Table of Contents
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OMI Documentation presents a document by Pierre Chevroulet. It has already appeared in French and English in the Oblate Heritage series under the title, Oblates along the Mekong. With the publication of OMI Documentation in six languages, this document now becomes accessible to other readers.
From 1935 to 1976 more than a hundred Oblates worked, laboured and prayed in the Mission in North Laos. Some even shed their blood there. Today a Laotian Oblate is one of the leaders of the local Church. "More than twenty years after the upheaval, writes the author, it is only right to say that their work and prayers, their labors and their sacrifice have not been in vain. It is a beautiful page in the history of the Mission which was written there, and it is only proper to give thanks to the Lord who was indeed the sole Master of the work."
Fr. Chevroulet went to Laos as a missionary in 1956. He was Provincial there from 1965 to 1971. Today he lives in Bangkok, and is a member of the Delegation of Thailand.
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The North Laos Mission, entrusted to the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1935 to 1975, had a stormy history which reflected that of the entire country. Laos entered a period of war at the outset of the Second World War, and was not to see the end of it – and what an end – until 1975. The Japanese War, the Indochina war - French, then American: for almost forty years the entire country was prey to the harsh struggles of factions aggravated by the uncontrollable weight of world geopolitics.
A mosaic of peoples among whom the Lao are dominant, the population which in the middle of the century was not even three million inhabitants, lacks any kind of unity, be it ethnic, political, cultural or religious. The main link between the provinces in the North and those of the South, more than one thousand kilometers apart, is the Mekong river. The Lao people settled on the banks of this majestic river and in the low valleys of its tributaries, where they built their houses on piles and cultivated "sticky" rice in paddy fields. It was also along the river that the most important towns were built: from north to south, Luang Prabang, the royal capital which keeps the Prabang, a statuette of the Buddha, the palladium of the Kingdom; Vientiane, the principal city and administrative capital; further to the south, Savannakhet and Paksé. Aboriginal peoples live in the mountains of the North and on the high plateaux of the South. Especially in the North there are various Sino-Tibetan tribes who move southwards as they cut down the forests for their traditional farming on burnt fields: rice, maize, and their principal source of revenue, opium poppy. Each ethnic group has its own language, and only a few men know enough Laotian for trade and somewhat loose relations with the authorities.
From the religious point of view, while the Lao are Buddhists, and the old village society is built around the temple and the community of monks, the mountain peoples remain attached to their traditional beliefs and do not easily accept the setting up of a temple in their village. Even though the religion of the Lao is still strongly impregnated with ancient beliefs and practices that Buddhism was wary of destroying, it is true that Buddhism is the national religion, at least up to the fall of the monarchy. The motto, constantly repeated at school as in political discourses, stated: "One nation, one religion, one King".
It was only with the great missionary thrust in the second half of the nineteenth century that a serious effort at evangelization could be resumed. Furthermore it was only after 1880 that missionaries succeeded in setting foot in the country. Leaving Bangkok and reaching the Mekong, some Fathers of the Paris Foreign Missions founded the Mission of Laos which covered the territories along the two banks of the river. To the northeast, Upper-Laos or Chao-Laos was reached from Vietnam, and this Mission remained attached to the Vicariate Apostolic of Thanh-Hoa until 1958. Evangelization progressed slowly, the northern part of the country receiving a visit from the missionary only every now and then.
It was to remedy this state of affairs that the Fathers of the Paris Foreign Missions requested another Institute be put in charge of a territory detached from the Mission of Laos and which would include all the Northern part of the country. Several Institutes declined to accept the responsibility and the Oblates finally accepted in 1933. It should be noted that this was the first mission of the Congregation in a country under French Colonial Administration.
The Oblates in Laos
In the territory destined for their apostolic activity there were only two reasonably well established sectors: the rural district of Paksane which included among its villages the first Christian settlement of northern Laos, Ban Keng Sadok, on the bank of the Mekong, and the urban Christian community of Vientiane, almost entirely composed of Vietnamese, or Annamites as they were then called. It was therefore necessary to set about studying the languages at once.
