Every year towards the hour of sundown on 8 September, men, women and children from every part of the island, leave their houses and start on a long march to the shrine of Father Jacques Désiré Laval at Sainte Croix, in the suburbs of Port-Louis. The crowds consist of motley groups. There are those who are filled with love and devotion and take turns carrying crosses, some of which are quite heavy. Others are absorbed in prayer, their lips a-quiver with endless ‘Ave’ and ‘Pater’, their eyes shining forth in bodies, old, shrunken, ravaged by years of toil and struggle. Then there are the younger ones, full of youthful exuberance, who invest the pilgrimage with a festive mood. To them religion is music and light. They take delight in offering to their revered Père Laval the tribute of their jubilant faithfulness.
To all these thousands of pilgrims this is a night apart from all other nights. They are marching to the spirtual centre of Mauritius where they have an appointment with a man of God who brought their forefathers out of the darkness of man-made barracoons into the light of Paradise. They are communing with their father who taught them that their heart too can become the throne of God.
Père Laval arrived in Mauritius in 1841 and worked here until his death in 1864. He devoted himself wholeheartedly to the moral and spiritual uplift of the emancipated slaves. Such was his devotion, so exemplary was his piety, that he won for the Catholic Church the fervour of the island’s entire black population. It is said that even the white population, which had ever since the French Revolution grown increasingly materialistic in outlook and sceptical about religion, were drawn to the Church by the christian example of their ‘inferiors’. By the time of Père Laval’s death in 1864, a deep and lasting moral and religious regeneration had taken place in Mauritius.