Remembering Bishop Joseph Bonhomme

By Shirley LaVigne-Ahern M.Ed ’86

The year is 1905. The American flag has 45 stars, Theodore Roosevelt begins his second term as President, The Institute of Musical Art, now the Julliard School is founded in NYC, Wilbur Wright makes aviation history flying the Wright Flyer III for 24 miles, and a sixteen year old boy becomes the seventy-second student to enroll at the newly established St. Michael’s (not yet a college), in Winooski, Vt. Unknown to Joseph, this would be the beginning of an experience that would influence his life’s career choice.

Joseph Cyprien Bonhomme was born on January 29, 1889 in St. Camille de Wotton, Quebec, Canada. He spent his early years in his homeland, but in 1901 his family emigrated to Burlington, Vt. where his parents were seeking a better life for their children and his father in search of better employment to support his large family. The Bonhomme family lived in a deeply spiritual, but financially-challenged home. Hardships followed the family with their move to Burlington. At the age of 12 Joseph went to work to help support his family, but school attendance was compulsory until the age of 15 so he returned to school. Recognizing his son’s keen intellect and his potential for helping others, Joseph’s father asked if he would be interested in attending St. Michael’s school. Joseph jumped at the chance and at 16 he entered the school where he was enrolled in the commercial program, finishing his studies in 1906.

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In a letter written to Rev. Leon Gosselin, S.S.E in response to an article which appeared in ‘The Michaelman’, an early alumni magazine, he states,” Thank you for having remembered one of your first students, who has always kept a happy remembrance of his Alma Mater. I made only part of my commercial studies at St. Michael’s College, but it was in this holy House that God saw fit to direct me towards a missionary vocation in the Congregation of Oblates of Mary Immaculate.” 

Joseph returned to his native Canada to continue his studies at Scolasticat of Saint Joseph in Ottawa undertaking classical courses, where he remained until 1912 pursuing classes leading to his religious studies. In 1912 he entered the Oblate Novitiate in Lachine, Quebec where he took his first vows as an Oblate, with his perpetual vows following in September 1916. In December he was made a sub-deacon and a full deacon the following year. Less than a year later, Joseph was ordained a Priest of the Catholic Church, continuing his studies and serving as parish priest in Hull, Qc. In 1927 an appointment as both Superior of the Oblates at Notre-Dame de Hull and Pastor of the Parish of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes de Mont-Joli followed, where he supervised the building of a new church and construction of a grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes of Mont-Joli, in the archdiocese of Rimouski, Qc. 

In 1933, at the age of 44, with these and many other accomplishments to his credit, he  was appointed Vicar Apostolic to Basutoland, Africa (now Lesotho), and was informed that he would be consecrated a Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. On September 1st of that year, he began a challenging ministry as a missionary in South Africa.

The conditions that Bishop Bonhomme found in Basutoland neither dampened his spirit nor his enthusiasm and he pushed forward with his keen interest in social work. During the years he spent in this ministry eighty-three structures including schools, churches, hospitals, and convents were built, while significantly increasing the Catholic population of Basutoland. He launched “Catholic Action” to coordinate the activities of Catholic groups. He advanced the establishment of Pius XII University College at Roma (renamed National University of Lesotho), and oversaw cooperative associations in order to help the farmers and merchants. Bishop Joseph Bonhomme always felt privileged to have been chosen to lead this mission and never forgot the people of the country that he served. And they never forgot him. At his funeral in 1973 at the age of 84, representatives from the African nation he loved and served were in strong attendance. 

Joseph Cyprien Bonhomme never forgot his experience as an early student at St. Michael’s College, as he writes, “ I shall never forget the devotion and the spirit of sacrifice shown by my teachers at St. Michael’s. No life of ease was that of the priests in those early days and we students were quick to notice the fund of self-sacrifice that was needed by those Apostles of Youth to establish and maintain their institution in the midst of so many difficulties. Still, we never remarked the least trace of dejection amongst those valiant members who were then experiencing their first trials and hardships.”

Joseph’s early schooling at St. Michael’s and the commitment of the Edmundites had a profound effect on his career choice. He listened to his inner voice and from his humble beginnings as Joseph Cyprien Bonhomme to Most Rev. Joseph Bonhomme, Monseigneur (Bishop) Bonhomme, Vicar Apostolic, Titular Bishop of Tulana, and Bishop Assistant to the Pontifical Throne, his titles only encouraged him to work more diligently to make the world a better place. Joseph’s family knew poverty and economic hardships which appears to have had a significant influence on his work to improve the social economics of the regions he served. Joseph had a great vision for Basutoland and he courageously persisted as an advocate for the rights of the Basotho people, but because of his outspoken, repeated criticism of the established Colonial administration, the Oblates were pressured to encourage him to resign his missionary work, and finally in 1947 he departed Cape Town, South Africa and returned to Canada.

Bishop Bonhomme has been referred to as a talented, colorful, and controversial figure, but to his family he was simply known as “The Bishop.” The Bishop was my 3rd cousin.

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