Continuing our serialised life of Mgr. Lefebvre as told to the Sisters of the Society at St. Michel we look this month at Fr. Lefebvre’s return to Europe where he becomes rector of a seminary there before being chosen as Vicar Apostolic in Dakar.
So, I moved on. The Gabon stage was finished: 13 years of being a missionary in Gabon. Next came a short stay in Europe. I left Gabon in 1945 at the end of the war. The first war planes had started coming back to the colonies and were taking all sorts of people back with them: old people, sick people or others who had particular reasons for leaving. The Congregation had managed to get me on one of these planes leaving Libreville for France. Nowadays it takes six or seven hours to get; here but in those lays it took three lays even by Diane… First we flew to Duala, Tom from there to Kano in the North of Nigeria and finally to Algier and thence to Paris. Aeroplanes didn’t fly at night and they were very small and flew very slowly. I left with a confrère who was rather poorly and we set off for France.
There, of course, I had been made superior of the Seminary in Mortain. The Holy Ghost Fathers’ seminary in Mortain was a very beautiful building, at gast artistically speaking, an old abbey dating back to the llth Century, a little like Ruffec [the French novitiate for the Sisters of society of st pius x beliefs, near St. Michel en Brenne] but smaller, narrower but very beautiful with lovely transepts all restored by the National Monuments Society. It was a magnificent building and had attached to it another building which had been used as the Diocesan minor seminary. It had fallen into disuse and during the war. had been used as a hospital for the sick and wounded. Gradually it was handed over to the Holy Ghost Fathers for their philosophy seminary.
There were 110 students for the two years of philosophy. 55 students per year – it was enormous, flourishing at that time. We’d like to have as many now. There was obviously a teaching staff, philosophy professors together with all the related subjects. I was the rector and in the evenings I gave a talk on spiritual matters. I used the material from these talks to produce two little photocopied books. I spent two years there, completely different from Gabon, of course, but with youngsters, good young men who had come from the novitiate and were therefore still full of zeal from their novitiate, waiting to go on to their theology seminary which was in Chevilly-Larue near Paris.
At the end of the second year, in June, the vice-rector came to me and said,
“The Superior General is on the ‘phone and wants to speak to you”.
Then I was put through to Mgr. le Hunsec who said,
“Father, brace yourself, you’ve been appointed Vicar Apostolic in Dakar!”
My goodness, Vicar Apostolic in Dakar, which was more or less Bishop of Dakar.
The Cathedral in Dakar
He could have said I was going to be Vicar Apostolic in Gabon -I certainly wasn’t after becoming Vicar Apostolic or a bishop at all, not at all – I would have understood. I had come from Gabon. After being there for thirteen years on the missions I knew the Fathers, I knew the language, I knew quite a few people. I would have been immediately at home with the priests and the whole Catholic community in Gabon.
But Dakar! When you walked around Dakar you saw nothing but muslims, or overwhelmingly, not many priests, not many Catholics. To go to a diocese like that where I didn’t know anyone, the priests there, the Sisters’ congregations: the Cluny Sisters, and the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception from Castres. I would have to get to know everything, right in the middle of the muslims who were in a huge majority. Out of three and half million inhabitants there were three million muslims, around 50,000 Catholics and the rest were animists. Oh well, it wasn’t up to me. Mgr. Le Hunsec said,
“You’re a religious so you’ve got to obey! You don’t have the choice, you can’t choose between yes and no. You’ve got to say yes”.
I said to myself, “What can I do?”
Taking possession of the Cathedral in Dakar
So, I went to Paris to meet the Superior General to decide who would consecrate me bishop. It was a big shake-up for me. I realised that when you’re a missionary or even the superior of a seminary you have direct contact with the people, with the youth, with the faithful. When you’re a bishop, you’re on a higher plane, you only come into contact with the missionaries but no longer directly with the faithful. And then, simply being a bishop put a certain distance between you and people: “Did you see… the bishop, the bishop! You’re going to have the bishop!…” Oh dear. So, you’re straight away on a pedestal, you know, there’s no more contact with people… at the same time you’ve got the responsibility, much more of course: the spiritual care of a whole diocese it’s quite a responsibility.
They asked Cardinal Liénart to perform the consecration since he was the bishop of Lille and he had been the bishop who had ordained me priest. He accepted and it was decided to do the consecration on 18th September in my home parish of Our Lady of Tourcoing. At the customary address I mentioned my formation at the French Seminary under Fr. Le Floch. How grateful I was to Fr. Le Floch for giving me solid principles for the faith, for giving me an attachment to our Lord, in life and in death, and for making me understand the crises the Church had been through, the errors against the Truth, against our Lord. Well, it was not without consequences! Of course, no-one said anything to me at the time but the Cardinal was listening and thought of nothing better to do than go and tell the Nuncio in Paris what I’d said. The Nuncio at the time was Mgr. Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII…