VINCENTIAN MARTYRS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
Thomas Davitt CM (Presentation to the participants in the CIF program)
The first thing I want to say is that in the CM supplement for the breviary, under the date 2 September, there are some errors in the introductory material on Jean-Henri Gruyer and Louis-Joseph François, in the Latin, English, Spanish and Italian editions; I do not know about other language editions. I have explained these on a page which has been photocopied and which you can get after this talk.
In France the period of the Revolution is complex and difficult to understand in detail. For our purposes it is enough to say that it gradually took on a very anti-religious aspect, and in particular an anti-clerical one. There were various oaths which priests were asked to take, about loyalty to the State. These meant rejection of the Holy See and loyalty to a State-sponsored Church. Eventually, the penalty for not taking these oaths, or for working as a priest without having taken the oaths, was death. That is why our three confreres, Louis-Joseph François, Jean-Henri Gruyer and Pierre-René Rogue, were killed.
Louis-Joseph François was born in 1751 in northern France, the son of a farmer. When he finished his secondary education he joined the Congregation of the Mission. After ordination he worked in seminaries as professor and superior. In 1786, at the end of the 15th General Assembly, he was appointed Secretary General. He became famous as a preacher for special occasions and some of his more important sermons were printed and published. When he spoke at the Tuesday Conferences more than the usual number of priests turned up to hear him. In the summer of 1788 he was appointed superior of the former Collège des Bons Enfants. At this time it was known as Saint-Firmin, after a bishop of Amiens who was the titular of the seminary chapel. The name had been changed earlier in the century as it had been thought that the name Bons Enfants was possibly discouraging boys from entering. François was chosen as being someone who could carry on, and complete, a programme of renewal, which had started after the 1774 General Assembly.
A year after his appointment to Saint-Firmin came the fall of the Bastille, on 14 July 1789; the mother-house of the Congregation, Saint-Lazare, had been attacked and vandalised the previous evening. In November of that year the National Assembly voted that all Church property be confiscated. François wrote and published a pamphlet against this decision. The actual confiscation of property did not start till April 1790, and at the same time a decision was taken to do everything possible to turn the population against the Church and the clergy. In May discussions began on what was known as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, and it became law in July. It laid down that the Pope had no authority in France, and that bishops and priests would be elected by a panel of citizens.
January 9, 1791 was the day fixed for all priests in Paris to take an oath of fidelity to this Constitution. Some priests took the oath because they agreed with the Constitution; some took it because they thought the wording was sufficiently vague to allow them to do so with a clear conscience; others refused to take it because they saw the real intention behind it. François, having thought about it from every point of view, produced another pamphlet before the end of January, called Mon Apologie. It explained why he would not take the oath and why no priest should take it; it went through at least seven editions. He brought out six other pamphlets in three months.
The number of priests who refused to take the oath surprised the authorities. Also, many who had taken it, when they saw the numbers who did not take it, retracted their oaths and published their retractations in the newspapers, where they did great good. The authorities drew up an Instruction, which they ordered to be read in all churches; François wrote another pamphlet against it.
The authorities then tried a new approach. They invited all priests who had not taken the oath to resign their parishes or other posts and to live in retirement on a State pension. François immediately brought out another pamphlet called No Resignation. He pointed out that priests did not have the right to resign, and secondly that even if they had they should not. All his pamphlets had great effect on priests who were puzzled or hesitant about the real significance of the oaths, and helped them to make up their minds not to take the oaths. He also paid attention to those who had sworn, and wrote a pamphlet called There is Still Time. Pope Pius VI condemned the Civil Constitution of the Clergy; the French authorities condemned the Pope's letter; and François then condemned the French government's letter. In November 1791 there was a new form of the oath, with various penalties for those refusing to take it. The King refused to sign this into law and François brought out another pamphlet supporting the king; it was his last.
Joseph Boullangier, the bursar in Saint-Firmin survived the Revolution and later he wrote:
Fr François was one of the most zealous and best defenders of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion against the oath demanded from priests by the French National Assembly, and also against the writings of those in favour of the oath.
By 1792 there were, of course, no seminarians in Saint-Firmin. François had kept up good relations with the civil authorities in that part of Paris, and because so much of the seminary was empty he let some rooms to the city authorities as offices. He made the rest of the rooms available to refugee priests who had fled from persecution in their own districts.
On 10 August 1792 power in the city of Paris was taken over by a small radical group. They drew up a list of all priests who had not taken the oaths and decided they would be imprisoned in the Carmelite house in rue de Vaugirard and in Saint-Firmin. On the 13th a guard was placed on Saint-Firmin and everyone inside thus became a prisoner. New prisoners were sent there and by the end of August there were definitely ninety-seven, and possibly more, in the seminary.
Joseph Boullangier, whom I have already mentioned, was the bursar and because of his duties he was allowed move freely around the house. On the evening of 2 September the butcher's boy told Boullangier that all the priests in the house were going to be massacred the following day. Boullangier reported this to François, who was not inclined to take it seriously. When Boullangier returned to the kitchen the boy and two of his friends dragged him out of the house, and so he escaped the September Massacres. By that time about two hundred priests imprisoned in the Carmelite house had already been killed.
At 5.30 the next morning, 3 September, the mob attacked Saint-Firmin. François tried to plead with the civic officials, who had offices in the building, for the lives of the priests. Some of these men were against killing priests, but some of the mob went for François, because of the trouble he had caused with his writings, and threw him out of the window into the street below, where a group of women battered him to death with wooden clubs.
Seventy-two were killed in the seminary that day, and they were taken off and buried secretly in different unmarked graves.
It would appear that this was not a random mob, but a carefully organised group who were paid to to do the work.
