Rev. Fr. Louis Marie LEVEIL S.J.
(Missionary 65 years in India)
A great missionary and a man of God Fr. Louis Leveil S.J. after his ordination spent his entire priestly life and ministry in the three parishes Andavoorani, Ramnad and Sarugani of the Archdiocese of Madurai. These parishes are at present under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Sivagangai, the Most Rev. Dr. J. Susaimanickam.
Though much belated, the present Bishop of Sivagangai has taken steps to initiate the process by the appointment of the Postulator Rev. Fr. James Anthuvan Dass to conduct necessary investigations and to collect related documents and evidences to establish Fr. Louis Leveil’s reputation of his sanctity and heroic virtues.
In this context, it is definitely important and essential to make a study of his life, from his birth until his death, without missing all the significant aspects and events of his long and simple holy life as a faithful member of the Society of Jesus and a missionary par excellence in the Marava land, already blessed and sanctified by the blood of St. John de Britto, a Portuguese Jesuit Martyr.
Biography of Fr. Louis–Marie Leveil, S.J.
At the very outset of his biography, it would be really enchanting to imagine the person and character of Rev. Fr. Louis-Marie Leveil, S.J. His memory is vivid by his appearance as a simple missionary priest clothed in white cassock, girdled by a red sash; carrying the breviary closer to his heart and rosary in his right hand. He did not own a car or a bicycle. At the most he used a bullock cart; but he preferred walking as far as he could, wearing simple slippers; unmindful of the sun and heat; all for the purpose of accomplishing his holy mission in the Marava Kingdom, which was his chosen Vineyard of the Lord. As he grew older, he became thin, slightly curved, bearing a rough beard, with his sun-burnt face, but face lighted by his bright, blue, kindly eyes.Whoever met him, found in him, a true representation of the goodness, mercy and love of Jesus.Just like his Master, he went about doing good and that is the reason why he is remembered even 43 years after his death. Many of those who are still alive bear witness to his priestly sanctity and are grateful for the many favours received from him while he was alive. Daily people throng around his tomb to submit their petitions. Indeed he is popularly acclaimed as a saint.
The baby boy Louis Marie was born on 6th April 1884 at Laille’ in the diocese of Rennes, France. Because the baby was so frail and weak, he was baptized on the same day. He was the youngest of ten children and grew up in a peaceful farm environment. His was a family deeply grounded in faith and piety. Their house was perched on a hill top lending an enchanting view, which he would never forget. He kept alive the memory of the Virgin Mary’s image with her hands pouring out rays of light (miraculous medal) which hung near his bed.
For a souvenir of his Sacerdotal Golden Jubilee in 1970, he chose a similar picture (of the miraculous medal) to be given to the members of his family. The following text was printed on the reverse side.“As a small child, when I awoke every morning in my tiny cot, my look went first to the ‘Virgin with rays’ never doubting that the Immaculate Virgin would draw me to her, to protect and direct me towards her divine Son, for time and eternity”
A Loving and Caring Family:
Fr. Leveil’s parents were exemplary and virtuous. It was a close knit family with everyone sharing work in the farm. The little Louis grew up happily in this Christian family environment, one of simplicity and joy, amidst his brothers and sisters, who cherished him dearly. Early in his life, a little sister died and later his brother at the age of 24, finally the death of his father by heart attack at the age of 54. He would recall his father’s last words:“I had just turned 7 and I clearly remember the good advice that this revered father gave us after receiving Extreme Unction (Last Rites). Very calmly, the dying (man) exhorted his children to respect their mother, to conduct themselves obediently to her orders and her advice, and to console her in her grief with their affection and good spirit….”
The children lived up to the words of their father. Their mother was indeed courageous and taught her children to discover God’s will in all circumstances. Fr. Leveil calls: “The admirable mother”. She was hospitable to poor strangers and offered a place at the family table. Remembering her, he had written. “We can reflect on the life of our dear mother, so full of suffering and hardship. Despite her infirmities how much work did she not give to raise us? Divine grace was her strength and her prayer continues. However, the memory that will forever revive our mother within us, is it not the daily evening prayer? Was that moment not sublime? Locals, strangers, poor over nighters, everyone bowed to her voice, so clear and that prayed so well…”
His Sister’s Inspiration:
He learnt so very early the offering of self to God and to others in such a healthy holy family atmosphere. One of his sisters, Victoire (Victoria), seven years his elder, had a specific influence on the little Louis. She used to take him to the Church about 3 kilometres away, to pray before the Blessed Sacrament and to do the Stations of the Cross on Friday. She used to take him to the fields. Surprisingly one day she told him: “Louis, you should become a priest” Later he said that he did not understand the meaning of what she had said, as he was too small, yet her words struck his mind and were alive.
