Constitutional Clergy

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One of the gravest decisions of the Assembly was the passage of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, 12 July 1790. The intent of this legislation was to impose some rational order on ecclesiastical life. Among its points were the abolition of old dioceses and the subsequent establishment of one diocese for each civil département (roughly a reduction of 134 to eighty-three dioceses.) In this new scheme, the faithful would elect their pastors and bishops, as they did their civil officials. The state agreed to pay the clergy, all of whom would give their services freely. The pope’s authority was henceforth limited to his spiritual role. Without consulting Rome, since this would have run counter to Gallican privilege, the state required clergy to take the following oath: “I swear to watch carefully over the faithful of the diocese (or parish) confided to me, and to be faithful to the nation, to the law and to the king, and to maintain with all my power the Civil Constitution of the clergy decreed by the national assembly and accepted by the king,” an oath that was enacted 26 December 1790. Much as during the old regime, the clergy, at least those with civic responsibilities such as pastors, were regarded as an arm of the state. In the case of the Congregation of the Mission, seminary professors were excluded from this list of those with public duties. The imposition of the oath was backed by swift and often arbitrary punishment for not taking it, and it succeeded in dividing both the clergy and the laity: some accepted it, the majority did not. A few Vincentians had no problem in taking the oath either, and they became thereby members of the Constitutional Church.

The three most prominent among them were constitutional bishops. The first of them, Lamourette, was a former Vincentian (he had left the Congregation legitimately), whereas the other two, Philbert and Gratien, were assigned to community houses, Philbert as a pastor, and Gratien as the superior of a seminary. Others, priests and brothers, particularly those at the important parishes of Versailles, would follow similar patterns.

Antoine-Adrien Lamourette

Antoine-Adrien Lamourette was born 31 May 1742. He entered the Congregation of the Mission in Paris in 1759, where he made his vows. After his ordination as a deacon, he was sent to teach at the seminary of Metz. He then transferred to the seminary of Toul, becoming its superior at age thirty-three. There, however, he ran into conflicts between the older professors and himself. He spent a little time as director of retreats at Saint Lazare, but soon asked for his dismissal from the Congregation, entering the diocese of Toul in 1784. He is described as educated and pious, but of a sentimental piety and weak faith. In keeping with the mood of the times, he adopted much of the new thinking, partly under the pressure of Mirabeau, a leader of the Revolution. Under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, he was elected bishop of Rhone-et-Loire, with his seat Lyons, and was ordained by Gobel, the constitutional archbishop of Paris, 27 March 1791. The following September, Lamourette was elected to the legislative assembly, taking a place among the moderates. He protested against the September Massacres, the laws leading to the suppression of religious congregations and the prohibition of clerical dress.

He did not play a notable role in the assembly, but one speech, on 7 July 1792, became so famous that Lamourette’s name lives on in the French language. He attempted to effect a reconciliation among the different factions divided by the war. He exhorted the members: “Let us swear to have only one spirit, one feeling; let us swear to join together into one and the same mass of free men.” The deputies listened with respect and, at the end, arose to embrace each other in a great outpouring of emotion. Regrettably, their conflicts resumed the next day. A “Lamourette kiss” became and remains an expression in French for a hypocritical reconciliation. After this setback, Lamourette retired from political life and returned to Lyons.

There, he defended the city against those sent to besiege it in 1793. He was arrested 29 September 1793 and brought to Paris, where he was judged and condemned for “having committed revolutionary acts and for have written things which would kill liberty.” He was executed at the guillotine the same day, 11 January 1794. Just before his death, he seems to have penned a retraction of his errors, later published.

Nicolas Philbert

Nicolas Philbert, who followed his brother Joseph into the Congregation, was born November 1724. He attended the Vincentian seminary at Toul and then entered the novitiate at age seventeen. He spent nearly twenty years of his priestly life teaching philosophy and theology at the seminary of Arras and then moved to parochial ministry. In 1762, he became pastor of Saint Charles in Sedan where he would remain for thirty-five years. The Congregation chose him to be the visitor of Champagne, an office he fulfilled from 1778 to the suppression of the community. Because of his attractive personal qualities and his learning, he became important and influential in the city. When required, he took the constitutional oath and, probably because of his high reputation, he brought along all his confreres and most of the secular clergy in Sedan and in the surrounding country. He had been the director of the Daughters of Charity and persuaded them to follow him as well. He was convinced, not confused, and seduced by presuming that he could help reform the Church by any sort of sacrifice. On 24 October 1790, an assembly of clergy and laity elected him to a see which was already vacant, with the title of Bishop of the Ardennes, that is, of Sedan. With four others, he received episcopal ordination in Paris. Talleyrand the elder, archbishop of Reims, chided him for this and added: “You, the disciple of Saint Vincent de Paul! You, member of a society ever distinguished by its attachment and devotion to the pontiffs of the Church!”

