DEHONIANS

Priests of the Sacred Heart

South African Province

"...our whole vocation, our purpose, our duty, our promises, are found in these words:

Ecce venio...

Ecce ancilla.."

History of the Congregation

Our Founder Fr. Leon Dehon

Fr. Leon DehonThe Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart was founded by Fr. Leon Dehon who was born on 14 March, 1843 in La Capelle, France. His father Alexandre Jules Dehon was an honest and upright man, although he had ceased to practice his religion. He was an untiring worker careful of his resources but he spared no expenses to pay for his son's studies. Leon's mother on the other hand was a woman of great piety, dedicated to good works and with a deep compassion for the poor and unfortunate.

Leon Dehon was taught the catechism by the parish priest and his mother helped to prepare the young boy for his first Holy Communion which he received on 04 June 1854. His mother has given him a manual of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the future founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart must have made this booklet his special treasure. When he was fourteen years old Leon Dehon made the resolution that he would one day become a priest.

In 1859 he matriculated and his father was anxious that he should become a lawyer and qualify to the Bar. The idea that his son desired to become a priest and not a lawyer filled him with dismay. In Autumn of this same year at his father's insistence Leon journeyed to Paris to proceed with his legal studies. In 1862 he was admitted to the Bar and two years later he obtained his L.L.D. He passed his legal examination brilliantly but never practiced in a court of law. His vocation lay elsewhere.

On 25 October 1865 Leo Dehon entered the French seminary of St. Chiara in Rome. He finalized his studies four years later and was ordained on the 19 December 1868 in the Cathedral Church of St. John Lateran.

In November 1871 Fr. Dehon was appointed curate in the parish of St. Quentin in the diocese of Soissons. Spiritually the town was desolate but the young priest being certain of what course to follow set about his work with great determination. He established a Catholic Youth Club which was amongst the first in France, followed by a Catholic newspaper and a school.

To improve the situation of the working class he needed to work with the workers as well as with the factory owners. He set up organizations both religious and social in an effort to effect a permanent cure in the society.

Establishing the new Congregation

The idea of reparation had been in vogue for some time in France and although it was especially enshrined in religious institutions for women there were no such orders for men. Father Dehon discussed the matter with the bishop of Soissons who shared his views that such an order should be founded. To shelter the new Society he authorized Fr. Dehon to establish a college in St. Quentin which was inaugurated on 08 June, 1877 - the feast of the Sacred Heart. In this way Fr. Dehon became the founder of the new religious Society. On the Feast of the Sacred Heart 28 June, 1878 he pronounced his first vows. The college was the cradle of the new Society - the Oblates of the Sacred Heart - and remained its headquarters for many years to come.

In 1884 Fr. Dehon was directed by the Holy See to reorganize his Congregation, draw up the new Constitutions and adopt a new title. Thus the Oblates of the Sacred Heart were renamed as Priests of the Sacred Heart which is an apostolic and missionary Congregation.

The first SCJ missionaries

Fr. Dehon felt obliged to undertake missions to remote countries for the apostolic duty of preaching the gospel all over the world. In 1887 he received an offer of a mission in New Guinea. It was a German colony and the German missionaries were required but unfortunately the mission could not be accepted as the only Germans in the Congregation were students.

In 1888 the proposal was received from Fr. J. Matovelle for mission work in Ecuador. Fr. Dehon approved it and Fr. Grison became the first SCJ missionary. A few years later he was joined by brother Lux - who was ordained the priest in Colombia in 1895 - and brother Gerspacher. As a result of the revolution in Ecuador in 1896 all the missionaries were expelled . Although this mission proved unsuccessful it marked the beginning of the SCJ apostolate in Latin America.

When Propaganda Fidei and the Civil Authority called for missionaries to undertake the evangelization of the upper reaches of the Congo Fr. Dehon immediately offered his services. This part of the Congo was still little known, knowledge of it was confined because of its vast extent and differences of climate and population. The interior had scarcely been penetrated and in those parts where contact had been made with the inhabitants the climate was deadly. It seemed extremely difficult for foreigners to avoid mortal fevers. But these conditions did not discourage merchants in search of profit, nor missionaries in search of the new endeavors.

Frs Grison and Lux, both young men with unwavering trust in God left Antwerp for the Congo in 1897. They arrived in Stanleyville and set out for the interior where they built themselves a mud-hut in the forest. They were looked upon with much suspicion and hostility by the local native dwellers. Fr. Lux was destined not to remain in the Congo and broken in health and worn out by labour and suffering he returned to France. Fr. Grison, however, was to spend the rest of his long life on the mission. On the opposite site of the first mud-hut the great mission of St. Gabriel was later built. In his old age Fr. Grison who became the bishop had the consolation of ordaining the first African priest there.