Born in Bouxières-aux-Chênes (Meurthe-et-Moselle), March 12, 1831
Taking of the habit in N.-D. de l’Osier, May 9,1851
Oblation in N.-D. de l’Osier, May 10, 1852 (no329)
Priesthood Ordination in Pietermaritzburg, February 19, 1854
Dead in Roma, Lesotho, May 29, 1914
Beatified in Maseru, Lesotho, September 15, 1988.

Joseph Gérard was the eldest of five children born to Jean Gérard and Ursule Stofflet. They gave him the benefits of a modest home and a profound example of true Christian life. He was also blessed by the care and help of Sister Odile who taught him catechism and of his parish priest Abbé Cayens who encouraged him in pursuing a priestly and missionary vocation.

When he was thirteen years of age he went to the minor seminary at Pont-à-Mousson (1844-1849) and later to the major seminary at Nancy (1849-1851). In both places he heard visiting Oblates speak of their newly opened missions in the Canadian Great North West. These men fired his imagination and he left the major seminary in 1851 to enter the Oblate novitiate at Notre-Dame de 1’Osier. Towards the end of his life he was to write appreciatively to Archbishop Augustin Dontenwill, then Superior General, of his successive novice masters. Fathers Jacques Philippe Santoni and Gustave Richard; he also mentioned Father Florent Vandenberghe who was an assistant novice master for a short period.

He made his perpetual oblation on May 10, 1852 and then passed on to take his scholasticate formation in Marseilles: at this time the Oblate scholastics were still houses in the Marseilles major seminary. On March 3, 1853 he received his obedience to Natal in South Africa. On April 3, 1853 he was ordained deacon by Bishop Eugene de Mazenod. Just one month later he joined Father Justin Barret and Brother Pierre Bernard who were also leaving for Natal. They sailed from Toulon on May 10, 1853.

On the voyage they spent a few months on Mauritius. Here the Oblate deacon Gérard met Blessed Jacques Désiré Laval whose ingenious catechetical methods were to inspire his own work later. They reached Natal in January 1854 and were welcomed by Bishop Jean-François Allard who had led the pioneer Oblates into this land in 1852.

Joseph Gérard went with Father Justin Barret to Pietermaritzburg, the first Oblate foundation in Natal, where Bishop Allard ordained him priest on February 19, 1854. He and Father Barret then learned English and ministered to the colonists. .

After a time they went to live among the Zulus in order to learn their language. In 1855 they founded the first Oblate Zulu mission, which they called St. Michael’s, near Umzinto on a piece of land granted them by Chief Dumisa.

Father Gérard responded to a desire of Bishop de Mazenod that the Oblate missionaries should keep him informed of their life and labour. He wrote to the Founder from Pietermaritzburg, from St. Michael’s, and from Our Lady of. Seven Sorrows (founded after St. Michael’s had failed), describing in details the progress that had been made and the difficulties and hardships involved in this ministry.

After three different attempts to establish missions among the Zulus, Bishop Allard and Father Gérard had to admit defeat and, as if in response to an urging of Bishop de Mazenod eight months before his death, they crossed the Drakensburg mountains and entered Lesotho, which was then referred to as Basutoland. They went to visit King Moshoeshoe and they were given a piece of land, which eventually became known as Roma. Here Father Gérard spent some fourteen years establishing the Church in a country where there had never before been a Catholic missionary.

As a result of his disappointments in Natal he was more ready now to wait patiently for conversions. He set for himself a punishing program as he travelled tirelessly on horseback in extremely difficult mountainous country, visiting homesteads, comforting the sick, and celebrating the Mass and the sacraments. He proved himself a true missionary in a special way during the Basotho-Boer War (1865-1866) when he risked his own life to bring help to King Moshoeshoe embattled in his mountain fortress at Thaba Bosiu.

About the same time he was heartened by the arrival of the Holy Family Sisters who were to become a powerful force for good and by the first solemn baptism on October 8, 1865.

He also promoted indigenous vocations at a time when they seemed hardly feasible.

He set an inspiring example by his own dedication, which combined prayer, penance and hard work in a way that won admiration and respect.

In 1876 he returned to Pietermaritzburg, Natal, where he supervised the printing of two of his own works in Sesotho. One was his translation of St. Luke’s gospel, the other a short History of the Church.

Then he went to take up a new post in the north of Lesotho at Leribe. He dedicated this mission to St. Monica, one of the saints he especially admired. There he remained for twenty-one years totally engrossed, as he had been at Roma, in all the demands of catechetical, liturgical and pastoral activity.

At St. Monica’s too he had to contend with the difficulties that had always beset him – pagan rites, polygamy, witchcraft, misunderstanding and misrepresentation. He also had to face criticism of his work by some of his Oblate confreres.

In 1897, at the age of sixty-six, he returned to Roma and for the next seventeen years he spent himself as if he were still the same much younger missionary who had arrived there thirty-five years before. At eighty-three years of age he was still in the saddle of his fabled horse, Artaban.

In March 1914 he wrote to tell his sisters and brother that fortunately he was able to ride for one or two hours a day to visit the sick, at the same time regretting that he could not do more. In April he celebrated the diamond jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood. By the end of the month he was quite disabled and had to take to his bed.

Even then his former vigour showed itself when he castigated a visiting chief for his dissolute life. At other times, his mind wandered: he clicked his tongue and tapped the sides of his bed as in imagination he rode Artaban again. “Where is my force?” he said. “I have to go to visit the sick.”

Father Gérard had at one time been very concerned about the Oblate leadership in Lesotho, which had been through a trying time due to some unfortunate appointments to positions of authority. He had been relieved when Father Jules Cénez, a native or Lorraine like himself, was chosen as Prefect of the mission. Cénez, now a Bishop, called on his fellow countryman for the last time before leaving for business in Europe. Father Gérard’s own Superior, Father Martin Guilcher, came to see him on the evening of Friday, May 29, 1914: he blessed Father Gérard who, still conscious, made the sign of the Cross – his last act of reverence for the symbol that had guided his life.

Father Gérard’s Oblate cross is treasured by his brother Oblates in Lesotho, and with good reason. Father Gérard followed closely in the footsteps of Jesus, the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. The Songs of the Servant in Isaiah had a particular resonance in his life. True enough, he had, at times, like the Servant, been lifted up, exalted, raised to great heights, and there are explosions of joy and delight in his life and correspondence. But his joy and delight were born of suffering the victory of one who had known ignominious defeat. All his life he had been assailed by self-doubt and timidity: at times waves of depression washed over him. He was like St. Paul straitened on every side, always in the midst of physical hardship and searing pain of the soul and spirit. Once a band of unruly youths had insulted him as he rode Artaban, calling him a helpless old creature like a bundle of dirty rages through over a horse – words reminiscent of the Servant who was a thing despised and rejected by men.

The moment of Father Gérard’s exaltation was fittingly the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15, 1988, when Pope John Paul II beatified him at Maseru in Lesotho. In at least three public addresses the Pope called attention to Father Gérard’s abiding love of the Cross and of Mary the Woman who stood beneath it: they were the living springs that sustained him in his pilgrimage, the source of his consuming zeal, the inspiration of his life’s work.

Gerard O’Hara, o.m.i.