Dominique Salhorgne

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Fr Dominique Salhorgne CM, twelfth Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission

Dominique Salhorgne (1756-1836) is a Superior General now largely forgotten in the Congregation of the Mission. He had the misfortune of being elected at age seventy-three, already in poor health, and of being the predecessor of the much more colorful Fr Jean-Baptiste-Rigobert Nozo. Nonetheless, Father Salhorgne contributed to the stability and progress of the Congregation of the Mission as it was gathering its forces anew. It was in his time, too, that Catherine Labouré had her visions of the Virgin Mary at the rue du Bac.

He was born 4 September 1757 and baptized on the same day in Toul, a small city marked by a Vincentian presence since the early days of Saint Vincent himself. As a young man, Dominique was known to be studious and very solemn, but also simple and regular; it was in his character to flee useless distractions, all qualities with a distinctively Vincentian flavor. He entered the Congregation at Saint Lazare and made his vows 28 October 1775.

After finishing his theological studies, he was sent to Chartres to teach philosophy, although still only in minor orders. He was ordained a priest in 1780. He was then called to the German city of Heidelberg, in the Palatinate, as professor of theology. He remained there only one year, 1784-85 or 1785-86. He next moved to the seminary at Saintes for two years, 1787-1789 or 1790.


When in 1793 it became necessary to flee France, Salhorgne returned to Heidelberg. He was a relative of Brigadier General Jacques Thouvenot, a French officer stationed at the time in the Holy Roman empire, of which Heidelberg was a part. This relationship undoubtedly gave him easier access to permission to remain there. Austrian army archives record his name in 1802, with the note that he had been an émigré for nine years in Germany. But by 16 October 1802, this permission to remain was no longer needed, since Salhorgne had by that time returned to France. Salhorgne had spent his time in Germany in study and teaching.

According to a biographical notice published after his resignation as superior general, he went to direct a small parish in his native Toul after his return, and when peace was restored with the Concordat, he transferred to the diocese of Nancy, where he served until at least 1814, although the exact date is unclear. He then went to Tours, the major seminary, assigned by the archbishop, Jean-Baptiste du Chilleau. He also wanted, in 1824, to appoint Salhorgne as a vicar general, but Salhorgne accepted the title only as honorary, since he sought to devote himself to his seminary work, and probably was awaiting the restoration of the Congregation. While Hanon was trying to induce former Vincentians to return, Salhorgne wrote to him signaling his readiness to come back. He had by then been working thirteen years at the seminary in Tours (1814-1827). As proof of his desire, he added that he had always wanted to return to the Congregation, and had even engaged in giving missions during his vacation time. He also faithfully fulfilled his responsibility as a canon of the cathedral and the director of a community of Sisters, the Dames de la Providence. He found it necessary to live outside the major seminary in 1821 when the Picpus community (the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) assumed its direction. He then lived in town, ever simple and studious in his habits. One account mentions, with a certain admiration, that for his Lenten meal, he generally took a few prunes and one or two glasses of beer.

In another letter to Hanon, he writes that he was discerning God’s will about the proper time to return. The archbishop tried to hold on to him and, after the deaths of two Vincentian vicars general, he presented reasons to Boujard to offer Salhorgne his dismissal from the Congregation, namely his age and his importance to Tours. Salhorgne would later explain all this to Jean-Baptiste Etienne after he had become superior general. In Etienne’s account, Boujard hesitated to allow his return, and Salhorgne believed, with some justification, that it was a question of having enough money to support him. For this reason, he offered to pay his own keep. According to Etienne, however, the real reason was that Boujard did not want Salhorgne around in view of the coming nomination of a superior general by the pope. Etienne wrote: “I am sorry to have to say this,” but Boujard sent a dispensation from vows to Salhorgne, who rightly protested. Etienne called it “such a wicked procedure.” He knew what he was talking about, since, as secretary general, he had drawn up and countersigned this document of dismissal. The members of the mother house community came to know of his dismissal and asked Etienne to write Salhorgne in their name to register their dismay.

Salhorgne steadfastly refused to accept his dismissal, and wrote to Dewailly to ask to return. The new superior general accepted, and so his eventual successor returned in early August 1827. Dewailly named him first assistant and director of the Daughters of Charity. In his spare time, he also taught theology in the internal seminary.

