Our conference, entitled “the Mother House at 200 Years: a Missionary Heart in the Heart of the City,” opened with the celebration of the Eucharist. We chose the Liturgy in honor of Mary, Mother of the Church since Pope Francis had just established the feast. Concluding the Mass with a brief pilgrimage to the altars of the holy Fathers Clet, Perboyre, and to the reliquary of St. Vincent de Paul, we then crossed over to the Salle Baude, a community hall, where we could view some photos, original letters and various texts that the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and the Daughters of Charity had shown previously at the UN exhibition in Geneva. At the Salle Baude we welcomed some 100 guests, including various lay people, Daughters of Charity, CM missioners and regular visitors to our Chapel.
Sister Marvaux, D.C. from the Daughters’ house at Lyon was our moderator. She started off the day, offering some details to enhance our participation. Then she invited Father Mauvais, Provincial of France, to convene the conference. He began by recalling that it was in November 1817 that confreres first settled in this neighborhood. He also reminded us that, while we certainly do want to remember the past and recall the missionary dynamism of those confreres who first lived there, we also wish to project ourselves towards tomorrow. Even today, this home at 95 rue de Sèvres continues to face challenges in development: our location now includes a campus for Saint John University, housing for students seeking doctorates, and even the reception study area for the Augustinian Studies Library. These buildings also support initiatives for solidarity such as the reception of the APA that bring together people in high-risk situations with those who can help, the planning process for a welcoming day center for women at risk, and the opening of a kindergarten within the neighborhood. By means of attending to today’s events in our history, he invited us to rediscover the missionary zest of our elders so that the missionaries of Saint Lazarus today continue to have hearts that beat for Jesus and thus, give life to our world.
Sister Marvaux noted that the persons discussed during this symposium range from 1787 to 1956, that is to say, they trace the history of the Congregation since the Revolution, during periods of the revolts of 1830 and that of the two great world wars.
Before discovering ourselves at this new Saint Lazare, our second Mother House, our predecessors had to go through great conflict in the struggle against Jansenism. Father Mezzadri (unfortunately prevented from being here personally), presented this to us in an introductory and transitional way, as the first crisis experienced by the Congregation. While confreres in the seminaries were numerous, it’s important to note that this bubble was part of serious tensions in the Church of France; bishops were taking part by supporting or refusing to advance to the priesthood any candidates who could not assure doctrinal correctness with their teachers. This led to the closure of seminaries and instilled fear among the Polish and Italian confreres, believing that the Congregation was tied up with a conflict that was essentially French. But as neither law nor custom required that the general house be transferred to Rome, and the fact that the foundation, the remains of the founder and the largest number of communities were all in France, all this pointed to maintaining the Congregation in Paris. Indeed, the General Assembly of 1724, decided in favor of keeping the Congregation of the Mission in France. ***
We then proceeded to the history of the Mother House at 95, Rue de Sèvres, starting with its beginnings with 10 confreres: 2 superiors general, 7 priests and one brother. As for the superiors general, we limited our attention to Fathers Etienne and Boré.
First of all, Monsieur Etienne, who would be Superior General for 31 years, in addition to his period of public procurator which had provided him with an important mission. A temperamental man and political to his core, and despite the last biography that expressed reservations about his direction, we do need to point out that Father Etienne organized 14 new Lazarist provinces and witnessed the Daughters of Charity grow in number from 6,000 to 20,000 by the end of his term. He inaugurated the complex at Berceau with the assistance of 30,000 people. During his time as superior, he did declare his recognition of pontifical infallibility, for his silences would have been received like a form of Gallicanism. Faced with the growth of the Company, he would use the Mother House as a model to be replicated throughout the world, which caused much resentment.
Monsieur Boré who succeeded him was a renowned orientalist. His vocation was born out of meeting with a Lazarist father while traveling in the East, his fervent passion. He was soon ordained before being posted to Turkey and worked with the Armenian community. During the Crimean War, he appealed to the Daughters of Charity to treat the sick and wounded. The Sultan, thankful for their excellent work, ordered the construction of the Peace Hospital, currently the Daughters of Charity’s home in this country. Boré would govern the congregation for only four years. A contemporary historian judged him a highly capable administrator. We too can appreciate his political skill and good sense as we note his choice of Monsieur Fiat as an Assistant, the one that a General Assembly would later choose as his successor.
We familiarized ourselves with Fathers John, David, Perboyre, Pouget, Portal and Brother Carbonnier. All men were passionate about their sciences and filled with the Holy Spirit.
Speaking of Monsieur Jean, he was another famous orientalist, and although he may not be known on the Internet, his research contributed much to the studies of the ancient languages Akkadian and Sumerian. He would discover many tablets of the second and third millennia before our era. Convinced that our Western culture was born out of these pre-cultures, he never stopped revisiting the Bible with all the finds he made. He demonstrated links between biblical texts and the knowledge of the surrounding cultures, accompanying the birth of the idea of “Biblical milieu” to explain the culture of which Revelation was a carrier.
