La Salette Vision and Mission
Hind-sight often allows us to realize that God is at work in our lives even when we thought we had made our plans and decisions. When Mary appeared at La Salette on September 19, 1846 her message was not new – it was meant to help us recall what we already knew from Scripture and Tradition. I have given you six days to work. The seventh I have reserved for myself yet no one will give it to me. …A famine is coming. … If my people are converted, the very stones will become mounds of wheat and potatoes will grow self-sown in the fields. Do you say your prayers well, my children? “Not too well’” they replied. Ah! It is important to do so at night and in the morning. … Only a few elderly women go to Mass in the summer. Everyone else works every Sunday all summer long. And in the winter, when they don’t know what else to do, they go to Mass only to scoff at religion. During Lent the go to the butcher shop like dogs.
As did her Son, Mary calls us to conversion. We, too, are to be instruments bringing the Gospel message to others. Well, my children, you will make this known to all my people. No wonder we are called co-missioners!
Each year we invite missionaries from various countries where we serve to be part of our preaching team. They share with many parishes here in North America their own missionary experiences – the way the Gospel is preached, understood and lived in a variety of cultures. This year we were pleased to have with us Fr. Eugene Flores, MS from the Philippines. Ordained five years ago, this was his first foray into another culture. He fared very well and was able to see a good portion of the USA while driving to his assignments. He is very likable and had no difficulty staying in a parish near Buffalo, NY for a week to replace the vacationing pastor. The people loved him.
I believe one of the things that helped him feel at home very quickly was the fact that Fr. Richard Lavoie, MS, who was a missioner in the Philippines as a young priest, was here in St. Louis. So the were able to share stories of places and adventures, also taking time to cook and enjoy eating some Filipino dishes. Fr. Gene has returned home now. Before leaving he wrote these words.
“I am one of the fruits of your missionary labor in the Philippines.” That is what I said to Fr. Dick Lavoie, MS after realizing that he worked in the northern part of the Philippines in the early years of the La Salette Missionary presence in my homeland.
For the last three years I have been working as Coordinator of the Vocation Promotion and Recruitment Program for the Filipino Province. Most of our seminarians are alumni of our La Salette School system in Isabela that was put in place by the first La Salette Missionaries who came here. I am confident that our continued presence in those elementary and high schools – as well as the University of La Salette – will be a source of grace for our Congregation and the Church.
As Vocation Coordinator I have the opportunity to visit those schools but also to expand my outreach to other regions of the country, thereby introducing the story of Our Lady of La Salette to people who have not yet heard it. With God’s providence this has brought pleasing results and we now have 20 seminarians from the southern part of the country. People are strongly attracted by the story of La Salette and I always have with me pictures that illustrate the story. People are in awe upon seeing our weeping Mother – most of them for the first time. Mary’s tears, shed at La Salette over 160 years ago, still touch people’s hearts.
In this electronic age, when our youth so easily make use of websites, email and cell phones, I can often keep in touch – even from a great distance like being in America – with the young men interested in joining our community.
We now have 32 college seminarians. About 80% of them cannot pay their full college tuition and other financial responsibilities before entering novitiate. But thanks to generous benefactors and the funds coming each year through the La Salette Mission Center in St. Louis, we are able to help them meet their financial goals. In return for the financial support received each year for our seminarians, I was pleased to be at the Mission Center in St. Louis this summer and share in its mission preaching.
Bishop Donald Pelletier wrote about how a Missionary’s life and work continue to follow after him, even though he is no longer working in the mission field.
Anyone who ever knew the late Father Joe Shea, MS would never forget his contagious enthusiasm, his overpowering impulsiveness, his stubborn determination to overcome all obstacles. Needless to say he was a man of vision and therefore of surprises. Once that vision was clear to him he never backed down – not only did he make his point but saw to it that others would go along. It was good that he never let a title scare him or derail him from his set plans – even the title of Bishop, as when he was discussing ideas with the late Bishop Bernard or with me.
A good example was the elementary school in Marofototra, one of our oldest schools in the Morondava bush. Jack, you remember well when, in the late 1960s, we built the first one-room wooden school house in that village. Because parents could not pay tuition, the school was subsidized by our mission district. Later, because the school seemed to have little effect on the people, I wanted to close it. But when Joe took over the newly erected district of Bemanonga – which now included the village of Marofototra – he had other plans. He convinced the parents of the value of education. Not only did he refuse to close the school, he enlarged it!
The school seemed to pick up. After Joe's untimely death late 2007 the school continued. More and advanced classes were added. Tuition was now well paid, all salaries were covered and the school was functioning very well. In fact this year 43 of the 45 students received their primary grade certificate, thus allowing them to move to a higher level. Not bad when you consider that many local schools have only a 40% or 50% rate of advancement!
We had three poster size portraits made of Joe, and about five months ago one of them was presented to the school in Marofototra. Parents and students were very happy as they were so grateful for all Joe had done for the school. Though I knew the school needed repairs and that we needed new class rooms to accommodate a higher lever of education I was reluctant to write up a project or seek special funds for the school. I imagined they would find some way to deal with increasing enrollment. It seemed we had other priorities in the diocese.
Imagine my reaction when a delegation from the village of Marofototra came to me this week and told me they were ready to build sixteen, yes sixteen new classrooms for the school. They would buy what was necessary – cement blocks, galvanized sheet iron roofing, ceiling material, new benches, etc. – to get the job done! This new school would offer better education to local children, youth and adults.
I had to excuse myself from that meeting for a few minutes. I walked out and tears welled up in my eyes. I had been emotionally touched to the very core of my heart. I thought: This was too much a Joe-Shea-like operation! His impish smile must be looking down at me and saying: Oh ye of little faith! Over the last two years I have been able to keep up with Joe’s projects and vision for the central district of Bemanonga: water, purchase of new land, five classroom school. But that something like this should happen in the village of Marofototra! Things like this don't happen in Madagascar! A small unknown village in the bush and they would build sixteen large, spacious modern classrooms!!! Joe what are you trying to prove?? Yes you are up there and still very much involved with projects that were so dear to you.
And the wonder did not stop there. The community of nuns, the Missionaries of the Immaculate Conception [MIC] from Montreal, Canada, who have been operating our large school in Morondava, now intends to build a convent in Marofototra and take over direction of this new school. With that who could not think or believe Joe Shea is in heaven? When Sister Provincial visited the village three days ago we did not hesitate to tell the people. Thank Father Shea.
Needless to tell you, Jack, I have been emotionally touched. I never could have imagined or thought that, from the small one-room school house we built in Marofototra in the late 1960s we would now contemplate building such a large school. I wake up at night and cry; as I celebrate Mass I cry: I could and would never have dreamt of such a project. Only Joe could do such a thing and he did it. God bless him.