Part Five: Holy Men and Women of France
The year John Vianney entered pre-seminary training under the guidance of Father Balley, Marie-Victoire Courderc was one year old. As she grew up she was sent off to school but loved to return home, especially when her town hosted “missions,” a sort of parish retreat that had become a popular tradition in much of Catholic Europe.
One such mission was preached by Father Stephen Terme, a dynamic preacher and founder of a religious order of women called the Sisters of St. Regis. These nuns conducted Christian schools for girls throughout southeastern France. Marie-Victoire was swept off her feet. She asked her father for permission to join the Sisters of St. Regis. He refused, but little French girls have a way with their fathers. His resistance crumbled and Marie-Victoire joined Father Terme and was given the name Sister Therese.
Sister Therese assignment was to join the community at La Louvesc where they conducted a small school. It would change her life and the work she did there would change the lives of countless Christians, enriching the Church worldwide. Besides running a school for girls the sisters hosted a pilgrimage each year to the shrine of St. Regis. La Louvesc was turned upside down as hundreds of the devout made their way to the shrine to pray for good harvests. There were not nearly enough beds for everyone. The village church was converted into a dormitory of the women; the men slept wherever they could find a spot. Eventually, Father Terme gathered funds and built a small hostel which he asked the sisters to run.
The hostel brought little relief to the overcrowding during the pilgrimage time. Instead the sisters placed straw on the corridors of their school and of their residence and women came to use these spots as beds. It was loud, crowded and not very much of a spiritual experience. And Sister Therese was set to change all that.
One year as plans were being made for the upcoming pilgrimage, Sister Therese convinced Father Terme that only women who promised to be silent and prayerful could stay with the sisters. He agreed and that year the sisters’ house became a retreat center. When Father Terme introduced the Ignatian Exercises to the sisters, Sister Therese modified them and conducted the retreat for the women who stayed with the sisters. The idea spread. A retreat house. Retreats for laity as well as Religious. And a wing of the Sisters of St. Regis to conduct these retreats – the Sisters of the Cenacle.
Sister Therese Courderc died in 1885 in Lyon. Besides popularizing the discipline of the silent retreat, offering spiritual direction to women religious and laity, besides spreading the Ignatian Exercises, she spread a spirituality grounded in recognizing God’s abundant goodness. A successful retreat was one that resulted in a joyful heart, joyful for being one with God in all things.
Speaking of this joy, Sister Therese once wrote, “Oh! If people could understand beforehand the sweetness and peace enjoyed by those who hold nothing back from the Good God. How he communicates himself to the soul who sincerely seeks him and who knows how to surrender herself. Let them just experience it and they will see that therein is found the true happiness which they vainly seek elsewhere.”
But Therese Couderc was no wide-eyed dreamer. Near the end of her life she is quoted, “If we had known what we would have to suffer, we would have picked up our shoes and started out – and we’d still be running!” Later Sister Therese was canonized, the Church acknowledging her holiness even as she spent a lifetime helping others find holiness.
Do saints come in clusters? Saint Therese Courderc was a contemporary with Saint John Vianney. Indeed, they lived and worked not far from each other. She was contemporary with other saints too. Therese was born in 1805; Peter Chanel in 1803 and Catherine Laboure in 1806. A Spanish saint, Anthony Marie Claret was born in 1807 and die in France.
Peter Chanel opens the story to world wide to efforts in evangelization. He was born in Belley within fifty miles of Grenoble. After an unexceptional childhood, Peter attended seminary and was ordained in 1830. His first assignment was to an area known to be a bit rough. Regardless the young priest impressed people with his kindness, especially for his solicitude to the ill and dying. But Peter Chanel longed for more.
At twenty-eight Peter received permission to join a new congregation, the Society of Mary, or Marists. Their apostolate was for the missions. This was a passion for Peter Chanel, but instead the Marists sent him to teach in a seminary for five years.