Happily the group increased rapidly. Fr. Thomas Nantha, a diocesan priest, was ordained in 1935, and some missionaries arrived from France, Canada and Belgium. In 1938, the Mission was developed enough to be raised to a Prefecture Apostolic, the first entirely Laotian ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Fr. Mazoyer was named the Prefect. He had fourteen priests with him, thirteen of whom were Oblates, and a Brother, Paul Mary, who had arrived in 1937. The remarkable effort of the Congregation made it possible not only to maintain the existing posts, but especially to open others with a resident missionary, in particular at Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang. Moreover, some priests were sent into the bush where promising contacts were made, for example at Phak Beuak, a three day boat and track journey away from Paksane, and at Nong Het to the east of Xieng Khouang.
The ravages of war
Everything was to change from March 9, 1945 when the strong attack by the Japanese allowed the Nipponese Army to take full control. That meant the arrest of all French missionaries, with the exception of those who went underground. Fr. Mazoyer, who was in Xieng Khouang, was taken to prison in Vinh with the priests of the sector. Others were interned in Vientiane. The personnel of the Mission found itself reduced to two Laotian Priests, the brother of Fr. Nantha, Fr. Vien, having been ordained in 1943. Once again the Mission of the Oblates was affected less than that of the South which saw two French bishops, the Vicar Apostolic and his predecessor, and two priests massacred by the Japanese (March-August 1945).
It was a troubled period that would last beyond the Japanese surrender (August 15, 1945) because the Viet-Minh communists took advantage of it to declare the independence of Vietnam. This was soon to be imitated by their pale Laotian copy that began to make itself known under the name of "Pathet Lao" ("Lao Country") or "Lao Issara" ("Free Laos"). This resulted in the slow reconquest of the country by the French army which came up the valley of the Mekong. It was a very confused situation, including the Chinese occupation of the northern provinces, which would need a long time to return to normal. The return of the Apostolic Prefect would not occur until some months later, while troubles of all kinds were the lot of the missionaries who remained in the country, even after their freedom from Japanese prisons. Some had to go to Thailand, the new name for Siam since 1939. One priest at Paksane was charged with high treason – which was quite untrue – and risked being court-martialled by the French. Fr. Georges Kolbach walked from Luang Prabang to Kunming, the capital of the Chinese province of Yunnan. This resulted in injuries that kept him away from Laos for more than ten years and left him severely handicapped for the rest of his life.
At least the war, finally over in Europe, also seemed to be drawing to a close in Asia, and new missionary reinforcements would be able to give new vigor to a young Mission struck too soon by the ups and downs of international politics. This, however, was but an illusion, since from 1946, in spite of the agreements signed between the Vietnamese communist leader, Ho Chi Minh and the French government, a new period of disorder began, which history remembers under the name of the First Indochina War or the French War. The Mission however started again with a new burst of energy, thanks to the arrival between 1947 and 1952 of fifteen Oblates, one of whom was a Brother. The most noteworthy developments concerned the Minor Seminary of Paksane, opened in 1942 during the war, under the name "De Mazenod Institution". It was a simple straw hut to shelter the seminarians, while the Fathers lived as best they could in the old mission house. It took some years before a permanent structure was built in 1956. Another difficult beginning, but one that promised to develop rapidly, was the mission among the minority groups, at first among the Hmong by Fr. Yves Bertrais, especially in the Luang Prabang sector, then among the Khmuh, the poorest of the poor, on the banks of the Plain of Jars (Xieng Khouang) by Frs. Louis Morin and later Jean Subra.
In view of the progress of the Mission during these years, it was not surprising that the question of a Vicariate Apostolic should arise. One was set up in 1952. The pioneer, Fr. Jean Mazoyer, aged 70, had retired, and Fr. Etienne Loosdregt, was named the first Bishop in Laos. The motto chosen by the new bishop expressed a deep conviction and a wish: the conviction was the certitude of faith that true peace can only come from God, and the wish, that this peace finally come to a country which had not known one day of it for thirteen years. That is the meaning of "PAX A DEO" (Peace from God). Was this wish, in the form of a prayer, going to be fulfilled? The situation appeared more and more precarious as heavy communist attacks from North Vietnam threatened Luang Prabang, and later Xieng Khouang. However, the decisive Vietnamese victory of Dien Bien Phu would put an end to this first war. It was at least a ray of sunshine which the Geneva agreements (July 1954) between France and Viet-Minh seemed to offer.
