Jean-Félix-Joseph Cayla de la Garde

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The last Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission before the Revolution, Jean-Félix-Joseph Cayla de la Garde, took office in 1788. He had been visiting the houses of the Congregation in Poitou and Champagne and returned to Paris a mere two days before the sack of Saint Lazare. On that day, the inhabitants had to flee the house. Having nowhere else to go, Cayla with two assistants and some students sought hospitality from Louis-Joseph François, superior of the Seminary of Saint Firmin, the ancient Bons-Enfants. To disguise himself, Cayla donned the distinctive collar of the secular clergy and, for safety, placed a patriotic green ribbon on his hat. On the next day, the fourteenth, some students and others returned to Saint Lazare to begin to rebuild and repair. They were able to do so thanks to alms received from various quarters, such as the king, the archbishop and other religious communities. However, it was estimated that at least a million livres would be needed to make all the repairs. Besides, individual confreres had lost their personal money from their rooms, and Cayla, too, lost a fortune. The author of the first biographical notice of his life remarked that none of this disturbed the peace of his soul.

The superior general returned to Saint Lazare within a day or so to oversee the work of repair. Life returned slowly to some semblance of normality amid the destruction and want, but the community numbered only about half its previous size. At the conclusion of the annual retreat, held in October, Cayla wisely took the precaution of designating François-Florentin Brunet as his vicar general, following the usual procedure in use in the Congregation. The public chapel, which held the relics of Saint Vincent, also continued in use, as for the ordination of seven priests in July 1790. In those troubled times he and his council decided to erect the mission in the Palatinate, now in Germany, as a province. He announced this in his circular of 14 November 1791, citing as his reasons the current conditions in France and his hope for the development of the German mission.

As part of duties, Cayla also had to attend the sessions of the National Assembly, being held in Versailles. He had been elected originally as the first substitute, but, on 3 November 1789, when the Estates General voted to become the National Assembly, François-Xavier Veytard, pastor of Saint Gervais and one of the six clerical deputies from Paris, resigned out of fear of what was taking place. Although urged to give his place to another, Cayla attended the sessions regularly despite the danger. He spoke on 12 February 1790 in a debate about the suppression of vows and had his opinion printed. He refused to take the oath to support the Civil Constitution of the Clergy when it was supposed to be taken publicly in the assembly, and he strengthened others who had also refused. In this period, seven bishops out of 160 took the first oath, and about thirty percent of the priests took it. Cayla was therefore forced to leave the assembly on 4 January 1791 with the other recusant clergy.

Flight, Vicar Apostolic

With the legal suppression of congregations, 18 August 1792, the superior general had to leave Saint Lazare for the last time. The date is uncertain, but it must have been between 27 and 31 August. He remained in hiding in Paris, probably leaving the city on 2 September, the day of the massacres at Saint Firmin. He led a wandering existence for the next two years. He went to the southeast to hide out, in Valfleury and Saint Etienne, seemingly on his way to Italy. However, either because it was difficult or dangerous to leave France by this route, he soon returned to Paris in secret and then spent some months in Amiens. Two Vincentian priests with him there, Victor-Jacques Julienne (1738-1793) and Paul-Nicolas-Raymond Brochois (1742-1793), were apprehended and would shortly die in prison, but Cayla escaped after discovery and arrest. Together with his assistant Brunet, Cayla then found refuge in the Chateau of Heilly. This was a property near Amiens formerly belonging to members of the Gondi family, and Saint Vincent had visited it in his day. The superior general next went to the “lands of the Emperor,” Flanders, and was heard from in two cities, Ypres, 24 July 1793, and Tournai, 13 September. A letter from him, dated 12 January 1793 from an undisclosed location, announced to Benedetto Fenaja, the visitor of Rome, the following news: “You know about the terrible things that happened to us. I have found a very quiet home for the moment, and am in good health. Much of Saint Lazare has been sold, but little has been paid for. So our return is more difficult but not impossible, nor entirely desperate. If M. Ferris is with you, tell him I am waiting with great impatience for his answer.”

Fenaja must also have been impatient to know whether Cayla could freely govern the Congregation. Because he could not, he proposed a solution to the pope. Pius VI, motu proprio, on his own initiative, took the step of naming Fenaja “vicar apostolic,” with all the rights and authority of a superior general and his assistants. The reason for naming him, the pope wrote, was that it was unknown precisely where Cayla and his assistants were, since they were in hiding after being expelled from Saint Lazare by the “enemies of Christian truth,” indeed even if they were alive or dead. To maintain the Congregation and its members, “who have always striven to bring forth abundant fruit in the Lord’s vineyard,” Fenaja, who very reluctantly accepted this new service, and either his own assistants or others of his choosing would remain in charge of the Congregation’s administration and governance, and, if needed, should convoke a general assembly to elect Cayla’s successor. This was the first of the numerous, and sometimes contradictory, papal briefs designed to facilitate the Congregation’s government.

