Saint of the Day – 29 May – Blessed Joseph Gerard O.M.I. (1831-1914) Priest, Religious, Missionary “The Apostle of Lesotho”, (12 March 1831 – 29 May 1914) was a French Roman Catholic priest and a professed member from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the order founded by St Eugene de Mazenod O.M.I. (1782-1861), Bishop of Marseille, founder of the Congregation of the Missionaries, Oblates of Mary Immaculate whose Memorial we celebrated on 21 May.
Joseph Gerard was born in 1831 in Bouxieres-aux-Chenes in the Diocese of Nancy, France. He joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate at the age of 20 and at the age of 22 was sent by St Eugene de Mazenod as a missionary to Southern Africa, never to see his family or homeland again. He was ordained a priest in 1854 in Pietermaritzburg and at first served the Oblate mission to the Zulu people, later joining Bishop Allard, the Bishop of Natal, in setting up the first Catholic mission in Lesotho. With the permission of the great Chief Moshoeshoe they founded Motse-oa-Ma-Jesu (the Village of the Mother of Jesus) thirty two kilometres south of Moshoeshoe’s stronghold of Thaba Bosiu. (The village which they founded later became Roma, site of the Catholic University College and now the University of Lesotho.)
Joseph Gerard was well respected by Chief Moshoeshoe, particulaly because he remained with the Basotho during the three wars between the Basotho and the Orange Free State. It is said that it was through Joseph Gerard’s efforts that Chief Moshoeshoe sought the protection of the British at the end of the wars, a decision which resulted in Lesotho becoming a British Protectorate and an Independent country today.
Joseph Gerard’s mission grew slowly and by the end of 1879, when he was already 48 years of age, there were only 700 Catholics in Lesotho. He persevered, however in prayer, faith and work, remaining in Lesotho as a missionary for the rest of his life.
The Oblate mission to the Basotho grew and flourished. He died on 29 May 1914 at the age of 83, a man greatly revered by the people of Lesotho. The fact that Lesotho is very largely a Catholic country today, can be traced back to those early beginnings at the Village of the Mother of Jesus.
Father Joseph Gerard was Beatified by Pope John-Paul II in Maseru, Lesotho, in 1988.
Throughout his years in Lesotho Fr Gerard’s concern and care for the sick and the old was remarkable. Despite the distance, despite the weather, despite the inconvenience, he would set out, on foot or on horseback, carrying the Blessed Sacrament, to minister to those afflicted. His deep devotion to Mary was absorbed by his first converts and since his day the nation has been dedicated to Mary Immaculate.
The last years of Fr Gerard´s life were spent back at his first mission, Roma. Up to a month before his death he was on horseback, out on the mountain tracks caring for those in need.
In one of his retreat notes, Fr Gerard gave the key to his constancy when he wrote about the people he served: “We must love them, love them in spite of everything, love them always”. He lived out his belief in the joy of spreading God’s Word, despite the hardships and opposition he encountered.
Blessed Joseph Gerard, Pray for Africa, pray for us all!