Bl. Jean Joseph Lataste (1832-1869)

Father John Joseph Lataste, who died in 1869, is remembered as the founder of the community of Bethany. It is not commonly known that he also has another claim on our interest; he offered his life that St. Joseph might be named Patron of the Universal Church.

Père Lataste was born in 1832 in Southern France and was christened Alcide Vital. From the time he was very small he looked forward to becoming a priest, but he had a fear of being unworthy of so high a vocation. Finally, when he was a young man the fear so obsessed him that he gave up the whole idea and got a job in a tax office.

He became engaged to a good Catholic girl, and his life seemed to be falling into an ordinary pattern. His parents disapproved of the girl, and their attitude caused him to pray much about the engagement. He begged God to let him know what he should do, because he wanted only to accomplish the will of God. The answer was abrupt and final; the girl died. Convinced that God was calling him to the priesthood in spite of his unworthiness, he resumed his studies and eventually entered the Dominican novitiate at Flavigny. Here he received the name of John Joseph.

During his time at the house of studies at St. Maximin, Père Lataste developed a great devotion to St. Mary Magdalen, who was specially honored there. He firmly fixed in his mind the thought that great love can atone for great sin, and adopted Mary Magdalen as a special patroness of his future work among sinners.

After his ordination in 1863, Père Lataste was assigned to mission work at Bordeaux. In the following year he was sent on what looked like a fruitless mission, to preach to the women prisoners in a nearby reformatory. Here he shaped his whole retreat around the idea that had so intrigued him at St. Maximin: that Mary Magdalen atoned for great sin by even greater love. Waxing eloquent on the subject, he saw that his hardened audience was listening closely. On the closing day of the retreat he saw three hundred and forty out of the three hundred and eighty prisoners receiving Holy Communion. The idea came to him that here would be the nucleus for the society he had envisioned, a community of religious women made up of rehabilitated prisoners.

The prisoners were enthusiastic about the plan; the archbishop was not. For some time, Père Lataste worked it over in his mind and discussed it with people who were interested in the project. It took a long time. Eventually, the obstacles were overcome, and he had the very great happiness .of seeing his dream realized. Three sisters of a regular congregation assisted in the beginning, and their first two postulants were received the day the convent was opened. They called it “Bethany” to carry out the idea of the friendship of Christ.

Père Lataste set about getting a rule and constitutions written and approved. The life of the sisters at Bethany consisted in prayer, public recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, the exercise of penance, and work in common. The house was to be characterized by endless and limitless devotion to Christ; the great love that would atone for great mistakes.

Just at this time, when he must have wished most to live, Père Lataste wrote to the pope offering his life that St. Joseph would be declared Patron of the Universal Church. The pontiff remarked to the master general, who had given him the letter, that he had received more than five hundred letters asking this favor, but only Père Lataste had offered his life in exchange. God took him at his word, and he died on March 10, 1869. A year later, St. Joseph was declared Patron of the Universal Church.

The work of Père Lataste had prospered with the foundations from Bethany. The constitutions of the Order were confirmed in 1931. On the anniversary of his death in 1937, the process was begun to raise John Joseph Lataste to the altars of the Church.

(Source : Dorcy, Marie Jean. St. Dominic’s Family. Tan Books and Publishers, 1983)