Brother Rene B. Lepage, C.M.F.
December 17, 2003
Where was your missionary vocation born?
As a youth, I had always been close to the church and the sacraments. After finishing high school I entered college and also went to work part time to help support myself and help my family. My plans were to get a degree in engineering to be able to earn enough money to get married and have a lot of kids.
I felt a hunger for more knowledge of our faith and started to read the bible on a regular basis as well as praying the rosary. The thought kept coming to me that God wants something more of me. I was being pulled in two directions, one in which I lived my life and did what I wanted and the other to give my life to the Church for God to do with it what He wanted.
Did you feel called to be a missionary and Claretian at the same time?
Every month I would look forward to reading the missionary magazine put out by the Maryknolls that my mom subscribed to. I even donated to the appeals that they made because I was drawn to the missionary work that they were doing. I identified a desire in myself to do the same kind of work that the Maryknoll Brothers where doing so I decided to request information about becoming a Maryknoll Brother.
How did you come to know the Claretians?
I requested information from the Maryknolls and then told my mother. She was supportive of me but I think she would also have liked to have grandchildren. My father definitely preferred that I look for a wife and have children, but he did not oppose my move. Then my mother told our close friend and neighbor that I was requesting information from the Maryknolls. Mrs. Vega told my mom that I should contact a Fr. Hyman, C.M.F. at the Dominguez Seminary that was very close to San Pedro where we lived. I did that and went up there to spend a weekend. I took the necessary tests and was invited to join a group of other new recruits entering the seminary in August. They called us belated vocations because of our age, I was 20 years old at the time.
How were your first years in the Congregation?
They were years of adjustment insofar as most of the other seminarians I was with were much younger than myself. I had not come up through the system of the junior seminary and the special group that I was in all left within the first year. During that first year I was only given one or two courses that really were not that helpful but It did allow sufficient time to do the things that interested me more like repairing vehicles, working on the farm, doing some plumbing and other technical jobs. Moving to our major seminary a year later put me in contact with seminarians closer to my own age and also to other Brothers.
I had been talked into taking courses for the Priesthood even though that was not my first or preferred choice. After a difficult year, I was allowed to enter the novitiate as a Brother. I had plenty of work to do and that made me happy. In fact, the novitiate was the high point of my early religious life. I felt that my skills were appreciated and needed. I added cooking, laundry, bus driving, grocery shopping, painting and butchering to the list of things I was doing.
After my first profession I joined the community of professed Brothers and lived apart from the students, novices and Fathers. The same work went on as during the Novitiate year with the addition of doing more maintenance and repair work. I wanted to continue with some college courses to get a degree, I was a math major before joining the seminary. I thought it would be helpful to the Province if I could teach in one of our high schools. The Superior at that time didn't think Brothers needed that kind of education. Instead I was allowed to take courses in welding and automotive repair.
How old were you when you went to your first foreign mission? Where did you go? Who sent you and how did you feel about the assignment?
Actually, I went on two missionary experiences to some small villages in Alamos,
Mexico with a group of seminarians. I was 27 years old the first time I went and it was during my last year at Claretville in 1966. We used two vehicles and drove to the Claretian house in Alamos. There we were met by Fr. Leo Delgado from our own province. The second time was a year later during my first year of assignment at Dominguez Seminary in 1967. We had two priests with us this time, Frs. John Zelia and John Fessler.
We went and stayed in remote villages to teach catechism and prepare the people and children for the sacraments. We stayed there for over two months each time and suffered many hardships of health, food and language. However, we all profited greatly from the experience. I wasn't very good with the language so I did most of the driving, cooking, shopping, and repairing of the vehicle. On one occasion, I even helped deliver a baby.
In 1969 Fr. McPolin asked for volunteers to go to Basilan City, Philippines to be missionaries there. I volunteered immediately but had second thoughts when I found out that another brother had also volunteered. I had some missionary experience and didn't want to deprive another Brother of the opportunity to have the same. I didn't think the Province would be willing to send two Brothers. I was wrong, McPolin said both Bro. Francis Blackman and myself could go as well as Frs. Joseph Gutierrez, John Fessler, and Henry Herrera. We were to meet Tom Mitchel and Jose Torrez who were already there.