Italian Oblates arrive
The Communist Movement in Laos
The armed branch was usually designated by the expression "Pathet Lao", but many prefer "Lao Viet" to make it clear that these troops were operating in liaison with the Vietnamese or even under their command. They presented themselves as "The Brothers" ("Ai Nong"), especially when they made incursions into the villages for propaganda or for provisions. Moreover, the links were never broken with the official government of national union formed in 1962, even though in the following year the ministers of the Front walked out in protest. The fiction of national unity was maintained and the posts left empty were never filled.
A symbolic sign of this paradoxical situation was the permanent detachment maintained by Pathet Lao in Vientiane, the seat of the government which they fought in the countryside. It was never bothered, not even during the various coups which periodically shook the factions of the right. This government of national union was recognized by all countries so much so that you find ambassadors of both sides in Vientiane: the ambassador of the United States, who seemed to act as a real proconsul, and those of both South and North Vietnam, China and the USSR. All seem to get along well and draw some benefit from the situation. It is said that the preliminary talks which led to the Paris Conference on Vietnam were held in Vientiane.
But at the same time, and very early in 1959, military pressure increased and the zone controlled by the Pathet Lao continued to expand, while the areas under the effective authority of the central government gradually shrank away. However, it was quite difficult to be sure who controlled what. The expression "leopard skin", much in vogue at the time, could be applied to Laos as it was to South Vietnam.
The people's reaction to the growing Communist movement
Objectively, the reasons for fear were quite real because it was well known what the communists thought of religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Even if in the propaganda meetings they spoke of respect for the faith of the people, they did not hold back on attacking beliefs that they regarded as superstitious. This covered all that was not in keeping with the so-called scientific Marxist-Leninist line. Another angle of easy attack consisted in taking on the religion of foreigners, especially colonialists. Was it possible to be a Catholic and still have a "Lao heart"?
And yet, the first Catholic priest put to death in Laos by the communists was indeed a genuine Laotian, of the Thai Deng ethnic group. On June 2, 1954, some weeks after Dien Bien Phu Father Joseph Tien, the only diocesan priest from Sam Neua, was apprehended, put in a sack and beaten to death.
During the four years which preceded the provisional return of this province to the national community, the Christians were able to continue living their faith, but the communist authorities forbade any meetings at the church. Was this persecution or not? It was at least a foretaste of what could threaten the entire Catholic community.
One may wonder what the attitude of the missionaries must have been in these circumstances. It is no exaggeration to speak of real enthusiasm, the enthusiasm of youth, during the years 1954- 1959. The personnel was young. Its most senior member, the Vicar Apostolic, was not yet fifty years of age. Each year new missionaries arrived, and the Mission developed. One still wanted to have hope for a lasting peace that would not fail to favor the work of evangelization.
The first clouds appeared during the summer of 1959 when a Pathet Lao battalion, integrated into the regular army in accordance with the agreements, seceded. Sporadic fighting began again in Sam Neua, where the mission had reopened less than a year earlier. It then became clear that difficult days lay ahead for the missionaries. But had not that been their lot since the beginning? However, there was no panic. They saw the need to begin preparing the Christian communities to live their faith in fidelity to their baptism, even without the support of the priest, and so emphasis was put on the formation of catechists.
At the time, orders from Rome were, that in the event the communists took power, the missionary would remain at his post with his people. This was not disputed. But had all the possible consequences been foreseen? Nobody spoke of martyrdom, a big word which, it seemed, can only be used "post factum". But each one faithfully carried on his work while admitting, given the circumstances, the possibility of capture followed by prison or even worse. Keeping this in mind, one can better understand what may have happened to those among the missionaries who effectively were led to give their lives for the Gospel.
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We shall consider here only the case of the Oblates, and some of their close companions, knowing well that others in Laos have also given the same witness with their blood. There are six, listed here with their ages at the time of death: Fr. Mario Borzaga (28), Fr. Louis Leroy (38), Fr. Michel Coquelet (30), Fr. Vincent L'Hénoret (40), Fr. Jean Wauthier (40), Fr. Joseph Boissel (60). None, with the exception of Fr. Mario Borzaga, left a personal journal; however, some lines from the "Codex" of a mission station, or the brief notes written by Jean Wauthier, for example, on his desk diary, say enough of these men's dedication to the people and to the work.
