My Half Century of Missionary Ministry

in Morondava, Madagascar

By Bishop Donald Pelletier, MS

I realize that few missionaries – and I would add very few missionaries – have had the grace to serve fifty years in the same mission, in the same territory, in the same diocese. It is a rare privilege that, with great humility, I must recognize as a free gift of God’s love for me. Father Arthur LeBlanc, M.S. served here for  sixty-two years before his death, and I have no thought of bettering his record.

The changes from Vatican II were easier for the Church in Madagascar
This last half century has been one of great change for everyone concerned: the Church, the Mission, our World and, last but not least, the country of Madagascar. For the church, the transition to the post-Vatican II church was traumatic. John XXIII wanted to open windows but set off an earthquake that shook so many Church institutions. Having been educated and formed in the pre-Vatican church, I along with other missionaries felt the shock in our own missionary lives. However, for poor and especially young churches like that of Madagascar, the changes were undoubtedly easier and certainly necessary for evangelization. We, as a young church, were not yet fully initiated into the long-standing traditions of the universal Church. Therefore changes that severely affected churches in other parts of the world were not so drastic for us to accept.



The liturgical reform was not only needed but most beneficial for a new thrust of evangelization. If the colonial era had been identified with the Church, the fact of independence for Madagascar would also necessarily allow the church to affirm its identity and its autonomy. Not only did the church call for the independence of Madagascar but was a  rime mover in all peaceful, non-violent actions to obtain it.

Two important factors in the sudden expansion of the church in Madagascar were undoubtedly Vatican II and Madagascar’s Independence in 1960. The church had always advocated the right to independence. While changes after Vatican II allowed for adaptation to the local needs, the use of the local language was a breath of fresh air that allowed everyone more easily to understand the Good News.

Growth and Progress of the Church
Many other factors contributed to the growth and progress of the Church. Population growth necessarily indicates a growth for the church. If the population of the city of Morondava in 1958 was 17,000, today we count at least 60,000 people. Most of these are not people who have moved in from the rural areas but families that have always been here. With a very high birth rate the population
growth has been a great challenge to both government and state. In 1958 they talked of six or seven million people in Madagascar. Today we are close to twenty million, and five million are Catholics. From the original nine dioceses in 1955 when the hierarchy was instituted in this mission church, there are now twenty-one dioceses with discussions of creating other new dioceses.

 

Bishop Donald Pelletier with kids from Ambodimanga

Thanks to the solidarity of the Catholic Church as an institution, we have been able to respond to needs created by population growth. This meant construction of churches, schools, medical services, social services, development projects, and presence of pastoral ministers both ordained and lay. Of all the dioceses on the island, Morondava has suffered the most from shortage of ordained ministers. Even today we have the lowest number of diocesan priests of any diocese on the island. It is a sad reality as our people are deprived of the Eucharist and other Sacraments, but on the other hand it has helped us to develop lay ministries and e pecially the ministry of our catechists. 

Helping Hands and Hearts from North America
 In 1958 Morondava was a region of the newly founded La Salette Province of Mary, Queen, centered in St. Louis, MO. Even though I had been mandated by the Superior General in Rome, I was the first missionary to leave as a member of the St. Louis Province. This was in October of 1958. For over thirty years the St. Louis Province did an outstanding job in supporting this mission. The province could not help greatly with personnel but their significant financial support did allow us to build schools, churches and rectories. In 1958 there was one Malagasy priest with eighteen missionaries. Today there are three remaining Americans, four from Poland and five Carmelites from India. Of the eighteen Malagasy priests serving in this mission diocese, only four are diocesan. The St. Louis Province promoted the mission for thirty years, witnessing to a very active American missionary spirit that lives on. Throughout the years of expansio , the mission could respond adequately to the needs due to support from the St. Louis Province. Fr. Art Lueckenotto, M.S. is a living reminder of the mission spirit that sustained his mission for so many years, while Fr. Jack Nuelle will never forget the years that lighted up for him the fire of evangelization.


