well, since I’m not really indispensable here, if they really need people out there, why not? Why not go?”
So at the end of the year I wrote to Cardinal Liénart and then to the Holy Ghost Fathers saying that if the Cardinal gave me permission to leave the diocese I would be willing to join the Holy Ghost Fathers and become a missionary. Well, me Cardinal said yes, he said to me,
“Well, we’re obviously always sad to lose one of our priests but if you really think you can be useful in the missions we cannot refuse your request.”
The Holy Ghost Fathers of course were very happy to accept a secular priest, since they would not even have to see to his formation. I had been their student at the French seminary, it’s true, but it wasn’t for them it was for the diocese of Lille. They hadn’t contributed in a positive way to my formation. So, of course, they were very happy to accept me.
So I went to the noviciate in Orly right next to where the airport is now. There the Holy Ghost Fathers had their noviciate. There were three priests with me who had all been to the French seminary. Fr. Laurent was one of them. We had been friends at seminary not thinking that providence would bring us together again in the noviciate one day. Providence once again! There we renewed our friendship in a deeper way since we had both become Holy Ghost Fathers. The other was Father Wolf who later became bishop of Madagascar in the diocese of Diego-Suarez. So there were three priests and around 24 novices for France alone! It was an enormous number. When you think of figures like that you have to ask yourself if it could really have been true considering that nowadays there’s nothing left of all that.
Fr. Faure was our Novice Master and Fr. Desmats our confessor: both very good Holy Ghost Fathers. We spent a year in the noviciate, a very cold year, my goodness, my goodness me! Is it possible to put novices through that sort of thing? incredible! I don’t know if it was an exceptionally cold year, I think so. At any rate, there was no heating in the rooms, only the community room was heated, and there was no running water at that time. We had to go and fetch water in ewers and there was a cold tap at the end of a corridor. The water would freeze in the ewer! In the morning you had to break the ice to have a bit of a wash… You could put on four, five or six blankets which was quite heavy but it made no difference, you couldn’t get warm. We were always cold. Oh, it was terrible! I don’t know how I didn’t die of cold!
And on top of that we had to read this book by Fr. Rodriguez, a Jesuit, in four volumes called Christian Perfection. We had to read Rodriguez walking one behind the other outside in the courtyard!!! It was icy cold! We couldn’t feel our fingers which were holding the book after a while and we walked around one behind the other like that That was our noviciate!