Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Blessed Jean-Joseph Lataste
By Heather King
“What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people…capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life.” Porta Fidei 15
Blessed Jean-Joseph Lataste, O.P. (1832-1869), a French Dominican priest known as the Apostle of Prisons, preached a famous retreat in a women’s penitentiary. Deeply moved by the inmates’ response to his message of mercy, he later founded the Dominican Sisters of Bethany in response.
Lataste was born the youngest of seven children in Cadillac, Gironde, France, named Alcide-Vitale, and baptized the following day. As a child, he attributed his miraculous recovery from a serious illness to the Blessed Virgin. In adolescence, he felt called to the priesthood, and entered the minor seminary at Bordeaux, but felt unworthy to be a priest. After graduating in 1850, he wrote poetry, worked in public service, and became a member of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. He fell in love and made plans to marry, but his parents opposed the union. The couple parted for a year, and Lataste’s fiancee, as well as his beloved sister Rosy, died soon after.
He, at last, entered the Dominican novitiate at Flavigny in November 1857, receiving the name Jean-Joseph. After making his profession, he was sent to the priory of Saint Maximin to continue his studies and became drawn, through deep contemplation, to Mary Magdalene. “When God loves us and gives us his grace,” he would later write, “he does not ask us what we have been; he is only concerned with what we are-not with how far we have fallen, but with how much we love. He judges us only on the strength of our love. Happy are those whose past urges them on to a greater love.”
He was ordained in February 1863 and was assigned to the convent at Bordeaux. In September 1864, after a mere seventeen months as a priest, he was sent to conduct a four day retreat for the inmates of a nearby women’s prison.
He was afraid of feeling physically repulsed and convinced he had nothing to say that the 380 women prisoners would be willing or able to hear. But when he saw them, all fear and misgivings melted. These poor, abandoned women were like sheep without a shepherd.
The prisoners lived in shame and were used to being called sinners and tramps. When Father Lataste greeted them with a gentle “My dear sisters,” many were moved to tears. He reminded them of the parable of the woman caught in adultery and that Jesus had forgiven her. He spoke of freedom, of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, of heaven. Scores were drawn to confession. The chapel began filling each evening for Adoration.
Some of the women began saying that after being released they would like to live like nuns in a cloister. Father Lataste conceived of the idea of a contemplative-active religious community that would minister to women in prison, and even welcome rehabilitated prisoners as vocations if they had undergone a sufficient conversion and manifested an authentic call to religious life.
Father Lataste founded the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of Bethany in 1866. Mother Henri-Dominique of the Sisters of Charity of the Presentation, Tours, lent invaluable help. The congregation still exists, scattered throughout the world, and is the subject of the 1978 novel Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden.
In 1868, Father Lataste sent a letter to Blessed Pius IX informing him that he had offered his life for the declaration of Saint Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church and the inclusion of his name in the Canon of the Mass, provided that the saint would take special care of the congregation he had founded. He died of tuberculosis on March 10, 1869, at the age of thirty-six. Those present said this tender pastor of women was singing the Salve Regina right before he died.