Society of Saint Pius X Africa

Monsignor Lefebvre in his own words

 

Back in 1990, when he was staying with the Sisters of the Society of St. Pius X at their house Saint Michel, in France, Mgr. Lefebvre was working on his last book "A spiritual journey" amid the peace of the convent. He was not, however, left in total peace since the nature of feminine curiosity meant that the sisters wanted him to spend some time with them as well. The idea was mooted that he tell them his life story. Now, since Mgr. Lefebvre was more concerned with passing on the spiritual insights he had gained from sixty years' priesthood and forty years of being a bishop rather than reminiscing about his personal life, he realised that, as yet, no-one had written his biography and since the most important thing that he had to pass on was in the process of being written, he thought there could be no harm in giving the sisters a short talk of an evening and telling the "petite histoire de sa longue histoire" [the potted version of his long life]. It is thanks to the zeal of the sisters that these talks were taped and recently published in book form in the original French. Over the next few months this original text will be translated freely into English so that others can gain some insight into the life of this extraordinary man.

The original talks were transcribed very much as they were originally spoken and in this translation that style of presentation has been kept This month we shall look at the very early part of Mgr. Lefebvre 's life - his childhood in the North of France at a very turbulent time in world history...

 

"I've been asked if I would give a few talks to the sisters. Oh, since they've asked me, I will tell them a potted version of my long life. I will tell them a bit about what God has done for me during my long life.

I was thinking what I would call these talks and I thought:

"The ways of Providence during my life and how it is good to trust
in it completely in order to please God"

Ut placeat libi Domine Deus.

That's the prayer that we say at the Offertory: "We offer Thee this sacrifice", our sacrifice in union with Thee that it may be pleasing to Thee.

Ut placeat tibi Domine Deus.

I must confess that my eighty or eighty two years of life -1 can't really talk about my very early life when I was a very small boy - have taught me to follow Providence, to look in circumstances, in what happens in life, for what is the will of God in order to try and do it.

February 2002

Childhood

We spent a few peaceful years as a family with good Christian parents, deeply Christian. It's true that the parish church wasn't far away, around five minutes on foot. Every morning, my parents went there early to receive Holy Communion and to hear Mass when they could. In those days in the parish a priest distributed Holy Communion every quarter of an hour, from a quarter past five until nine o'clock I think.

That was what happened then because many people had to go to work and couldn't stay for Mass.

So, if you were in church a few minutes before the quarter of the hour, you could be certain of being able to receive Holy Communion. A few minutes to prepare yourself, a few minutes after having received and then you went on to work. Normally my parents stayed for Holy Mass, but if not they at least received Holy Communion.

Keeping God's holy laws they began by having five children, one each year, then three others later on. Three in 1903, 1904, 1905 (Rene first; Jeanne next and the third Marcel); then in 1907 my sister Marie-Gabriel, in 1908 my sister Marie-Christiane and in 1914 just before the war Joseph. Then the two others after the war.

We were very happy in those years before the war. My parents were married in 1902,1 was born in 1905 so I was nine when war broke out.

 

Life in the North of France

The atmosphere in the North of France was one of work. Factory life dominated everything. Everyone went there, the owner, office worker and manual labourer; some started at six in the morning others at half seven. The labourers stayed until a bell was rung and the owner sometimes until nine or ten o'clock in the evening. It was like that every day, every single day.

It was a textile factory: Half five in the morning - at six you could hear the workers setting off. The chimneys began to smoke because everything worked with coal; there wasn't any electricity yet. It was a regular life, a bit monotonous. Generally the weather was overcast in that part of the country, a bit grey which didn't really encourage people to go for a walk. So people liked working and would have been unhappy if they couldn't have gone to work. It reminds me a bit of the German speaking Swiss people: it's the same thing -I'm sure you know what I mean. When I went to visit Ibach in the Canton of Schwytz there was a woman there called Mrs. Elsener, a good woman, who had a cutlery factory. She employed a thousand workers, you know. It wasn't a small business. When her husband died she became the boss and she ran the factory with her son. All her children worked, the girls in the offices and the boys in the factory. She too used to work from morning till night and she used to say to me almost without thinking, "You know, our workers are miserable on Sundays because they can't come and work in the factory.. it's their life".

So, it was like that in the North of France at one time, quite a long time ago. Today the textile industry has more or less died, killed off by foreign competition and the new ways of doing things.

At that time there were huge coalfields like those in Belgium., next to Mons, which stretched as far as the Ruhr in Germany. Enormous coalfields across the whole of Europe right till England. That was where they got all their power from, where they got the coal to fire all the factories and so on. The factories sprang up next to them and not far from the ports to import cotton, wool from Australia, from Argentina, from Egypt. Due to the large numbers of people, hard working and dedicated, the factories flourished at that time in those favourable conditions.

Afterwards, with electricity and petrol, the way of life, transport and what have you - everything has changed. In those days it was foreign competition: Japan, the United States, South America all set about getting industrialised and that was the end for everyone. There are hardly any textile factories in the North of France any more.

We lived liked that quite happily. We had a boys' school five minutes away from our house, a good institution, the Ursulines was also quite nearby. The girls went to the Ursulines, the boys to the boys' school. School life was also very regular.

We left the house at eight; thanks be to God, we had two people who helped Mom with the children. Before we left they would say to us, "Are you sure you haven't forgotten anything, have you got your handkerchief in your pocket, have you got your sandwiches, don't forget this or that..." They gave us a big kiss and added, "Ok, goodbye, be careful, walk on the pavement..." We were surrounded by the affection of three mothers, you could say. We were happy children then.

