June 18th: Edward Billotet & 5 Companions, SJ

June 18th - Servant of God Edward Billotet & 5Companions, SJ

Born: May 3, 1812
Died : June 18, 1860

Edward Billotet, a Frenchman was born in Villefrancon. He studied at the minor seminary of Luxeuil and later at the major seminary at Besancon. He was ordained a diocesan priest in 1836 and served for about six years as a professor at the minor seminary in Marnay and then as a parish priest at Rioz. At the age of thirty, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Avignon on February 1, 1843 and after his vows in 1845 he was assigned to Lalouvese to give parish missions. Since he had earlier requested to serve in the foreign missions, he was finally assigned to Lebanon and arrived in Beirut on December 27, 1846.

Fr Billotet’s first two years in Lebanon were spent teaching French while he studied Arabic. In 1848 he was appointed minister at the Beirut residence and later in 1850 he was made superior of the entire Lebanese-Syrian mission. As superior he increased the number of schools funded by the Propagation of the Faith and in 1853 he started an Arabic press for disseminating Christian literature. He spent a total of eight years as mission superior before he went to the Jesuit residence and church at Zahle in Feb 1859. Because the church had previously received the gift of a vineyard outside the city, the Druses, a fanatical Muslim sect in Lebanon tried to force Fr Billotet to pay taxes. But because he was a French citizen he was therefore not subject to the sultan’s taxation. As the revenue from the vineyard went to support a Christian school and a Catholic church, the Druses continued to harass Fr Billotet and tried to force him to leave the country. The Druses then began from June 1860 to massacre Maronite Christians. Within three weeks they killed 7750 Christians, destroyed 560 churches, burned 360 villages, razed 42 convents and left 28 schools in ruins. Zahle was the worst casualty because of its concentration of Catholics.

On one occasion when the Turkish soldiers broke into the church during the service, they were reproached openly by Fr Billotet for not observing the hours of prayer as they were obliged to follow. To register their disdain, the intruders dragged Fr Billotet to prison where he was detained for one night. Since he was continually harassed, Fr Billotet knew they would not desist until he paid with his life.

The mission superior suggested to Fr Billotet that they should seek safety elsewhere but the latter would not abandon his people. On Sunday, June 17, the day before Zahle fell, Fr Billotet preached what was to be his last sermon: his theme was the Christian’s need to be prepared to meet God.

On the morning of June 18, Zahle was attacked and the city was surrounded by the Druses and within a very short time it was captured. The people sought refuge in their church. At the time Fr Billotet and his people were praying before the Blessed Sacrament. When he heard the commotion Fr Billotet rushed out to see what was happening. Bro Habib Maksoud who took over at the altar was reading aloud the prayers in preparation for death stopping intermittently to encourage the people. However, he never finished the prayers, for the Druses rushed into the church. One of them struck the tabernacle with a saber and knocked down the consecrated hosts onto the floor while another shot dead the black-robed Bro Maksoud and then proceeded to massacre the faithful within the church.

Fr Billotet together with Brs Ferdinand Bonacina and Elias Younes and four school teachers returned to the church but were unable to get in. They took shelter in a room above the choir with the intention to stay there until dark and leave at night. When the noise subsided, Bro Bonacina left his hiding place and went to look out of the window and saw that several Druses were still guarding the Jesuit residence. One of them spotted him and tried to lure him down with a promise of freedom if he brought money with him. When he told the guard that he had no money he was shot in the left shoulder and ran towards where the others were to seek Fr Billotet’s absolution, thinking he was going to die.

