In May of 1940 the “Phoney War,” following the September 1939 invasion of Poland, abruptly ended. The battle for France raged. Near the village of Mauves-sur-Loire, 15 or so kilometres upstream from Nantes and not far from the Atlantic coast, a 19-year-old helped run the family business of training and trading horses. The earlier accidental drowning of an older brother and death of his father had placed this heavy responsibility on the shoulders of Pierre Rigaud.
War disrupted everything. German divisions rapidly advanced soon reaching Mauves-sur-Loire. The fighting raged elsewhere as Wehrmacht troops occupied local Loire River crossings. Two days after the German arrival, Pierre Rigaud saw a lone figure coming across a field on their family farm as he fed the horses. It turned out to be a Polish soldier trapped behind the German lines.
Rigaud’s mother, made aware of his presence, assessed the situation and firmly directed her son to assist him. It turned out that two other stranded soldiers lie hidden, awaiting the return of their comrade in arms. A plan needed to be formulated to quickly spirit these men across the Loire River and through German lines. She told Pierre to get on his bike and go see a fisherman who lived on an island where they pastured their horses in the summer to work an escape out.
The next morning, dressed as field workers, tools shouldered, they set off with Pierre in the lead, ostensibly off to cut grass on the island. Pierre walked them through a German checkpoint between the farm and the island. The Polish soldiers, he told me, had strict orders from him: “don’t open your mouths!” They made it to the island where they found the fisherman waiting with a boat. The faux field hands now became fisherman, lazily casting out their nets as they drifted under the guards posted above them on a blown out bridge. Pierre safely saw them off. Seventy three years later he still wonders what happened to them.
This act of courage would be repeated during his days at the Oblate scholasticate at La Brosse-Montceaux east of Paris where he prepared for the priesthood along with other French seminarians, including other well-known northerners such as Denis Buliard, Jean-Marie Mouchet, and Pierre Veyrat. Their seminary supported the underground resistance. Via a clandestine radio, they helped co-ordinate allied air drops of weapons for the resistance until betrayed to the Nazis.
Forced to line up, the Nazis pulled a lay brother, two priests and two seminarians out from among them. Though tortured they refused to talk. These Oblates were shot in front of the rest. The carnage would have continued but by chance a superior officer happened by and halted the bloodshed. The survivors were then jammed into a train bound for the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Mercifully Allied troops had other plans.
In the French village of La Brosse-Montceaux a plaque mounted on a boulder commemorates the Oblates who fell on July 24, 1944. This phrase ends the engraved testimonial, “Ils voulaient que vienne la civilisation de l’Amour.” (Their wish was for the coming of a civilization of love).
No less can be said of Fathers Pierre Rigaud, Denis Buliard and the other men of La Brosse-Montceaux whose lives then demanded a different kind of courage. They came here in the late 1940s and offered their lives in service to the Yukon and the people of the North.
Father Rigaud celebrates his 93rd birthday this coming Wednesday. People up and down the Alaska Highway from Teslin to Beaver Creek witnessed his unstinting dedication to them. The people of Faro named their hockey arena after him to celebrate his work in their community. Father Denis Buliard died last week at 89 years of age. He was buried in St. Albert, Alberta, on Tuesday. Years at Fort Selkirk and Old Crow preceded his 40 years of service at Iskut Lake.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.