 

The First World War

Then came the terrible war. Wars like the 1914-18 one are awful. Awful!

Of course there was mobilisation: all the men left, the mothers stayed alone with their children, that happened from one day to the next. It's ghastly to think of things like that happening, awful. What are they going to do for work, how are they going to feed themselves? What's going to happen with no more men at home?

At school it was the same thing: the teachers were conscripted. There were a few left, older men, or perhaps sick. In the parishes the curates were also conscripted. There were only two priests left where there had been five or six.

And then, quickly, there came the battles, invasion, deaths, people taken prisoner and so on, news from the front: so many people killed, many people taken prisoner. Many people from the North of France were taken prisoner in Belgium.

My father didn't leave straight away; he couldn't be conscripted immediately since he had six children. So he stayed. But he wanted to help the English and French prisoners escape through enemy lines, from the prisons, or the prison camps where they were locked up, to return home. From January 1915 onwards he heard that the Germans were looking for him and that they would shoot him if they found him. So he had to flee. He left via Belgium, Holland, England and came back to France to avoid being shot by the German police.

Dad had left, so we stayed there during the war, four years of occupation. The Germans occupied the town two months later. We saw hussars, lancers, all still on horseback then, parading through the streets, with their helmets on and their lances which must have been around 3 metres long. They occupied the town which was now mobilised by the Germans; we had to put up the soldiers and look after them. Even the young girls and the elderly women, all who were capable of doing it had to enlist to help the German army.

At midday soup was distributed by the municipality and we went to get some soup in the town hall because there wasn't a lot to eat. The Americans, apparently, sent us food: chickens which came from over there completely rotten and flour. We used to wonder what happened to the flour because by the time it reached us it was black, black, black, it didn't dry, it was still damp inside and the crumb came away from the crust, it was like putty and that's what we had to eat. I don't know, it must have been black wheat flour or potato flour or some other vegetable. It was bread... We bought it at the bakery. We had to eat, know what I mean?

There was real privation and wretchedness, a great wretchedness and then the searches. The Germans discovered stocks of wool in the factory which had been walled up in the cellar to stop them taking it. They systematically broke through all the walls in all the factories, in all the cellars every three or four metres to see if people had hidden wool or whatever. They discovered one in our house and my mother was put in prison for several weeks. I can't remember if it was weeks or months any more but at any rate she was put in prison for that.

She left her children in the hands of the servants who were very kind but even so it was very distressing. Then she developed decalcification of the spine to such an extent that at the end of the war she had to be put in , plaster. I can still see her, for years, she was laid out in the dining room at home, because of the sufferings of war, because of the privations of the war.

The war really caused enormous sufferings. We children didn't really realise what was going on, or at least less than the older ones, nonetheless we couldn't be unaware of certain things because we were right near the front line, in the South of Belgium. Right next to Ypres and the famous Mount Kemmel where there were terrible battles. In the evening and at night we could see the horizon completely lit up by the shells, non-stop, all the time. We could hear the rumbling and thundering of the shells. All along the front line the sky was on fire. It was awful. The next day we saw the wounded arriving at the hospital which was on the other side of the road from us, hundreds of them - not to mention the dead - from both sides the allies, the French and the Germans. We were on the side occupied by the Germans and it was especially their wounded that we saw, all those poor wounded men...

Now, you see, that left a deep impression on our childhood. Even if you were only nine, ten or eleven years old, the images remained etched on your memory... War is really a terrible thing and all the consequences of that war, all the sufferings, the continual upsets...

One day the Germans announced the mobilisation of anyone who was still healthy. We had to go and work in the sorting offices the bullet factories and whatever, the pieces of brass and so on because they were beginning to run out of brass for the shells etc. They didn't have enough people. So, there came the order for everyone to leave the house and stand on the pavement, ready to leave. Everyone from sixteen or seventeen years old (even seventeen years old!), everyone who was healthy had to be ready with their luggage on the pavement and the Germans came along and took this one or that one. We had no idea who was going to be taken and who not. So we had to stand there, I remember very well. We were children, they didn't take us and the people who were looking after us were too old to go. Nevertheless we took part in that crowd of people standing on the pavement. The Germans came along in lorries and made the people they chose get in without them knowing what on earth would become of them.

Obviously, all that made people anxious, miserable, the separation, it was awful. You never think about it what war can be. The cruelty, the brutality, the injuries, the separations, the moral sufferings, it's all terribly hard, hard. It changed us, the older children. Joseph was only one year old. he didn't realise what was going on, but we five, we have been scarred by those events and I think that we owe our vocation to them, in part at least. Because we saw that human life was very insignificant and my goodness you had to know how to suffer. I should say that at that time there was a lot of piety. There was rosary every evening and the church was full, especially women but a good number of older men too. the youngsters had all gone away. Every evening, we said the rosary with our arms stretched out for the last decade, then there was benediction. The whole parish filled the vast church. W'e prayed, we prayed for all those who had had to go away, for the prisoners, for those at the front. There was an obviously very great fervour then. All that, you know, created a special atmosphere.

My brother, René, was the eldest, he was fifteen in 1918. We were afraid that the Germans would end up taking anyone left who was capable of work, whatever their age. We were able to avoid that thanks to the Red Cross trains which went through Switzerland. They sent children up to 15 years old to parents in free France who could receive them. Only the North and the East were occupied.

Since my father had gone and was now in Versailles, my brother Rene had crossed Switzerland and had gone to join him. He continued his studies there.

...to be continued next month

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