150th Anniversary: Father Maurice Bellière (PE nr. 1093 – 2018/07)

His tombstone, neglected and covered with moss, a bit sunken and at an angle, was discovered in 1975 in French Normandy. Once cleaned up, a dual entry was discovered: “Madame Barthélemy, born Louvel, 1841-1907” with below the name of our confrere: “Maurice Bellière, priest, Missionary of Africa”. In our necrology, we do indeed find the name of Father Maurice Bellière, formerly a missionary to Nyasaland (today’s Malawi). He died on the 14th July, 1907, at Caen. Who was he? Forgotten? Then rediscovered? Here is the story of a life both tragic and moving.

His youth   

Maurice Bellière was born on the 10th of June, 1874, in Normandy, a region in north-western France. A week after his birth, his mother died. The father entrusted the baby to his sister-in-law, Mrs Barthélemy, and from then onward, disappeared from his life. The Barthélemy couple, being childless, brought him up as their own child. It was only when Maurice was eleven years old that he discovered who his real parents were. This discovery very much affected that still fragile young man and left traces on his soul for the rest of his life. After a hard and short missionary life, he passed away in Caen, aged 32, out of touch with the White Fathers; he died in a home for the mentally ill, and was buried in the same family vault as his beloved ‘second mother’ at Langrune-sur-Mer.

Contact with Therese at the Carmelite convent.

After his childhood years, he found little support during the time he spent at the seminary. During his youth he had to overcome many trials, and – as he says himself – “rode out many a storm”. He believed that he would have to live the rest of his life with the thought of having wasted his best years. Called up for military service and aware of his own frailty, he feared the worst for his priestly vocation. Bowed down under the weight of his sinful past and doubting his ability to stick it out, he wrote a letter to the Prioress of the Carmelite Convent at Lisieux begging her to – as he said – “entrust to the prayers of one of your sisters the salvation of my soul and to obtain for me the grace of remaining faithful to the vocation which I have received from God.” Young Therese, who had joined the Carmel at the age of 15, was chosen by the mother superior for that undertaking while doing the weekly laundry of the convent, indeed the humblest of daily tasks. In this way, Maurice, who was in his second year of theology at the Diocesan Seminary, received a lifebelt thrown to him by this Carmelite nun. That is how a spiritual friendship began between a moderately gifted man and an exceptionally gifted young contemplative sister. This simple young sister was soon to be known throughout the world by the name of “Little Flower” (1873-1897).

Father Maurice Bellière and Sister Therese of the Child Jesus

Maurice and Therese never met, but their destiny united them very profoundly. Their correspondence, which started two years before the death of Therese, amounts to 21 letters and made an important addition to her spiritual autobiography, famous worldwide, as “The Story of a Soul,” which was published after her death in 1898. Maurice wanted to become a missionary and was accepted by the Society of the Missionaries of Africa, the White Fathers. His vocation generated a missionary desire in Therese also. Because of that missionary enthusiasm and no doubt also because of that exchange of letters with a missionary, – and one of us at that – the Church declared her Patron Saint of the Missions. We, White Fathers, can be rightly proud of that.  

Maurice was a man who, in many aspects, resembles each one of us, with his easily recognizable anxieties and his individual human limited abilities. At the same time, we discover in her ten letters that Therese is a saint within everyone’s reach, but also that she is a truly mystical person, capable of spiritual friendship. Their friendship was formed around their common ideal, a shared desire for Christ’s love, simplicity and warmth. The friendship between a Doctor of the Church in spirituality and this young aspirant to the priesthood shows a mutual affection which does not shy away from words of tenderness. They call one another “little brother” and “little sister”. “Nothing profane disturbs the secret of our intimacy,” they themselves would say. He becomes for her the brother whom she never had, and she became for him the sister whom he missed. The story that emerges here deserves, in our opinion, to be known by all of Therese’s “little brothers” today, whether they are Missionaries of Africa already or aspirant-missionaries. They surely need these encouraging words.

