Père Louis Marie Léveil SJ (1884-1973) - Part II

Source: District of Asia

The following assessment of Fr. Léveil’s personality is from the pen of Fr. Gordon, twice his Provincial, to whom the Father, as bound by rule, used to open his soul once a year, and who therefore is probably the one who has known best Fr. Léveil.

“I met Fr. Léveil for the first time forty years ago when as a novice I spent two weeks of the pilgrimage experiment with him in Andavoorani and was deeply impressed by his patent holiness. I kept in touch with him as much as I could ever after.

“Fr. Léveil’s spirituality was based quite consciously on the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. He had a tender, life-long devotion to her, as the numerous chapels he built in her name all over Marava abundantly testify. The main characteristic of his spiritual life was simplicity and directness. It was enough for him to see what ought to be done, for him to go at it directly with a disarming straight-forwardness. He was as innocent as one could hope for and yet no simpleton, combining the biblical simplicity of the dove with the wisdom of the serpent. He had implicit confidence in Divine Providence, in the efficacy of prayer, in the value of pious practices, in the power of his own blessings (all attributable to God, no doubt), and I am afraid with less reason, in the goodness of human nature, no matter how often he was cheated. Yet he was shrewd and knew how to make a rupee go far.

“As a pangusamy (parish priest) he was austere with himself. His food was simplest, boiled rice, plenty of it, with a thin sauce (rasam) and one vegetable, usually brinjal prepared in one of a variety of ways. Meat, fish or eggs were scarce on his table and usually reserved for guests. He went to bed, or rather fell asleep, sometimes out of sheer exhaustion, at 10 or 11 at night, still dressed in his cassock, on a charpoy in the verandah, the floor of which was covered by sleeping boys whom he encouraged to come there, to keep them out of mischief. At four in the morning he almost rolled out of bed, knelt down for a short prayer, had a hurried wash and then went to the church to make his meditation. At Mass or any other liturgical function, he was business-like, understanding it was meant for the people and not for his private devotion. He clung to the old tried missionary methods or making the parishioners come to the center of Saturday evening, helping them to prepare for confession all together, instructing them that evening and the next morning, before sending them home after Mass on Sunday. He always had at least a few catechumens under instruction. “He cared little for his personal appearance, especially when on ‘visaranei’ (mission visits), his cassock usually brown with mud stains. When he came to town he would of course put on a clean cassock for the occasion and do as others did. He had no scruple about enjoying a good dinner at the residence, as a way of thanking God for His gifts. What was remarkable about him especially was his exquisite charity. It was said that he would never criticize anybody and could not bear hearing anyone talk ill of another. His brethren would sometimes test this by purposely saying something uncomplimentary about another to watch his reaction. He would at first remain sadly silent and then fill asleep!

“Compassionate towards the poor, he was continually giving alms, most of it obtained from friends abroad. He would ask permission meticulously from Superiors for everything, in painfully written but legible letters, even when he had been granted blanket permission by the Provincial for all such almsgiving. He helped widows in their penury, schoolboys to continue their studies, young girls with a small dowry to enable them to get married. He would encourage especially potential vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Before he died he founded a burse of Rs. 11,000 to aid a student for the priesthood, preferably hailing from Marava. He knew how to collect money for his alms, charging a token fee for the rather elaborate blessing he was accustomed to give which he then spent on the poor.

“Physically he was small in build and stature, bent already in middle age, and frail looking. His straggling beard and sunburnt features were lighted up by clear blue eyes, as blue as the Breton skies under which he was born. His simplicity and gentleness might have led one to think he was weak and ineffectual. Actually he was tough and wiry and enjoyed excellent health in spite of hard labor and austerity. In his old age he broke his thigh bone twice yet recovered and lived to the ripe age of 89, vigorous to the end. His speech on his death bed was always in a loud and firm voice, right up to a few minutes before he breathed his last.

“Fr. Léveil was looked upon by those who knew him well, whether they were his Jesuit brethren, priestly confreres, or parishioners, as a “holy man”, who followed his conscience, going about his humdrum parochial duties with fierce loyalty – one you could take for granted, even take advantage of, safe in the assurance that there would be no retaliation. As he grew older this rather perfunctory respect grew into affectionate veneration, and there is no doubt that towards the end he was treated as a living relic. His former parishes vied for the privilege of possessing his remains, while he was still very much alive, and only his own choice of Sarugani settled the rival claims amicably.

“He loved his people dearly his Marava converts, on whom he did not spare admonition and exhortation, even during his last hours. The typical popular reaction can be gauged from the remark of an old woman at the funeral. After eliciting that the priest she was speaking to was a Jesuit, she said: “You have lost a jewel (manickam). Have you another one to send us?”

