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  • Writer's pictureP. Laurent

In the light of Christmas

Dear friends,

On the evening of December 25, all enveloped in the light of Christmas and the love of the poor he had served, Father François Laborde left us.

He left, as he had lived, discreetly, silently on this cool winter evening. Returning hastily from Jalpaiguri, we organized the funeral in two days with the diocese and HSP. The Archbishop of Calcutta presided over two Masses on Monday, December 28. A first mass, celebrated in the morning in Howrah, in the historic church which saw the foundation of HSP with the community of this association and some friends of the slums, after an exhibition of the body for those who wanted to pay him a last tribute. In the afternoon, we celebrated the funeral mass in Calcutta at St John's Church followed by the burial in the nearby cemetery.

We expected to see him go because a few warning signs let us sense that the dreaded moment was approaching. For several months, his health had given signs of alarm, and his strength was slowly abandoning him. In July, feeling his end approaching, he came to find me to prepare his funeral and give me his last wishes. A month earlier, he had even had a heart attack and had been revived by cardiac massage. But the next morning, he concelebrated Mass, as if nothing had happened... His departure, however, unexpectedly, resonated in my heart like a joyful note, a thanksgiving for this luminous life given to the poor. I remember that already, from our first contact, everything was on borrowed time, a gift from Providence. Before my departure for India, some were worried about the help I could receive, from a priest already so old, to take charge of this work... He himself, with a lot of humor, wrote to me before my arrival in 2018: “Dear Laurent, the days pass quickly and I count down those who remain before your arrival in September. (By the way, when can we expect your "darshan", your presence? Beginning or end of September?) Try to come before I'm dead!!!”

In Calcutta, I would have liked to benefit more intensely from his presence, to learn more at his side, and to receive from him as a good disciple. As soon as I arrived, I had to sacrifice this desire. The very day he greeted me at the airport, he discharged the responsibility of HSP. He left to settle a few days later, three hours by road from Calcutta, in Midnapore, in a hospital run by one of his friends, Father Reginald. “To let this team take on all the responsibilities incumbent on it and to avoid any recourse to the 'old father', I left happy, light and entirely confident 90 km from Calcutta in a hospital run by an old priest friend lepers and tuberculosis patients. I have a very, very modest role of assistant chaplain there, with the agreement of Father Bishop. […] The more HSP is able to dispense with me, the better.”

It was not the first time that the father broke away from his work, even if it was always painful for

him. In January 2019, when I visited him in Midnapore, he confided to me: “At Pilkhâna I had to leave, cut ties. Because we were only talking about me. The other priests suffered from it… It’s the same last September, I had to leave suddenly to mark the change.” Of course, the detachment did not happen overnight, and perhaps in spite of himself, he was called upon, or he sometimes intervened when it seemed to him that the situation was deteriorating. It was not easy for anyone!

So I was in good hands to be taught detachment. Moreover, barely a few months after my arrival, with Leo, we learned of the father's illness. It was certainly not a dazzling illness, but it was enough to take away our hope of seeing him continue to live for a long time, perhaps a hundred years old. On the other hand, the handover from a founder to a successor is never easy. Not everyone had accepted my presence at HSP, and some, perhaps without thinking badly, went to find the father to tell him of their displeasure. With his benevolence sometimes close to naivety, and his acute concern for the future of HSP, some misunderstandings thus arose between us. So that at a certain moment, the father was very angry with me...! It was finally for a salutary result, and we are more than reconciled. The father came humbly to ask forgiveness. I hastened to ask for his, very confusedly, because the fault was surely more on my side. The result of all this is that our relationship has been purified. His confidence in me was matched by my admiration for what the Lord had accomplished through him, and we were both overflowing with gratitude for the Providence of the Lord who had made our paths cross.

I could have visited him more often during these twenty-seven months, called him on the phone

more often or try to take advantage of his presence. But the work at HSP kind of grabbed me, and I gave myself completely to this work in the name of the trust it placed in me. Moreover, in my visits to the centers and my apprenticeship work in my new responsibilities, it was him that I found everywhere. We thus entered into a deep communion as I felt in agreement with the spirit that he had breathed into this work. A major turning point was undoubtedly the lockdown, when we organized rounds to distribute emergency food aid. Father called me and thanked me deeply. I understood that for him it was a way of saying: nunc dimittis… He was reassured by my concern for the poor. Because for him, serving the poor was the heart of the Gospel and of his mission. He often repeated: “the poor are richer than us. We have a lot to learn from them. They help us to come out of ourselves to become more human.”

A week before Christmas, we came from Jalpaiguri to visit the father. It was our last visit, for him as for us. With two didis from our centers in North Bengal, Devi di and Daliya di, we spent the night in this small field hospital to take full advantage of his presence. In the morning, we celebrated Mass with him. The didis who accompanied me knew him much better than me. And yet, with great discretion, they slipped away to leave me alone with him for a long time. We stayed for a long time without talking much, because it tired him. He took my hands and said, “It’s good to have a friend. How good it is to stay like this, in silence.” The father was tired but very lucid, still asking me about HSP, and above all able to crack a few good jokes and laugh out loud.

The next day, after lunch, we left him. He was still speaking of the mystery of the Incarnation. “I love this time when we wait for the Lord to come. This descent is unimaginable… This descent into our sin, into our mess…” (Laughs). After lunch, we helped him to bed for his nap. He was very cold. After he was covered with several blankets, I asked him, “Do you need anything else...?” He then replied, thinking of the crib, with a smirk: “Yes, I need an ox…!” (Laughs).