Finally, in 1836 the Society of Mary received approval by Pope Gregory XVI. Off went Peter and seven companions to the islands of the New Hebrides, some thousand miles east of Australia. The bishop of that area transported the Marists to various locations for evangelizing work. Peter and a lay brother were placed on Futuna Island with the promise that they would be relieved in six months. It turned out to be five years.
Peter set about learning the language of the people. He had to fend off whalers, traders and pirates who raided the islands from time to time. He had to fend off hostile natives from other islands. And for this he got precious few converts.
Then one day luck changed. The son of the island chief came to Peter Chanel. He wanted to be baptized. This so enraged the chief that he sent warriors to club Peter to death and to dismember his body. Peter’s dying words were “My death is a great blessing to me.” He was thirty-eight years old.
Within two years of Peter’s martyrdom the ancient words of the Roman Tertullian were again proven correct: the blood of martyrs is the seed of conversion. The entire island converted and remains Catholic today.
Contemporary with Saint Peter Chanel, Saint Therese Courderc and Saint John Vianney was Anthony Marie Claret. The Spain he was born into was a tumultuous land racked by the Napoleonic wars, industrialization and slum urbanization around his native Catalonia. Anthony learned the trade of his father, weaving but soon abandoned it for seminary study. He was ordained for the diocese of Vich near Barcelona in 1835 and served in his home parish.
This assignment was followed by another in which he was sent to Rome to work in the office for the Propagation of the Faith. There he felt a calling to the Society of Jesus but the Jesuit novitiate prove too harsh for his delicate constitution and he soon grew ill and had to withdraw. He then returned to Spain to pastor a parish.
Life might have been uneventful for Anthony Marie Claret had it not been for his interest in preaching parish missions and giving conferences to his fellow priests. Eventually, he published some one hundred and fifty books and pamphlets. But the notoriety kindled the jealousy of fellow priests. The criticism was too much for Anthony and he left for the Canary Islands to do mission work. A year later, in 1848 he returned to Spain, this time with thicker skin.
Along with five other priests Anthony Marie Claret founded the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, nicknamed after him, the Claretians. A year later he left Spain for Cuba to become the bishop of Santiago. It was no plum. The diocese was run down. Moral life was low. Slavery was everywhere and was practiced as ugly and inhuman as it was in the United States.
Bishop Claret first addressed the needs of the family farms, crushed in poverty by the great plantations. He taught them how to vary their produce and to sell it at local farmers’ markets. He was opposed by the powerful sugar plantation interests. Then he set up schools to teach slaves how to read and write and study catechism. Now he ran afoul of more plantation interests. The atmosphere became dangerous when someone hired an assassin to remove the meddlesome bishop from Santiago.
The assassin struck in full daylight on the streets of Santiago. Bishop Claret was slashed across the face and in a wrist before others could come to his aid. The assassin was apprehended but would not reveal his employer. Instead, he was found guilty and sent to prison. Only one voice spoke for the accused during his trial, the victim, Bishop Anthony Marie Claret.
In 1857 Bishop Claret was ordered back to Spain, this time to be the confessor of Queen Isabella II. It was not a job he longed for. The formalities of the court, the infighting and politicking disgusted him, but he used his influential office to see that good priests were appointed bishops, that new congregations were recognized and aided and, in 1869, he attended the First Vatican Council where he supported papal infallibility.
After the Council Bishop Claret went to France to join his queen and her court who had gone into exile. A revolution had broken out in Spain. The world was turning upside down. Isabella had abdicated in favor of Alfonso XII but the parliament offered the throne to a German Catholic prince, Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. France objected and threatened war. Sixty-three year old Bishop Anthony Marie Claret died quietly at the Cistercian monastery at Fontfroide.
The death of this holy bishop, this founder of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, on the eve of a war between France and Prussia might appear to be a coincidence. But to those who read beneath the surface of events it is a sign of quiet blessings. Beneath the chronicle of nineteenth century France is interwoven an emperor, a pope, a mystical nun, a bunch of peasant children and the Blessed Virgin Mary.