Fr. Mario Borzaga (1932-1960)
Kiu Kacham was the small Hmong village where, eight years before, Fr. Yves Bertrais had begun the mission among the Hmong. The foundations had been solidly set. It was up to Mario to build and develop the community. He took up this task with all his heart when he took full charge sometime during 1959, after the departure of the French confrere who had supported him during the first months while he was learning the language. Teaching catechism, initiating people to prayer, visiting families, welcoming the ill who daily came to the door of the mission house which had a small dispensary, these were the things on which Mario spent his time and energy, here as in many other posts. He also wanted to reach out further, to those that the Gospel had not yet reached. But if security in the village was relatively assured, it was not the same when one left the Astrid road. This route, which starts in Luang Prabang some eighty kilometers away, forks east to Hanoi and south towards Vientiane. Pathet Lao elements had infiltrated this zone and moved about there without hindrance.
Some Hmong from a village situated to the south of this route had already come several times to ask Fr. Mario to visit them, since they were interested in religion, and also without a doubt by the prospect of some medical aid. Up until then Mario had not been able to accede to their request, being too busy with the work at the mission and not wishing to leave alone in the village the Oblate confrere who had been there for some months learning the language. On Sunday, April 24, 1960, after Mass, while Mario was busy caring for the sick at the dispensary, a small group of Hmong arrived, again requesting him to go to their place. This time, Mario decided to take advantage of the situation, for there were two priests who, free from their teaching tasks, had come there for the Easter holidays. There was not much discussion it seems, for Mario was a man of decision. He promised to go with them the next day. His plan was to visit several villages in the same area and to return by the West along the valley of the Mekong to Luang Prabang – a good missionary round before the rainy season.
A Journey to Death
There is no doubt that Mario was put to death in the days following his departure. What remains to be determined is to know if those who came looking for him at the village were part of a real ambush (which cannot be excluded), or whether he fell into the hands of a hostile group who took advantage of the occasion offered to them. In any event, Mario's case must be understood along with what preceded it – the assassination of Fr. René Dubroux, M.E.P. in his village in December 1959, and the events in the Xieng Khouang sector in April and May 1961, which we will now mention.
The Events at Xieng Khouang
It is in this context that one should see the assassination of the three missionaries between April 18 and May 11. We shall dwell more at length on the case of Fr. Louis Leroy, because it is typical of the conduct of the enemies of religion, and better documented.
Fr. Louis Leroy (1923-1961)
"Father Leroy was very earnest in everything, very diligent in his studies and his spiritual life. He was very cheerful and fraternal. He was a friend. His desire for the foreign missions was very strong. I heard him several times express a desire to be a martyr".
As Louis was during the time of his formation, so he was on the missions when, to his great satisfaction, he was sent to Laos. He arrived in November 1955, and was immediately sent to Xieng Khouang which was to be practically the only scene of his apostolic life. He experienced some difficulty in learning the language because of early deafness. After a year he asked to spend some months in the Mekong valley to familiarize himself better with the Lao language spoken in the plains.
Upon returning to Xieng Khouang in November 1957, he was put in charge of the village of Ban Pha, a community of Thai Dam, replacing Fr. Joseph Boissel. That is where we find him in April 1961. The "codex historicus" that he scrupulously kept each day, tells us both his joys and pains as a missionary in the recently converted village. It also bears witness to an unshakeable faith and limitless dedication. It would seem easier to let the Vicar Apostolic of that period speak. He wrote this account for the other missionaries based on the witness of an absolutely trustworthy young Christian woman of the village.