Father David, a hale and hearty Basque and a genuine ham, was also a naturalist. He struggled to get a start in China, developing his scientific talents in Italy. So passionate was he about the missions, he finally could go to China. On his first return from China to Paris he met with scientists with whom he shared his passion for Chinese nature. Once his abilities had been recognition he received funding to organize a scientific expedition to China. He departed in order to found schools that would accept him taking scientific expeditions; he had the opportunity to discover nearly 200 plant and animal species discovering and saving the giant panda and Chinese deer. His discovery of the panda became the animal-emblematic of Chinese diplomacy. The city where he discovered the panda today bears the name of “New David”. Once back in France, he never ceased sharing his discoveries. Finally, while he acknowledged that China did not need Europe, he would always speak of his joy at seeing so many Chinese become Christians.
Then came Father Pouget, who specialized in exegesis. His study of the Pentateuch allowed him to identify his principles for historical study of the Bible. He avoided rationalism while blending the historical-critical study. His courses articulated revelation and humanity within the historical perspective where faith takes on meaning. He believed that we must reflect theologically about history, focusing on the concrete, rather than on our magisterium. Soon becoming blind he would then take the opportunity to deepen his exhausting research, continuing to work on this new understanding of Scripture that would later inspire the texts of Vatican II and would be included during St. John XXIII’s opening of the Council.
Monsieur Portal meanwhile, had joined the Congregation to go to China. But it was as a Bible instructor that he began ministry in Nice. For reasons of health he would join the Mission in Spain. There he met Lord Halifax with whom he desired to convey his passion for Catholicism. He founded a journal for dialogue that would produce 50 issues, and he supported recognition of the validity of Anglican ordinations. However, Pope Leo XIII, reputed still open to this, decided otherwise. Following this he was asked not to meet Lord Halifax anymore and he was sent back to France to return to the task of training seminarians. Only twenty years later, Cardinal Mercier would resume the dialogue although in secret.
Once he was back in Paris he participated in the revival of seminary studies while paying attention to the faith in the world of students. He founded the group “TALA”, Young Christian Academics. With Mme. Galicia, a mystic foundress of a lay association living alongside the poor in disadvantaged neighborhoods, he integrated young people into the activities that his patronage would establish.
He would influence Marcel Legault, Teilhard de Chardin, and Vincent Lebbe. He moved to the rue de Lourmel where he died. He always wanted to advance elsewhere to discover new frontiers. All that he founded has since disappeared, the new magazine “the seminary”, the Catholic magazine “, the rue de Grenelle, and even the community of Mrs. Galicia. He left his mark as a watchman, a sower, a discoverer of new lands, inviting us to remember that must always keep the mindset that we are only travelers.
We then recalled the face of Saint John Gabriel Perboyre, China’s first recognized saint. This gem of a person who came from a family who would give five to their children to religion, would live out his gift of himself in the mission, first in seminary formation in France and then in China. There he was soon arrested and lived through a passion that would bind him to his master Jesus whom he wanted to imitate; his daily prayer, which he recited before Mass, reminds us of this. His condemnation in China for having propagated an “abominable sect” points to the absence of any real motive. Fr. John Gabriel never failed in his identification with Christ, whom he had made his rule of life.
We ended the day concerned with the beauty that adorns St Lazare, speaking of Brother François Casimir Carbonnier. This native of Beauvais from a poor family, was spotted early on for his skills at painting and received a scholarship before joining the school of Delacroix, the painting artist for the emperor. Not having mastered that particular setting and uncomfortable with the debauched atmosphere of the members of the school, he would join that group of a painter recently arrived in Paris: Ingres. Now well established, he traveled to Rome then joined Naples where he created paintings for the Queen. Once Napoleon abdicated, he had to go into exile in England like all the painters of his reign.
There he met a poor girl whom he took under his protection and later married. Neither was intended for marriage. He was offered India but preferred to return to France. While participating in a conference, Monsieur Nozo noticed him and invited him to return with him to the Lazarists. When he declined this commitment, Monsieur Nozo proposed to host him so that he could participate in making the house what it is today. It was Carbonnier who would adorn the walls with his art: the chapel, the refectory, corridors, and the sacristy contain so many creations that he has left us. Later he would agree to become a brother, aware that painting was religious service for him. All his creations had demanded prayer and silence from him, clearly shown in what he painted.
Around 4 pm, Father Gomez closed this beautiful day, recalling that the first Saint Lazarus had as a coat of arms on the door, the risen Lazarus, testifying to the work of Jesus who transformed death and made the tomb a fountain or symbol of life. By recalling all these faces we have met brothers who were both very human and filled with passion for Christ. Whether historians, a novelist, or orientalist, all come to speak to us about him, shining their rays produced by their lives.
He suggested to us that this house, which can sometimes seem cumbersome, at least in its physical structure, lives on as a gathering place for various currents in our society, knowing how to combine theology, spirituality and the apostolate, three elements constituting the heritage left to us by Saint Vincent. We will continue this mission by reimagining how to live internationality and to respond today to the challenges in the world and the Church.
Bernard Massarini. C.M. and Jean-Pierre Renouard, C.M.
Translation from French to English by Dan Paul Borlik, C.M., Western Province, USA