He had time to dream of Africa, Jean-Marie Baudu, this young Breton peasant, a boy who was solid and playful, and the eldest of a rural family. As he later remarked, “since I was very young, I have had this great desire to go to the mission countries” (letter of July 21, 1923). He was born on December 27, 1894 in Saint-Just, Île-et-Vilaine. As a teenager, he worked on the farm; as a young man, he prepared to leave for the novitiate of the African Missions, in Chanly (Belgium). He made his first commitments there on June 28, 1914, and received the name Brother Benoît. Everything was ready for his departure for missions. But being of the “class of ‘14”, he was mobilized from the start of the war. He would come back, still eager to take to sea and realize his dream. However, he still had to wait and render necessary services at Saint-Priest, near Lyon, in a house for those whose vocations came later on in life. Shortly afterwards, he was moved to Pont-Rousseau, where he worked as a gardener and driver. Whenever he was asked to postpone his departure for abroad, he always gave the same pacific reaction: “May the will of God be done and not mine” (letter of June 24, 1923). That year, he was finally assigned to the Ivory Coast and said goodbye to his family… until a counter-order forced him to stay in Pont-Rousseau again. Fortunately, the year 1925 would turn out to be that of Africa for Brother Benoît.
Previously, during the war, he suffered much; he received the “baptism of fire” on the front of the Somme; then, a typhoid fever almost did him in; next, measles and scarlet fever forced him to rest. When he was a volunteer for the Dardanelles, he embarked for the island of Lemnos; then he went to Salonika, Serbia and the combat in the open country, before severe jaundice caused him to be repatriated to France. In the year 1916, in Verdun, as the battle raged around him, he wrote: “I saw myself with my belly in the sun, and the sun had not even risen yet!” he said playfully as he lay there with a broken leg. After long care, his leg was shortened by three centimeters: that is why Brother Benoît had a limp, and a cane in his hand. Because of this, he was trained in anti-aircraft artillery- “there, now you won’t have to walk!” his doctor had told him. After this, Brother Benoît returned to the front in Champagne, where he fought until the end of hostilities. His desire to go to Africa is stronger than ever. And yet, he would have to wait another six long years!
Serving in Togo
“I learn”, he wrote on November 24, 1924, “that Bishop Cessou (the Apostolic Vicar in Lomé) intends to build a model farm in Togo…I have come to offer myself for this job…”
What joy, when on March 25, he boards his boat for Africa. Bishop Cessou immediately sent him to Atakpamé, where Fr. Boursin was alone to take care of this mission, which was then the furthest north.
In the circumstances there, the brothers had to organize everything. Brother Benoît became a catechist and visited the stations. Until 1930, he led a life of continuous devotion to this vast region, where he probably began to exercise his remarkable skill for finding underground water.
Then a telegram informed him of his appointment to Togoville, to the school of catechists; he devoted himself to his new function until 1934.
Thirty-two years in Dahomey (Benin)
Following administrative changes in the African Missions, he offered his services to replace Brother Victor Bonnant at the Zagnanado plantation (Dahomey). Attacks of renal colic forced him to go back down to the coast for treatment.
The bursar of the major seminary of Ouidah, Father Monnet, took the opportunity to obtain Brother Benoît’s appointment as deputy. Brother Benoît was in charge of keeping adequate supplies there, which is no small task. Also, from his time in Togo, Brother Benoît had the reputation of being a good gardener. However, a bad bout of malaria forced him to take a break in France in 1936. Upon his return to Africa, for a year and a half, Brother Benoît helped Fr. Beillevaire in Calavi. In 1938, Bishop Parisot invited him to accept responsibility for the seminary farm: a position he fulfilled for many years, until 1955. That year, he came to Cotonou to supervise the “teckerie.” Until the end, he fulfilled his task faithfully.
In 1962, illness kept him in his office. But he was happy to remain among “his seminarians,” as a symbol- small but genuine, and in the midst of everyone- of the richness of a life of service.
On June 20, 1964, he celebrated, at the seminary of Ouidah, his fifty years of religious life.
On January 26, 1966, at the end of the morning, “the wishes of this humble and faithful servant of God,” wrote Bishop Gantin, future cardinal, “were fully granted: he died during the school year for seminarians, in this place and in the midst of his friends, to whom he was always so good and so devoted. I have known him since 1934 and he showed me the depth of our friendship by kindly waiting for my return from the Council before he departed to be with the Lord… everyone is sorrowful at this death of a missionary who has become one of ours.”
This article, reprinted here with permission, is taken from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer, tome 9, published in 1977 by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved. Translation by Luke B. Donner, DACB research assistant and doctoral student at Boston University’s Center for Global Christianity and Mission.