Fr. Gabriel Bapst was born to a farming family on the 2nd September 1926 at Chandon in the Canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. When he was two years old, his mother died when she was expecting her fifth child. The family moved to Avry-sur-Matran but three years later his father died from tuberculosis. Gabriel was then sent to an orphanage run by religious sisters at La Roche not far from Fribourg. He was to remain there until he was sixteen years of age.
Later on when he spoke of this first period of his life, he remarked, “My childhood passed surrounded by forests, streams and mountains. A childhood marked by the sound of bells, religious events, big feasts, processions especially those of the Rogation Sundays. It was a simple, frugal and innocent childhood lived in a well defined social framework.
Gabriel worked for six months as a servant in Essert, a small village in the canon of Vaud as he knew how to milk cows and make hay. When a priest acquaintance came to visit him, he asked Gabriel if he ever thought of becoming a priest. Gabriel accepted this proposal, and he began his secondary schooling at Estavayer-le-Lac. At the beginning, he felt out of place as many of his fellow students were much younger than him. By sheer hard work, he made up for the lost time and even managed to jump two classes. He finished his secondary studies at the Collège St-Michel in Fribourg.
Gabriel initially thought of becoming a diocesan priest, but after hearing a talk given by Fr. Jean Perraudin (+1999) on his missionary work in Africa, Gabriel applied to join the Missionaries of Africa. He had to do a supplementary year of Philosophy at the University of Fribourg before entering the novitiate of the White Fathers at Maison-Carrée near Algiers in 1950. Four years of theological studies at Thibar and Carthage in Tunisia followed. He took his Missionary Oath at Thibar on the 27th June 1954 and he was ordained priest in Carthage on Easter Sunday, 10th April, 1955. On the 3rd July, he returned to La Roche, to celebrate his First Mass.
Fr. Bapst asked for an appointment to French speaking Africa, but received an appointment to Uganda instead. He spent a short time in England brushing up his English and arrived in Uganda in December 1955. For seven years, he exercised his apostolate in the Diocese of Mbarara in the Ruwenzori regions of Uganda. He served in Ibanda, Nyakibale, Munteme, and Butiti. He returned to Switzerland in 1962 and spent three years promoting the missions. He returned to Uganda in 1966. As Mbarara Diocese had now been divided, Gabriel returned to the newly erected Diocese of Hoima and became the Diocesan Treasurer. He lived many difficult years after the civil war broke out in 1971. He often intervened on behalf of the destitute and the exploited and this made him suspect in the eyes of certain politicians who were more interested in looking after their own interests than in the interests of the population. His concern for justice meant that he spent three months under house arrest and he received death threats from some armed groups.
Gabriel became Parish Priest of Kakindo in 1973. It was a parish of fifty villages and he was to stay there for eleven years, the longest he was to stay in any one place. Helped by friends in Switzerland, he was able to build many chapels and to start many social projects. Gabriel returned definitively to Switzerland in 1984. He was tasked with many different jobs, local bursar in Fribourg, Provincial Treasurer for more than ten years, Superior and bursar of the Africanum. In 1996/97, he spent a number of months replacing the Assistant Treasurer General in Rome. He said, “All these jobs have not succeeded in making me forget Uganda as I still feel such a strong attachment to these lands.”
Writing about his 29 years in Africa, Gabriel wrote, “I have made eight return trips between Switzerland and Uganda. I have been Parish Priest in a parish of 50,000 souls. I have preached the Word of God, taught catechism in schools, started many social projects, a carpenter’s shop, a garage for maintaining tractors and lorries. I have bred large and small domestic animals and travelled on badly rutted roads. I have also managed the finances of a diocese. I have managed to do all this with the help of many Swiss friends, a little bit removed from the direct apostolate but with the possibility of collaborating in the social and human progress of the country.”
During the last years of his life in Switzerland, Gabriel was keen to continue doing pastoral work in the parishes of Gruyère, in religious communities and retirement homes. He spent a lot of time promoting pilgrimages to Fatima and he went there a dozen times himself. He even had occasion to pronounce a few homilies in patois, at the request of a circle of people promoting the dialect and where his presence was much appreciated.
From 2015 on, Gabriel’s strength began to fail but he had difficulty admitting it. He wanted to assure a Sunday service nearly every week in a local chapel. He went out for the last time on the 2nd September 2017. The following afternoon, he fell in his office and was brought to hospital where he died on the 5th September.
Following his wishes, his funeral was celebrated in his parish on the 8th September 2017, the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. A sister who knew him well commented, “He merited his name, like the angel, he was sent to us by God (Lk 1, 26)
Jean-Marie Gabioud, M.Afr.