Died on Christmas Day at the age of 93, in a hospital in Midnapore, near Calcutta (India), Father François Laborde remained unrecognized in France all his life. Yet it is he who inspired – at least in part – the figure of the hero priest of “The City of Joy”, Dominique Lapierre’s world bestseller on the slums of Calcutta.
Become a priest with the excluded
Born February 28, 1927, François was educated up to the baccalaureate with the Jesuits. After a year of philosophy at the Sorbonne, he joined the Prado institute in order to become a priest among the excluded and the poorest.
It was in Paris, his hometown, that his proximity to the poorest was awakened. He was then 9 years old. Coming from a petty bourgeois family, “Not particularly rich”, he suddenly discovers that his best friend lives in an even less privileged situation. “When I was invited to his house for the first time, I was amazed. His family lived on the sixth floor and he slept on a folding bed in a loft. A few days earlier, he had left my house crying… Since that day, I understood that it was necessary to go to the poor to understand them. “
Ordained a priest in 1951, François Laborde pursued studies in canon law and theology in Rome, then in philosophy in Lyon. It was there, at the Prado seminary, that he taught philosophy for eight years.
However, his desire remains elsewhere. In January 1965, Father Laborde left for India in order to carry out a vast sociological study on “The relations between marginalized and integrated populations”, under the patronage of the UN and Unesco. Seized by the immense misery of Calcutta, a sprawling city which then had to face the arrival of millions of mainly Hindu refugees, fleeing East Pakistan (created by the partition of India in 1947), he decided to stay there. definitely.
“Of course,” he said, “you cannot help but be moved, humanly and spiritually when you arrive in India. But it is the poorest people who have given me back my faith, by the way they face the difficulty. God allowed me to glimpse a third way between anger and resignation. ” He therefore chose to share the existence of these families whom he admires “The power of intercession with God”whether they are Catholic, Muslim or Hindu.
François Laborde, a life in the heart of the slums
It was in Calcutta, in 1976, with the help of Cardinal Lawrence Trevor Picachy, that he opened a first home for disabled children in the parish of Nirmala Mata Maria in Howrah, a district on the outskirts of Calcutta, where he been appointed. In the following years, he opened other centers in Howrah for children with leprosy.
The association, well known in India as “Howrah South Point” (1), has a total of seven reception centers with specialized schools, physical rehabilitation units, and vocational training workshops. In addition, there are dispensaries (with free consultations and medicines), schools (nearly 2,000 students from underprivileged backgrounds), workshops and support programs for young mothers. Three hundred and sixty people, Indians, form the staff of this discreet but extremely efficient organization.
Muslims, Hindus and Christians work together
Howrah South Point now employs 360 people. In all these centers, Muslims, Hindus and Christians work together in the service of the most disadvantaged.
Father Laborde liked to say that HSP was not his work, but that it had developed thanks to these Indian women and men and thanks to the many volunteers who come each year from France, Germany and Switzerland.
The French priest had been knighted in the Legion of Honor by President François Mitterrand and then elevated to the rank of officer in 2019.
His funeral will be celebrated on Monday December 28 at Saint John’s Church in Calcutta before his burial in the cemetery of the same name.