Therese was already seriously ill; the tuberculosis from which she suffered was already in an advanced stage and no remedy was yet available. In spite of that, she wrote magnificent letters to her unsure ‘little brother’ to encourage him in his vocation. The last word she sent him was a laborious scribble on the back of a communion certificate: “Final souvenir of a soul which is near.“ From her very first letter, she recalls the law which will dominate his future life, that is to say, the temptations and the trials, which necessarily accompany each apostle. He will have to learn to accept them. In this respect, Maurice’s letters sometimes express apt words and noble feelings, but Therese will try to take him further. He will have to let go of everything, following the example of Jesus:  “You will have to suffer much”, she says. Her words carry a prophetic ring.

Therese had realized very early on that priests were “men both frail and weak”. This seemed to be especially true in the case of Maurice, her brother/priest who, according to his own words: “had to regret many unheard-of stumbles and much foolishness”. But, as she writes: “No human frailty can be an obstacle to the preaching of the Gospel as long as the flame of love will burn at the heart of the Church”. Later on Maurice will reread these letters repeatedly and will even make a collection of its choice passages when studying in Carthage. Later on still, in Malawi, when already sick and rather discouraged, he certainly found in its message the remedy against despair.  

His formation to missionary life

On the 30th September, 1897, Maurice embarked at Marseille to cross the Mediterranean to enter the novitiate of the White Fathers in North Africa. The same evening, Therese’s agony started after a long struggle against her illness. She too was now making her own crossing towards another life. Maurice and Therese “left together”. At this point, she fired the starting shot for a worldwide missionary expansion, the effects of which are still visible today all over Africa and the world. Possibly, Maurice did not perceive the prophetic significance of it, but their friendship remained for him “a great strength and a source of confidence…; from heaven, she watches over me; this, I feel clearly” he writes. When, at Carthage, in November 1898, he managed to be one of the first in the world to lay hands on Therese’s autobiography “The Story of a Soul”; he was elated. He had hardly completed reading the first part when he exclaimed: “Dieu est ici” (God is here!) He was to meditate on it for a long time and, in this way, from her writings, he will understand her better, she and “her Little Way”.  

Long before Maurice arrived in Africa, the White Fathers had courageously attempted to reach West Africa across the Sahara, where they had, as early as 1872, established their first outstation at Laghouat. In North Africa, Touareg guides had massacred six White Fathers. In Central Africa, in 1886, the first Christian communities emerged from the blood shed by the Uganda martyrs, after caravans of White Fathers reached that region by way of the Red Sea and Zanzibar. The Society at that time was still very young and with few members, but eleven of its members had already been murdered, and fifty-six had died prematurely because of sickness, fever and depravations of all kinds. In all they represented 29% of its young missionaries, only 19 years after the Society had been founded. The missionary undertakings of Cardinal Lavigerie could only happen under the sign of the cross.

At the Noviciate, at Maison-Carrée

It is in this context that Maurice started his training: one year at the novitiate at Maison-Carrée in 1887 and three years of theology at Carthage (1898-1901). The atmosphere was that of generosity and saintliness. Lavigerie had always pressed upon his men: “For an apostle there is no middle way between total holiness and absolute perversion.”

Therese of Lisieux would instil in him the same warning in her letter of June 1897, saying that with all his anxieties and contradictions, he could not be a half saint: “You are a saint fully and completely or you are not a saint at all!” She knew his desire for holiness and even for martyrdom and would not think that this desire was presumptuous.

The novitiate of Maison-Carrée was ten kilometres away from the port of Algiers. This is where Maurice lived until August 1898. He almost instantly fell in love with Africa and was at ease with his fifty co-novices coming from several countries. Bishop Livinhac, the Superior General, whom he met there, was goodness itself and displayed a profound humanity. He had been a member of the first heroic caravans towards the Great Lakes and he had founded the first mission in Uganda in 1879. He became the first White Father Bishop in 1884 and the first Vicar General of the Society in 1889. Maurice worked alongside him as his first private secretary because of his knowledge of English. Later, at the time of his dark hours from 1905-1906, he found in Livinhac an understanding father.