Election, General Assembly of 1829

Dewailly died a little more than a year later, after designating Salhorgne as vicar general. He convoked the general assembly for 2 March 1829, but Baccari went to the pope to get it postponed to 15 May 1829. The principal reason, as listed in the minutes of the provincial assembly of Rome, was the difficulty of travel in winter weather. Baccari communicated the pope’s verbal approval to Salhorgne. Gabriel Perboyre commented that general assemblies had been held in February or March in the past, without complaint. In any case, it was unnecessary to approach the pope, he felt. Instead, Baccari should have consulted Salhorgne. Perboyre overstated his case about the dates, since only three assemblies out of twenty had been held early in the calendar year. He was correct, however, in suggesting that Baccari had overreached himself in appealing to the Holy See.

One can glimpse the long shadow of Jean-Baptiste Etienne in a strange occurrence that took place before the general assembly. The papal nuncio, Luigi Lambruschini, archbishop of Genoa, had come to know Etienne after coming to Paris in 1826. When he learned of the upcoming general assembly, he wondered whether the votes might fall on “a person with all the requisite qualities” who might have less than twelve years since vows, the constitutional limit for election. For this reason, he turned to the pope on his own, to ask him to grant the necessary faculties to give a dispensation from this requirement. The pope did so, and Lambruschini then wrote to Salhorgne to inform him that, should the case arise, the assembly could ask him for these faculties. In Etienne’s version of this event, he gives the initiative for this request to Salhorgne, who had been afraid of being elected.

The general assembly began 15 May with twenty-four members, the first to be held in forty years. In keeping with Lambruschini’s initiative, and doubtless for the obvious reason that there existed then in the Congregation only the elderly and the young, Salhorgne put the idea to a vote. The result was tied, twelve to twelve. To resolve it, the delegates followed procedure and named a committee of two assistants, four others, and the vicar general, to discuss and decide or propose to the members what to do. The following day, Salhorgne produced the document received the previous day from the nuncio. A new vote was taken in which only one delegate changed his opinion. The result was thirteen in favor of the dispensation, eleven against.

There were other delegates who had made their vows about the same time as Etienne. Ferdinand Bailly and Jean Grappin pronounced vows in 1819; Jean-François Trippier, Louis-Michel Redon, in 1820, and Pierre-Nicolas Vivier, in 1823. As it happened, the dispensation from the requirement was not needed.

Since Dewailly had not designated anyone as his candidate for election, the small box was not opened. The results of first balloting were Salhorgne, eight; Bailly, the only one under twelve years since vows, seven; Le Go, six; Brioude, who was not even present, one; and Castagna, an Italian, one. Etienne did not receive any votes. For the next round, only the top three candidates had passive voice. Meanwhile, Salhorgne urged the delegates not to vote for him. Etienne recalled that Salhorgne then produced the dispensation from vows that he had received from Boujard, and alleged that his election would not be valid. He of course overlooked the fact that he could not be vicar general either and that the assembly itself might have been rendered invalid. The delegates did not accept his tearful request, and he was elected with fourteen votes. The entire incident concerning his dispensation from vows is not recorded in the acts of the assembly, in Salhorgne’s first circular letter, nor in his brief mortuary notice.

The election of the assistants followed. Le Go became first assistant, Boullangier, second, and Richenet, third. The post reserved to an Italian went to the commissary general, Francesco Antonio Baccari, the eldest in vocation among the members of the assembly. At eighty-two, he was certainly too old, but the irony of his election should not be overlooked. Being confined to Paris, he would no longer be able to meddle in the Congregation’s affairs from his base in Rome. Baccari tried to beg off in view of office of commissary general given him by the pope, but the members disagreed and decided to ask the pope to approve Baccari’s election. In this uncertain state, Baccari took the oath provisionally. He received papal permission but lasted in Paris only a few weeks. At least his name appears in the minutes of the general council only from the middle of May to the middle of June. Surprisingly, nothing is recorded there of his resignation or departure.

