Born in Frenelle-la-Petite (Vosges), July
Taking of the habit in N.-D. de l’Osier, October 31 , 1854.
Oblation in N.-D. de l’Osier, May 15, 1856 (No. 414).
Ordination to the priesthood in Marseilles, June 24, 1860.
Died in Durban, May 24, 1902.
Why is it that the name of Father Barthélemy, who indeed was one of the pioneers of the missions of Natal and Basutoland, never passed on into posterity and legend like the names of Allard, Gérard, Hidien and Le Bihan? His personality is perhaps the reason! His novice master said of him, “He is not very forthcoming.” And indeed, if we are to judge the man solely on the thickness of his dossier in the archives, one would soon note that we do not know a great deal about his family, his childhood, his studies, except that he came from Lorraine, he was born July 30, 1834 at Frenelle-la-Petite near Mirecourt in the diocese of Saint-Dié, that he spent six years at the minor seminary of Pont-à-Mousson, that he made his religious profession on May 15, 1856 at Notre-Dame de l’Osier and that he was ordained to the priesthood at Marseilles on June 24, 1860. But let us examine this more closely.
Even if it is true that we have only three letters he wrote to his major superiors, the notes made about him by Bishop Allard, by Father Gérard and especially the detailed diary of Mother Marie-Joseph Angot, the superior of the Sisters of the Holy Family in Roma paint a more detailed picture of his personality.
First of all, Father Vandenberghe who was his master of novices at Notre-Dame de l’Osier in 1856 had no hesitation in presenting him to Bishop de Mazenod to be admitted to vows. “The good dispositions of Brother Barthélemy have never been in doubt… His character is good, perhaps a little easy going… He can give the impression of being somewhat spineless, however, he brings enthusiasm to everything he is asked to do… He loves study, his abilities are outstanding… He has always been attracted to the foreign missions…”
With regard to “the foreign missions,” he began by spending two years at the college in Vico in Corsica from August 15, 1860 to August 15, 1862. In 1864, we then find him with Father Hidien and two Irish brothers, Moran and Tivenan on the boat that was carrying to South Africa the first contingent of Sisters of the Holy Family. Mother Mary Joseph stated: “Although very good hearted, on more than one occasion, we have had to tolerate the trials that rose from his personality.” After endless months of waiting in Pietermaritzburg, they finally set out on the last stage of their journey, sixty-eight days by ox cart to reach Roma, Basutoland. Although this is not expressly stated, many details in Mother Mary Joseph’s diary allow us to guess that Father Barthélemy was not a great help to Father Le Bihan in driving the carts, crossing rivers in flood or pushing the carts out of the mud.
Once arrived in Roma, just like Father Hidien, he fell afoul of the severe asceticism of Bishop Allard who complained to the Superior General about the two missionaries: “Father Hidien has mended his ways a little, but not Father Barthélemy who should leave. May he return to France as soon as possible!”
Sick at heart, he returned to France and towards the end of 1868 was assigned to the mission at Angers. He continued to have the foreign missions on his mind and clamoured to be assigned to them. At the beginning of July 1874, as soon as he learned of the resignation of Bishop Allard, he became more insistent and his desire was readily granted. After six years of absence, he easily took up again the study of Sesotho, which he had not forgotten. He mastered the language and translated a Sacred History “Matsipa a Bibele.” He was assigned to be the companion of Father Gérard for the founding of Saint Monica mission where, from July 1876 at the height of the southern winter, they lived months of terrible deprivation. He would remember this period all his life, but would speak of it only with restraint.
In July of 1878, he was sent to Saint Joseph, Korokoro. His personality soon began to discredit him. Initially, it was simply a matter of clashes with the sisters and the parishioners, but as time went on, the atmosphere became so poisoned that the day arrived when he closed down the school and sent the sisters away. That was the last straw! At the beginning of 1884, Bishop Jolivet sent him to Natal, specifically to Saint Michael mission, the very first mission founded by Father Gérard among the Zulus and subsequently abandoned.
What really went on? If we are to believe what Father Barthélemy says, for a second time he was victimized by the prejudice of his Bishop. Bishop Jolivet “never wanted to entrust a mission in his vicariate to any priest coming from the Basotho because he disapproved of the method being used with the Basotho.” There were, no doubt, other reasons as well, for his superiors never permitted him to return a third time to Basutoland, even though he wrote that the country of the Basotho was his second homeland and the Basotho’s language was, so to speak, his mother tongue. (Letter of August 30, 1888). His fifteen final years spent in Durban were spent in quasi-retirement where he ministered to the Blacks. Indeed, on December 21, 1897, Father Monginoux wrote: “Taking into consideration his personality, Father Barthélemy is conducting his affairs well. Every evening of the week, he holds very fine gatherings of Blacks and every evening or almost every evening, he gives his short teaching. However, he still harboured some nostalgia for his first years in the missions. As he was introducing young Father Pennerath to Durban in 1899, he told him: “This is nothing. You will see in Basutoland; it is much more beautiful.”
He died in Durban on May 24, 1902. He had spent twelve years in Basutoland: Three years under Bishop Allard and nine under Bishop Jolivet and then eighteen in Natal.
Guy Gaudreau, o.m.i.
Sources and Bibliography
G.A.: Oblation formula, May 15, 1856; notes
written by Father Vandenberghe, master of novices (1854-1856) and of Father
Mouchette, moderator of scholastic brothers at Montolivet (1856-1860).
Missions O.M.I., 1864-1905, passim.
Gaudreau, Guy, o.m.i., «Le père Barthélemy», in Petite histoire des missionnaires oblats, Lesotho, Montréal, Oblate Mission Centre, 2002, p. 5-6. That is the article we are reprinting here with the author’s permission.