Shortly after his thirty-second birthday, a Dominican priest named Fr. Jean-Joseph Lataste had an opportunity to share the message of God’s mercy with a group of women prison inmates. His brief retreat set in motion a powerful ministry for wounded women. Lataste died less than five years later, at age thirty-six, but the original story of the Dominican Sisters of Bethany offers the world a moving sign of the depths of God’s mercy and his power to restore his children to wholeness.
Women in Despair. Père (Father) Lataste was born Alcide-Vital Lataste on September 5, 1832, in Cadillac, France. Just twenty-five miles up the Garonne River, across from the port city of Bordeaux, nearly four hundred women were serving prison sentences in the Château de Cadillac. Outwardly formidable, the once-opulent castle was now dark, dank, and as sparely furnished inside as was necessary to sustain human life.
The women in Cadillac prison suffered a miserable existence of cold, malnutrition, and poor sanitation. Discipline was severe; the stink of fear and despair, constant. Given only two scant meals per day, prisoners worked long hours at hard labor in complete silence. French society considered these women—convicted of infanticide, prostitution, and theft—a contagious virus, and imprisonment was a way of containing the infection. In prison for ten years, twenty years, or for life, they were reminded continually of the wickedness to which they had stooped. Many despaired and committed suicide.
The Apostle to Prisoners. In September 1864, Père Lataste was sent to the prison to preach a four-day retreat. The prison chapel had received permission to host Perpetual Adoration, and he was to prepare the incarcerated women for it. Like most locals, Lataste had heard horrifying stories about the women, who were almost universally the subjects of “popular prejudices” and “instinctive contempt,” as he put it, from the surrounding townspeople. It was, he said, “with a pang of grief and the thought that it would probably be useless” that Lataste arrived at the prison door to lead the retreat.
Nevertheless, the priest’s opening words to the women—rather than inflicting judgment or shame—reminded them that they were welcome, even desired, in the family of God. “My dear sisters,” he began, addressing women who were used to being rebuked and scorned, “here I am, coming to you. . . . And extending my hand, I call to you: my good, my unfortunate sisters, my dear sisters.” These simple, kind words “had the effect of a bomb blast,” according to one biographer. Great numbers of women, deeply touched, began to line up for Confession.
“Never Lose Hope!” For years, God had been developing in Lataste a profound vision of the redemption possible for sinners. Shortly after entering the Dominican novitiate, he had injured one of his fingers. Unexpected complications had confined him to long stretches in the infirmary. During one of these periods, Lataste was privileged to kiss a relic of St. Mary Magdalene, preserved and passed down as a reminder of God’s everlasting mercy. [Popular piety often made the mistake of equating Mary Magdalene and the “sinful woman” from Luke 7 who anointed Jesus’ feet.] The gesture resulted in a striking spiritual experience for Lataste:
In kissing the [relic] . . . , I [thought]: . . . the greatest sinners, men and women, have in themselves the makings of great saints; who knows if someday this is what they will become?
Following that experience, Lataste began to feel strongly drawn to “lost souls” whom he believed to be “beautiful and noble souls” who had not yet recognized God’s voice calling to them. For several years afterward, he studied and prayed about mercy. He began preaching that all our offenses, “however serious, will never reach the proportion of [God’s] infinite love and infinite mercy!” “Never lose hope in [that] mercy,” he would appeal.
The Holy Spirit had prepared him well, and so, during that retreat in the fall of 1864, Père Lataste shared what God had shown him about sin and repentance, mercy and forgiveness.
At his words, the women sobbed, wept, and quietly repented. In a makeshift confessional, they poured out stories of deceit and betrayal, abuse and abandonment. Wholehearted forgiveness for their abusers began to flow from lips that until then had spouted only hatred and curses. The interior transformation that no one thought possible for these “irredeemables” was taking place right before Lataste’s eyes. “You are on the right road,” he told the women. “Continue on it. Whatever your past, no longer see yourselves as prisoners but as souls vowed to God.”
