That Saturday morning, the 20th November 2016, breakfast time in the community at Billère was surprisingly quiet. Normally, there was a hubbub of animated conversation discussing what had appeared on the Telly the night before. However, most people were thinking about Fr. Alex Hellard whom the Lord had come to bring home the night before at around eight o’clock. Our centenarian had an important place in our community. Depending totally as he was on the personnel and the confreres as by his devotion to community life, his simple deep faith and his intense prayer life.
We can find the origin of this prayer life in the family in which he was born on the 10th April 1915 at Quintin in the Cotes d’Armor region of Bretagne. An area that remained close to Alexis’ heart. His parents were both deeply religious. Each evening, the parents and the seven children gathered for prayer. At a very young age, Alexis expressed a desire to become a priest, and after a visit by a White Father, to become a missionary. The visiting father had told him, “In our place, we are always three together.” This community aspect won Alexis over.
And so our little Breton (and he was small) entered the Junior Seminaries at St. Laurent d’Olt and then Tournous before going to Kerlois to study Philosophy. He did his novitiate at Maison Carrée in 1935-1936. Not only was he short but he did not enjoy the greatest of health so much so that his superiors hesitated to admit him to the Society. Questions such as “could such a frail little man survive in Africa? were not uncommon. However, the Lord had his vision for this little squirt as he had for St. Paul.
Alexis continued his training at Thibar where he took his Missionary Oath on the 15th June 1939 and in Carthage where he was ordained priest on the 2nd February 1940. It was wartime, and as France was occupied, Alexis could not return home to celebrate his first Mass. He was appointed to Kabylia where he was to spend two years studying the language. He was called up in 1942 and served as chaplain in Constantine and in France. He was demobilised in 1945 and received an appointment at bursar in Maison Carrée. This lasted for one year and in 1946, he arrived in Uganda where the relatively moderate climate would be more suitable for his fragile health.
He was to say, “Right from my arrival, I got down to vigorously studying the local language, Luganda.” This was characteristic of Alexis. He always wanted to be able to speak to the people among whom he was living. He went on to say, “One learns a language by being in contact with the population.” So there was plenty of home visiting, prolonged periods of contacts with all levels of society during the weeklong safaris, listening to the old people and their stories. Alexis was obviously happy. He was given a lot of pastoral responsibilities and he was appointed Parish Priest in 1955.
In 1956, he returned for his first home leave after 10 years in Uganda. He fell sick, underwent a small operation, and took the cure at Vichy. He also did his Long Retreat. He was ready to return to Uganda and he remained there until 1981, serving as Parish Priest in different parishes.
In 1979, it was war. Amin Dada tyrannised the country. He was finally chased away. However, a period of grave political instability followed with an increase in armed robbery and looting. Alexis was an indirect victim. In February 1980, while he was in Kampala for business, he accompanied a confrere, Fr. Wilfrid Lépine, when they suddenly found themselves face to face with two armed robbers. They were forced out of their car and despite the protestations of Alex, Fr. Lépine tried to return to the car in order to recover his personal documents. He was shot at point blank range. Alexis wrote, “Psychologically, I was so disturbed, that my superiors decided that I should return to France definitively.” Nevertheless, after spending a year recuperating in his beloved Bretagne, Alexis returned to Uganda. However, two months later, he was struck down with Meningococcal Meningitis and this time a definitive return home was decided.
Well not as definitive as all that. After spending some time in Pau and Strasbourg, Alexis launched himself into a new adventure that was to last for twelve years. He left for Nairobi, Kenya to take up the post as Parish Priest of the French-speaking parish. He was 68 years old. Alexis related how that on the Saturday night of his arrival, the Father at the Procure presented him to the 16 French people who had come for Mass. Alexis relates that he told them of his intention to be at the service of the entire French speaking community. He would concentrate on teaching catechism to the children without neglecting the Liturgy, choral singing, and visiting families. News quickly got around that there was a regular chaplain in town and the attendance at Mass swelled. Soon, there was a need to find a bigger chapel. What Alexis did not say was that it was thanks to his extraordinary gift of contact with people and attracting empathy that bound him and his flock with strong and reliable friendships.
In 1994, Alexis was 79 years old. He was worn out. It was time to dream of a retirement home. He went first to Bry sur Marne and then to Billère. It was long period of retirement and he slowly had to give up the things he liked to do such as singing or directing the choir due to a progressive series of infirmities. Alexis continued his mission among the confreres by his joyfulness and his tactfulness in his relations with all the community and the staff of the house.
Alexis became more and more dependent on his entourage. He knew how to thank with a word or a smile that often masked his real suffering. His intimacy with the Lord allowed him to place or slip in a little phrase of consolation, compassion or gentleness to comfort his interlocutor.
He missed Africa. He kept abreast of events and continued to maintain an important network of friends thanks to the radio, telephone and post, this last thanks to the devotedness of a confrere who served as his secretary. When he celebrated his 100th birthday, this facility of contact came to the fore. A large number of people came to Billère to thank the Lord for having known and appreciated the little Missionary of Africa that was Alexis. They came from France, the USA, Germany, and even Singapore. Relatives and friends were anxious to meet him. The Superior of the house invited Alexis to go in front of them but Alexis replied, “I am coming, but I will just go and say a little prayer first.” A man of action and relationships, the foundation was always prayer.
On Friday evening, 19th November 2016, the Lord came to look for his faithful servant at the age of 101 years.
Jean-Marie Vasseur, M.Afr.