He offered his resignation for reasons of health. Salhorgne wisely accepted it, but insisted that, since he was so ill, that he should also resign his post of commissary general. He was allowed to continue as visitor of the Roman province, which he had been previously from 1820 to 1824, and again, beginning in 1827. Etienne commented gleefully on this whole affair: “Thus, finally, were the cruel wounds cauterized, wounds which blind or unnatural sons had inflicted on the mother who had borne them in her womb and suckled with the milk of her instruction.”

In May, the members of the assembly had, following the election of the office holders, examined proposals sent in from the provinces. They dealt, as usual, principally with matters of internal governance and practice, such as how often to hold spiritual conferences, the quality of cloth for use in warm climates, such as Italy. The Roman province requested that the traditional breakfast of bread and a glass of wine be replaced, at least locally, by the use of coffee or chocolate. Wine, they asserted, was bad for the health when taken in the morning and it harmed one’s ability to study. The decision was left to local superiors. The Italians also asked whether they could have a daily antipasto, that being their custom. The answer was a generous yes.

A more serious matter was the issue of vows. Certain French confreres had taken vows without having completed the whole two years of their novitiate. One confrere destined for Algeria, had taken vows with the permission of Boujard, who felt he was authorized to dispense from the remaining time of the novitiate. The assembly decreed that those vows were invalid, without permission of the Pope. This case and others like it would involve the Congregation in a lengthy series of discussions, principally during the administration of Jean-Baptiste Nozo.

The missions of Constantinople and Syria came in for lengthy discussion as well. The assembly agreed that missioners from outside France could be sent to those two missions. This was an important decision inasmuch as they were under the control of the French government, who also supported them financially. The issue of French missions would be fought over for decades. It was agreed, however, that the superior general could propose the naming of two Vincentians as prefects apostolic of Constantinople and Syria. Asked whether these same men should also be named visitors, the decision was negative, since it would take them a long time to reach Paris for a general assembly. This decision would be overturned in subsequent assemblies.

Following the assembly, as tradition dictated, Salhorgne addressed a circular letter to his confreres. He reviewed the recent history of the vicars general, smoothing over its many difficulties. In the new development of the Congregation, he beheld divine providence in the Vincentian mission of “working for the salvation of the people, especially of the poor inhabitants of the countryside.” His mention of the service of the poor is remarkable since it was so rarely mentioned in official Vincentian documents.

His New Year’s circular for 1830 began, as usual, with encouragement to live a good community life, with mutual charity and respect. He spent most of the letter describing the important mission of Constantinople. The mother house, he added, was also hosting four young Chinese pursuing their study of theology, and being perfected in French.

In another circular, issued just two months later, he encouraged his confreres forced to live alone to be obedient to the Congregation’s rules and not to give in to laxity and excuses. Clearly, he must have been reading reports that underscored these difficulties.

Threatened Suppression, 1829

A grave question continued to disturb the peace of the Congregation, even before the assembly was held. It must have cast a pall over its deliberations, although this is not reflected in the official minutes. The matter came to head in a debate in the French national assembly, 7 March 1829, and concerned the suppression of congregations. The issue should be understood in the context of a new wave of anti-clerical sentiment, coupled with the suppression of the Jesuits in France, actually the closure of their colleges, in 1828. The Liberal deputies feared that the Jesuits, with other congregations, were not loyal to France and so represented a threat to the state. The general council considered what to do about this, wondering whether it might affect the upcoming general assembly to elect a successor to Dewailly. The decision was to sit tight and do nothing. As it happened, Etienne took an active part in lobbying certain deputies.

The assembly debate concerned two petitions. One, submitted by Pierre Grand, proposed the suppression of all missions, while the other, submitted by François-André Isambert, favored the suppression of five missionary congregations. Grand’s motion was not extensively discussed. Isambert, a lawyer and politician, gave a lengthy and reasoned defense of his position. He followed in the tradition of some of the leading principles of the Revolution, which led him to suspect anything, such as religious life, that might threaten freedom. He favored sending a petition of the Minister of Justice to abolish a young congregation, the Missionaries of France, later called the Fathers of Mercy. Their enthusiastic and sometimes violent mission sermons were, as Isambert believed, disturbing public order. His petition extended also to the four other religious congregations devoted to giving missions, including the Congregation of the Mission. Those in favor of the Congregation pointed to its good record of service in both home (interior) and foreign (exterior) missions.

