Joseph de Villèle was well-known in Antananarivo, where he was informally called “Father Joseph.” Because of his untiring devotion to the destitute and to abandoned children, he was often compared to Saint Vincent de Paul.
Born in Reunion (an overseas department of France) in 1851, he entered the Jesuit order in 1869 and began his missionary work in Madagascar along with another member of his family, Athanase de Villèle.
For the first seventeen years of his missionary life, from 1880 to 1897, he lived in the bush. From 1885 on, that is also where he lived during the era of the French Protectorate and through the troubling times of the insurrection that followed the arrival of the French troops in Madagascar, in 1895. In 1896, the revolt of the Fahavalo reached his region, and he only escaped death because of the stubbornness and devotion of his parishioners, who took him out of harm’s way at the risk of their own lives.
He was transferred to Antananarivo in 1898, where he was appointed to the meteorological observatory, as an assistant to Father Colin. He was later to receive the bronze medal of the Meteorological Service for his work there.
In 1898, he created the parish of Saint John the Baptist of Faravohitra, which became one of the largest parishes of the capital. Brick by brick, he built the church that now stands on the hill above the city. He was the parish priest there until 1931.
In 1905, still in his Faravohitra parish, abandoned children of mixed race and Malagasy orphans were handed over to him, and he asked the vicar apostolic, Monsignor Cazet, for permission to care for them. They were housed in a camping supplies warehouse in the parish, where one of the Sisters of Saint-Joseph of Cluny and a Malagasy woman took care of them. Two years later, there were forty children there, and that is how the first ministry to abandoned mixed race children and Malagasy orphans began.
For several years, the ministry’s only resources consisted of whatever came from donations and from the generosity of its benefactors. Such precarious and irregular sources of income would have discouraged anyone but de Villèle. He voiced his confidence by quoting an old Creole saying: “N’en a bon Dié dans l’air…” [translation unknown at this time]. De Villèle was helped in the ministry by an assistant who came from the suburbs of Paris, a certain Madame Courtois, whose name has become one with the foundation.
In 1917, for the first time, the ministry received a yearly grant of 500 francs, which was allocated by the Governor General, Mr. Garbit.
The year 1924 was a decisive one for the development of the ministry. On March 15 of that year, a decree signed by the Governor General, Mr. Brunet, gave formal authorization to form a society that would be named “The Society for Aid to Abandoned Children,” under the denomination “A Faravohitra Pauline Ministry.” Also, de Villèle secured some land in the western part of the capital, where he moved the youngest boarders. This new location was in the “Bel Air” neighborhood, and it helped to relieve the overcrowding in the other facilities. The new home was called “Bel Air les Paulins” and a certain Mrs. Bablon came from France to direct the work there in 1931. By the following year, she had established a well-furnished kindergarten there.
In 1934, the work had three sections: the small children section in Bel Air, of which the nursery was later put in the hands of Miss Beury, a nurse; the apprenticeship section, which prepared the older children for trades such as locksmith work, carpentry, shoe-repairing, and farming; and lastly, there was the student section, in which the pensioners took classes at the Saint-Michel secondary school as day students.
Up until that time, since it had been founded, the ministry had taken in 385 children, 222 of whom were of mixed race, and 163 of which were not. In the latter group of orphans there were seventy-nine Malagasy children, sixty-two Creole children, twelve Greeks, four Chinese, three Syrians, and three Senegalese.
It should be noted that a similar ministry, which was for girls, had been founded by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary.
In 1939, when de Villèle died, more than six hundred orphans and young children of mixed race had been cared for, raised, and educated thanks to the Pauline ministry. Several of them rose to very honorable positions in society, among which one could mention: an officer from the French military academy of Saint-Cyr, a priest, two physicians, a veterinarian, a pharmacist, two merchants in France, and many civil servants, settlers, and merchants.
As of 1920, de Villèle had also been the founder and director of the “Good Books Library.”
Many kinds of recognition eventually came to crown the untiring work of de Villèle, who gave thirty-four years of his life to the many abandoned children who called him “Dadabé” (Grandpa).
In 1922 the Pauline ministry received the Monthyon Prize of 1,500 francs, which was given by the Académie Française, who had received the report of Mr. Raymond Poincaré. In 1933, the founder was named to the Order of the Star of Anjouan, and in 1935, he became a holder of the Legion of Honor.
In 1939, when de Villèle died, it seemed appropriate to inter his remains under the slabs of the church that he had built in Faravohitra. The authorities quickly gave the special authorization that was needed in order to do this, and “Father Joseph” was interred at the foot of the main altar of his church in the presence of an enormous crowd of both Catholics and Protestants.
Mr. Marcel Olivier, the former Governor General of Madagascar, had written the following lines about him in 1934: “It a real joy for me, on this occasion, to be able to express my admiration, my affectionate respect, and my gratitude to the venerable father Joseph de Villèle, who for forty-six years now, has devoted his heart and all his resources to a magnificently human task.”
P. Lhande - Notre épopée missionnaire: Madagascar [Our Missionary Journey : Madagascar] ; Plon, 1932.
R. de Gosselin - Les “Sans Familles” [The Homeless”]- Imprimerie A. Tardy, Bourges, 1934.
Maduré-Madagascar - Quarterly Review, no. 23, October 1939.
This article, reprinted here with permission, is taken from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [Men and Destinies: Overseas Biographical Dictionary], vol. 3, published in 1977 by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.