Born near Nancy, France, in the village of Bouxières-aux-Chénes on March l2th 1831, Joseph Gérard spent his childhood on the family farm but, with the help of the parish priest, was able to commence studies for the priesthood. Whilst in the local seminary he was impressed by accounts of the missionary work of some priests of the newly-founded Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and, desiring to join them in their endeavours, he entered the Oblate Congregation. He was ordained a deacon by the Founder of the Oblates, Blessed Eugene de Mazenod, who with great confidence in Joseph assigned him, at the age of 22, to the mission of Natal in South Africa.
In May 1853 Joseph Gérard set off for his mission field never to see France again. On Feb. l9th 1854 he was ordained priest by Bishop Allard O.M.I. in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and started his ministry to the local white population, but especially to the Zulu People. His years of journeying through difficult countryside, of sleeping in the open, of learning new languages, of cold and of heat began. Despite all his good efforts, his ministry among the Zulus did not seem to bear immediate fruit, and with a sense of great disappointment in this apparent failure he moved in 1862 to Lesotho to bring the Gospel to the Basotho People. Fr. Gérard, however, lived to see the movement of faith later among the Zulus, and he rejoiced in the grace of God so wonderfully given and received. He had been part of sowing the first seed.
But Lesotho was to become his new mission field, and he laboured there for the next 52 years. Together with this nation he was to travel a wonderful journey to God. Faced initially with indifference, even scorn at times, Fr. Gérard worked and prayed for more than two years before he won his first Basotho catechumen. Even after that progress was slow, but his determination, his dedication, his forgetfulness of self took effect quietly but surely. The Catholic missionaries were well received by the King, Moshoeshoe I, and Fr. Gérard showed his gratitude for this by his loyalty especially when the nation was under attack by the Boers. Moshoeshoe, much to Gérard’s disappointment, never embraced Christianity, but later his grandson Griffith Lerotholi who rose to be Paramount Chief became a Catholic, to the very great joy of Fr. Gérard.
However, more and more people in these early years heard the message of Christ, and carne to the Church. There were many baptisms, there were some defections, but in God’s good time the work of Fr. Gérard grew apace. Grace was taking hold of the Basotho. Within five years of his corning there was the beginnings of a Congregation of local sisters and his first mission station at Roma was to blossom. Today it is the site of many novitiates and of seminaries, a University founded by the Oblates, high schools, numerous religious houses, a hospital – all the legacy of this remarkable man of God.
Throughout his years in Lesotho Fr. Gérard’s concern and care for the sick and the old was remarkable – even heroic at times. Despite the distance, despite the weather, despite the inconvenience, he would set out on foot or on horseback, carrying the Blessed Sacrament, to minister to those afflicted. His deep devotion to Mary was absorbed by his first converts, and since his day the nation has been dedicated to Mary Immaculate. There is no count of the miles he travelled up and down the steep mountains of Lesotho, and his all-embracing care of the weak, the sick, of those in need is part of the history and lore of the people of Lesotho. His deep commitment to prayer was always an example to the people, and at his funeral one of them expressed it well:
“Fr. Gérard was a man who, you might say, did not eat food but fed himself on prayer, and if prayer is something with which one can feed the people, then he has fed us Basotho too for a very long time”.
Fr. Gérard laboured for many years preaching, consoling, leading to God, and kept contact also with people in South Africa. The last years of his life were spent back at his first mission, Roma. He still continued his rounds of visiting even when arthritis bent him over almost double, his sight was mostly gone, and he had to be lifted up on to his faithful horse “Artaban”. Up to a month before his death he was out on the mountain tracks caring for those in need. He was 83 at the time. On May 29th 1914 after a life of patient and enduring devotion Joseph Gérard in the fullness of years carne face to face with the Master he had served so long and so well.
Fr. Gérard, in one of his retreat notes, gave the key to his constancy when he wrote about the people he served: “… we must love them, love them in spite of everything, love them always”. He lived out his belief in the joy of spreading God’s Word, despite the hardships and opposition he encountered. In his loving he drew the Basothos with him to the contemplation of God. The Church recognised this when Pope John Paul Il, on his 1988 pastoral visit to Lesotho, knelt at the grave of his great missionary, and on September l5th before a vast multitude of the Basotho people declared their spiritual father, Blessed Joseph Gérard, O.M.I. Love had reached its fullness.
“THE WORLD BELONGS TO THE PERSON WHO LOVES IT MOST, AND PROVES IT”