God’s Call Perceived:
He was 12 years old, when after his confession, the priest had asked him: “What is your vocation?” not understanding the meaning of ‘vocation’ he informed his mother about the pastor’s question. After 2 years when he was 14, he heard within his heart, just two words:“Louis Priest?!” Struck by this, he told his mother and she took him to the pastor who listened to them and gave a Latin grammer manual for memorizing the first five pages of the book. Louis found it difficult. A newly ordained priest came forward to help him. Slowly he succeeded and it was time tojoin the secondary school, Sainte – Croix de Vitre (Holy Cross of the town Vitre). It was in 1900 and he was 16 years of age”
Hour of Decision:
He writes:“I entered into the Seminary of Rennes in 1904. To become a priest was decided, but where? In France or as a missionary? A Jesuit father from the Province of Toulouse came one day to give us a session (on the projector) and the next day gave us a conference on the Mission of Madura to which he belonged. During this conference, I felt strongly attracted by the call made in favour of this mission. I did a novena of grace to St. Francis Xavier and multiple pilgrimages to Our Lady of Miracles in Rennes”. He had written to his Novice Master: “I desire ardently the mission of India. It is my welldetermined will to live and die. I request insistently to send me to the Madura Mission in the next departure. I gladly consent to be stubborn and I freely take upon myself all the consequences and all the responsibilities”.
A Poignant Moment:
Finally, on 6th October 1906, Louis Marie entered into the Jesuit Novitiate in the Limbourg Province, Belgium. He had said that there he was “as happy as a fish inthe water”. After 2 years of probation, he returned to his home town. It was his last visit. He bade goodbye with a heavy heart to his beloved mother and his loved ones. She broke down to send off her dearest son, who had manifested so much filial love and respect, to leave to a land so far away and forever, never to be seen again.
Over to India:
He left France from Marseille during September 1908. Along with his companions he passed through Lourdes entrusting himself to the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mother. He had written while aboard the ship:
“They were 12 ordinary missionaries, who, “fixed their eyes on Notre – Dame de la Garde, for over a half of an hour, a time to bid farewell and murmur some prayers… then it was finished! A large rock rising above the sea came to steal from our eyes, but not from our hearts, because God willed that his love follows us everywhere”
After reaching Bombay (now Mumbai) he travelled to the Mission of Madurai in the Southern State of Madras on 14th October 1908. He began his religious formation including the study of Philosophy at the Scholasticate of Shembaganoor, on the Ghats (mountain range) about 6000 feet above sea level.
Period of Regency:
As was the custom of the Jesuits, Leveil had to spend a few years (1912 – 1916) ‘to do his regency’ to gain experience in teaching, taking care of boys in the hostel at St. Francis Xavier’s Secondary School, Palayamcottah. He knew how to keep the students busy and active, to prevent them quarrelling over petty problems. He would show postcard pictures of Europe and conduct competitions. The worst time was April to October when the burning heat was unbearable and the scarcity of water was a great hardship. Lack of water and insufficiency for bathing resulted in skin related, sometimes contagious diseases among the boys; always he maintained good spirit, paternalcare and evinced Christian kindness without giving into movements of irritation.This period of apostolic prelude moulded him for a long future life and ministry supported by strong, faith, ardent prayer, courage and steadfast love for the salvation of souls.
Priestly Ordination and Ministry:
After the completion of his regency at Palayamkottah he moved over to Kurseong, on the slopes of the Himalayas to pursue the course in Theology and to prepare for his priestly ordination.He was ordained a priest in Kurseong on 13.01.1920. He spent one year of probation at Ranchi in Nagpur and he returned to the mission of Madura in the year 1921. From this time onwards, he was destined to spend his entire priestly life and ministry, in the vast, drought affected, backward Ramnad district (previously ruled by the Marava Kingdom). He was inspired and encouraged by the courageous spirit of pioneering early Jesuit missionaries St. Francis Xavier who reached the coastal region in 1542 and long after him, St. John de Britto, who was martyred at Oriyur in 1693.