The members of the assembly debated whether any congregation had really been approved, since certain clauses of various laws seemed to suggest that none had been. As the debate unfolded, it was determined that the missionary congregations, including the Congregation of the Mission, had legal existence and that their missions, while perhaps poorly attended or without visible results, did not disturb public order or threaten the state, but were of value to France. At the end of the debate, Count Alexandre-Louis Joseph made a motion to divide the question, that is, first, to condemn the Missionaries of France or not, and then to vote for the suppression of the other congregations or not.

The motion to petition the condemnation of the Missionaries of France carried, while the motion to suppress the other congregations did not. One of the reasons it failed was the tireless lobbying work of Etienne, who made the rounds to call on the principal Conservative deputies, especially Count Joseph, and explain the position of the Congregation. On his travels to the Orient, the count came to know the Congregation of the Mission, whose members he admired. He subsequently became Prefect of the Seine (equivalently mayor of Paris) and helped protect the Congregation during the revolution of 1830.

Transfer of the Relics, Revolution of 1830

The date for the solemn transfer (or “translation”) of the relics of Saint Vincent to their new home in the chapel of the mother house, planned since 1827, was also approaching. In a special circular Salhorgne announced it to his confreres and the Sisters and proposed spiritual considerations to be drawn from the event. This occasion was destined to become one of the great public religious events of the decade, mirrored in the many accounts of it that were published.

In 1712, to prepare for Vincent’s beatification and canonization, his body had been exhumed and was authenticated. It was then removed from its original coffin and, suitably vested, was placed in a gilded silver reliquary over a side altar in the main chapel of Saint Lazare in September 1730. After the expulsion of the Congregation from there, his remains were boxed and kept in the home of the community’s attorney (notary) from 1792 to 1795, and then elsewhere until 1805. The state, meanwhile, had confiscated the reliquary and melted it.

Between 1805 and 1830 Vincent’s relics were in the care of the Daughters of Charity, rue du Vieux Colombier (1805-1815) and then rue du Bac (1815-1830). In their mother house, they were kept under an altar dedicated to the saint in the main chapel. Somewhat coincidentally, Saint John Gabriel Perboyre celebrated his first mass at this altar, now kept in the Vincentian Museum, rue de Sèvres.

The confreres at the mother house had planned to have his remains transferred to the chapel, completed in 1827 and designed specifically to house them. Charles Odiot, silversmith to the duke of Orleans and other wealthy clients, had been looking for something to show at an industrial exhibit in Paris in 1827. He mentioned this to the archbishop, Hyacinthe de Quélen, who suggested a reliquary for Saint Vincent to be made on the style of the previous one. Odiot completed it before 1827 and showed it at the exposition held at the Louvre in Paris, where he won a prize for it.

Archbishop de Quélen blessed the chapel in 1827 and had planned to have the translation at that time. Anti-clerical issues, including the expulsion of the Jesuits and others, led him to postpone it. The archbishop had kept the empty reliquary in his possession until 1830 as a way to encourage others to contribute to its purchase. By that year, the political situation having outwardly improved, he decreed a solemn ceremony for 25 April, the second Sunday after Easter. Prayers were called for in parishes, and a collection was taken up to pay the remaining amount due M. Odiot. Any surplus was to help the Daughters of Charity. There had been other public processions in Paris in the years since the Revolution, such as for the funeral of Louis XVIII, 1824, and the Jubilee, of 17 March 1826. However, the translation of Vincent’s relics was intended to stand out as a major public manifestation of religion amid an increasingly anti-clerical atmosphere.

The relics left the rue du Bac on 30 March and arrived at the archbishop’s residence at Notre Dame de Paris. There he conducted official formalities to authenticate them. The remains were prepared, cleaned, clothed, and a wax covering made for the face and hands. The chapter of canons donated to the Congregation the crucifix of Louis XIII that Saint Vincent had used to comfort the king on his deathbed. This beautifully worked piece was placed on the saint’s chest between his hands, where it remains. The reliquary was solemnly blessed on 23 April and Vincent’s remains and various documents were inserted and sealed. They were brought into the cathedral the next day for vespers, commemorative sermons, and visits by the public.

