Dr MALA MODUN-BISSESSUR
“Être parmi les plus démunis des démunis…”
Jacques Désiré Laval (1803-1864) saw the day on 18th September 1803 in a well-to-do family in the village of Croth, Normandy, France, a country where there was no shortage of opportunities to achieve greatness in all avenues of life. He chose the field of medicine and after a few years of practice from 1830 to 1835, he realized that the complete wellbeing of an individual depends on both his physical and spiritual state. He answered a call from The Lord to be at the service of the poor, the sick, the miserable “d’être parmi les plus démunis des démunis…” and joined priesthood. Leaving family and material belongings behind, the French national reached Port-Louis, Mauritius, on 14th September 1841 on board the Tanjore. The island, a British colony, where the French and the British came to arms a few years before for its possession, was underdeveloped. It was inhabited by people from Europe, Africa, Madagascar, Asia, all engaged in its development but at a cost: that of human suffering. The Indian Ocean itself was a dangerous zone with acts of piracy. Human trade was ongoing; slavery, recently administratively abolished in 1835, was followed by the indentured labour program with the recruitment of Indian nationals on contract to work in the fields in replacement of the liberated slaves. The latter though “freed” were still on service, on apprenticeship with their previous owners or elsewhere. Towards all, the treatment was deplorable: rationed food and clothing, poor housing, no safe water or waste disposal, limited or no access to health care, restricted movements within the country, low salary, unjustified salary cut amongst others. The poor quality of life under long hours of harsh labour, cruel treatment, malnutrition diseases like tuberculosis, leprosy, dysentery, cholera, fever, malaria became prevalent and led to a high morbidity and mortality among the working class and their family. Human dignity and values had no meaning.
« Mes enfants me demandent »
Father Laval came to Mauritius during the period of active “peuplement et développement de L’île Maurice’’ by an influx of manpower, mainly from India. They were from the poor socioeconomic strata in their country and had no health professionals among them. There was no common language for ease of communication among the different sections of the population either. Father Laval was briefed in France about this state of affairs; taking matters in hand, he devoted himself fully to their cause. He stayed near the Cathedral in Port-Louis, learnt the local dialect, the Patois Creole and spent considerable amount of his time outside among “Les Noirs”; the non-whites, who, irrespective of whether they were from Africa, Madagascar, India or other parts of Asia, were officially categorized as “Noirs” without distinction. He undertook his mission for the recognition of the human being as a respected individual, the upliftment of the body and soul while guiding the person on the right path to the Almighty with zeal. No greater help is more welcomed at any time than the help for the relief of pain and suffering from someone. Medical knowledge could neither be forgotten nor ignored nor be dissociated with the religious fervor of the priest. Though alone in his mission from 1841 to 1845, he was present at time of need to all. Overburdened with the heavy task, he requested help from France and delegated Spiritan priests who came to shoulder him in 1846 to different parts of the island. The town was a “zone de santé prioritaire” due to the high prevalence of several diseases including leprosy and worsened with the frequent arrival of labour with transmissible conditions. His presence was important as he put it « mes enfants me demandent ». It is well known that during the last hours of life many appeal to the Almighty. Deaths during the cholera epidemic in 1854 were 7650, and in 1856, 3250 died. Father Laval’s priority was by all means the welfare of the person. Under his guidance an outstanding brave person Mother Marie Augustine born Caroline Francoise Adelaide Lenferna de Laresle (1824-1900) founder of the Congregation des Soeurs de Charité de Notre-Dame-du- Bon-et-Perpétuel-Secours opened a hospital and a school in Pamplemousses. In 1857 The Hospice St Lazare, a hospital for leprosy patients in Port Louis North opened its doors.