The Marava land was a vast dry, desert plain, hot for most parts of the year, dependent on monsoon rains for cultivation. Drought and lack of natural resources impoverished the masses; who endured famine and epidemic; relying on the mercies of the deities and nature. People were illiterate and the low castes and sub-castes were inhumanly treated.It is among these simple, poor folk that Rev. Fr. Leveil S.J. identified himself, preaching the Word of God, baptizing the converts, sharing with them a life of deprivations and sufferings, all for the sake of the Kingdom of Christ.
His First Parish- Andavoorani (1921 – 1943):
As a frail, young priest, he reached Andavoorani and straight away started his missionary work, not depending on his own strength rather relying fully on the grace of the Lord. His trust in the Lord was unshakable. He had written to his family:
“I am in charge of 40,000 Christians, but also of 20,000 pagans (it was a term vogue at that time) whom I cannot forget, I am here for them all, and the miserable state of these poor excite my compassion… the task is beyond my strength, feeling alone and helpless, I turn to you and beg you to help me by your fervent prayers, an exemplary Christian life, a tangible help when you can…”
It is astounding how he singly carried out his mission in the vastly scattered 70 substation villages and hamlets of Andavoorani without proper roads and transport facilities. He used to walk for several hours braving sun and rain;walking in the scorching sun (temperature of 30c to 40c) for several hours to reach distant villages and spend the whole day with the old and the sick, men, women and children, exhorting them to have strong faith in God; blessing and praying with them for all their needs and givingthem instructions to face the hardships of life. Whenever he had to spend a few days in a distant village he travelled by bullock cart (driven by double oxen). Wherever he went people flocked to him trusting in the power of his prayers and blessings.
Construction of Church and Chapels:
His first accomplishment was the construction of a big spacious church at Andavoorani to unify the divided sections of Catholics. Having gone through six years of struggle of all kinds, the new church was consecrated in 1928 and was placed under the patronage of our Lady of Mercy.His zeal was extended to distant villages. He built many small chapels and the first one was dedicated to his favourite Saint, St. Therese of Lisieux.
He Loved Children:
He fondly speaks about children:“I am pleased to see that they are not afraid of me. In my time, on the village paths, they never even fail to greet me saying, as a pious custom of the country: “Glory to God.” The toddlers, who only babble also make salutation by joining their little hands and bowing. They follow me to the church; kneel beside me without saying a word. When I take the path, they follow me to every station, kneeling with me, and doing everything like me”.
His Concern for Children’s Education:
He was concerned about the future of these children and knew that the country’s development could not be achieved without a school. Soon he built schools for boys and girls. He invited two Indian nuns to visit the non-Christian villages.They distributed medicines and baptized the dying children. Moved by this, the sisters built a school, convent and an orphanage. So many hearts were touched.Hope filled their expectations. Opportunity to learn and get jobs was opened. Even vocations to priestly and religious life bloomed.
Father of the Poor:
He embraced all; widespread cholera ravaged the villages. He exercised heroic charity by personally reaching out to the families in the villages.“Most recently,” he had written in 1925, “I was in a village of 1500 inhabitants, where cholera had taken the lives of 66 victims in a few days time. These poor sick lying on the ground. Their members were frozen and they suffered terrible pains in the bowels and severe cramping which bends both arms and legs. Christians and pagans alike call me because nobody dares to approach these patients to assist them and care for them. People are afraid of contagion and think only of fleeing for their lives leaving families and friends in distress”
His Risk to help in time of distress:
Fr. Leveil took extraordinary risk travelling by bullock cart(driven by double oxen) taking trails full of pot-holes; mud up to the wheel hubs when there was a monsoon.Without public health care for the sick and none to bury the dead, Fr. Leveil courageously organized a team of volunteers and along with them helped the sick and also to bury the dead. His kindness touched the hearts of Christians and non-Christians alike.