Jean-Henri Gruyer is the one of our beatified confreres about whom the least is known. In the period after the Revolution his name was confused with the names of other confreres because the pronunciation of the names was rather similar., and some of the material printed about him in fact refers to the other men.
We do, however, know the following facts about him. He was born in 1734 in Dole, in the diocese of Besançon. He was ordained for the diocese of Saint-Claude and later, at the age of thirty-seven, entered the Congregation in 1771. After his first year in the intern seminary he was appointed to the house in Angers, which was a residence for missioners and had no other ministry. About a year later he was transferred to Versailles. The Congregation had two parishes in the town, Notre Dame and Saint Louis. He spent about ten years in Notre Dame and was then changed to Saint Louis. In 1791 the parish was taken over by priests who had taken the oath and Gruyer returned to his native region. At the beginning of August 1792 he returned to Versailles for some reason, and having finished whatever his business there was, he went in to Paris on the 12th or 13th and asked for temporary accommodation in Saint-Firmin. On the 13th the guard was placed on the house, as I have said, and everyone inside became a prisoner. He was killed in the September Massacres, and as is the case with the majority of the persons killed there, we do not have any details of his death.
Pierre-René Rogue, the third beatified confrere of the Revolution, was a native of Vannes in Brittany. He did all his priestly ministry in that town and was guillotined there on 3 March 1796, three and a half years later than his confreres in Paris. Because of this difference in the dates of death, and also the difference of place of death, I think it is a pity that the liturgical celebration of the three men has been put jointly on 2 September. Before the revision of the liturgical calendar about thirty years ago Pierre-René had his own celebration on the anniversary of his death. For a very short period, after the first revisions, his memorial was on 8 May, but I could never understand why that date was chosen.
He was born in Vannes in 1758. He was an only child and perhaps he never saw his father, as he was born during his father’s absence on a business trip; his father died on that trip, away from home. When he finished his secondary schooling he spent a year in Bourges with relatives of his mother, and then returned home and entered the diocesan seminary in Vannes. This seminary was staffed by Vincentians. Apart from the two final years of his seminary studies he lived at home with his mother, commuting to the seminary each day for the lectures and classes. The reason for this is that his health was regarded as fragile. He was a small man, only four feet ten inches in height, which is one metre sixty. He was ordained in 1782 and appointed chaplain to a home for old women. Four years later he joined the Congregation of the Mission, but spent only three months in Saint-Lazare and returned to finish his canonical year of the intern seminary in Vannes. The reason for this was, once again, the fragile state of his health. He was appointed to teach theology in the seminary, and was also involved in courses of theology for lay people, a fact which was to be important for him later. A few years later he was given the added ministry of being a curate in the parish.
When the troubles of the Revolution came to Vannes the civil authorities estimated that only about six priests, out of more than four hundred, would be likely to take the oaths. In February 1791 some priests, including the Vincentian superior of the seminary, were summoned to a meeting with the civil authorities. A written summary of what took place at that meeting has survived. It shows that the priests agreed to take the oath. When Pierre-René heard this he went to the superior and pointed out the damage that would be done if the priests of the diocese heard that the superior of the seminary had agreed to take the oath. He dictated a letter for the superior to sign, in which the superior stated that he had changed his mind and would not take the oath. This letter was dated the same day as the meeting with the authorities, and still on the same day Pierre-René personally delivered it to the same authorities. When this became known all the other priests of the diocese who had indicated their willingness to take the oath withdrew their agreement. As a result of all this, only one priest in Vannes took the oath.
On 20 April 1791 the staff were expelled from the seminary and the contents of the building were put up for sale. The seminary staff challenged this decision, pointing out that because the staff had conducted courses for lay people the seminary was exempt from the new law. Also, it was exempt for a second reason, because the building was the property of the Congregation of the Mission, which at that date had not been suppressed by law. The authorities agreed to a partial financial settlement, including fixed salaries for the seminary staff. Pierre-René decided to put in a claim also for back payment as a parish curate, and was paid this as well. He then put in a claim for further payment because of income he was due from a benefice, which he had in Angers, which had been stopped; this was also paid up. These financial arrangements won by Pierre-René are very interesting because they are the exact opposite of what Louis-Joseph François had been advising in Paris some years earlier. He had advised priests to refuse any money offered by the state for priestly ministry. Pierre-René’s view was that he had done the work and therefore should be paid.
Pierre-René maintained good relations with the town’s civil authorities and he was not interfered with in his parish ministry. For prudence, though, he gradually introduced a practice of celebrating Mass in private houses. The fact that he was a native of the town, as were the members of the civil administration, was a help to him. He knew them personally and had been at school with them. His superior, though, was not from Vannes and Pierre-René advised him to leave the town, and he went to Spain.
As the situation in the town began to deteriorate Pierre-René had to go into hiding, and he started to move around frequently from one safe house to another, to lessen the risk of capture. His mother’s house was constantly watched in the hope that he would visit her. In March 1795 the authorities in Vannes granted an amnesty to all priests who were in hiding, and after a while Pierre-René resumed open ministry in the parish.
Later that year, though, things got much worse for the priests in the town, and former laws and oaths were brought back into full force. On Christmas Eve 1795, when he was bringing Viaticum to a sick person, he was betrayed by a man for whom his mother had procured work and who was still receiving financial help from her. This man and another man brought Pierre-René to the authorities and handed him over. They refused to accept him, because he had not been arrested by the police; they gave him the opportunity to escape. He refused to do so, saying that that would get them into trouble with their own superiors.
He was tried and convicted on the charge that he had not taken the various oaths and had engaged in priestly ministry. He was found guilty, naturally enough, and was sentenced to be guillotined within twenty-four hours. This took place on 3 March 1796, and his mother was apparently present.