PITTSBURGH, PA (September 9, 2016)
Blessed Fr. Jacques-Desiré Laval, C.S.Sp., was born in Croth, Normandy, France, on September 18, 1803. He became a medical doctor, but always felt God’s call to be a priest and a missionary. Of his vocation, he commented:
“True. I hesitated all along between the priesthood and medicine. I chose medicine, and now I see that I was wrong. God is calling me. This is my vocation. As a priest I shall be able to do more good. I must follow the voice of God.”
He is known as the “Apostle of Mauritius,” and was the first member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit to be declared Blessed. His Feast Day is celebrated each year on September 9, the date of his death and a holiday on Mauritius, an island off the coast of East Africa in the Indian Ocean.
Laval was the child of a successful farmer. His uncle was a priest, and he grew up in a devoutly Catholic household. His mother died when he was seven years old.
Laval was educated at Évreux, and the Collège Stanislas de Paris. Though initially uncertain whether to pursue the priesthood or the practice of medicine, he received his medical degree in 1830, and set up a practice in Saint-André and Ivry-la-Bataille in his native Normandy.
He reexamined his choice after a near-fatal riding accident. Feeling he was called to the priesthood, he closed his practice and entered the seminary of Saint-Sulpice; he was ordained in 1838, and worked as a parish priest for two years. He desired a more active ministry, however, and entered the Society of the Holy Heart of Mary, later renamed as the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.
In 1841, he began to work with Fr. Francis Libermann, C.S.Sp., a founder of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, and was sent as a missionary to the 70,000 recently liberated slaves on the island of Mauritius. Three out of four of the inhabitants had been baptized, but no one had taught them the elements of Christianity. Fr. Laval spent the next 23 years evangelizing the marginalized people of that island nation.
Many of Laval’s parishioners were poor and uneducated former slaves. He lived with them, learned their language, fasted when supplies were short, and slept in a packing crate. His medical training was useful to his ministry, as he worked to improve conditions in agriculture, sanitation, medicine, and science.
He first taught those whom he contacted to love God and love one another. He taught some of them to become his helpers in preparing others for reception of the sacraments, caring for the sick and leading groups in communal prayer. From the start, Fr Laval was deeply conscious that prayer was the most important human contribution, more vital even than skilled organization.
In 1853, Laval wrote about his pastoral work:
“Port-Louis, where I am working, with around 30,000 people, all of whom have to be visited. We have to teach, catechize, console, visit and administer the sacrament to all these people, so you can see that there is much work to be done. The good Lord for whom we are working has blessed our efforts and has made his word bear fruit. This country, and above all the poor for whom we have been sent here, did not even know that there was a God when we first arrived.”
Fr Jacques Laval died on September 9, 1864. About 40,000 people – half the population of the island – turned out for his funeral, a witness to their appreciation of his work. Fr. Laval was declared Blessed by Pope Saint John Paul II on April 29, 1979, among the first beatifications conducted by the pontiff.
A building on the campus of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh is named “Laval House” in honor of Blessed Jacques Laval. In addition, Sr. Rosemary Donley, S.C., PhD, APRN, FAAN, holds the Jacques Laval Chair for Justice for Vulnerable Populations in Duquesne’s School of Nursing. The Laval Chair spearheads the nursing school’s community service efforts to provide health care services to vulnerable populations, including the very young or very old, and those whose access to health care is limited or for any reason does not meet their needs.