Change for Some, Not For All
We live in a changing world. Much has changed in the Church and in our world, and Madagascar cannot ignore the demands of progress. I must nevertheless admit that in many of the distant bush villages, little or nothing has changed. I have had many occasions to visit some of the distant isolated villages of the bush, whether in Berevo or Ankavandra, and I must admit that people live pretty much the same way they did in 1958. Some older people in the villages of Marofihitse or Namakia have never traveled further than ten miles from their birthplace, never seen a light bulb. In the diocese some 60% of the people have never even seen the city of Morondava let alone Antananarivo
the nation’s capital.

We have had occasion to bring some young people to a National meeting in Antananarivo only to see how traumatized they were by the heavy flow of traffic. How often in my pastoral visits to distant bush villages, children hesitate to approach a modern passenger vehicle and many reach out to touch a Toyota Land Cruiser with great reverence as if it were from outer space. It cannot be otherwise when it is the first vehicle they have ever seen. The government has put all its effort into building  roads but it will take at least another fifty years before they can open up the isolated bush area to public transportation.

In its reports, the government proudly displays statistics on public education while I am sure that 40% of our children in the bush do not attend school. In the large cities we cannot avoid the modern world that is moving in with all the good and evil aspects of materialism and consumerism. Cell phones are everywhere and the cell phone companies project to cover the entire isl and before the year 2010. And it is difficult to believe and even harder to understand how illiterate people in the bush can apparently adapt easily to the miracle of the cell phone.

From Left to Right:  Fr. Aloysius Spielman, Fr. William Breault, One of the first La Salette missionaries in Madagascar, and Rokoto, their helper 

Eighty-Seven Years of La Salette Ministry
 American La Salettes first came to Madagascar in 1921 with the arrival of the first two American Missionaries: Fathers Alphonse Cote and William Breault. The reason they came was that, at that time, it was the only La Salette Foreign Mission of the Congregation. At the time many wondered how Americans would operate in a French Colony. The mission goes on and to this day – eightyseven years later. There are Americans that continue the adventure. Though the French Fathers and Brothers deserve most of the credit for work done, we cannot underestimate the ministry, work and dedication of North Americans especially in the Morondava Mission which they founded in 1928. Five La Salettes are buried in Madagascar; the seed had to die and be buried for it to bear fruit and it will continue to reap a  rich harvest for the Kingdom of God.

If today we can foresee the day when the American presence will no longer be here, we can be assured that, because of their initial presence, their zeal over the years and their continued interest in this wonderful and challenging mission, the Church will continue to grow and be a sign of salvation for the people. We La Salettes in Madagascar, by our daily ministry and sacrifices along with the support of so many people from North America, are truly continuing to “make the message known”— that of Mary at La Salette, which is, of course, the message of her Son, Jesus. 

A Brief Biography
• Born: June 17, 1931 in Blackstone, MA

• Baptized: July 12, 1931 in Parish of St. Theresa in Blackstone, MA

• First Profession as a La Salette Missionary: July 2, 1951 in East Brewster, MA

• Studied theology: 1954 to 1956 in Rome, Italy and received his licentiate degree

• Ordained a priest: Oct. 28, 1956, Rome, Italy • Left by ship for Morondava, Madagascar: Oct., 1958 and arrived in early December

• In 1961 he was chosen to represent the diocese at the 100th anniversary of Christianity on the “Great Red Island,” as Madagascar was called.

• In 1964 appointed Vicar Capitular (acting administrator) of the diocese in the interim between the death of Bishop Paul Girouard, MS (February 18, 1994) and the ordination of Bishop Bernard Ratsimamotoana, MS (December 3, 1964). Twice he served as Vicar General (second in charge) of the diocese.

• From 1972 he spent many years in the isolated mission posts of Berevo, Antsalova and Ankavandra. He organized and directed the catechetical school in Mahabo, where catechists – the mainstay of small Catholic
communities where no priest resides – are trained.

• in the early 1980’s he was appointed again as pastor of the cathedral in Morondava; he was again appointed Vicar Capitular to administer the diocese when Bishop Bernard turned 75.

• In Nov., 1999, he was named Ordinary of the Diocese of Morondava.

• On Feb. 13, 2000 he was ordained Bishop in Morondava

• On Feb. 11, 2006 he celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving for 50 years of priesthood at his home parish of St. Theresa in Blackstone, MA where he was baptized and received his First Communion.