It was the most dangerous place I have been because of the rebel uprising and constant military action on the island. However, it was also the most rewarding and happiest time of my missionary experience. The people I worked with were wonderful. I worked with Christians, Muslims, Yakans, Samals, the Bajao and many others.
Which countries have you been assigned to as a missionary? How many years have you been in each mission?
Let's see. As I said before, I went to Mexico for two months in two different years. That was not much time but it made a great impression on me.
The first full mission assignment was to Basilan City, Philippines. I was there for six years from 1969 to 1975. On the way back to the United States after our Province’s commitment to that mission ended, Fr. Herrera and I passed through Cameroon and Nigeria, Africa and visited with our Claretian Communities there.
In Nigeria, Fr. Ambrosi was the Novice Master of a rapidly growing community. He was in poor health and needed to return to the U.S.A. I felt the need to offer my help there which I did when I returned to the U.S.A. I was assigned to and back in Nigeria by Christmas of 1976. Fr. Sherwood was just one month behind me since he also volunteered to help out in Nigeria. I spent eight fruitful years there before returning to the U.S.A. in 1985.
My Province answered the call of the General Government to accept another foreign mission. In 1986 the Province chose to go to English speaking Cameroon and work in Bamenda. I was there for only three years and left in 1989 after hurting my back.
What work have you done? Which have been the most satisfying? Why? What was most difficult about adjusting to another country, to another culture?
I have worn many hats during my years in different missions adapting to the needs of the place and especially the needs of my community. I have been: a relief program organizer, an auto mechanic, a welder, a plumber, a well digger, an electrician, a photographer, a printer, a press mechanic, a type setter, in short - a jack of all trades. I have served my communities as a treasurer, consultor and companion.
The most satisfying work was with the poor and needy. In the Philippines we had many evacuees to take care of as well as the Muslim and pagan tribal peoples. I always felt comfortable with them, working for them and with them. Nigeria is also close to my heart because I was part of a great beginning. There was always plenty of work for me to do there.
Most of what I do has to do with the material aspects of life. I have not been a preacher, or done other works that are usually considered to be apostolic. I think the work I have done and am doing is a witness of love and dedication. I am doing God's work in the only way I know how. I am trying to set a good example of what it means to be Christian and especially a Son of the Heart of Mary.
The most difficult adjustment has been the language barrier. I feel that that has limited the amount of good that could have been accomplished. It is a gift I do not have, no matter how hard I try. Next to that, would be the diseases and insects. Malaria is no fun and I have had it at least four times. Cameroon has all kinds of things that get under your flesh and compensate for a multitude of sins.
I found different cultures fascinating and enjoyed learning about them and experiencing them. Even the different foods at first took getting used to but I soon had my favorites.
Would you do it again?
Definitely, yes, without question!
What activity, or what accomplishment do you feel most satisfied with?
It is difficulty to identify one accomplishment or activity since all of my experiences have been very positive. The work of helping to establish the Congregation in Nigeria probably has had the greatest impact on the people I worked with and on the Congregation in general. Giving aid and a sense of hope to the poor and evacuees in the Philippines, even at the risk of my own life, has made a deep impression on me.
Most people do not know that the best photographs were yours. Has the camera been a tool for you in ministry and in serving the Congregation?
Photography has been a hobby of mine since I got my first second-hand camera before going to Mexico the first time. I wanted to have a record of what we were doing and just enjoyed doing it, even if no one else wanted to see the pictures. Since then I have used it in every place I have worked. I also did the developing and printing of the pictures. The benefits were many, some were used in newsletters, some for vocational literature, but most for my own enjoyment and to give away to the people. I made many friends in the missions by giving them photos of themselves.
Why do you think that today there are so few vocations to the Brotherhood?
I think people care less about religion and religious things. The mystery and love of God is missing in their lives. There are too many distractions that help smother a vocation to the religious life. Home life that made vocations possible has all but disappeared.
If you could do it all over would you continue as a Missionary Brother?
Of course I would. I feel that the gift of my vocation is a gift from God. In some ways I feel that I was chosen and not that I chose the religious life. Married life is tempting because of the things it may supply that are lacking in religious life, a close relationship and children. For me, Claretian religious life is the shoe that fits, married life is a shoe that is many sizes too small.
Have you considered a call to be a Missionary Brother? We would love to tell you more about it. Visit www.myclaret.org to find out more & contact a Vocation Director who will accompany you through your discernment.