On Sunday, 25 April, the day began with a high mass celebrated by the nuncio in the presence of a dozen bishops. The ceremony of the transfer of the relics proper began with vespers in the afternoon, interrupted by a long procession. It involved governmental representatives (prefects, mayors, and a clutch of nobles), soldiers, bands, and groups of the clergy, seminarians, religious, parishioners led by those from Vincent’s parish at Clichy, and by many other faithful. Among the prelates in attendance was Louis William Dubourg, archbishop of Montauban and former bishop of Louisiana. He had invited the Vincentians to America in 1816 and had ordained John Gabriel Perboyre in 1826. It was estimated that a thousand Daughters of Charity were in attendance.

Archbishop de Quélen determined that, in addition to honoring Saint Vincent, this great public manifestation of religion, the greatest since the Revolution, would include prayers for French troops, soon to embark to conquer Algiers (which was to fall to the French on 4-5 July). To mark this, three litanic invocations were composed linking Vincent’s widely-believed North African captivity with the planned campaign. The archbishop ordered these as part of the prayers to be said for the success of the capture. Unfortunately, the procession was greeted on the street by some with coldness and hostility--more against Charles X, who had dissolved the parliament in March, than against the Church and Saint Vincent, co-opted for reasons of state. Some newspapers were even complaining about this “illegal” procession and its “inauthentic” relics.

The procession halted at locations connected with Vincent’s ministry: the Hotel Dieu, the Institut de France (near where the saint lived on rue de Seine), the charity hospital, and the site of the hospice on the rue de Sèvres where he had preached and sent Louise de Marillac and Daughters of Charity to minister to the sick poor.

The procession arrived at the mother house chapel and the interrupted vespers concluded with prayers for the king. A bishop, Pierre-Marie Cottret, invited to give a lengthy address was forced to abandon it, since the procession had already taken three hours to arrive. His forgettable panegyric of sixty-seven pages later appeared in print. Doubtless to the amazement of his guests, Salhorgne did not join them for their evening meal, believing it more correct to join his confreres in the common dining room.

During the week following, people crowded the chapel from 4:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., and attended pontifical masses and solemn afternoon sermons. Each Parisian parish was invited to attend in rotation. The king’s daughter attended, as did Charles X himself, who stayed for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. He had contributed 10,000 francs for the reliquary, and then provided the metal for a commemorative medallion, of which 30,000 were struck.

In a few weeks, as Salhorgne wrote, events changed their rejoicing into mourning. National elections led to the defeat of the royalist party, since the king had worked to become an absolute ruler, most notably through the July Ordinances (26 July) which restricted press freedom and disenfranchised three-quarters of the electorate. He then dissolved the Chamber of Deputies and ordered new elections in September. The day after, barricades were set up and rioting began at the Royal Palace culminating in a revolution (the Three Glorious Days, 27-29 July). The king abdicated on 2 August, naming as his successor his grandson, to be called Henri V. The next day, however, the National Assembly declared the throne vacant and offered the crown instead to the duke of Orléans, Louis-Philippe, who accepted it 9 August. This July Monarchy, with its Citizen King, would last until the revolution of 1848. During the Three Glorious Days, troops invaded the mother house looking for arms. Salhorgne challenged them, and remained up the whole nights of 28-30 July in the chapel guarding the relics of Saint Vincent.

On 29 July, revolutionaries looted the archbishop’s palace and stole the official documents of the translation and the remaining funds due to M. Odiot, among others. The documents were recovered six years later and returned, but the unpaid silversmith grew anxious, demanding either his money or the reliquary. As ordered by the archbishop Vincent’s body was removed on 27 August and returned secretly to the rue du Bac, and the reliquary was apparently restored to Odiot. Threatening to melt it down and use the silver for some other purposes, he forced the archbishop to court and won a judgment against him for the original sum plus interest. In 1834, the archbishop finally asked for another collection to be taken up in Paris churches.

