«Tou le banané le 09 septembre …» (Every year, on September 09) …”These are the first words of a local melody (séga), popularized in 1959 by one of our native singers. The song is broadcasted every year at the same period. It must be emphasized that this was the very first time that a religious man was being praised in a song and moreover in Creole! This prompted a stir as this medium was associated with the language spoken by slaves. At that time, this sega was even banned from the airwaves. What is it all about then? It actually describes a yearly event which has cut across generations: the pilgrimage of Blessed Father Laval. I must confess that listening to this song always sparks memories and emotions. I recall being a child and heading with my family towards the tomb at Sainte Croix and experiencing this strong passion which, at the time, I had a hard time grasping. Over the years, everything has become a little clearer …
Jacques Désiré Laval, a spiritan missionary Father arrived in September 1841 on the island from Normandy, where he was born. He was a doctor dedicated to the poor and the slaves who had been freed a few years back. He evangelized, advised, treated and helped the recently freed population out of its misery, both spiritual and material. He quickly became a soul savior, labelled Mauritius’ Apostle. On muleback, Father Laval would extensively visit the island, triggering a wave of spiritual rebirth. Chapels and churches would be built through his passion.
Father Laval’s fame would quickly transcend borders and he would, as the Apostle of the poor, successfully maintain social peace when times were rough, through his dedication and accessibility. He died piously on September 9, 1864, and a 1923 miracle has since been ascribed to him. In 1979, he was Blessed by Pope John Paul II, who also visited his tomb in Mauritius ten years later. Mauritius was overwhelmed with emotions.
Each will walk towards the tomb at his own pace, praying internally or mingling his prayers and praise songs with those of other pilgrims. Some will start before sunrise while others will favour the evening and walk through the night. On their way, they will certainly remember Father Laval who rode several kilometers to reach the downtrodden. Some will walk as a token of gratefulness for a grace and some will make it with the hope of a cure.
The crowd will queue up at the tomb where it will lay candles and flowers together with its prayer intentions. It is not uncommon for the flowers laid at the tomb to be brought back home. They will serve, in case of illness, to soothe the pain, heal the wounds of the soul, if not those of the body … as a sign of unwavering trust. The feeling is hard to describe, the fervor and veneration of the faithful are palpable through the candlelight. Reading the messages of gratitude on pieces of wood or carved in stone, even the most skeptical will witness the major impact of Blessed Father Laval on the lives of our countrymen, a fervor which extends to the neighboring islands of Reunion, Rodrigues and others who organize pilgrimages to Mauritius.
I never miss the special mass at the church next to the tomb during this commemoration. On the way, I am always impressed by the cosmopolitan crowd. In the street, I come across merchants of the temple offering candles, statuettes and other religious items. Some would seize the opportunity to sell dubious items (laughable) … despite their being banned.
During the week following the commemoration, pilgrims will still flock, those who did not dare defy the mob or those who prefer to pay tribute more discreetly, in their own way, akin to a yearly face to face conversation.
Yes, in terms of miracles, the first one of Blessed Father Laval was undoubtedly his success in ensuring a social peace on a very small multicultural island which, despite its differences and disagreements, was able to privilege a great mutual respect.
The Apostle of Mauritius, Blessed Father Laval, cannot but be proud of his legacy.
In Sainte Croix, on this 09th September, we express the wish that peace and harmony on our beautiful Mauritius last for ever.