François-Xavier Corbet was the first bishop of north Madagascar. His goodness and devotion were renowned, and it is thanks to his pastoral activity that the entire northern region of Madagascar opened up to Catholicism at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Corbet was born on July 6, 1836, in Hochfelden, which is in the department of Bas-Rhin in the Alsatian region of France. After his studies in the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, he was ordained to the priesthood in Paris on June 12, 1859, and sent as a teacher to the minor seminary of Colonies, which was then located in Cellule, in the Puy-de-Dôme department. His genuine pedagogical qualities and his great authority led to his being chosen for the post of Superior of the secondary school of Ste. Marie in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1865. The school was in a difficult situation materially and legally, but Corbet handled the matter so well that he was assumed to be capable of establishing, or rather, resurrecting, another secondary school in Saint-Denis de la Réunion, in 1874. However, he was not supported in the matter by the bishop, Monsignor Soulé, who nonetheless thanked him in 1877. After a short time spent in Mauritius, we find him in Pondicherry, India, where he was in charge of the colonial school, in 1879. Better yet, in the following year he was given the delicate task of directing the apostolic prefecture of French India, which covered the European community in Pondicherry and Chandernagore. In 1887, the prefecture was eliminated, as it was strongly contested by Rome and the French government. Corbet was quite worn out by the successively difficult responsibilities, and by the physical and the moral climate (the beginnings of anticlericalism were being felt), asked if he could return to France. In order to not change his [type of] assignment, he was asked to direct a secondary school in Castelnaudary, in the Aude department. In 1892, however, he was named Superior of the Seminary of the Colonies, on Lhomond Street, in Paris. From then on, he participated in the direction of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, first as a counselor and then as general assistant.
In 1998, Corbet was sixty-two years old, which is nearly retirement age for most people. It was rather to be the age of full productivity for him though, as he was named and appointed as first Vicar Apostolic (bishop) of north Madagascar.
In 1894, the Congregation of the Holy Spirit had basically accepted the mission field of south Madagascar, but it was happy to hand it over to the French lazarist Brothers, who had been expelled from Eritrea. The Holy See, as well as the Minister of the colonies, André Lebon, and the general governor, Galliéni, all increased their requests asking that the Congregation of the Holy Spirit be able to occupy the part of the island that was north of the 18th parallel. This eventually led to the creation of the apostolic vicariate of north Madagascar on July 5, 1898, with the bishop residing in Diego-Suarez.
Corbet received the title of titular bishop of Obba, and was consecrated in Paris on October 2, 1898, by the apostolic nuncio, Monsignor Clari. After a few weeks spent in Alsace, the new prelate arrived on January 9, 1899 in Antsiranana, in the magnificent natural harbor of Diego-Suarez. At the time, it was the first and only mission establishment in the north of the great island, in addition to the parishes that were located in the other islands (Sainte-Marie, Mayotte, Nossi-Bé). A few months later, losing no time, Corbet founded the mission station of Majunga, dedicating it to his patron, Saint Francis-Xavier.
From the beginning of his episcopacy, Corbet made a point of having the best possible relations with the authorities. General Galliéni had great sympathy for him, and the various commanders of the naval division rendered very helpful services from time to time. Unfortunately, this could not stop the hardships brought about by the measures that were taken to secularize the schools or hospitals run by nuns, and these measures increased after 1905, when Victor Augagneur became general governor.
Corbet carried out numerous pastoral visits in his vast diocese, and was even shipwrecked on Lake Loza, near Analalava. In fifteen years, he founded twelve mission stations. Whether in the region of Diego-Suarez, or on the west coast, or in the Betsiboka valley, where Marovoay, Madirovalo, Ambato-Boeni, and Maevatanana were established; or again in the southeast, at Fenerive, and in Ambatondrazake, which was closer inland, near Lake Alaotra.
The church of Diego-Suarez was nothing but a dilapidated house made of boards. Corbet initially wanted to care for the newly established outlying mission stations, but in 1909, he had to think about the possibility of building a bigger and more appropriate cathedral. Many donations came in, including the donations of the people of Diego, and the merchants, in particular, but monies also came from Alsace, and complemented a grant of 12,000 francs given by the municipality. From 1909 to 1911 a handsome but simply styled edifice took shape. It was about 150 feet long, and featured an 80 ft. high tower that overlooked the town and the harbor. Corbet had good reason to be proud of it.
On the 6th of July, 1914, there was a party to celebrate his 78th birthday. In spite of the pomp, Corbet rewrote his will that day and let it be known that he had requested a coadjutor in the person of Monsignor Fortineau. Two weeks later he became gravely ill and he went to sleep in the Lord on Thursday the 23rd of July, 1914, having edified all those in his entourage to the very end.
The cathedral had been completed in 1912, and Corbet had requested the favor of being allowed to be buried there when he died, but the request had been denied. It was only in 1925 that authorization for the burial was finally granted, and ever since April 22, 1925, Corbet is at rest in his cathedral, in the land of Madagascar that he loved and served so well.
There was no obituary for Monsignor F. X. Corbet, which can be explained by the fact that World War I erupted only a few days after the death of the bishop of Diego-Suarez. The Diego-Suarez newspaper, L’impartial, (from July 28 and July 31, 1914) did several columns of space to the work of Monsignor Corbet.
Archives of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.
This article, reprinted here with permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [Men and Destinies: Overseas Biographical Dictionary], vol. 3, published by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.