During this same period, the mother house chapel remained closed. Salhorgne encouraged the members of the house to flee to safety, and sent the students to other houses of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. He also temporarily suspended the novitiate. This meant that no one entered the novitiate between 21 July 1830 and 25 January 1831, but apparently the novices were allowed to continue. Some Vincentians were also sent out to the missions in the Middle East, and some, notably the Chinese students, were sent back to China. The leader of this Chinese group was Louis Perboyre, brother of the martyr. He would never reach China, since he died at sea. An unexpected guest at the mother house was Bishop Frayssinous, minister of ecclesiastical affairs. He found a place of refuge among the Vincentians, although details are lacking.

The superior general moved to the town of Roye in Picardy from 21 December 1830 until Easter of the following year. In Paris, public safety continued to deteriorate and, as a result, Joseph Bailly, superior of Amiens and Roye secretly escorted the body of the saint from the rue du Bac to join Salhorgne in Roye (7 March 1831). There he had it cleverly hidden in a bricked-up oven constructed for the purpose by Brother Charles Lefevre, in the house adjacent to the Vincentian school there. It would remain hidden until 1834, just before the anniversary of the original translation.

Salhorgne moved after Easter 1831 to Amiens, where he had been invited by Ferdinand Bailly, the superior. There, he conducted the business of his council by mail. He addressed his New Year’s circular of 1832 from Amiens. He wrote that he clearly feared a divided leadership for the Congregation, as had happened in the revolution of 1789, particularly should he die a martyr’s death. He also praised Bailly’s leadership of the house at Amiens, and added that the novitiate had been reopened, presumably in Paris, with sixteen candidates.

As Salhorgne feared, divided leadership was a real possibility. The ever-resourceful Baccari tried again to be named vicar general since he believed that Salhorgne was incapable of governing the Congregation because of the Revolution. According to some correspondence from Rome, an unidentified writer reports that the pope told Baccari to send him a memorandum on the subject, and that he and the cardinals would take it up. Baccari did not do so for some reason, and so the writer concludes: “Whatever he does, I hope that he will not obtain anything, since Cardinal Odescalchi and I are working together to block this division.” In any case, nothing happened.

Even after peace returned, the bishops and his confreres at Amiens urged Salhorgne to remain, as did the confreres from the mother house. Nevertheless, he returned to Paris on 23 May 1832.

The relics of the saint were returned in early April 1834 and kept in the sacristy. There, the first members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, including Frederic Ozanam, came to pray, 12 April. As regards the unpaid reliquary, by 10 July, the archbishop had raised the money, with interest, and paid M. Odiot, who then returned the reliquary. The relics were reinserted, and the surplus funds given to the Daughters of Charity, as originally planned. The chapel was reopened to the public, who began to come again to venerate Saint Vincent. Once the dust settled, the Holy See in 1836 approved a liturgical feast to commemorate the solemn transfer of the relics. The Congregation now keeps the festival on 26 April. It is obligatory in the mother house in Paris, and may be celebrated elsewhere.

Daughters of Charity

As the superior general of the Daughters of Charity, it was Salhorgne’s responsibility to work for their welfare. In his first circular to them, he admitted that the day of his election was “the most painful of my life.” Although he had been their director since 1827, he expressed his weakness and fears at the task confronting him of being their superior general as well as that of the Congregation of the Mission.

He shaped two instructions for the Vincentians engaged in ministry to the Sisters. One was an undated letter for confessors laying out a sort of primer on their identity and government, the roles of the officers, the vows of the Sisters, in addition to suggestions about the actual hearing of confessions. He wisely concluded that the priests should not impose long penances, especially corporal ones, since their life was hard enough. The second dealt with the reception of Holy Communion, regarded as a privilege in those days.

The most important event involving the Daughters of Charity was the visions of Catherine Labouré. This pious and sturdy peasant girl began her spiritual experiences as a recently-admitted novice, in the context of the translation of the relics of Vincent de Paul. This series of events has been so carefully studied that it is not worth repeating here. Following the law of unintended consequences, what took place and how it was handled by the director of the Daughters, Jean-Marie Aladel, and by Jean-Baptiste Etienne, has burgeoned into the world-wide devotion to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. René Laurentin, the most thorough recent commentator on Catherine Labouré, has demonstrated the creativity with which the two Vincentians perhaps unintentionally conflated the accounts of her two principal series of visions: of the heart of Saint Vincent and of the Virgin Mary. In their reading of Catherine’s story, divine protection was guaranteed to the Double Family at the Revolution of 1830 by the intercession of the founder and of the Mother of God. Interest in this new devotion would significantly shape Etienne’s own view of God’s favor shown to the two families of Saint Vincent.