Spontaneous Trust and Confidence of the People:
The people saw in him, someone special, a man of God, whose prayers were heard and his blessings were effective. They started to bring their pets and cattle or goats for his blessings instead of searching for a veterinary doctor. He healed the sick and the people flocked to him in their distress.
Oriyur was attached to the parish of Andavoorani in 1929. Just six kilometers from Andavoorani, Oriyur was the place where Blessed John de Britto was beheaded for upholding the Catholic principle of marriage. Fortunately the pastoral care of Oriyur was entrusted to Fr. Lèveil, who made Oriyur a center of ‘Spiritual Renewal’ to pray for and to prepare for the Jesuit martyr’s speedy canonization.
Fr. Leveil organized the First Pilgrimage to Oriyur:
The first pilgrimage to Oriyur was organized by Fr. Leveil. He took all care to make the pilgrimage, not a sort of picnic, but a remembrance of our Lady’s request for ‘Prayer and Penance’. Hence the procession was one of continued prayers, sacraments, penance and ended with the celebration of a solemn High Mass at Oriyur. This example was picked up by all the villages and parishes.
Fr. Leveil was transferred to Ramnad in 1943 before the canonization of St. John de Britto was solemnized in 1947. The canonization of the saint fulfilled the dream and prayer of Fr. Leveil.Fr. Leveil was transferred to Ramnad because his superiors thought he needed a change, as he was already exhausted by his pioneering missionary work enduring hardships and deprivations.
Ramnad was the capital of the ancient Marava Kingdom. St. John Britto was beheaded by the Marava king Sethupathi. Fr. Lèveil arrived Ramnad during his sixtieth year.Contrary to the wishes of his superiors, Fr. Leveil continued his ministry without yielding to relaxation and rest. His ministry was not limited to the city only,but extended to a radius of 20 kilometres along the large areas of coastal villages. The inhabitants were 25,000 Hindus, Muslims, Protestants, among them traders and fishermen. He enjoyed his ministry among the descendants of the first converts of St. Francis Xavier.
He felt the need for providing facilities for the stay of passers-by who came to the city. Providentially a widow who was a member of the Royal Family of Ramnad offered a new building to him inspite of opposition by some Hindus and Protestants.He started a school to be run by the Indian Brothers. The school developed quickly with admission of 400 boys and 15 teachers. Another school for girls was opened in Madurai.
Fr. Leveil was so zealous that he would forego meals and even walk long distance with empty stomach, under the scorching sun, covering 15 to 20 miles to offer Sunday Mass for the faithful who keep waiting for his arrival from early morning. He organized various meetings for Catholic activities and retreats. He was supported by young novices of the Society of Jesus, who accompanied with him in his apostolic journeys. They were inspired by his zeal, without caring for his own comfort and rest.
He was committed to raise the Standard of the People:
He was concerned about the welfare of the poor, to educate, and find jobs. He helped the fishermen to acquire fishing nets and boats. Fr. Arango, a Jesuit, joined with him as Assistant in 1953. They got along very well. They opened a Library for the benefit of the educated in Ramnad. They built houses for the poor and established trade schools. Fr. Arango who had gone to Colombia, his native country, to raise funds for Ramnad, met with a fatal accident. Now Fr. Leveil was 70 years of age and had to bear all the hardships and sufferings alone.
Trials and Poverty:
There was a large invasion of rodents (rates) such as this was never heard of in human history! Like the Egyptian plagues, these rodents destroyed the entire paddy crops. It was devastating and the farmers were helpless. They asked him to pray and exorcise their fields. There was poverty all over.Continuous drought caused famine. Many families starved without food. Even widows had to feed for, five or more small children. The aged especially the abandoned were poverty stricken.He was with the people doing all he could to console and help them in their calamities.
He earned the Love of the Poor and the Respect of Everyone in Ramnad:
Whenever it rained, it turned out to be storm and flood, sweeping off everything including huts of the poor and the harvest. Fr. Leveil was among the people to comfort, console and organize relief for those who were most in need.In the midst of poverty and trails, he was able to manifest his love for the poor and down trodden. Even educated people of Ramnad, such as doctors, lawyers, inspectors, all Hindu, Muslim, and Protestants approached him for blessings and for clarifications about the Catholic teachings. He had good rapport with the members of the Royal family of Ramnad. He believed in the words of Jesus: “Nobody comes to me unless the father draws him to me.” He was worn out and reduced to the frame of a skeleton. He was now 72 and could no longer carry on the burdens of a great mission.