A Scandalous Project. If Lataste had arrived at the retreat with low expectations, he concluded it as changed as many of the inmates. Kneeling with them before the Blessed Sacrament, he wondered who would help them stay close to God after their release. It was then that a new idea was born. He would form a new kind of community of women that would be open both to former prisoners and any other woman who wished to join.
It was an unthinkable, scandalous idea. Stigmatized by the people of France, the women were still seen as lifelong degenerates upon their release. Yet Fr. Lataste understood, suddenly, that God looked at these repentant women as beautiful souls.
“They were guilty, it is true!” he said. “But God does not ask us what we were; he is touched only by what we have become.” Prisoners who had been forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance, who were now allowed to receive Communion—how could they be barred from participating in the new project?
“I Have Seen Marvels.” In 1865, Lataste preached a second retreat at the prison. Normally, prisoners would come two by two to swap places during Perpetual Adoration. On the last night, however, Lataste was stunned to see them come in by the hundreds. Echoing the cry of St. Catherine of Siena upon seeing a vision of heaven, Lataste wrote, “I need to shout with [Catherine], ‘I have seen marvels!’ . . . I saw this prison, object of sadness and fear . . . transformed this night into a place of delights, into a place of glory and happiness!”
The conversions Lataste had seen in 1864 were not temporary. Lataste had the feeling that he had seen paradise. Uniting women who had never set foot in prison and repentant former prisoners into “one family” would be a sign to the world of the complete forgiveness and restoration that God grants through a relationship with him.
An Impossible Dream. Months and years of preaching followed. Lataste’s idea was appreciated, but neither the Dominican Order nor the local archbishop was willing or ready to authorize the work or raise funds for it. Lataste himself harbored some concern that few inmates would actually want to join the work that he envisioned.
So Lataste remained patient, claiming, “This is the work of God. . . . He is the one doing it.” While waiting, he published a newsletter aimed at gathering public support for the project, which he called “Bethany House”—a place where Jesus would come to rest.
Reaction to Fr. Lataste’s idea was swift and hostile. Locals argued that former prisoners would harm the “meditative atmosphere” of church. Parents feared the idea of their children attending schools where the women of Bethany might teach. One Dominican priest suggested that penitents’ smeared reputations would taint the sanctity of the other women. He called Bethany House “Père Lataste’s impossible dream.” But Lataste remained firmly convicted that the project was in God’s hands.
Slowly, Bethany House began to receive the necessary permissions to move forward. For its charter, Fr. Lataste chose to imitate the lifestyle of cloistered Third Order Dominicans. Thus the women of Bethany would be contemplative religious sisters who were allowed to serve as teachers, prison volunteers, and workers in other apostolates.
“He Will Take Care of Things.” On July 22, 1868, the first two of Père Lataste’s “little sisters” received the Dominican habit. Around the same time, Lataste began to suffer from an illness that would end his life. When asked what would become of his work, Lataste replied, “It is the work of God. He will take care of things.”
On March 10, 1869, Fr. Jean-Joseph Lataste died. In his final words to his sisters, he assured them that he would ask God to send his Holy Spirit so that Bethany would continue to grow. On this side of heaven, Fr. Raymond Boulanger, a fellow Dominican and supporter of Lataste’s work, finished writing Bethany’s charter.
One hundred and fifty years later, Bethany remains a small movement with locations in France and Holland. In the United States, two communities inspired by Père Lataste’s work have formed in Massachusetts and Maine.
The process for Lataste’s beatification began in 1937, and on June 27, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI approved it, allowing Fr. Jean-Joseph Lataste to stand among those called Blessed.
Free Indeed. Lataste was no great theologian or orator. But he lived out—and helped vulnerable women to live out—what he had received from God’s heart: whom God has pardoned is pardoned absolutely. Whom the Son has made free is free indeed (see John 8:36). Free to grow and develop a relationship with God. Free to grow in holiness, even in the grim confines of a place like Cadillac prison. Free to become full and fully loved members of God’s family.
Ann Bottenhorn lives in Florida. She is a frequent contributor to the magazine.