Fr. Léveil’s last days:

Never before the 20th March, 1993 did the Father lay himself on his bed directly after Mass. That morning, however, he felt that his bodily condition was different and so he took to his bed immediately after the mass. In the absence of the Vicar Forane, Fr. Rajasekaran, made arrangements to remove Father to the Maria Mater Hospital on the out skirts of Sarugani. The doctor pronounced the case beyond recovery but gave him a shot in the arm to stimulate the nerves. Realizing that the end was nearing the Father insisted that he should be at once removed to the Mission House. He said he would die there and nowhere else, blessing his people. Blessing the people, thousands upon thousands, throughout his life was his great charism of the Spirit. So he was brought to the Parish house and about 2.30 p.m., he received the Last Sacraments, fully conscious, rosary in hand and prayers on the lips.

“Wednesday the 21st from 11 a.m., to 2:30 p.m., the crisis was once again. He was breathing heavily through the mouth and it was thought that the end had come. But no. From 2-30 to 5 p.m. it was a spell of hectic activity and the bright flicker of the dying candle. As I arrived at his side at 3-30 gripping my hand firmly and holding the rosary in his left, with much animation he said that I should tell his niece he would pray for her in heaven so that she might continue to be a Superior according to the mind of the Church, and he would pray for France and he repeated the word France once more. I asked for his intercession and he said, “Yes.” Meanwhile his dear Marava new converts closed on him and with trembling hand he blessed them one by putting the sign of the cross on their foreheads”. (Père Veaux SJ)

As Fr. Veaux was saying close to his ear JESU MARIA JOSEPH, as the Rev. Sisters recited the prayers for the dying and as the Four Fathers of Devakottai school, Fr. V. Provincial and Fr. Vicar Forane prayerfully stood near surrounded by a good number of nuns, the Sacred Heart Brothers and weeping Christians, the good and faithful servant of the Lord gave up his soul to his Creator and Lord.

At about 7 p.m. his body was placed in front of the alter railings for the people to have close look at him. From then till his burial in the evening of the following day it was a glorious APOTHEOSIS. Thousands upon thousands came, village after village, beating mournful drums and weeping, to kneel near his body, to touch it, to kiss it, to place their rosaries on it, to place garlands and to get his intercession.

The absolution was given by Rev. Fr. Provincial. Then the decorated coffin was borne by devoted priests around the village accompanied by a sea of people, Christian and non-Christian, and the body of the man of God was lowered into his resting place at 7-30 p.m. surrounded by his children the good people of Marava.

Fr. Burns, another missionary and contemporary of Père Léveil, has this to say about our good Father. I am convinced of Fr. Léveil’s outstanding holiness from observation. I will give only general assertions. To give particular incidents would run into a volume or volumes. He was a man of God because he had no other interest but those of God. god and Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, were his dominant thought; the Kingdom of Christ and the salvation of souls were his only pursuit. Food, clothing and lodging were very secondary in his value of things. He was healthy and if he had a good meal he ate it with gusto, and would thank the donor very much. Give him nothing or just a little rice and pepper water, and he would thank you profusely, all the same. He had no motor car or motor cycle. At most he had a bullock cart or he went on foot. Very often he did that, and he trained the novices, sent to him for their months experiment to do the same, i.e., to learn to rough it, and to go to the towns and villages on foot. Yes! on foot from Ramnad Town to Devipatnam, and then north to Tondi and Oriyur, and he would not require the novices to do anything he himself was not doing with them.

Fr. Léveil was a man of prayer, too. When I was with him in Ramnad in 1945-46. just for ten months, we had no electricity, just kerosene lamps, and often I noticed he didn’t even make use of such a lamp for his prayer. He would light a candle at the corner of the altar, the high altar with the Blessed Sacrament present and, tired after returning home late in the evening, he would finish the whole of his breviary, standing there, at the corner of the altar, in the presence of his Lord and Master. His other prayers, too, however much his work, he did not neglect, but I should imagine that his chief prayer was the presence of God. I noticed, too, that he had a great devotion to St. Francis Xavier.

It is quite possible that the devil’s advocate might give instances of queer thing in Fr. Léveil’s life, also his untidiness, etc. But all these things are small and petty at most, or exaggerated or untrue. The main fact remains that Fr. Léveil was a man, a Jesuit priest, who belonged to God completely. He was surely a veritable alter Christus and recognized as such by the ordinary people, including our good diocesan priest and the sisters of the various congregations who knew him.

“May good Fr. Léveil rest in peace, may he pray for us second rate missionaries, his admirers.”