He touched the Hearts of All:
Fr. Leveil was sent to Sarugani in 1956. He had spent 21 years in the North at Andavoorani and 13 years in the South at Ramnad and now at Sarugani an almost central, interior, heart of the country. Wherever he was sent, nothing prevented him; neither fatigue, nor the scorching sun or the rain, whether it was day or night, he was available at all times for anyone in need.
Truly a Man of God:
During those days there was no electricity. Storm lanterns were used. He preferred the light from a candle placed nearer to the Blessed Sacrament to read hisbreviary. He used to spend much of his time especially at the end of the day, however much late, in prayers, standing or kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. Sometimes after a hard working day, very much exhausted after 11o’clock at night, he would have slept off, to find him in the church the following morning. He renewed his spirit in prayer. He prayed incessantly.
He was indeed a man of God who reached great spiritual heights.From his childhood his love for the Blessed Virgin Mother was strong. He believed that all good things come through her and that she was the surest path leading to her son. Since he entered the Society of Jesus in 1906 he found a spiritual attraction towards Therese of Lisieux who was not yet beautified then. He followed her‘little way’ and practiced child-like trust in God. He fixed his gaze upon God, followed closely His master and friend and rose up to great spiritual heights.
He was a Good Shepherd:
Fr. Leveil spent the last 17 years of his life in Sarugani. His superior wished to relieve him from the responsibility of running a parish with due consideration for his advanced age. He was appointed as Spiritual Director of the Clergy and confessor of several convents. He revived the faith of the descendants of the first converts of St. John de Britto.
He was truly a shepherd in search for the lost sheep. He reached out to the villages with the heart of the good shepherd to save the lost sheep; to bring the abandoned and wavering Catholics back to the fold. With the help of diocesan priests, he was able to return some families into the fold.
He Owned Nothing:
Despite his age, he was still going to the villages to celebrate Sunday mass. He spent time patiently, listening to them, hearing confessions, blessing the sick and encouraging the poor. He did not own a car or a bicycle. His support was a bamboo cane. He became thin, slightly curved, bearing a rough beard, with his sun-burnt face, but face lighted by his bright blue eyes. He was Christ–like in his kindness and concern for the poor.
He was available the whole day long to all sorts of visitors from far and near. Most of them from the villages were poor and under privileged including the down trodden dalits. Some sought his advice or help, others a letter of recommendation or to receive his blessings. He received everyone with a warm welcome. His fellow Jesuits, priests, nuns and lay people were touched by his extraordinary dependence and closeness to God. His compassion for the poor resembled his closeness to the heart of Christ.
He became a Mendicant:
He used to write for help from donors in Europe and America. He was eager to build Churches, Chapels, Convents, Schools and Orphanages. We may wonder how he managed to build 30 small chapels, a big church, school and convents. How did he educate poor children especially to send them to Secondary Schools for education?People volunteered to support his small projects, the labourers were willing to work for him, to make bricks and to carry them by their oxen. Many of those who received his educational support and assistance are still alive and bear true witness to his concern for their future welfare.
He realized how important it was to nourish the spiritual needs of the faithful. The church or chapel served as the spiritual centre to gather them and to unite them around the priest. The church for him was a symbol of our union with Christ.He begged God through prayer for his people, for the poor, for children, for widows and the needy. He also begged help from benefactors abroad.
