Jean-Baptiste Étienne was the fourteenth Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, and the immediate successor of Fr Jean-Baptiste-Rigobert Nozo CM. Born on August 10, 1801, at Longueville, not far from Metz, Jean-Baptiste was one of six children of Charles Étienne and Anne-Marguérite Geoffroy. Before he joined the Congregation of the Mission in 1820 at its mother house in the Rue de Sèvres, Paris, (the new Maison-Mère, acquired from the French Government in 1817), he had been a seminarian in the diocese of Metz and required an 'exeat' from the Bishop of that diocese. His vocation was influenced by his contact with the Daughters of Charity at the Hospice des Bons Secours in Metz where he was hospitalised once as a seminarian. While at the Hospice, with the Sisters' encouragement he read Collet's biography of St Vincent de Paul. He then resolved to enter the Congregation of the Mission. At the time, the Congregation of the Mission administered the Diocesan Seminary at Metz. He was ordained to the Prieshood on September 24, 1825 by the Archbishop of Paris, Hyacinth-Louis de Quélen.
From the beginning, Étienne's talents attracted favourable attention from the community who were living at the the mother house of the Congregation at the Rue de Sèvres. There Étienne learned of the history of the Congregation in France, it's suppression during the French Revolution, its restoration and difficulties thereafter, and the nationalistic divisions that existed, especially between the French and the Italians. Even before his ordination, he taught dogmatic theology, chant, and rubrics to the younger seminarians at the Rue de Sèvres. Immediately after ordination, he became secretary general to the Vicar General, procurator of the new house of Saint Lazare (Maison-Mère), and prefect of the community chapel. At once he set about expanding the cramped mother house. His first priority was an appropriate chapel, and he was able to arrange that the French Government would provide 200,000 francs towards the project. The relevant ordinance directed that the adjoining property on the Rue de Sèvres be handed over the Congregation for this purpose. Such activity and negotiation typified how he would live out his vocation in the community.
Wider Involvement in the Congregation of the Mission
As secretary to the aging Vicar General, Étienne became involved in the negotiations to end the governmental rift between the French and the Italian members of the Congregation, a rift which continued even after the appointment of Fr Pierre-Joseph Dewailly CM as Superior General of the Congregation. In fact, the rift continued one way and another until around 1834, when, durng the generalate of Fr Dominique Salhorgne CM, a fragile unity was established between the warring parties.
Before his own election as Superior General in 1843, Étienne was also involved in discussions and negotiations concerning the possible suppression of the Congregation of the Mission, and the unhappy saga of the generalate of John-Baptiste Nozo CM, with its aftermath.
A Time of Expansion
Jean-Baptiste Étienne was elected Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity on August 4, 1843, and remained in office till his death on March 12, 1874. During his time as Superior General, the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity enjoyed rapid expansion. In regard to the Congregation of the Mission, fourteen new provinces were founded in the first twenty seven years of Étienne's Generalate – 120 new houses, fifty in France, seventy elsewhere. Personnel numbers doubled. By 1870, the Congregation of the Misson numbered 1080 priests, 500 brothers, 220 students and seminarians. In this era of its existence, the Congregation developed not just in Euriope, but in the two Americas, Asia and Africa. For this reason, he is credited with bringing about a Vincentian revival following the disasters and problems which beset the Congregation of the Mission and Daughters of Charity over a fifty year period. These problems had commenced with the sacking of the original Saint Lazare in Paris in 1789 along with the subsequent suppression of the Congregation of the Mission and Daughters of Charity in France. Civil and internal problems continued well into the nineteenth century for both communities.
Étienne as Superior General
As Superior General, Étienne endeavoured to establish an authoritarian and paternalistic culture and ecclesiology within the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. He was known for his extraordinary attention to detail in all matters in regard to the houses of the Congregation of the Mission and he would suffer no oppostion to this. Uniformity was required, with copious Rules of Office being produced for those in leadership positions. .Such attitudes led to considerable friction with the Vincentian Family inside and outside France, especially in Italy and Spain.
From the point of view of the Church, Étienne tended to follow aspects of Ultramontanism, showing respect for the Pope and his authority. But at best, his relations with Rome were periodically tense, and were prone to mutual recriminations and misunderstandings, particularly in regard to the administration of missions. In reality he followed a type of Gallicanism which enabled the Congregation to maintain good relations with the various French Governments of the period. His world view was Vincentian-centred, with France, Paris, the mother house, and the Superior General as successor to Saint Vincent substituted for the wider Ultramontanism of the time which focused on Italy, Rome, the Vatican, and the person of the Pope as the successor of Saint Peter. Like Pius IX in regard to the Church, Étienne wanted hierarchical authority repeated internally to restore the community's primitive spirit. He regarded religious institutions as being raised by God to serve the Church and held that if an institution conserved its primitive spirit in all regards and details it would flourish. He saw the rapid expansion of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity as proof of a renewed fidelity to the spirit of Vincent de Paul among those of his own generation.
The Étienne Myth
During his entire life in the Congregation of the Mission, Étienne knew no other assignment than at the mother house in the Rue de Sèvres, Paris, and no other position than that of leadership. In the Vincentian Family, he has sometimes been given quasi-hero status, many regarding him as a "second founder" of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. During his generalate, he himself referred to the two communities as being not only refounded, but also as being reborn – implying that they had become something other and better than they had been in St Vincent de Paul's time. He compiled his perspectives of the regrowth of the Congregation of the Mission into a work he called Notice sur le rétablissement de la Congrégation de la Mission aprés la révolution de 1789. This work, while giving an account of the expansion of the two communities, also provided an indication of how he himself interpreted and reacted to contemporary events in the light of his own idiosyncratic perspectives. He described the refounding of the two communities in terms of a "creation myth", sometimes ignoring the facts of history, and sometimes romanticising actual occurrences.
But it must also be acknowledged that in his time in office, the Congregation of the Mission witnessed a remarkable revival, growth and missionary expansion. In the same period, the Daughters of Charity experienced a considerable increase in numbers and vitality.. Whatever his faults and pespectives, Jean-Baptiste Étienne guided both the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity through a turbulent period of history that became for them a period of intense growth.
The "Étienne Myth" has arisen partly from fact, partly from Étienne's own creation, and partly from posterity's interpretation of his generalate. This is the nature of myth!
Udovic CM, Edward R., Jean-Baptiste Étienne and The Vincentian Revival, (Chicago: The Vincentian Studies Institute, 2001)