Untitled 1A mosaic of Icelandic martyred Bp. Jón Arason (c. 1484-1550) In an issue of "The Catholic Missions," an interesting article, entitled "Scandinavia and Baltic Countries," describes the vicissitudes of the Church in the land of the Norsemen, from the days of the Vikings, through the sad period of the Reformation, down to the present day. The author, Viggo F. Rambush, President of St. Ansgar's Scandinavian Catholic League in New York, in the limited space of a magazine article could do no more than trace this history in its larger lines.

Called to Ministry in Norway

The subject, however, is of more than passing interest to the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, for Norway was their first foreign mission field. A few months before the Holy See had set her approval on the Community, raising it from its diocesan status to that of a religious Congregation of pontifical right, the Congregation of the Propaganda had already, by a decree dated March 6th, 1879, confided to the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette under the leadership of Monsignor Bernard, the evangelization of Norway and Lapland.

A Time of Violent Persecution of Catholics

No mission could have been more difficult for the young and struggling Community, since, to climatic hardships there was added the hostility of the greater part of the people who resented what they considered foreign intrusion. In the days of the Reformation, Lutheranism had been established by violence as the national religion and was strongly entrenched in the hearts of the people. Craft and force brought about the victory of Protestanism so rapidly and so completely that in 1550 Jon Arason, the last Bishop of Holar, in Iceland, was executed for his beliefs and died a martyr . . .

For centuries Norway remained as sealed to the Catholic Faith as Thibet. It was only in the nineteenth century that all "dissenters" (including Catholics who had come into the country) were released from control of the Lutheran State Church. The Catholic Church had waited long. At once, as soon as the doors of Norway were ajar to her, she recommenced her age-long struggle for people's souls. . . . "The first priests to settle in the country in recent years (1859)," continues “The Catholic Missions”, "were Frenchmen, the Abbés Bernard and Baudoin."

Challenges for Fr. Bernard Bernard

Father Bernard Bernard, one of the first missionaries of the North Pole region was appointed Prefect Apostolic of Norway and Lapland in 1862. He established his official residence at Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, and thence was accustomed to set out on his mission tours to all parts of this great and desolate field.

Untitled 2La Salettes (front row, from left): Isidore Burille, Henri Berthier, Bp. Bernard Bernard, Ferdinand Plasse, unknown; back row, from left: Pierre Jacquemet?, four unknowns
In 1870 when Monsignor Bernard established his headquarters at Christiania, the capital of Norway, his prefecture had a surface area equal to that of all France, though the inhabitants numbered only 1,800,000. For many years he worked there almost single-handed, perservering in his labors in spite of discouragements on all sides. "The intolerance to which they (the first priests) were subjected on the part of preachers and state officials alike," writes Kambush in "The Catholic Missions,", "caused them much suffering and rendered their ministry futile."

Bp. Bernard Petitions Rome for Help

In desperation Monsignor Bernard returned to France for help, and at once he placed all his hopes on the infant Congregation of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette. Obtaining the Fathers' consent, he hurried to Rome where he presented personally his petition to the Holy See for permission to bring the new Community to his Norway mission. "Holy Father," he said, "let me have them, for if my wayward people have until now rejected the cross, they will not resist the crucifix bathed with Mary's tears. It is not without a purpose that She who alone overthrows heresy, came to weep in surroundings (namely, the Mountain of La Salette) as desolate as my own Scandinavia."

Untitled 3From left: Frs. Joseph Vignon and Isidore Burille in native winter garb
His petition was granted, and filled with new hope and joy he hurried back to the Sanctuary on the Holy Mountain to organize the departure of the first group of Missionaries. Nothing would satisfy the heart of this great Apostle of the Northlands except that before setting out, he himself make his religious profession and become a member of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette. He bound himself by the three vows in the Basilica on the Holy Mountain on the 6th of July, 1880, and with joy took in his hands and heart the crucifix of our Weeping Mother.

La Salettes Left for Norway

On the 18th of June, 1880, the departure ceremony took place in the Sanctuary at La Salette. The group consisted of two priests, seven professed students in Philosophy and Theology who were to finish their studies in Norway, and two lay brothers. Fr. Henry Berthier, M.S., was in charge of the valiant band of Pioneers.

Headquarters were established at Trondheim, formerly the capital of Norway, and here for eleven long years the Missionaries of La Salette suffered and toiled, sowing the seeds of the Gospel in hearts turned away from the one true faith. Commenting on this period of mission work in Norway, Rambush says in "The Catholic Missions: "Intolerance . . . rendered their ministry futile."

That these words cannot be taken literally the writer knows from having heard generous words of fulsome praise for the labors of these pioneers spoken in Rome several years ago by a prelate of high standing in the Church. affairs of Norway. Even after a lapse of thirty-five years, he remarked, the zeal and the courage of these brave missionaries were gratefully remembered.

Untitled 4Three La Salettes ordained to Priesthood by Bp. Van den Branden on Aug 2,1888 in Trondheim Cathedral – first Catholic Ordination in Norway since Reformation
On the second of August, 1885, three of the seven students who were part of this a pioneer band were ordained to the Holy Priesthood by Monsignor Van den Branden, Auxiliary Bishop of Malines. These three Missionaries of La Salette were the first Catholic priests ordained in Norway since the Protestant Reformation three hundred years before.

A Disaster at Sea

This year of 1885 was also one of great sorrow for the struggling missionaries, for in February they lost their most zealous and stalwart champion, Fr. Henry Berthier, M.S. Returning to Norway from France where he had been collecting funds to aid the Mission, he sailed from Hamburg with a new recruit, the Rev. Father Besson, M.S., on the steamship Norden. The next day, February 27th, the vessel collided in a fog with the English boat, the Cumberland, and in a few minutes the Norden sank, carrying with it Father Berthier and several other passengers. Father Besson was picked up with other survivors by the Cumberland.

The salvation of Norway demanded a sacrifice, and there was no more willing victim than the heroic Father Berthier whose zeal and love for his adopted country was proverbial. Born in 1833, he had been twenty-one years professed as a Missionary of Our Lady of La Salette.

Untitled 5Portrait from the Archbishop's tombstone at St. Nicholas Cemetery in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg; author: Cornischong at Luxembourgish WikipediaTo Bp. Johannes Olav Fallize fell the honor of reaping the harvest sown by these courageous missionaries in the prefecture of Norway. Successor to Bishop Bernard, he has been rightly called the second Apostle of Norway, where he has labored since 1887.

Bp. Bernard brought to a close his long apostolic career in the residence of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, called L'Hermitage, in France, on October 28, 1895.

(Reprinted from “The La Salette Missionary”, May, 1935, pgs. 69 and 74)

Copyright © 2017 -  La Salette Missionaries, Province of Mary, Mother of the Americas.
947  Park St. - Attleboro MA, 02703