"On April 15, 1961, around 5 p.m., troops of Kong Le [neutralists] and P.[athet]L.[ao] entered Ban Pha, after two or three days of fighting in the area, and artillery fire. Sunday and Monday were calm. The military went about in the village, the P.L. began their propaganda and asked many questions about the priest: "Is he in close contact with the Americans? Did he help the Phoumists [a rightist faction], the Méos [Hmong]? Is he spying? Does he not have a transmitter, weapons?" Some came to look at the Mission, and exchanged some words with the priest. On Tuesday morning April 18, Fr. Leroy said Mass and had his breakfast as usual. Around 9.30 a.m. the P.L. surrounded the Mission. They ordered Anna B. to call the Fr. She found him in the chapel. He came out and went to meet the P.L. leaders at the door of the enclosure. They told him that a radio message from the government arrived for Father to return to the Mission center at Xieng Khouang. The Father replied that he did not wish to leave his Christians, because he was alone at Ban Pha to care for them, while at X[ien]g-K[houan]g there were already several priests. The P.L. then asked him to surrender his revolver. He replied that he did not have one, and had never had one, that he was a priest. They wanted to search him. He took off his cassock and shirt without an argument. In his pockets they found his rosary and handkerchief. That was all. Dressed again, he went into his house accompanied by two P.L. who immediately took his hunting rifle, and quickly searched the room looking for the famous revolver. They spoke to one another in Vietnamese. Anna wondered if the so-called revolver was not simply the large cross that the Father wore in his cincture.... Finally the P.L. left with some polite words. The Father went to the chapel to pray and told Anna to pray hard also.
Hardly a half hour later (11.30 a.m.) a large group of P.L. came to Fr. Leroy. Some moments later, Anna, who was preparing the meal at her house, saw everyone leave. The priest closed the windows and door, put the keys in his pocket and left ahead of five or six P.L. He was bare-headed and barefooted, in cassock, with the cross in his cincture, and breviary under his arm. Passing in front of Anna's house, he replied to her question: 'I am going to see the commandant who asked for me.' Other P.L. remained in front of his house and forbade access.
Around 2 p.m. some Pathet Lao returned. They had the keys, and told Anna, who asked where the priest was: 'He left for X[ien]g-K[houan]g; we have come to make an inventory and arrange his things.'
Note: Anna succeeded in saving the Blessed Sacrament and the sacred vessels while they were making the inventory of the Church.
Around eight o'clock in the evening the people of the village were assembled for a "khosana" [a propaganda meeting]. 'The Father has not been killed', they said, 'although he is a spy and a traitor. He is evil. He has been taken to X[ien]g-K[houan]g. Later, another, a better one will come to take his place.'Two or three days later the entire Mission was pillaged by the P.L. They tore down the images, and burned what they could not carry away.
On the day Fr. L[eroy] was captured, a woman from Ban Pha Teu saw the priest surrounded by the P.L. in the paddy field bordering the village. A little later she heard several shots and thought they were killing the Father just inside the forest. In the afternoon, a group of women from the same village looking for firewood met some of the P.L. soldiers who chased them away. They returned in haste to their homes, frightened. Some days later, in the same area in the forest, they discovered a fresh grave which had been made to look old by spreading twigs and dead leaves about it. People whispered that the Father was buried there, and no one dared approach any more."
Later, in early May, Anna B. went to look at the grave and was sure that the Father was indeed buried there. This was confirmed some years later when a priest was able to go back to the spot.
The document that we have just quoted at length is dated June 15, almost two months after the facts. It took all that time to find out what had happened. The Pathet Lao, who have never acknowledged their infamy, have tried to camouflage the truth about their intrigues by every means. One can read in the "codex historicus" of Xieng Khouang the account of all the steps taken in vain by the Superior to obtain information about the disappearance of Fr. Louis Leroy and that of his confrere, Fr. Michel Coquelet, of whom we shall now speak.
Fr. Michel Coquelet (1931-1961)
"...I knew him from the novitiate. He was discreet, cheerful, and full of humor. He was a serious person, gentle and fraternal. He was certainly generous, full of faith, and endearing."
Eight years younger than Louis Leroy, Michel Coquelet finished his studies at the scholasticate two years later because of his military service which he fulfilled as a nurse. He arrived in Laos in 1957 around Easter.
Like many of the others, he first spent for some months at the seminary of Paksane to help with the teaching while also learning the language. At the end of the same year he was sent to the district of Xieng Khouang. A photo on the cover of the magazine Pôle et Tropiques shows him leaving for his village, barefooted, wearing a safari hat and a big smile, leading behind him his packhorse. The village he had been assigned to was a poor one, of recently converted Khmuh whose instruction, owing to the circumstances, had not been regular. Michel's thoughts on this subject, noted in the "Codex historicus" are full of meaning. They show the extent of his sufferings as a missionary, but also his great spirit of faith, colored by a sense of humor which we already knew as one of the endearing traits of his character.
