Adios, Padre Dubois

Thousands of mourners attended the funeral on Monday of Father Pierre Dubois, a French priest who spent most of his life working in a poor Santiago community.

Father Pierre Dubois’s funeral was held yesterday, and there is a Facebook page honoring his memory:  The site contains photographs of key moments in his life, including one in which Dubois is standing between a riot policeman and a group of residents in La Victoria, the poor Santiago parish where he spent most of his life. My friend and colleague Odette Magnet attended his funeral and sent the photograph above and this report:

“The coffin with Pierre Dubois’s body entered Santiago’s cathedral at 4:30 Monday afternoon.  The church was packed from wall to wall. They say the cathedral can hold 5,000 worshippers. I don’t know the exact number but I do know that absolutely no one else could have fit inside that church and that outside in the Plaza de Armas countless people were listening to the service via loudspeakers.

When the heavy doors of the cathedral opened there was a single cry: Pierre, amigo, el pueblo esta contigo!  Pierre, friend, the people are with you. Again and again this chorus, and then, out of nowhere, hundreds of white handkerchiefs and napkins began waving in a tribute that any Chilean head of state might envy. Hundreds of people had accompanied the priest’s coffin on foot from La Victoria, a poor Santiago neighborhood that began as a squatter settlement.

That is where this French priest had made his life, a parish priest known for his defence of human rights during the Pinochet dictatorship.  One legendary photograph from this period shows Dubois, his arms outstretched, facing a busload of riot police during political protests in La Victoria.

Pierre Dubois was 80 years old and suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease. He was born in Dijon to a comfortable Catholic family. Today in Chile he is known to his parishioners as “another La Victoria resident, one of us.”  And that is where he remained, as he wished.

The residents of La Victoria composed a letter, which was read aloud during the funeral mass. One section said that “Pierre was a man of the Gospel, a just man, who fought for a better world and urged us to improve our quality of life during the dictatorship.” The letter cited a long list of programs he had created with his parishioners, such as soup kitchens and job training.

Santiago Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati thanked Dubois’s brother and sister, who had travelled from France, “for having given us a member of your family” and called Dubois “an ecclesiastical bridge between Dijon and Santiago.” Dubois’s brother and sister said they were happy he had come to Chile. “He always said that his family was in Chile, a country he loved so much.”

I interviewed Pierre several times while covering human rights for HOY magazine. I covered the death of his colleague Father Andre Jarlan, who died of a bullet (perhaps not fired unintentionally) on September 4, 1984 as he sat reading the bible in their modest rectory in La Victoria. I spoke to him on various occasions, as did so many journalists, but I recall with special sentiment the last interview I did with him, on camera, for a documentary we later offered to the national television network in 1990.  That was the year Chile returned to democracy and he returned to La Victoria after the dictatorship deported him in 1986.Our documentary was never aired, but this last interview was so special, so intimate in tone, so heartfelt and thoughtful. I did not get to see him again. Until the day of his funeral, when, for the first time since I returned to my homeland in March of 2010, I felt his presence”

Father Pierre Dubois, 1931-2012

Father Pierre Dubois, a French priest who worked with Chile’s poor since 1963, died today at his residence in a Santiago slum.

He was a Roman Catholic priest and French citizen serving in one of Santiago’s poorest neighborhoods, sometimes placing himself between his parishioners and the riot police and soldiers who periodically raided the community during the Pinochet regime. In one notorious operation on November 15, 1984, troops with tanks and military trucks surrounded La Victoria at dawn, conducting house-to-house searches and rounding up thousands of men and teenage boys who were taken to a sports stadium for identity checks.

Why had La Victoria been raided?  Regime officials said they were looking for weapons and criminals, but Father Pierre Dubois said the operation was to “terrorize and punish the people.” (This blogger covered the raid for ABC Radio and Newsweek, and here’s a New York Times story on the operation:  Less than two months earlier his assistant pastor, Father Andre Jarlan, had been killed by police gunfire that penetrated the walls of their parish rectory (see earlier post

The regime later expelled Father Dubois and two other foreign priests in 1986 but he returned in 1990 when an elected civilian government took power. Upon arrival in Chile he headed straight back to La Victoria where he resumed his pastoral work.  In 1996 some members of the Chilean Congress voted to award him Chilean citizenship, a move blocked by rightwing politicians but later approved in 2001. He expanded his pastoral work to counselling young drug addicts, and even when he began to suffer from Parkinson’s Disease  insisted on remaining in the parish.

A statement by the Chilean Episcopal Conference said Father Dubois had passed away “in his beloved La Victoria.”