A sense of belonging to humanity
“D’être parmi les plus démunis des démunis” was indeed Father Laval’s aim. The documented and well-known cruel treatment inflicted on the slaves by the slave owners at Long Mountain, a retired small village north of Port-Louis, moved Father Laval. The latter encouraged The Sisters of the Congregation des Soeurs de Charité and of The Notre Dame de Bon et Perpétuel Secours to set up a dispensary in this locality next to their convent. It proved very useful; eventually the dispensary became a well-established hospital offering services in several fields including general medicine surgery, gynaecology, paediatrics, epidemiology and covered Port-Louis, the northern and eastern districts. These first two health care points were set up in the first two villages where the French along with their slaves settled in Isle de France. Father Laval’s relentless input earned him the trust and respect of the “Noirs”, and gradually of those who initially resented his very presence and actions. He was much sought everywhere. His approach gave the “Noirs” a sense of belonging to humanity with rights to a religious faith and to attend church on equal footing with others, no more as a piece of furniture or an animal for hard labour. It created a bond of brotherhood among them be they of different homelands and gave an impulse to many to care for others. Father Laval’s Mission des Noirs bore its fruits. He himself led a very simple modest life with the bare minimum, shared his food and belongings with the needy but appealed for donations including food from the well-to-do for the unfortunate. People also voluntarily came forward with cash and in kind. In an act of thanksgiving to The Lord who answered his prayers for a betterment in his life conditions Mr Chauvet Zamör, a freed slave with his own means and money in 1848, built the first Christian Chapel in La Prairie, Vallée de Prêtres on his own plot of land which he had previously bought from Mr. Eugène Leclézio. Father Laval named the Chapel Sainte-Croix. By 1849 this chapel was too small to accommodate the increasing number of followers. Mr Zamör and family made additional constructions. From Sainte-Croix Father Laval continued his mission in Port-Louis and the upper regions.
An unflinching enthusiasm
The French catholic priest working in a colony administered by British of Anglican faith found himself in a delicate situation. Though the right to religious freedom was granted to all inhabitants in 1810, the British did not seem to appreciate the conversion to Catholicism, already over 50,000 under Father Laval. The risk of being sent back to France was looming. He often mentioned that he was destined to spend the rest of his days in « Maurice ». The same British authorities replied to his application: « Le 3 août 1860, L’Ordonnance No 43 of 1860 statue que le Père Jacques Désiré Laval est naturalisé Mauricien ».
Braving odds including signs and symptoms of overwork, exhaustion and age, Father Laval continued his activities with unflinching enthusiasm, but his health took a toll which made matters difficult for him and raised concern among the other priests. Against his doctors’ advice he refused to go to France for a period of rest, went back to work at the least improvement. It could not be prevented from him to be present for the needy. He continued to receive people till his last hours. On the 8th September 1864 news of his serious ill health spread around, a huge crowd gathered outside his residence praying silently. Father Laval asked to receive them justifying that he still has a few words for them. He passed away peacefully on the 9th September 1864 at Port-Louis. The nation mourned the demise of an exceptional person. The body was laid to rest for two days to give the opportunity to the ever-growing crowd of all religious faith, social group, ages, abilities from all corners of the island to pay their last respects and have their rosary beads, handkerchief, medal, cross or other objects blessed by touching the deceased. On 11th September he was buried as per his own wishes at the foot of the cross in front of Sainte-Croix Church erected on the same site of the Chapel built by Zamör, the Indian ex slave, which was destroyed during successive cyclones. His funeral was attended by over 60,000 people.
Father Laval lived for the people. Under him, free healthcare was made available to the sick, the poor, the miserable in several villages, the lepers mostly of African and Indian origin who were rejected by family, society, chased by the authorities had a hospital for their treatment and accommodation. We owe to him the first network of healthcare points for « Health for All ». Father Laval’s contribution for the improvement of the quality of life needs to be duly recognized. It would be an expression of gratitude to this great Mauritian to name the New Long Mountain Hospital after Father Jacques Désiré Laval. Long Mountain, the village where he spent a lot among the unfortunate, where the cross which he brought with him all along from France and never left him in Mauritius is, at The Notre-Dame-de-La-Délivrande Church, built under his guidance in 1864, had a special place in Father JD Laval’s thoughts.
MONIQUE DINAN – Sur les pas du Bienheureux Père Laval
SIR MAURICE RAULT – Les 177 Premières Années du Bienheureux Laval
BERNARD HYM C.S.Sp – Coeur à Coeur avec le Père Laval
A. NAGAPEN, Diocèse de Port-Louis – La Mission de Mère Marie-Augustine
Report of Truth and Justice Commission – Republic of Mauritius
Souvenir de Sainte Croix – Centre Père Laval, Sainte Croix, Port-Louis