The circumstances of Michel Coquelet's disappearance are not known for certain, though it happened in the same period and in the same area as that of Louis Leroy. Their two villages were not very far from one another. Ban-Pha is a day's walk to the southwest of Xieng Khouang. Phon Pheng, Michel's village, is further away, directly south. They are on different trails. He must not have known what had happened to Leroy unless the Pathet Lao who arrested him informed him of it. Here is what the District Superior wrote:
"On April 30, I received a letter from a catechist of Sam Tom [one of Michel's stations], announcing that the Sam Tom chapel and house had been pillaged and destroyed by a passing military detachment and also that Fr. Coquelet had disappeared. Some people from Nam Pan had seen [his] bicycle abandoned by the side of the road in Sop Xieng. The bearer of the letter added that everyone thought that he had been taken by a Lao-Viet detachment that was passing through the area that day. It was at the time of operations in Ban Pha".
On Tuesday, May 3, the catechist from Ban Nam Pan arrived at Xieng Khouang with a group from Phôn Pheng and the Samien [secretary]. The above information was confirmed and supplemented. A letter from the catechist N[.] gave the following details: It seems Fr. Coquelet had left Phôn Pheng on April 17 to go care for a wounded person at Ban Nam Pan. On April 20, he was returning home by bicycle when he was taken at Sop Xieng. On the 24th, N[.] and the Nai Ban [village chief] seeing that the Father had not arrived, left to make enquiries. The soldiers in charge at Sop Xieng (Lt ...P.L.) told them that the priest had been taken to Xieng Khouang at the same time as the one of Ban Pha. The bicycle had also apparently been taken the following day or [the] next. That is all I have been able to find out about Father Coquelet."
Everything seems to indicate that Michel met the same fate as Louis.
The picture of these events did not unfold for the rest of the Mission as clearly and orderly as we have just described them. The others only received news piecemeal and by guesswork. It might be interesting to give here, by way of example what was noted by the writer of the "codex historicus" of the Minor Seminary of Paksane, May 3, 1961:
"In the morning, Fr. O'Rourke returned from Vientiane. A letter from the Bishop, another from Rev. Fr. Superior [Fr. Paul Sion] let us know of serious events concerning the Mission. Fr. Coquelet has been missing since April 15. His bicycle was found along the road between Xieng-Khong and Sop Xieng, and in all likelihood, Father was captured by a group of P.-L., according to a telegram which arrived yesterday morning at the Vientiane Mission. Two others had already preceded it the previous week, announcing that Father Leroy had been taken prisoner by the P.-L. and accused of spying. The Father had remained continually in his village at Ban Pha even after the retreat of the royal troops. He is presently detained in Khang Khai [that is what we still wanted to believe!] in the hands of the P.-L. Perhaps we can get him out of there and at least he would be safe, thanks to the cease-fire [that was being announced then], but for Fr. Coquelet(?) disappeared like Fr. Borzaga a year ago, what hope can we have? Prayer, reliance on Providence, the Kingdom of God is sown in tears and sacrifice. The tragedy in the fight against atheistic communism is that they work to destroy even that witness, in order to twist it into a political crime. This is indeed the worst perversion, the signature of the devil."
And the story does not finish with Father Michel Coquelet.
Fr. Vincent L'Hénoret (1921-1961)
He spent the entire time of his first stay in Laos in the Paksane sector. An attentive pastor, somewhat severe, he knew how to make himself liked by these Christians whom were called old because they were already the third generation. On returning from his first home leave in November 1956, he was in the area for a year, but in November 1957 he had to leave the Mekong valley to go to the district of Xieng Khouang.
Ban Ban is a small town at the end of the Plain of Jars on the road which leads towards Vietnam. It had but a handful of Christians, but around it were several villages of Thai Deng refugees who came from the Sam Neua region. The pastoral and missionary work was not easy there. These people had suffered the ups and downs of the endemic war which hardly spared them for years. There was a lot to do, particularly to get the separated families back on their feet again. Vincent set to work courageously with the support from the beginning of 1959 of the young Fr. Jean-Baptiste Khamphanh, a newly ordained diocesan priest.
