Father Yves Nalet: “Grandpa” to the Atayal of Jianshi (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Some 20 years ago, Yves Nalet rode a bicycle from New Taipei City’s Xinzhuang to Jianshi. The 70 kilometers took him three and a half hours. To continue offering mass to mountain residents, he would go on to make the trip every week for five years running.
From academia to mountain forests
Nalet grew up in France, where he joined the Society of Jesus at 18. With the encouragement of the order’s superior general, Nalet decided to study Chinese and English at a French university. After earning a master’s degree at a seminary, he won an exchange scholarship to study in China and went to Tianjin to study Chinese history.
In 1984 Nalet moved to Hong Kong to work on the editorial staff of the Jesuit newsletter China News Analysis. The publication focused on economics, politics, civil service reform, and so forth, providing information about China to university libraries and diplomatic missions.
Nalet worked in Hong Kong for a decade, up until the city’s future seemed uncertain with its handover to China looming. In 1994 he and the rest of the magazine’s editorial team moved to Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, where they continued publishing until 1998. Nalet, who was awarded a doctorate in France in 1980, then stayed on at the university, teaching and conducting research into Chinese culture. Upon learning that Jianshi in Hsinchu County lacked a priest, Nalet began riding his bicycle to that rural township every week to conduct mass.
Jianshi is largely Atayal Aborigine. Optimistic by nature, local people have a lot in common with the straight-shooting Nalet. After several years, Nalet developed a deeper and deeper connection with them. “In 2003 I faced a choice: Although I could have continued as a professor at Fu Jen, I really wanted to do something for disadvantaged and underserved communities.” So at age 55 Nalet decided to move to Jianshi to become a parish priest.
Farming and bamboo production are the dominant industries in this agricultural community, where work doesn’t stop on Saturdays and Sundays. For the many children who are left unaccompanied on days off from school, the Jiale Catholic Church, where Nalet is the priest, serves as playground. The children run around outside or make delicious desserts with Father Nalet in the little kitchen. When the baked goods come out of the oven, the children sit at the entrance to the church to eat them, with smiles on their faces. What warm companions Nalet’s authentic French desserts make for these Aboriginal children!
On the second floor of the church Nalet occasionally screens movies for the children, including Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, which is a historical dramatization about Aborigines, and The Adventures of Tintin, a cartoon adventure series. Tintin is Nalet’s favorite cartoon character from his own childhood. He jokes that he is a Tintin expert, and he clearly enjoys sharing Tintin stories with the children. Steadfast and fearless in the face of evil, Tintin aspires to the universal ideal of peace. He also embodies a hope that Nalet holds for his charges—“that they grow up to become good people!”
During our interview, several children run over to the church. When they see Nalet, they snuggle up to him playfully. Nalet, meanwhile, takes the magazine we’ve brought and begins to quiz the children on English, slowly testing them letter by letter and sound by sound, both patiently instructing the children and reminding them to behave themselves—much like a kind and caring grandfather.
When discussing his charges, Nalet’s face shows concern. “They are very cute,” he says. “But their lives aren’t easy.” Unafraid of strangers, their eyes seem filled with innocence and curiosity. But what we don’t see is the economic distress experienced by their families: Their parents are too busy making ends meet to guide their children’s education.
Many of the families here in the back country make a living by growing peaches. This spring the temperatures in the mountains were too warm too soon. The fruit trees budded too early and then heavy rain destroyed their blooms. There ended up being virtually no crop to harvest. Nalet understands that these circumstances mean that many families can’t afford tuition, so he raised funds from friends to provide tuition to struggling families. “If you can’t pay tuition, you can’t get an education,” says a concerned Nalet. “If you can’t get an education, you have no future.”
Priest as teacher
Nalet always tells children that even to get a factory job they’ve got to graduate from senior high school at the very least. Going to college would be better, he emphasizes. Consequently, he has been working with Yufeng Elementary School since 2007. Every Wednesday afternoon he teaches English and Bible class there as a volunteer.
When Nalet walks into the school, children of all grades run up to say hello. Nalet knows the children’s Atayal names, who their parents are, and which ones are brothers and sisters. After teaching these classes for more than a decade, almost all the youths of this part of Jianshi have been his students.
Nalet shifts between being a stern taskmaster and providing timely and loving direction. He praises students when they answer correctly. If they are too timid to speak, he encourages them to practice the dialogue. We stay in the back of the classroom watching Nalet interact with the children. The younger children squirm in their seats and talk out of turn. After one 40-minute class, we feel like we’ve aged a few years from just observing—but Nalet maintains his patience and composure from start to finish.
After English class, Nalet shows some cartoons on Bible stories. Drawing lessons from the stories depicted on screen, he reminds the children of the importance of treating people well. In contrast to their rowdy behavior during the previous class, the children watch with rapt concentration. Seeds of kindness are being planted in their hearts.
One big family
When his classes let out every Wednesday, Nalet drives to visit tribal communities even deeper in the mountains. “On the right is Mt. Dabajian, and then Xueshan and the Thyakan Atayal community. The Tayax community is on those mountains up ahead….” Standing on the observation deck at Yulao, Nalet scans the mountain ridges layered in front of him and describes the local geography with perfect assurance.
Transportation in the back country remains challenging, and public transit can only get you to Naluo in Jinbing Village. As we ride in Nalet’s car, we gain a sense of how confidently he traverses the mountains, not even slowing down on the curves. He used to ride his bicycle 100 kilometers or more along these roads so that parishioners with limited mobility could hear mass and enjoy God’s blessings.
Nalet comes to these believers, who are mostly old, sick and poor, because they can’t make it to the church. But even more importantly, he comes to talk with them about their current situations and find out how they are getting on. Nalet’s concern lets these tribal elders know that they are not alone, that someone understands their pain and hardships.
As Nalet passes by on the way to visit these parishioners, the children call out to him: “Father, Father!” Some of them rush up to hug him. It is almost as if he were the patriarch of a large family. When he happens upon someone, he always asks how they are and listens to what they have to say about their lives. More than merely saying hello, he really wants the best for everyone.
In the evening, some of the people of Yufeng Village gather at the house of a fellow believer. In Atayal communities out here, Nalet conducts services in parishioners’ homes. After hymns, Bible readings and communion, everyone eats a meal prepared by the hosts. On the day when he received his national ID card on being granted ROC citizenship in 2017, he said to his congregation: “Thank you for accepting me and giving me this opportunity to spend time with you.” Jianshi has become Nalet’s home, and he has become a stalwart source of support for community members.