Fr. Denis Hebert, a priest of the Edmonton Archdiocese, died April 18 after serving 46 years in the impoverished barrios of Latin American cities.

WCR FILE PHOTO (2009)

Fr. Denis Hebert, a priest of the Edmonton Archdiocese, died April 18 after serving 46 years in the impoverished barrios of Latin American cities.

May 4, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Father Denis Hebert was perhaps the last of a generation of Canadian priests to intentionally make a preferential option for the poor.

Inspired by Pope Paul VI's encyclical On the Development of People, which called on the Church to be on the side of the poor and the hungry, Hebert lived among the marginalized people of South and Central America for 46 years, the last 25 in Edgar Lang, a shantytown of Managua, Nicaragua.

There he helped the people establish cooperatives, child and youth programs and health clinics, among other developments.

Originally from Villeneuve, Hebert studied at St. Joseph Seminary and was ordained in 1958 for the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

He served in Camrose and Trochu before he set foot in a sprawling shantytown on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, in 1969. He had been sent there to help run a parish that the Edmonton Archdiocese had opened three years earlier.

Hebert had never seen such extreme poverty before and initially thought he was foolish to accept such a challenge.

Nevertheless he stayed there for seven years before moving on to Panama and later to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

He arrived in Edgar Lang, the poorest area of Managua, in 1990 and served there until his death April 14. He was 84.

Archbishop Richard Smith, who visited Hebert in mid-March, celebrated a memorial Mass for him at St. Joseph's Basilica April 22.

"I fell in love with the people," the missionary priest once said of his stint overseas. "I found the people so welcoming and so full of faith and love that they won my heart."

Hebert visited Canada annually and spoke about his projects to whoever listened. That's how in 2005 a group of concerned Catholics launched the registered Alberta charity Roots of Change Foundation to support his work.

Two years later, in 2007, Hebert launched FUNDACCO, a non-profit Nicaraguan charity that plans, monitor and deliver the projects funded by Roots of Change.

Several members of Roots of Change travelled to Managua for Hebert's wake and funeral as did people throughout Nicaragua.

"In this community he accepted everyone as brothers and sisters, was gentle to both old and young and compassionate to all, especially to those who were deeply wounded in both spirit and body," Eugene Malo, president of Roots of Change, said in a recent tribute to the beloved priest.

SIMPLICITY, POVERTY

"Like them, he lived a life of simplicity and poverty. As a trusted friend and advisor, Father Denis brought light into the many dark recesses of his adopted community."

Hebert's bottom line was to help the poor improve their life conditions so they can become masters of their own destiny.

However, like the people he served, he became disillusioned with the status quo, which only perpetuated poverty, and came to embrace the wave of change that has engulfed Latin America. Finally people were electing leaders that cared about their lot.

"People in the Americas have begun to realize that the current international economic system is not working in their favour and are demanding change," he told the WCR in a 2009 interview.

"They have elected presidents that are very concerned about the future of their people and are attempting to put the natural resources of their countries at the service of the people."

CHAVEZ A FAVOURITE

One of his favourite leaders was the late Hugo Chavez, who nationalized Venezuela's vast oil reserves and used the revenue to build schools, roads and clinics in remote parts of the country where people had never had access to anything.

He was also elated with the election of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, whose first act as president was to launch a national program to eliminate poverty. Under Ortega's rule, he said, Nicaraguans now enjoy "free health care and free education."

Richard LeBlanc, project administrator with Roots of Change, said delegations and individuals from all over Nicaragua came to pay their respects to Padre Denis.

"Father truly walked the talk of a missionary and his passing has left a huge void in the hearts of those he helped over the years," he said.

SOWER OF SEEDS

But LeBlanc said Hebert's legacy will continue through the seeds he sowed through the creation of FUNDACCO. "He was definitely a man with a heart, very humble."

Hebert's niece Jocelyne Durocher, donations administrator for Roots of Change, also went to Managua for Hebert's wake and funeral.

"I'm very sad. His death is such a huge loss for the people (of Edgar Lang)," she lamented.

"He had such a big heart and everybody in that community knew if they needed someone to talk to they could go and talk to Father Denis."

Durocher said the people, especially the youth, appreciated that the programs Hebert put in place "really gave them an opportunity to make more of themselves than they would have been able to had they not been there."

For example, the youth would attend weekly sessions in leadership and then every year in January they would run programs for school children.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY

"I would say the main contribution that Father Denis made (in Edgar Lang) was providing the people with the know-ledge that community is a good thing," Durocher said.

"I remember him saying once that 'when people live in poverty they become quite insular' so his goal was to teach them a sense of community.

"He taught them that if they did things together it would help everyone; it would make them feel better about themselves and about their community."

More information about Hebert's work and Roots of Change is available online at www.rootsofchange.ca.