His novice master was Father Paul Voillard, 37 years old, quite a different type of man to Livinhac; he had sharp and piercing eyes with a fiery temperament. In spite of that, he would make a profound impression on people. Inspired by the spirituality of St Ignatius, he would lead his little flock seriously with encouraging words and with contagious enthusiasm. At that time, Voillard was also contacted by the Blessed Charles de Foucauld to be his spiritual counsellor. This is how Maurice could stand alongside this ‘Hermit of the Sahara’ for a full week. Sometime later, in 1916, de Foucauld was murdered by Bedouins at Tamanrasset. Father Voillard became the second Superior General of the Society. In North Africa, close to Livinhac and Voillard, Maurice was in good hands.

Departure for Nyasaland

Maurice received his appointment for Nyasaland and became one of the founders of the new mission there. A photograph of Maurice, taken around that time, shows a smiling young man who seems to look to the future with confidence. On the 29th July 1902, he boarded ship at Marseille to start off with ten other missionaries on a long journey of 67 days. The journey saw them pass through Port Said, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and then Aden in Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, round the most Eastern tip of Africa, to sail finally into the Indian Ocean. They reached Chiwamba in Nyasaland on October 4th 1902, where the new mission station was to be founded and where he spent the first nine months of his missionary life in conditions of great insecurity. Apostolic life appeared to be much harder than he had anticipated, but that could only excite his romantic dreams of sacrifices and spiritual conquests. He started work at Chiwamba, together with Fathers Georges Guyard (+1903), Alfred Honoré (+1950), and Brother Sebastian (aka Albert Scholte +1952) and Fr. Alphonse Perrot (did not return to the Society in 1918 after serving in the French Army in World War I). Maurice had always been in need of friendship and affection and was not made to live alone. Already in North Africa, his superiors had described him as “open and full of life”, endowed with a “cordial understanding”. The “rule of three”, so dear to the White Fathers, suited him well and, clearly, he had landed well. In spite of frequent and lasting bouts of fever and a poor diet, the missionaries started their pastoral activities straightaway, such as celebrating the Eucharist and teaching the catechism. Maurice could not devote enough time to learn the language because of recurring health problems. Many year before, Therese, in her Carmel, had heard of the difficulties encountered and she wrote: “Over there, far away, there is an apostle who exerts himself and – to enlighten his tiredness – I offer mine to God”, and further on she says: “I made an agreement with God, so that He gives a bit of time off to these poor sick missionaries so that they find a bit of time to take care of themselves.”

In 1902, the British Colonial Administration was transferred to Lilongwe, and consequently the mission post of Chiwamba was closed because it was thought to be a good thing if the mission were sufficiently near the colonial administration. Thus the new post of Likuni was founded in November 1904, about eight kilometres from Lilongwe. Maurice, because of his knowledge of English, was appointed superior of this new post.

The same year, Bishop Joseph Dupont (+1930) returned from France and soon started to visit the various posts of his Nyasa Vicariate, in the company of Maurice, his secretary. The nickname ‘Motomoto,’ which Bishop Dupont had been given by the Africans, was apt: ‘moto’ means ‘fire’ and to double up the word meant a superlative, ‘a blazing fire.’ ‘Accendatur’ meaning, ‘may it burn’ was, in fact, the motto of Bishop Dupont. Later on, Maurice would have to suffer quite a bit from that fiery character. He travelled with his Bishop through the land of the Bemba people, Lake Bangweolo and the Luangwa valley which Father (later Bishop) Mathurin Guillemé (+1942) described as ‘a country without much appeal’. He reports that he and his colleagues were exhausted by the intense heat and dehydrated by thirst… clouds of mosquitoes gave them no respite… they were woken by the laugh of hyenas and the roar of the lions. Under those trying circumstances, daily efforts would cost those missionaries a lot.  