Fenaja duly informed the Congregation that, since no one could communicate with Cayla on the regular matters that would arise daily, the pope had named him vicar apostolic. He also promised that his office would cease when Cayla would be free, since he, Fenaja, was his “very dear and very obedient son.” Suspicious confreres in his own house, however, felt he had schemed to acquire this responsibility.

In a private letter to Cayla in response to his of 24 July 1793 from Ypres, Fenaja clarified what he meant by Cayla’s being free: guaranteed information that he was living in a house of the Congregation with at least some of the assistants and thus able to govern the Congregation freely.

Fenaja addressed a third circular to the members of the Congregation, in which he passed on a letter from Cayla written from Tournai, 13 September 1793. “I read that the Pope named you vicar general [sic] of the Congregation,” something the community needed. He hoped to reenter France through Lyon by the end of September, that is, within two weeks, but his hope was not realized. In forwarding this letter, Fenaja openly stated that he hoped it would “remove any suspicion, should there ever be any, of opposition of defiance between the superior general and the vicar general, a suspicion that could be for some a subject of trouble and worry, and for others a frivolous pretext to frustrate the designs of the Holy Father, whose intentions tend always to the good of our Institute....” For some reason, both Cayla and Fenaja used the expression “vicar general,” instead of “vicar apostolic,” the more correct term. The vicar apostolic’s foresight undoubtedly came from rumors and discussion among his Italian confreres, as would become clear in subsequent events.

Cayla’s letter from Mannheim, dated 1 January 1794, seems to have satisfied these conditions, since he had two assistants, Brunet and Ferris, in this Vincentian house of the province of the Palatinate. (Ferris, however, who had departed Paris with Sicardi for Turin, left there to rejoin Cayla sometime in 1793.) In this circular letter, Cayla recounted his escape, “by the special protection of providence, from the fury and the blade of assassins.” Cayla continued that he was uncertain whether his first assistant, Pertuisot, at eighty-nine, was alive or dead. The fourth assistant, Sicardi, was in Turin. While there, he had an engraving made of Saint Vincent, dated 2 June 1793, likely a gift designed to cheer up the superior general. Cayla then expressed his gratitude that the pope had appointed Fenaja to govern the Congregation in the past months. Turning to news of the Congregation, he recounted the condition of various houses, particularly those struck by disaster in France. He mentioned specifically Fathers François, Gruyer and Galoy, killed in the September massacres, as well as those who died in prison. Others, he added, had returned in disguise to France where they were active in an apostolate, while yet others had been reduced to begging for their bread or to relying on charity from the poor country people for some “coarse and nearly wild food.” Perhaps he was contrasting this with the good quality food so recently characteristic of Saint Lazare.

Fenaja replied in a circular dated 4 January that he had received, on 21 December, a letter from Cayla informing him that he had been able to assume the government of the Congregation. The temporary motherhouse of the Congregation was the little house at Neustadt, near Mannheim, from which he would quickly inform the Pope. In fact, Fenaja had already gone to Pius VI and offered his resignation, which the pope accepted. The clarity of the relationships between Cayla and Fenaja strongly contrasts with those of their successors.


The pope then repeated his invitation to Cayla to come to Rome. Brunet and Ferris both continued to accompany him, along with his secretary, Jacques-Antoine Lesueur (1744-1802). On their way, Cayla and his entourage traveled to various Italian cities, visiting his confreres on his way to Rome. The superior general is known to have been in Genoa in July, where his portrait was painted. He was joined by his other assistant, Sicardi, in the north of Italy, for the journey to Rome, but he shortly after returned to Piedmont, since Cayla had to pay for Sicardi’s upkeep, and it was very expensive to stay together. The result on Sicardi’s part was that he was away from Cayla from 1794 to the general’s death in 1800, arriving in Rome only six months afterward. The superior general, the assistants and the secretary had arrived in the Eternal City by the end of October. In Rome, they stayed temporarily at Montecitorio, but then moved to San Andrea al Quirinale from about 1 November 1794, until its suppression in 1798. They returned to Montecitorio, and Cayla helped this house to remain open when other places were closed, although it was suppressed temporarily by the new government in 1799.