We have seen how, in the final months of 1960, with Sam Neua as their base the communists had spread their control throughout the region. The system had been put in place with its cycle of indoctrination sessions, and constraint upon the free movement of the people. In order to visit his mission stations, the priest had to obtain each time the required pass that the authorities, however, gave without too much trouble. Vincent had made it known that after some initial fears, a sort of modus vivendi had been established between the new authorities and the Fathers, and that it worked rather well.
Bro. Alexis Guémené (1924-1961)
On Sunday June 4, 1961, Br. Alexis Guémené had gone to the military infirmary to visit some patients, a shot was fired (it is not known how) and a bullet hit him in the heart. The Superior, who recorded a fourth death in seven weeks, described the affair as "a stupid accident due to the recklessness of a young recruit." Maybe! One cannot however stop thinking that, given the circumstances, Alexis, like his confreres, was ready to give his life for the Gospel, and that effectively he did so.
Fr. Jean Wauthier (1926-1967)
With the Khmuh
The week before Christmas, Jean wanted to visit a small group of Khmuh in the area of Ban Na. He went there, after notifying the military chief of his journey. The occasion was perfect. Under the cover of a simulated attack of the Lao-Viet, he was assaulted Saturday evening, December 16, while returning to Hin Tang. Two bullets in the chest and he collapsed. His body was brought to Vientiane the next day. The government was quick to put the blame on the communists, and such was the official truth. The real truth was quite different. It became known very quickly, but could not be mentioned given the circumstances of the time. Let us transcribe what was written at the time:
"Why was he killed? Without a doubt no one will ever know. The sense of organization and ingenuity that he used to safeguard and distribute the humanitarian aid may have upset someone; and that help, fallen for heaven, certainly sharpened the appetites and excited covetousness. What is sure is that he was killed in the exercise of the apostolic ministry and because of it."
The following day one of the catechists wrote to his parents: "Father Jean died because he loved us and did not wish to abandon us."
Fr. Joseph Boissel (1909-1969)
He was therefore part of that group of veteran missionaries who had experienced the rigors of the war from its beginning. He had arrived in Laos in October 1938 and been sent quite soon to the Xieng Khouang sector which was beginning to develop. Subsequently he spoke with regret of the Nong Het mission, an advanced station almost at the border of Vietnam which was abandoned because of the war and never reopened afterwards. In March 1945 he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and brought to Vinh with Fr. Mazoyer. On returning to the Mission in 1946 he was again at Xieng Khouang, and for several years he had to see to the formation of catechumens and the neophytes at Ban Pha. He left this village in November 1957, leaving Father Louis Leroy in charge.
On Saturday July 5, he had decided to go spend the night at the village of Hat-I-Et, some twenty kilometers from Paksane, by going up along the Nam San river. He left around 4.30 p.m., and took with him two young O.M.M.I. [Oblates Missionaires de Marie Immaculée, a Secular Institute of women founded by Fr. Louis Parent, O.M.I.] who were to help him with the visits, the care of the sick and the religious service. Here is the account written by a confrere on July 9 :
[Note: in answer to the pressing request of the Fathers and of the relatives of the O.M.M.I. who wished to know what happened to their daughters, the officers agreed to mount an operation to go and see the place. The convoy, accompanied by one Father and a friend of the mission, set off carefully at night with armored vehicles. The two O.M.M.I. were discovered first, wounded but alive, and then the half charred body of the Father in the car.]
"The wounded O.M.M.I. were able to give some details on the ambush. Three armed men had suddenly appeared. The first burst of shots was to the tires of the jeep which climbed the embankment and turned over on its left side. The second volley was fired at the Father who was killed outright. The two O.M.M.I. had rolled onto Father Boissel, and it was then that a blast from a B.40 [a sort of bazooka] exploded at the back of the car, splattering the two O.M.M.I. with shrapnel. One of them (a Thai Deng) stated having heard the command to fire given in Vietnamese. [They succeeded in getting themselves out of the car.] It was time. The jeep was burning because the petrol tank had been pierced. The two escaped, reaching the nearby forest and hid. The assassins could have finished them off but did not do so. The O.M.M.I.s could see them looking at their work, weapons over their shoulders, and then disappearing...."