On Christmas Day we called each other in the evening to wish each other a Merry Christmas. Two hours later, I learned that he was placed on an artificial respirator. As I was praying, I distinctly felt him leave us, and I was overcome with a great thanksgiving for all his life and all the work of the Lord through him. Thus the joy of Christmas was truly complete.

I wish you all a bright and Holy New Year 2021.


The builder of the city of joy


Dear brothers and sisters,

In the last days of his life, father Laborde was staying at Midnapore St Joseph hospital. When you would talk to him, he would often keep on repeating “Bonitas, O Bonitas”. Like the heartfelt appeal of saint Bruno, it was together praise, gratitude and amazement towards God and his Mercy. Father Laborde would not want a eulogy at his funeral, and said, “God knows what I have done with his gifts, and I do rely on his mercy”. But we know that on Christmas day, father Laborde was called to the Eternal city of Joy. And fifty-five years before, he had come to live in the city of Joy with the poorest. I would like to tell you how, during his long life, in spite of his “rebellious and unruly spirit”, as he said, he walked towards the city of heavenly Joy.

Father François Laborde was born 93 years ago, in 1927 in Paris, France. Together with an elder and a younger brother, he was given a true Christian education and found the best example in his loving parents. At the age of 9 he discovered through his friend Robert what meant to be poor. And he understood from that time that “you cannot expect the poor to come to you, but you have to go to them”. It was his first move towards the city of Joy. Thanks to his elder brother Jean he got interested and attracted by India. But nobody was considering he could have a religious vocation because he had a strong personality and especially big angers. Those never stopped, until the end of his life, to his great displeasure. But we can say that maybe they were holy angers as they gave him the energy to fight for justice and to help the deprived.

After a try at the Carthusians monastery, he finally entered the Prado society, aimed at serving the poorest with a true evangelical spirit. He was ordained a priest on the 24th March 1951. After fourteen years of ministry, mainly in the Prado seminary, he finally fulfilled his dream and was sent to India. It was January 1965. He first stayed in a slum in Neyveli, close to Pondichery, thanks to an MEP priest and in another slum in Bangalore. There he heard many times the slum dwellers saying: “if we live in such conditions, it is because we are cursed by God.” He would be then convinced that Joy should be brought to the city of the poorest by the priest itself, who is considered to be “blessed by God, because he is rich, living among the rich”.

Arrived in Calcutta, he managed to find a small room in a slum of Howrah, invited by Fr Cuthino, a Jesuit, and Mr. David Maher, an active layman. This would become his second monastery as he used to say, a place where prayers do have a weight in the heart of God. Wherever men pray, it becomes the city of Joy. He there started to help the slum dwellers founding Seva Sangh Samiti with the help of Mr Maher and a few didis. Lucy di, Alice di, Veronica di, Françoise and later Dr. Sen, Mr. Baptist, Mr. Lewis, Jose, Pervez Mahmood, brother Gaston, Leo and many have been new hands at the service of the poorest to help build the city of Joy.

His concern was always to be able to hand over the work to lay men and women and to thank God for their dedication. There, he met a young girl named Savitri who at Baptism took the name of Lucy. She quickly became for him like an angel. Thanks to her incredible memory, remembering all the relations, and the needs of the dwellers, she was able to guide him in the maze of the slum and to bring him where it was needed. She would always say: “father, we have to pray!” One day she told him: “father, I will never marry, my life is to be with Jesus and the poorest”. She would be a true inspiration for all his life.

After eight years, in 1976, Cardinal T.L. Picachy sent him to Mata Maria Girga where he stayed for 17 years. There he tried to meet the needs of the Adivasi families living on roadside and opened centres in Bhratripremnagar, and Ekprantanagar. In the same time, he was urged three times by the cardinal, who came to visit the parish, to do something for the poorest. He then opened a home for handicapped children to which he would attach a dispensary for the poorest of the area. With the help of Elena di, Kolpona di, Bonolota di, Teresa di, Devi di, this was the beginning of Howrah South Point. Quickly the health services expanded, with the help of a German organization (GDC) founded by father Bernhard. He started a medical centre, a programme for the motherhood and the children in the slums of Howrah, and a TB clinic in Shibpur. He also opened a Rehabilitation Home at Maria Basti, in the Jalpaiguri district. He often said that all Homes, Schools and services of Jalpaiguri branch are under the special protection of the small Francis. This baby was untrusted to the didis on their journey to Jalpaiguri, alas, he could not make it. He was buried in the nearby cemetery.

Later, father stayed in Kidderpore parish, two times, where he visited the families in the huge slum that is there. He was sent to Chittarajan parish, where he visited the numerous lepers’ families, he also went to Thakunagar and Morning Star College. He kept on encouraging the work of HSP. Certainly, one of the ministries he most remembered was Shantinagar, where he was sent to become the chaplain of the mc sisters working with the lepers. In this place located near Asansol, he organised the parish, bought a ground for the cemetery, built a church and started a brand-new centre for HSP. It was specially dedicated to the children of the lepers who were ostracized for the illness of their parents. And he would fight for their integration.

It is not possible to remind all the people that he had helped, nor to mention the beautiful and unknown stories that fill up the hearts of so many poor, handicapped, deprived, or marginalized people. They are all grateful to a man who relentlessly worked to build on earth the city of Joy, the Kingdom of God, because Jesus had told him “the Kingdom is in the midst of you”, and especially in the midst of the poorest. Now we know God has called him on the very day of Christmas to reach the Kingdom of the poor in spirit where sadness does not exist. And through our tears, we can rejoice with him in the city of eternal Joy.

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