Joseph-Roger de Benoist 1923 – 2017 (PE nr. 1084)

Roger de Benoist was born on the 2nd August 1923 at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris. His family had a strong military tradition. He was the youngest of three boys. He attended the Collège Stanislas de Paris for his secondary education. At the time of his Confirmation, when he was eleven years old, he began to think about a priestly vocation. It took time to mature because he was heavily committed to the Scouts movement. With the declaration of war in 1939, Roger migrated to Rennes and then Chateauroux in France. Still searching for his vocation, he spent a year at the Benedictine Abbey of En-Calcat, Dourgne in the Diocese of Albi, France. It was here he felt the call to join the Missionaries of Africa. He arrived in Thibar in September 1941 where he finished the philosophical studies begun at the monastery. The following year, he went to the novitiate at Maison Carrée. However, as he was now 20 years old, he was called up for military service and affected to the Spahis Regiment mostly composed of troops from North Africa. He went on to take part in the campaigns in Italy (Monte Cassino and the liberation of Rome) and then on to eastern France. He was demobilised on the 24th August 1945, with the Croix de Guerre. He returned to Maison Carrée to finish his novitiate and then back to Thibar for theological studies. He took his Missionary Oath there on the 29th June 1949. He was ordained priest in Carthage on the 1st February 1950.

Those in charge of his training had already noted his many qualities: human, spiritual and artistic. His superiors decided to use these many talents in the world of the media. The Society was responsible for a weekly newspaper, Afrique Nouvelle, which was published in Dakar. It was having a big influence in all of French-speaking Africa. The time had come to train professionals for the staff. Therefore, Roger was sent to the Ecole Supérieure de Journalisme de Lille followed by some sessions at the Centre des Hautes Etudes sur l’Afrique, in Paris. He disembarked at Dakar on the 15th May 1952. He got down to work immediately. Roger was not an office reporter, he liked being on the ground and he liked interviewing people. He also liked examining and analysing all the upheavals that were occurring in Africa in the 1950s. He crisscrossed Africa and met influential and powerful people, be they members of Government or the opposition, no matter what their opinions. Roger was never afraid of speaking out which did not endear him to Bishop Lefebvre, the Vicar Apostolic of Dakar and Apostolic Delegate for French speaking Africa. Indeed, the Bishop accused him of being a communist. From the Government side, the Governor General of Senegal took a case against the newspaper because he considered it was too critical of France’s colonial policy. Bishop Lefebvre had already demanded the dismissal of the director, Fr. Marcel Paternot (+1967) in 1952, as well as his successor, Fr. Robert Rummelhardt (+1974) in 1954. Roger took over and covered the dawn of independence for many African countries. He increased his contacts and the publication of articles. Afrique Nouvelle became the privileged platform for all those involved in the march towards independence, a passionate era but not without its danger for journalists. In 1959, Archbishop Lefebvre also demanded Roger’s resignation and he left Senegal in December 1959.

He was appointed to Mali, firstly in a parish at Kolongotomo and then he went to Bamako to look after the cultural activities of the diocese as well as the Young Christian Farmers Association. This did not prevent him from taking up commitments in the media.

Roger was appointed to Paris in 1963. He became the correspondent for Vivante Afrique published by the Missionaries of Africa in Namur, Belgium. At the same time, he prepared for the launching of an intercongregational magazine common to all the Missionary Institutes in France. It began publication in 1967 under the title Peuples du Monde. It was a time when Roger travelled the world looking for new contacts and subjects and for new articles and photographs. Brilliant, never short of an idea, his Provincial found it difficult to keep tabs on him.

In 1968, he left for Cotonou (Benin) where Cardinal Gantin entrusted him with the family apostolate, Catholic Teaching Teams and the Girl Guides. Obviously, he also widened his apostolate and his contacts. However, his standpoint on the sexual education of young people was not appreciated and he had to leave the country. He crossed the border and took up residence in Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso. Cardinal Paul Zougrana (+2000) asked him to write a biography of Fr. Jean-Marie Goarnisson our doctor-confrere. The book appeared in 1975 under the title Docteur Lumière.

Roger returned to Paris in 1973. He began a new career as a historian. He enrolled in the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes en sciences socials and obtained its higher diploma and eventually a doctorate after submitting a thesis on the independence movements in French West Africa. However, he did not give up writing articles covering all of Africa for publication in various revues such as Jeune Afrique, Peuples du Monde, Croissance des Jeunes Nations. He spent a number of months working in our archives in Rome. In 1977, he returned to Dakar and began research for his PhD thesis, which he obtained in 1985 on the subject of Les relations entre l’administration coloniale et les missions au Mali et au Burkina. This work and his thesis on L’Afrique Occidentale Française de 1944 à 1960 were both published and became a precious source for African researchers. He was a meticulous and relentless worker. He became Director of Research in African History at IFAN (Institut Fondamental de l’Afrique Noire Cheikh Anta Diop). He became an authority in this area. He travelled the world attending symposiums and scientific congresses. He was a member of many scientific societies such as CREDIC and the l’Académie des Sciences d’outre-mer. In 1994, he retired from teaching and consecrated himself entirely to research and writing. He published many articles and books including one on Leopold Senghor, a history of the Church in Senegal and a history of the Isle of Gorée. In 1988, he received the Legion of Honour (rank of Knight). In 1993, Senegal awarded him the title of Officer of the Ordre National du Lion and in 1997 he received the medal of Officer of the Legion of Honour.

Robert was not overwhelmed by these decorations and his life was not confined to scholarship. Although isolated from the Society, he was never marginalised and was always keen to emphasise his White Father identity. When the White Fathers left Dakar, he lived alone then he moved to the Cathedral presbytery. He spent a good deal of time in different pastoral and missionary works. Fr. Augustin Ndiaye who was Parish Priest of the Cathedral at the time and who preached the homily at his Funeral Mass, gave us a vibrant testimony to this “ very big tree which has fallen and the news of its fall has spread all over the savannah.” He insisted not only on Roger’s quality as a historian of the local Church but also his service as a Sunday pastor, his fidelity to Liturgical celebrations and his availability to people. Fr. Ndiaye said, “He arrived before everybody else at the Church, got dressed for the liturgy and then went out to greet the people as they came in.” Archbishop Benjamin Ndiaye of Dakar also sent a message in which he expressed his appreciation by the way Fr. de Benoist devoted himself in many different ways to the service of the local church. He said, “For us, the Church of Senegal and the Diocesan Family of Dakar in particular, the memory of the Father de Benoist can only be a reason to praise God and be thankful. He has made him an instrument at the service of the Church and Evangelization through science and the media.

In 2006, at the age of 83, he returned to France and joined the community at Bry sur Marne. He spent his remaining years still studying, contemplative and friendly. He remained very modest about himself. He continued to attend seminars such as those at UNESCO. He received many visits from relatives and friends including many Senegalese. He died at St. Camillus Hospital, Paris on 14th February 2017. The Funeral Mass took place in the Parish Church of Bry sur Marne in the presence of many relatives, friends and acquaintances.

F. Richard

Leave a Reply