"Father Boissel, you remain among us.... This violent death is striking, a death on the move, in full apostolic mission, a death that you had been within a hair's breath of many times, a beautiful missionary death. But what must be said is that your whole life impresses us; the life of an apostle with a fiery heart, a life given, the consumed life of a man of God for whom nothing else mattered but to announce Jesus Christ to the poor. This life, so full, so rich in activity, so briskly led, of a heart so young that the white hairs went unnoticed, and made us hope to keep you always with us ...."
The praise that we have just quoted is certainly strongly marked by the emotion of the moment. It is nonetheless sincere, objective, and valid. It can be applied to each of the missionaries whose lives and final oblation we have briefly retraced. Mario Borzaga, Louis Leroy, Michel Coquelet, Vincent L'Hénoret, Jean Wauthier and Joseph Boissel – and we shall add Alexis Guémené to this list – each was in his own way, with his own character, his talents, and also his limits, a man of God who had taken the measure of the work to be done for Jesus Christ and for the poor, who knew the risks of the undertaking, but did not hesitate to go to the extreme of love.
At this point we must mention those other Christians, involved with them, who faced similar obstacles in affirming their faith, and also had to make the supreme sacrifice. First of all there are the catechists: Shiong, Fr. Mario Borzaga's Hmong catechist, who undoubtedly was killed with him; Luc Sy, a Khmuh, killed by the side of the road to Daen-Din between Vang Vieng and Muang Kasi on March 7, 1970. We saw above how the two O.M.M.I. risked their lives with Fr. Joseph Boissel. Both were wounded and remain marked for life both physically and psychologically.
Departure of the Missionaries
By mid-May, the three French Bishops, among them Bishop Etienne Loosdregt, had resigned. They were quickly replaced by Laotian bishops. At Vientiane, Bishop Thomas Nantha, who had been appointed auxiliary bishop the preceding year, was installed on June 9. Bishop Alessandro Staccioli, whose vicariate had only one diocesan priest, was not affected by this and remained in place until his expulsion in September 1975.
From the outside, the departure of the missionaries, in particular that of the Oblates has often been poorly understood. These departures took various forms, according to the places and circumstances, between May 1975 and July 1976:
– as the works of the apostolate disappeared – the Minor Seminary at Paksane, for example, had to send away the pupils and close its doors in May – as the Church buildings and house churches were confiscated, the presence of some missionaries was no longer justified. This was especially true for the Vicariate of Vientiane where, because of circumstances, many works were concentrated.
– Furthermore, missionaries were expelled individually from their posts wherever a numerically weak Christian population could not assure their protection. Whether it was the launching of a grenade at Vang Vieng, where the missionary could not even stay at the leper village of Somsanouk, or a manipulated mass demonstration as at Phon Hong, the result was the same: the missionary, foreigner or Lao, had to leave.
– There were two cases of formal expulsions of an entire group by order of the local authorities. In August-September all the Italian Oblate missionaries were driven out of Houei Sai, Sayaburi, and finally from Luang Prabang. This occurred despite marks of support from the people and the Buddhist monks, especially the Supreme Patriarch. Likewise, the French missionaries of Paksé were ordered to leave the country in February 1976.
– In March 1976, there was only a small Oblate group left in the Vicariate of Vientiane (five priests, including the Provincial, and a Brother), and a few French missionaries in Savannakhet. An urgent meeting of the missionaries and laity with the bishop on April 3, 1976 decided on the departure of those of Vientiane. Why was such a decision made? The Bishop, priests and Laotian Christian had to face the facts: the continued presence of foreigners among them, which they had seen for a time as a sort of guarantee for themselves, had become an unbearable burden for the Church. Only one would remain for two more years to serve the international community in the capital. A similar decision was taken in July for the Vicariate of Savannakhet.
One Sole Oblate: Bishop Khamsé
During the forty years from 1935 to 1976, more than one hundred Oblates of various nationalities worked, laboured, prayed together, and sometimes shed their blood in the mission in North Laos. Fifteen of them remain in Laotian soil. Beside those whose too brief career and final sacrifice we have just traced, there were eight others, likewise victims, of illness or accidents, on the river, in the air or on the roads. They also gave their still young lives – the average age of the fifteen was below forty – in order that Church of this country could be born and develop. More than twenty years after the upheaval, it is only right to say that their work and prayers, their labors and their sacrifice have not been in vain. It is a beautiful page of the history of the Mission which was written there, and it is only proper to give thanks to the Lord who was indeed the sole Master of the work.