His ministry as a bishop was not easy. He participated actively in civic activities, but was called to account for a “little civic catechism” and had to explain his views before the National Convention. He had many opponents among the clergy, and little success in his new seminary, which had only two students. Under the new laws of 1793, he was supposed to hand over his letter of ordination, thereby renouncing his priesthood, but he refused. He did, however, renounce his episcopal functions, 24 November 1793. From that time until 1795, he spent his time at his property, Villette, on the outskirts of Sedan. Although he was able to resume his functions, many rejected him. Consequently, he found himself out of money, at age seventy, unable to visit his diocese. He died at Villette, 22 June 1797. His tombstone takes a prudent course, by depicting him as “forced rather than elected, he did not abandon his flock when he saw the wolf.” Despite everything, he was appreciated for his dignity, austerity, integrity and fidelity to the task as he saw it.

Jean-Baptiste-Guillaume Gratien

Jean-Baptiste-Guillaume Gratien (more correctly, Graziani) was born in Crescentino in the province of Vercelli, Italy, 24 June 1747. He entered the Congregation in Paris, 11 October 1767, and made his vows two years later. In the spirit of the age, he espoused Gallican and Jansenist ideals. He used his influence to convert others to the constitutional church. Despite his problems with the official church, its history and theology, he was a knowledgeable and admirable priest, of irreproachable conduct. He was superior in 1789 of the seminary at Chartres. He participated in an unpleasant event in the chapel of this seminary. Gratien and a fellow Vincentian, Jean-Baptiste François (b. 1760), publicly took the constitutional oath, 6 February 1791, an event intended to influence non-juring clergy to follow them. François was a brother of Blessed Louis- Joseph François, who died in part because of his opposition to the same oath.

A year later, Gratien was elected bishop for Seine-Inférieure, with his seat at Rouen, where he was consecrated, 18 March 1792. He suffered greatly for his support of revolutionary ideas, being rejected by many people in his diocese. He also lost the support of the local government because of his opposition to clerical marriage and, as a result, was denied the use of his episcopal palace. When ordered to hand over his document of priestly ordination and to apostatize, like Philbert, he refused, and so was arrested and imprisoned first in Rouen and then for two years in the former Vincentian parish of Saint Louis in Versailles. He was in turn released and returned to Rouen in October 1795, but lived the remainder of his life as a poor outcast. Before the reconciliation brought about by the Concordat, he died in a little house he owned in Rouen, 4 June 1799.


The Congregation had enjoyed a privileged position in both church and state because of its service at the royal parishes and the château of Versailles. The events of the Revolution touched the Vincentians there harshly. The two brothers, Aphrodise-André Jacob (1729-1792) and Jean-André-Marie Jacob (b. 1740) were simultaneously pastors of the two parishes, the elder at Notre Dame, and the younger and Saint Louis. Before coming to Versailles, Aphrodise-André developed a great interest in liturgy. He helped the bishop of Poitiers in drawing up the proper liturgical texts for his diocese. In the earliest days of the meetings of the Estates General in Versailles, his brother Jean-André was urged by the members of the third estate to let them use his parish for their meetings. He refused, but they met there anyway. Jean-André also left some accounts of the slaughter of his confreres in Versailles.

Because of the decree ordering one diocese for each département, Versailles became one of the new dioceses. Despite his earlier conflict with the deputies, Jean-André was the first choice for the constitutional bishop; he wisely refused. When the final candidate chose Notre Dame for his cathedral, Aphrodise-André had to leave.

Jean-André too had to abandon his pastorate, but it was especially galling since he had to leave it to one of his confreres, Jean Bassal (1752-1812). At first, Bassal was the only Vincentian at Notre Dame to take the oath, but he subsequently persuaded four other of his confreres, associates in the parish, to follow him. As pastor of Saint Louis, he became the head of the constitutional clergy in Versailles and was elected a member of the Convention. He was one of those who voted the death of Louis XVI. He later abandoned his priesthood, married and had children. He died in Paris at age sixty. The two brothers were later condemned to deportation but managed to flee to Rome.

One of those who took the oath was Jean-Antoine Brucelle (b. 1765). He was the youngest member of the house. In time, he became the (constitutional) vicar of Saint Sulpice in Paris. His confrere Jean-François Desmottes (b. 1756), took the oath of liberty and equality, but later retracted it. After the Concordat, he appears not to have rejoined the Congregation, remaining an associate in a Parisian parish. A third case was Maximilien-Antoine Ottmann (or Hautmann), (1748-1792). He first refused the oath, then took it, and then retracted it on his deathbed. The confusion implicit in these cases must have traumatized many in the Congregation.

A Vincentian brother, Jean-François Loriot, had his own strange career at this same period. When Bassal expelled his former confreres from Saint Louis, Brother Loriot found a post as the secretary to the constitutional bishop, Jean-Julien Avoine. In recognition of his abilities, the bishop later ordained him a priest.

By the time of the Concordat, 1801, eighty-two bishops remained from the old regime, but only eleven were actually in France. Instead, their places had been taken by eighty-seven constitutional bishops (eighty-three in France, four for new territories). By October of that same year, a survey showed that twenty-six of these died natural deaths, seven were guillotined or shot, eight had resigned and married, five were accused of apostasy, three simply resigned, and two retracted their oaths.

At this distance in time, it is difficult to judge the motives of these Vincentians. Some were clearly motivated by pastoral considerations, wanting to stay with their people as best they could, whatever the circumstances. Others, however, were likely moved by personal considerations.

Continue Reading the history with Martyrs and Confessors of the Faith or return to The September Massacres in Paris and Versailles