La famille Bunel, Jacques est l’enfant de droite

Born Lucien Bunel in Normandy in 1900, he was inspired by his father’s example deep piety and social service to study for the Catholic priesthood. He was ordained in 1925 to serve the Diocese of Rouen. After his ordination, he quickly became a noted preacher, as well as being a successful teacher. He also maintained a deep interior life of prayer.[1]

Bunel had considered becoming a Trappist monk before his ordination, and still sought some way of integrating his being drawn to an intense life of prayer, combined with service to others. When he came to know the Discalced Carmelite nuns at Le Havre, he found a spiritual tradition which answered his quest. He entered the Order in Lille in 1930 and given the religious name by which he is now known. While he was preparing for his final profession of religious vows in 1934, the superiors of the Order suggested that he consider opening a school for boys. This was accomplished by him with the opening of the Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus in Avon, Seine-et-Marne, that same year, of which he served as headmaster.[1]

Père Jacques en uniforme

The friar served at the school until the outbreak of World War II, when he was conscripted for service in the French Army. When France surrendered to Germany the following June, he was released from military service. He returned to the school but became an active member of the French Resistance.[1]

As headmaster, Father Jacques utilized the best tool available to him. He made the boys’ school a refuge for young men seeking to avoid conscription for forced labor in Germany and for Jews. In January 1943, he enrolled three Jewish boys — Hans-Helmut Michel, Jacques-France Halpern and Maurice Schlosser — as students, under false names. He also hid a fourth Jewish boy, Maurice Bas, as a worker at the school; sheltered Schlosser’s father with a local villager; and placed a noted Jewish botanist, Lucien Weil, on the faculty of the school.

The Gestapo discovered Father Jacques’ activities and seized the friar and the three Jewish students on January 15, 1944. Weil, his mother, and sister were arrested at their home that same day. On February 3, 1944, German authorities deported the boys and the Weil family to Auschwitz, where they perished.

Père Jacques was imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps, eventually arriving at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. There he found ways of raising the morale of his despairing compatriots. When all the priests at Gusen were moved to the Dachau concentration camp – reputedly less severe than Mauthausen – Jacques veiled his priestly identity and was the only priest for 20,000 prisoners at Gusen. He learned enough Polish to minister to the Polish prisoners, who called him Père Zak. Though he grew progressively weaker, he remained one of the Resistance leaders still active in the camp, gaining the respect of all its inmates.

He and the other inmates of the camps were liberated by American troops at Mauthausen in early May 1945. Suffering from tuberculosis and weighing only 75 pounds (34 kg), he died in a hospital in Linz in Upper Austria, several weeks later.