Henri Valette 1929 – 2017 (PE nr. 1083)

Henri was born into a farming family on the 2nd January 1929 in Bagé-la Ville in the Diocese of Belley, north of Lyon. He was the eldest of eleven children and grew up in a milieu marked by Christian values. All his life, he remained attached to his family. After finishing his primary education in the local village school, the young Henri was admitted to the Diocesan Junior Seminary. Feeling a call to a missionary life, he was encouraged by his teachers who highly recommended him to the Superior of our seminary in Kerlois.

Henri arrived in Kerlois in 1947 at the age of 18 years. He revealed himself to be a good catch for the White Fathers and was considered to be a conscientious and supernatural worker. It was very natural therefore that he took the boat to Algiers in 1949, to join the Novitiate at Maison-Carée. The following year, he was appointed to s’ Heerenberg in the Netherlands for Theology. He took his Missionary Oath there on the 22nd July 1953. He did his final year of Theology at Monteviot in Scotland where he was ordained priest on the 10th June 1954. During his years of training his professors remarked that he was somewhat reserved in character but they highlighted the seriousness with which he applied himself to everything, be it studies, spiritual life, various services and community life. In fact, Henri’s big secret was that he did not particularly enjoy his years of formation. He found the studies too abstract and remote from real life. He suffered from the rigid lifestyle and disliked a spiritual life organised in a very traditional way. He had high hopes that things would get better in Africa.

Henri was greatly disappointed when his first appointment was to study History at the University of Strasbourg. Once again he found himself in the ossified life of the Formation house. University life only reinforced his distaste for intellectual life. Things came to the point that he doubted if he should continue to remain the Society. Wishing to see things more clearly, he did the Spiritual Exercises under the direction of Fr. Laplace, S.J. Having discerned that his vocation was definitely with the White Fathers, he returned to Strasbourg. However, his Superiors had also come to the conclusion that he was not suitable for intellectual life or for teaching and put an end to his misery by allowing him to interrupt his studies and appointed him to Africa.

It was a liberated man who arrived in Mbarara, Uganda on the 6th January 1958. Henri was appointed to the Parish of Wekomire where he got down to learning Rutooro. He would have the happiness of serving in pastoral work in the region for the next 40 years. He saw the setting up of two dioceses, those of Fort Portal and Kasese. Appointments followed one another on a regular basis and he served in Wekomire, Hoima, Yerva, Virika, Kilembe, Kasese and Hima. No matter where he was, Henri always gave himself fully to his ministry. These years were marked by two important events: The Second Vatican Council and the tormented history of Uganda under the regimes of Obote, Amin and Museveni.

Henri lived this period to the full. The Ugandan Church was full of vitality and Henri was able to consecrate himself to the diverse activities of missionary work such as the administration of the sacraments, serving the outstations, marriage preparation, various administrative tasks, and commitments to schools and to various Christian movements. Everywhere he tried to inspire the renewal of Vatican II. He loved the people, always trying to get to know them as best as he could, visiting them at home and receiving them in his always open office. Bishop Egidio Nkaijanabwo, Bishop Emeritus of Kasese, remembered him as a first class evangeliser. He knew how to get the Christians involved in the life of the Church especially the catechists and the sisters, particularly the Banyetereza. In 1973, he published an article in the Petit Echo 73/01 entitled; “Sisters’ Parishes in Uganda” describing the work of Sisters who were running a parish. Increasingly, he collaborated in the formation of religious sisters of many congregations. His contributions were always highly appreciated and he continued to be involved in different ways until his departure from Uganda.

For someone who did not appreciate his own initial formation, Henri became an expert in Ongoing Formation. While in Uganda, he read a lot and frequented many sessions: Enneagram, Islam, Communications, Community leadership, Social analysis. Each home leave included one session or another. In 1979, he took time out for a sabbatical. He did the Long Retreat in Villa Cavaletti in 1965 and in 1985, he did the Session/Retreat in Jerusalem. Of course, he did the two Roman sessions for Seniors (3rd Age in 1995 and 70+ in 2006). Always ready to add more strings to his bow, he took part in many sessions of JPIC at Nairobi and Lilongwe.

All this opened new perspectives for him and one thought of him for the job of Coordinator for JPIC for the Ugandan Region. At 70 years of age, he followed a session on Interreligious Dialogue in Nairobi and a six months Faith and Justice Session in London. Then he returned to Kampala to take up the new function of Coordinator of JPIC-ED. This meant attending lots of meetings without forgetting all the contacts that this function involved. His long Ugandan experience was very helpful for him. Everywhere, one recognised a calm, friendly, efficient man with a great sense of humour something that was present all through his life. His community appreciated his kindness, his thoughtfulness and the way he prepared the famous “Valette vinaigrette!”

However with increasing age, Henri had to leave Kampala to spend his final years in Uganda in the calmer surroundings of Tobi Kizza House in Mbarara. Bishop Paul Bakenya, the local bishop described his new ministry; “Fr. Valette has worked in this diocese at the service of Justice and Peace and for Interreligious Dialogue. He was very much appreciated as chaplain to the Daughters of Divine Charity, the Poor Clares’ and the Daughter of Fatima Sisters. Fr. Valette was a calm and tactful man, a man of God who will be missed.”

It was in Mbarara, that Henri’s Ugandan pilgrimage came to an end. In 2014, he returned to France where he was welcomed into the community of Bry-sur-Marne. He lived quietly, a little withdrawn among confreres who did not know his dear Uganda. That weighed on him and handicapped as he was by deafness and partial blindness; he talked little about his past. However, one did feel he lived deeply his love of God and the Ugandan people. As was his custom, Henri left us discreetly on the 22nd February 2017 leaving his confreres with a memory of “a man who had the head, the heart and guts of a great missionary”.

François Richard, M.Afr.

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