Joseph Marie Birraux was superior general of the Society of Missionaries of Africa (popularly known as the White Fathers [WF]). Born in Bernex, Haute Savoie, France, Birraux entered the WF in 1907. Ordained a priest in 1908, he obtained his doctorate in canon law at the Gregorian University in Rome (1911). Arriving in Karema, Tanganyika (Tanzania), the same year, he became the canonical counselor of the vicar apostolic, Adolphe Lechaptois, whom he succeeded in 1920. He improved the education of the local catechists, ordained the first two local priests in 1923, tried to introduce Kiswahili as the pastoral lingua franca, and organized a church tax levy (hoping to make the local church less dependent).
Elected superior general in 1936, he reorganized the WF into national provinces. During his superiorate, the society expanded from 1800 to 2272 members. He was present in Rome at the consecration of the first African bishop, Joseph Kiwanuka, a member of his society (1939). The WF accepted new mission responsibilities in Oyo, Nigeria (1943), and in Beira, Mozambique (1946), and ceded Mbulu and Turu in Tanganyika to the Pallotine Fathers (1939), while the apostolic vicariate of Masaka was entrusted to Kiwanuka (1939).
J. G. Donders, M. Afr.
J. M. Birraux, Lettres et Circulaires de Monseigneur Birraux, 1936-1947 (1947) ; G. D. Kittler, The White Fathers (1957); A. Wyckaert, Son Exc. Msgr. J.M. Birraux (n.d.).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, copyright © 1998, by Gerald H. Anderson, W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.