The chief source for understanding the superior general’s concerns is his annual circular letters. In his New Year’s letter for 1795, he expressed his sorrow at the condition of his country. He felt he had also to express to his confreres “all the pain and the bitterness in my heart if I have occasionally to regret the fall or the loss of one of our members. . . . Although the fall of some distresses me, the fervor of the others consoles me.” As usual, he repeated the standard call to a faithful observance of rules, counting on superiors to hold the line against the innovations of the age. He had noted, possibly in Mannheim, some problems in dangerous modern opinions in both philosophy and theology. “God keep me from ever putting an obstacle in the way of science, but I would never be able to recommend sufficiently the spirit of wisdom in the choice of material to teach, the modest tone with which one treats them, and the distancing of oneself from singularity, which is so close to error.” News from the Congregation was scarce, since, for example, he had not heard much from Poland for several months, and correspondence with China had to pass through England, where it was slow to move on to its destination. Lastly, he announced that he would be taxing the provinces to help defray the expenses of his stay in Rome, as well as those of his assistants and a secretary. In the light of later complaints against his successors living in Rome, this decision is especially thoughtful.

In his annual circular, dated 23 December 1795, he obviously had been better informed. He led off this letter with lyrical appeal to zeal for one’s vocation. “How beautiful this life is! How precious it is in the eyes of God! How useful for the neighbor! How honorable for the Congregation!” This praise of Vincentian life should be viewed against the backdrop of its dissolution in France and elsewhere, although he had motives to praise his confreres in Italy, Spain and Portugal. The political situation in Poland he found troubling, as he did in the Middle East, where the French government was threatening to seize back the houses and churches of the missions confided by the state to the Congregation.

The New Year’s letter for 1797 showed that disasters were continuing. He urged the members not to be depressed, but rather to keep to the spirit of our vocation, and to remain faithful to solid preaching. The news from the provinces and missions was alternatively consoling and disheartening. The entry of the French into Piedmont and Lombardy had hurt the Vincentian houses, the Congregation having lost those of Modena, Reggio, Ferrara, with Cremona and Pavia about to join the list. As for Poland, Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, following the third partition of Poland, forbade communication with foreign superiors, and the king of Prussia, Frederick William III, had seized ecclesiastical goods in his territory. The news from China, however was somewhat consoling, despite suffering and prison for some of the missioners. He noted as well that only Father Clet remained (in the countryside) to support the weight of a huge responsibility. His spiritual lesson was that “Our personal destiny and that of the Congregation are in God’s hands. Nothing can take place against his designs.”

By the following year, matters had degenerated, not improved as he had wished. “Let us adore the impenetrable designs of Providence, but let us tremble before our infidelity, which perhaps provokes the wrath of Heaven….” In the midst of the collapse in France, in northern Italy, and even in Algiers, he urged his confreres to be steadfast and zealous, working without ceasing. He also criticized those who work a little then just relax, without doing anything else. News from Constantinople and China was somewhat consoling, proof, if any was needed, that the Congregation continued to function.

During 1798, Ferris received the news of his appointment by the Irish bishops as dean in Maynooth, the future national diocesan seminary in Ireland. He accepted this responsibility after some hesitation, evident in the eight months it took him to decide. Nevertheless, he took his time in leaving Rome, but had gone by April or May 1799. He was installed in his new post 17 June 1799. Interestingly, Ferris never renounced his office of assistant, since there was no general assembly to which he could submit his resignation. Since he had been elected for a period lasting until the following general assembly, according to the Constitutions, he was not free to resign, but he could, with permission, be absent. With this departure, Cayla was left with only one assistant in residence, Brunet.

Financial assistance

During his stay in Rome, he received some financial help from other provinces and individuals to pay for his expenses, both personal and administrative. Although he had asked for help, it is unknown how much exactly was sent in.

As part of his responsibilities as superior general, therefore, Cayla continued his interest in its missions as well as in the Daughters of Charity. . In his personal life, he maintained his piety, and was regular in attendance at daily prayer and the Eucharist. He had time to visit the sick, and was austere in his own person in matters of medicine and food. To fill his time, he continued his studies, seldom leaving the house. He left several undated conferences behind which likely date from this period. This quiet work and inactivity undoubtedly led to a decline in his health. For example, he gradually lost the sight of his left eye, beginning in the fall of 1797. A fever, possibly malaria, confined him to bed in January of 1800. He died in Rome the following 12 February. He was sixty-five, six days shy of his sixty-sixth birthday. He had lived in the Congregation for fifty-one years. He was buried at Montecitorio.