Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Fr. Francis Desramaut (1922-2014)

Fr. Francis Desramaut (1922-2014)

Fr. Francis Desramaut of the Salesian province of France died on Sept. 1. He was one of the 3 giants of Salesian historical research from the 1950s to the 1990s. Fr. Pietro Stella died in 2007, and Fr. Pietro Braido earlier this month. Your humble blogger counted both Fr. Stella and Fr. Desramaut as professional friends, having worked with the former to get 2 of his books published in English and with the latter to try to get one published (many snags in that long, long story). The following obituary was published in the July-December 2014 issue of Ricerche Storiche Salesiane, which arrived in New Rochelle on Nov. 24.

by Fr. Morand Wirth, SDB
translated and condensed by Fr. Mike Mendl, SDB

His Life’s Course

Francis Alfred Henri Desramaut was born on October 17, 1922, at Tourcoing, Nord Department, France. He was the eldest of six children; two of his brothers, Michel and Dominique, would become Salesians like him, and his sister Thérèse would enter the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. His father was an office worker at Lille, and his mother was a textile worker. After completing primary school in his parish’s free school, in 1930 he entered the Salesian school at Melles-lez-Tournai, Belgium, where he graduated from high school in 1938.

Photo by Colette Chaumont
From Melles he went directly to the Salesian novitiate at Port-à-Binson and, not quite 17 years old, made his first vows on September 3, 1939. From 1939 to 1944, with war raging, he studied philosophy and did his practical training in the house at Giel. After theological studies, begun at La Guerche in 1944 and completed at Lyons, he was ordained on July 1, 1948, at Coat-an-Doch in Brittany, where he remained for the 1948-1949 school year as prefect of studies and fourth-year teacher.

His career as a theology professor started in 1949 at the Salesian scholasticate at Fontanières (Lyons). At first he taught apologetics, then ecclesiology and Christology. Starting in 1950 he specialized in teaching church history, not only at the Salesian scholasticate but also at the diocesan pastoral Institute of Religious Studies and the Catholic University of Lyons. He stayed at the School of Theology of Lyons and in 1962 published his doctoral thesis, Les Memorie I de Giovanni Battista Lemoyne: Étude d’un ouvrage fondamental sur la jeunesse de saint Jean Bosco,[1] which is considered the first scientific study of the historical sources concerning Don Bosco. At that point he was assigned the course in modern and contemporary church history. In 1969 he became, in addition, director of the library of Catholic University of Lyons.

The focus of Fr. Desramaut’s life was undoubtedly the study of Don Bosco and Salesian history. In testimony of that is an impressive series of studies, publications, and undertakings. This intense intellectual passion must have grabbed him even as a youth. He had known Fr. Augustin Auffray and read his works, in whom he certainly recognized more a journalist and talented lecturer than a critical historian. To prepare his thesis he went many times to Turin, where he met Fr. Eugenio Ceria, whose humanist training, knowledge of Don Bosco, and Salesian simplicity he admired.

The Lyons Team for Salesian Research

For 25 years Fr. Desramaut with his students animated the Lyons Team for Salesian Research, which produced important historical studies, supervised by the teacher. These included books on the Salesian Rule, Salesian spirit, and Salesian missions, and a survey of Salesian history.

In 1966 the team began to publish the little “Notebooks of the Lyons Team for Salesian Research,” whose purpose was to publish “original studies and little known texts concerning Salesian life.”  These were generally short monographs by different authors, including Fr. Desramaut, on a variety of topics, but especially Salesian ones.

In 1979 Fr. Desramaut launched the great collection of Cahiers salésiens (“Salesian Notebooks”), subtitled “Research and documents to serve the history of the Salesians of Don Bosco in French-speaking countries.”  These surveyed such topics as Don Bosco’s letters, his trips to France, and his controversies with Archbishop Gastaldi; Salesians and liturgical renewal; and studies of individual Salesians and particular Salesian works.

The Symposiums on Salesian Life

His spirit of initiative and skill as an organizer were evident also in his launching the Symposiums on Salesian Life, with which he associated a good number of members of the Salesian Family at international level. The first of these symposiums was held at Lyons in September 1968, the others in different European locales.