Golden Jubilee of Priesthood:
Fr. Leveil’s Sacerdotal Golden Jubilee was celebrated as an event of thanksgiving on 13th January 1970. The jubilee was celebrated year long by the priests and the people all over the district.The highlight of his jubilee was the visit of his niece his elder brother Mr. Philipert’s daughter, Sister Marie de Jesus from France in the month of October. She represented Fr. Leveil`s family. He was over whelmed by her visit and shared with her all the sweet memories of his early life at home; he had a good memory of many names. She was amazed! He took her to all the nooks and corners of the Marava land. The Royal family of Ramnad heartily welcomed her. Even the poor people welcomed her with affection. There were colourful decorations. In one particular village the reception was typically rural and Father and his niece, Sr.Marie deJesus were taken in a long procession of people and children. To mark his golden jubilee the procession included 50 pairs of oxen, each pair driven by a man. The oxen symbolizedthe wealth of the poor formers. His niece was amazed to see the richness of the simple rural folk, their spontaneous,open and simple joy. She was struck by the supernatural radiance of a simple missionary in the person of her holy uncle
Prediction of his imminent death:
After the departure of his elder brother’s daughter (his beloved niece), his health began to decline. He became fragile. He was confined but he always remembered and enquired about the families he had known so well. He had to be carried on a chair to the church to celebrate Mass in a sitting position, helped by a priest or brother. He held rosary in hand, never ceased to pray and to bless. On his 89th birthday he announced his death and looked forward to it. He had chosen his grave and cut the first sod with his own hands and blessed it just one week ahead. He was fully prepared and longed for his death. Just the day before his death, he was taken to the Arockia Hospital about three kilometers from the mission house. However he wanted to be brought back to the mission house because his strong desire was to die in the mission house and to be buried in front of the parish church closer to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The Last Mass:
On March 20, 1973, just fifteen days before his 89th birthday, on the very eve of his death, he celebrated his final Holy Mass with great physical difficulty. He was completely exhausted and went down to rest, a thing which he had never done before. He could not breathe…the next morning his condition worsened . . . realizing his death was imminent; he received his last rites at 2.30 p. m. Though his time of death had begun,his memory did not fail till the end. The people, priests and nuns, all the people who wanted to touch him for the last time gathered in huge numbers.Around 3 p.m. he grasped the hands of Rev. Fr. Ponnad and charged him (with the duty) of informing his elder brother’s daughter, Sr. Marie de Jesus, Prioress of a convent in France that he would pray for her in heaven. Then he closed his eyes and was silent.
From his death bed, with his trembling hands, he traced the sign of the cross on his dear Marava converts who had just arrived to have a last glimpse of their saintly priest.In the meantime more priests, nuns and people arrived. It was 5.p.m. someone told Fr. Leveil loudly into his ear, the name of Fr. Veaux. As soon as he heard and recognized the voice of Fr. Veaux speaking in French, he opened his eyes and heaved a great sigh: Ah!… It was the beginning of the end… while prayers were recited by the Sisters, Priests of Sarugani and Devakottai, Brothers of the Sacred Heart and the people were all in tears, Fr. Veaux drew closer to Fr. Leveil and gently whispered into his ears: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” Just that was the holy moment; he smiled and breathed his last. It was 5.10p.m. on 21st March 1973. The church bells announced his death and the mourners started flooding the church in thousands. He died exactly on the day that he had predicted.
The Glorious Apotheosis of Saintly Fr. Leveil S.J.:
By 7.00 p.m. his mortal remains were lying in state in the nave of the Church. Peoplefrom all directions were pouring in to see him for the last time. Prayers and hymns continued without interruption. Masses were celebrated from morning. Hindus, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants filed past his body reverently. Villagers came beating the drum of mourning, weeping, kneeling, touching and kissing. They covered the coffin with garlands and flowers. They prayed for his intercession with God.On that day the bus service was unable to contain the visit of mourners.
On 22nd March 1973, at 4.30 p.m. Most Rev. Justin Diraviam, Archbishop of Madurai, concelebrated along with Rev. Fr. Douglas M. Gordon, Provincial of the Society of Jesus and fifty more priests. The homily was preached by the Archbishop glorifying the apostolic zeal and charity of the great missionary. After the absolution by the Provincial Father, the sacred remains of Fr. Leveil was carried by priests and religious brothers to the nearby grave, which was already identified by him and wanted his body to be, buried there itself. The burial was indeed a glorious apotheosis for a Man of God in the midst of a sea of mourners.
Fr. Leveil was God’s gift from France to India. He gave his life for God and the people who believed in God.His tomb is hallowed by the faithful at Sarugani. Throngs of people go to his tomb to seek his intercession. His simplicity and holiness has left a strong impact and he continuous to live in their hearts.