July 20, 2016 was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Fr. Louis Lebret. This Dominican from Brittany is not very well–known. However, we have no doubt that the grand mentor of Populorum Progressio deserves attention and study. Therefore, in this article we will discuss his life, thought and spirituality, providing a contribution towards recognizing the value of his legacy.
Louis Lebret was born on June 26, 1897 to a family linked to the sea, in the town of Minihic sur Rance, close to Saint–Malo, in the French region of Brittany. His father was the head shipwright at a naval shipyard. After having studied mathematics in high school, Louis enrolled in the Naval Academy. In 1917, with the war in full force, he was already an assistant officer to the captain on a torpedo–boat. In 1920 he became an instructor of navy officers at the Brest School. He was soon sent to Beirut, where he was put in charge of port traffic. At 23 years of age he was named Knight of the Legion of Honor and had reached the rank of lieutenant. As we see, he took on important responsibilities from a young age, and had the opportunity to demonstrate his enterprising character.
Louis Lebret’s intention to enter the clergy gradually developed during those years in the Navy. After abandoning his brilliant career as a naval officer, he became a Dominican. He completed his novitiate in Angers and studied philosophy and theology in Rijckholt, Holland. For health reasons, during the last year of his studies, he was sent to the convent of Saint–Malo for a period of convalescence.
He thus returned to his native land, by the seashore, and there he encountered a reality that was very close to him, but that he had not been aware of before: that of the local fishermen, who lived in poverty, almost destitution, and lacked a minimum level of dignity. In order to offer them spiritual assistance, he founded the Christian Maritime Youth, but soon recognized the limits of this initiative, and after a period of time, he succeeded in founding the French Federation of Professional Seamen Unions with the collaboration of Ernest Lamort. From 1932 to 1939 he published a trade union newspaper La Voix du Marin. For more than ten years he dedicated all his efforts and energies to the question of the fishermen and related sectors. His activities developed on two levels: 1) putting pressure on the institutions to improve laws; 2) carrying out direct work with the fishermen involved.