Threatened by deadly fevers

In 1903, Maurice wrote a letter to a priest-friend in France. He told him that he was suffering from black-water fever, a reduced but most dangerous kind of malaria; the urine becomes dark and death follows quickly. Maurice knew this and expected to die. However, he survived, because it was diagnosed in time and he got the necessary drugs that were available at the time. Soon he was active again, though in the diaries one does not find much information about his daily pastoral activities. Moreover, Maurice himself does not write much on that subject. Opinions from Nyasaland concerning him were fragmentary. We know that he clashed with a confrère who, himself, had serious health problems and was suffering from depression. On the contrary, the Dutch brother, Sebastian, who was keeping the diary of Likuni, was always full of praises for Maurice. Maurice himself was divided between, on the one hand, the humility which Theresa had instilled in him and, on the other, his pride in speaking English and of his worldly ambitions, dating back to his military career. He did not get on well with his confrères. Bishop Dupont himself was not an easy man because of his bouts of gout and was a demanding and severe superior. He could be very hard on Maurice and demanded much from his men. That, as well as his clashes with his confreres led Maurice to the brink of total discouragement.

Early departure from Nyasaland

After eight years, in October 1905, Maurice decided to leave Africa, a broken man. He went to Maison-Carrée to “lay down his arms” at the feet of his old Superior and good friend Bishop Livinhac. He had all the letters of Therese with him, and also the first version of ‘L’Histoire d’une Âme’ with a photograph of her in an oval frame. On the reverse, he had written out a prayer which he had received from Therese: “I ask of you, O Jesus, a heart that loves you, a heart that cannot be overcome, prepared to resume the fight after each storm, a heart that is free and does not allow itself to be seduced, a heart that is straight and does not follow crooked ways.” He was about to enter a dead end. Therese – and also Cardinal Lavigerie – had predicted it, he was about to ascend his own Calvary.

Father Maurice and compagnons preparing for departure to Nyassaland

Already in 1903, he had caught black-water fever and sleeping sickness and he had suffered from kidney problems which, possibly, affected his brain and sometimes left him confused. Because of all that, his confreres thought that he was no longer fully responsible for his actions. Moreover, because he had left his field of apostolate without the permission of his superiors, he was called to come and report to the General Council after his arrival in Europe. His answers did not satisfy them, but he was not severely punished. On the contrary, he received the order to go back to his mission. However, because he continued to suffer from bouts of fever, his doctor thought that a return to his mission would constitute a serious health hazard.

He was sent to Autreppe, in Belgium, to a rest house for sick missionaries, but soon after, the doctor decided that it would be better for him to go and breathe the fresh air of Langrune, in his home country of Normandy. It is not easy to know after that, who was responsible for him after he left the White Fathers. One thing is certain, his beloved adoptive mother died five months later. After her death, he became even more confused and from that moment, he soon deteriorated physically as well as mentally. He would lose his mind more and more; he

wandered around aimlessly and one day was found by his priest-friend, Father Adam, who placed him in an institute for the mentally ill in Caen. This is where he died on the 14th July 1907, five weeks after his 33rd birthday.  

In the old days, these institutions were cruelly called: ‘madhouses”. For Therese, this word would also be a knife blow to her heart. Indeed, it is in such an institution that her own father was admitted and died after three-and-a-half years. How much more would she have suffered had she known about the last days of her beloved little brother Maurice?

A man like us

There is a gap in the details about his last days. It is certain that he must have suffered greatly, even though we do not know the precise nature of his illness. In the diary of Likuni it is written that he suffered from sleeping sickness, caused by tsetse fly bites. It is also suggested that, maybe, he had a brain tumour. In any case, the sick Maurice was not the Maurice that the White Fathers had known in North Africa: “A young man open and full of life”, who had a “warm relationship with others”. The unfolding of the life of Maurice brings to our memory the words that Therese wrote in 1897: “When I enter into the Life, the suffering of my little brother will be transformed into peace and joy.”

The tombstone formerly sunken at an angle and covered with moss, at Langrune-sur-Mer, has given way to a beautiful funerary monument on which one can read the entry:”Maurice Bellière, spiritual brother and protégé of Saint Therese.” It is a moving epitaph! The exchange of letters between him and Theresa has taken him out of oblivion and has made him worthy of a title of precious greatness.

Little Saint Therese has revealed to us that God does not ask for more than what we can give. To entrust oneself to God who is “nothing but Love and Tenderness”, this is what she asked from Maurice. His life may have seemed to end in apparent failure; his ideal was great and his dreams boundless. All things considered, his end was certainly not a failure.

Piet van der Pas, M.Afr.