In collaboration with Fr. Mario Midali, Fr. Desramaut published the first 11 volumes that came from these symposiums, covering Salesian prayer life, the Salesian mission to the young, Salesian Cooperators, the Salesian Family and social justice, the Salesian Family and communications, and spiritual direction.

He made some notable presentations to later symposiums about Don Bosco’s approach to spiritual direction, Salesian feasts, religious indifference, and the religious formation of the young.

His Major Works

In 1955 Fr. Desramaut published his French translation of Don Bosco’s life of Dominic Savio with an introduction and notes.        In 1958 he brought out his own translation and presentation of Don Bosco’s educational writings.

Fr. Desramaut made a name for himself when Don Bosco et la vie spirituelle (Paris: Beauchesne) came out in 1967. It has been translated into Italian, German, English (Don Bosco and the Spiritual Life[2]), Spanish, and Polish.

He also gave us detailed monographs on two renowned Salesian institutions, the Salesian school at Nice and the orphanage of Adolescent Jesus at Nazareth.

His masterpiece is certainly the 1,450-page Don Bosco en son temps (Turin: SEI, 1996).[3] Thanks to his vast knowledge and his critical work in the sources, we are in a position to penetrate better the story of the great apostle of youth and his personality.

We take note also of his collaboration in various encyclopedias and dictionaries of church history, spirituality, and catechetics and the scholarly Esprit et Vie (“Spirit and Life”) and Richerche storiche salesiane (“Salesian Historical Research”).

Participation in the Life of the Congregation and the Salesian Family

Fr. Desramaut participated in the Salesians’ 20th General Chapter (1971-1972), to which he made a notable contribution as part of the postconciliar renewal, marked by the composition of the new Constitutions. He also took part in the chapter of 1984, which definitively approved those Constitutions. He kept a journal of the two chapters in the form of leaflets for French-speaking Salesians.

In 1978 he became editor-in-chief of Don-Bosco-France, the news bulletin for French-speaking Salesians. For it he composed numerous brief but precise articles on noteworthy persons and events of the Salesian world.

In 1982 he took part in Rome in the Symposium on the Salesian Family and in that of 1989 on Don Bosco the founder, as well as in the first international congress for Don Bosco studies, held at the Salesian Pontifical University that same year.

In 1988 with Guy Avanzini he organized the interuniversity symposium of Lyons on the topic “Don Bosco’s Concept of Education and Pedagogy.”

Asked to use his knowledge to assist the cause of beatification and canonization of Margaret Occhiena, he explained precisely the historical context of St. John Bosco’s mother and evaluated the testimonies about her life and virtues.

Last Years at Toulon

Fr. Desramaut retired to the residence for senior confreres at Toulon in 1997, but he continued to work and publish. In 2000 his big volume Les cent mots-clefs de la spiritualité salésienne[4] appeared, a very useful synthesis for those interested in the themes of Salesian spirituality, and for preachers. In 2003-2004 he gave us a biography of Salesian missionary François Dupont.

In 2009 his last book was dedicated to the life of Fr. Michael Rua for the centennial of the death of Don Bosco’s successor—also translated into several languages.[5] It was, as he put it, his swan song, before a nerve disorder prevented his continuing to work.

When he turned 90 in 2012, the Rector Major, Fr. Pascual Chavez, sent him a congratulatory letter in well-deserved recognition of his accomplishments, particularly at the intellectual level, in service to the Congregation and the Salesian Family.

Fr. Francis Desramaut died at Toulon on September 1, 2014, at 91 years of age, just short of 75 years of Salesian religious life and after 66 years as a priest.

       [1] Giovanni Battista Lemoyne’s Memorie [biografiche] I: A study of a fundamental work on St. John Bosco’s youth; not translated into English. Available in French from Salesiana Publishers.

     [2] Available from Salesiana Publishers.

     [3] Don Bosco and His Times; English translation in progress

     [4] 100 Key Words in Salesian Spirituality, not translated into English.

     [5] Life of Fr. Michael Rua, Don Bosco’s First Successor (1837-1910) (Bangalore, 2010); available from Salesiana Publishers.

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