When the Druses rushed upstairs they forced all seven Catholics onto the terrace. They shot Bro Bonacina again. As Fr Billotet raised his eyes to heaven and thanked God that he could offer Him this sacrifice, several bullets struck him in the breast. The same happened to Bro Younes. Of the four lay people with the Jesuits, two were shot dead and the other two released. Of the two who died, one was the fifteen-year old Cherfan Habeiche, a postulant. Thus four Jesuits and a postulant died at Zahle on June 18, 1860. The fifth Jesuit martyr of this group died at Dier-el-Qamar. After the Zahle massacre, the Jesuits at Dier-el-Qamar expected the same thing to happen there and they all left the residence except for Bro Haider Habeiche who chose to remain to look after the school. The Druses came to the school on June 21 and their leader convinced the townspeople to lay down their arms to save their lives. When the people were unarmed, the Druses began the brutal massacre. Bro Habeiche went among the people exhorting them to recall Christ’s death and offering them his crucifix for them to kiss. While he was preparing the Christians for death, the Druses overpowered him and in seconds his blood mixed with that of the others.

Bro Ferdinand Bonacina – Bro Bonacina was born in Gavassetto near Reggio Emilia in Italy on April 7, 1804. He entered the Jesuit novitiate in Rome on Oct 10, 1826. He was multi talented, was a first-rate carpenter and mason as well as a practicing architect. He was sent to the Syrian mission in 1840 and was put in charge of construction. He built the Jesuit residence in Beirut, the seminary-college at Ghazir, churches in Bikfaya and Zahle and a seminary for the Maronites. As the church in Zahle was still being built, he returned there during Lent 1860 to continue working on the building. When he faced his murderers, he said: “Don’t you remember me; I built your cotton mill for you.” “Yes, we do.” they replied, “but now you are our enemy because you are a Christian.”

Bro Haidar (Alphonsus) Habeiche – He was born in Ghazir on May 31, 1815. As a young man he went to Eygpt to seek adventure and took on menial tasks when he ran out of money and reproached himself for wasting his life. He turned himself around and lived a devout Christian life. Under the influence of a Maronite priest in Alexandria, a relative, who exhorted him to return home to become a monk. Back home in Ghazir he attended daily Mass at the Jesuit church and in time entered the Society. For his postulancy, he went to live with the Jesuits at Ghazir and served as the school’s porter. He entered the novitiate on June 20, 1852 and after his vows, he also took on the name Alphonsus after St Alphonsus Rodriguez, who had been a porter at the Jesuit College in Palma. He spent most of his Jesuit life in Ghazir except for one year in Zahle as a catechist. At the beginning of 1860 he was sent to Deir-el-Qamar to teach at the Jesuit school where he was martyred on June 21, 1860.

Bro Habib Maksoud – He was born in Zahle on Sep 27, 1810 and was of the Melchite rite. A prosperous young merchant, he helped the Jesuits construct their school at Moallaqa and taught there without pay. He entered the Society on Dec 24, 1847 and was the first novice from the Near East since the Society’s restoration in 1814. He taught calligraphy and catechism to the students, was church sacristan, school treasurer and was in charge of the Jesuit community’s temporal needs.

Bro Elias Younes – he was a Lebanese and was born in the district of Metn about 1830 of the Maronite rite. He was educated by the Jesuits and thought of entering the Society, but decided first to become a catechist and a teacher in the Jesuit school. He was finally received into the Society on Oct 30, 1856 and continued as a catechist and teacher. After his vows, he spent a short period in Sayda and then in Moallaqa, a suburb of Zahle where he was in charge of the school. When persecution seemed imminent, Fr Billotet asked him to come to Zahle, thinking it was safer there.

Cherfan Habeiche – He was born in Ghazir in 1844 of an illustrious Lebanese family. He entered the Society as a brother a year before his martyrdom but was not accepted as he was only 14 years old. The Jesuits however kept him in the school where he taught in the lower grades and was also a sacristan. He was a postulant at the time of his death, wore the habit and took the vow of chastity. When the persecution began, his father sent him a horse for him to return home. However, he declined the offer and chose to remain with the Jesuits.

Fr Edward Billotet and his five Jesuit companions were the martyrs of Lebanon. The canonical investigation of their martyrdom was opened in 1932.