Foreign Missions

In this section we treat of the two principal missions dependent on the superior general, those in the Middle and Far East. A separate case is the mission in Algeria, since it was so tentative and ephemeral in the time of Dominique Salhorgne. Two American missions, the United States and Brazil, were also developing, but under the guidance of the provinces of Rome and Portugal respectively.

A significant explanation of the importance of the Congregation for France, particularly its missions, appears among Salhorgne’s papers. It is unsigned, but it is in the hand of Father Etienne. It is unclear to whom it was directed, but it clearly represents his thinking at the time of writing, 1829.

Before the Revolution, he wrote, the Congregation had emphasized seminaries, but after, it was involved in public instruction, at the schools of Montdidier, Roye and Montolieu, which enjoyed the approval of the national university. As to missions, Catholics in the Middle East were protected with the help of the French government. So highly was the Congregation reputed during the Revolution, “that the Convention, after the destruction of the Congregation of the Lazarists, ordered, in 1796, Hubert de Bayet, their ambassador at Constantinople to protect the missions and the missioners there.” He made the point that if Russia had influence in Europe over the Orthodox, so France could claim the same influence at Constantinople over Catholics. This would depend on the number of Vincentians there. What was not mentioned, clearly, was the role to be played by the Holy See.

Among the several duties falling to the procurator general of the Congregation, Jean-Baptiste Etienne, was the promotion of the Congregation’s missions. With a deft touch, he turned to the modern means at his disposal, principally the diffusion of knowledge and information through publishing. Triumphal articles on the daily progress of the Vincentian missions appeared in various journals, notably the widely-read L’Ami de la Religion et du Roi, which appeared from 1814 to 1861, and Les Annales de la Propagation de la Foi, 1822-1910. Etienne must have been the source of these articles, since he alone had the information contained in them. Apparently because of the success of the Annales de la Propagation de la Foi, Etienne promoted his own journal, the Annales de la Congrégation de la Mission et de la Compagnie des Filles de la Charité, 1834-1963.

Typical of the style of the period is an unsigned article in L’Ami, “The missions of the Fathers of Saint-Lazare in the East are growing daily.” The report then described the sending of missionaries to China, Middle East, as well as America (sent from Italy). Another article analyzed the financial realities of missions, doubtless in view of interesting generous donors. The author noted the financial plight of the missions, since annual sums received from the government have been suppressed. This was overstating the issue, since the distribution had been cut back by only one-third, from 15,000 to 10,000 francs because of budgetary cut-backs, not apparently any anti-clerical sentiment. To overcome the deficit, the report noted that the Congregation had planned to print two religious books in Modern Greek, partly to counteract Protestant literature, and partly to raise funds. One (Journée du Chrétien) was completed, but the other (The Imitation of Christ) was postponed, lacking the funds to continue.

He solicited funds also from the Association for the Propagation of the Faith, the publishers of the Annales de la Propagation de la Foi, headquartered in Lyons. Reports of disbursements of funds for Vincentian foreign missions were a regular feature in its pages, as were letters sent by missionaries to Etienne, with accounts of their works and, frequently, with appeals for more funds. Although not as successful, if that is the right term, as the Missions Etrangères, the missions of the Congregation regularly received funds sent in from members of the Association, principally from France. Other Vincentians, mainly bishops, also had direct access to the Association, something that irritated the centralizing Etienne, who wanted all funding to pass through his hands.

In an important report from this period, dated 4 November 1832, Etienne thanked the association for its help in several missions, principally China and the Middle East. His theological analysis of what was happening became characteristic of his thinking in later years. “Thanks to the visible protection of God’s providence, the uprisings that took place in Syria have not troubled religion in any way,” speaking of a revolt in Damascus, in September 1831.

Unfortunately, not all that took place in the Vincentian missions in the Middle East was so well regarded. Complaints came to Propaganda Fide in Rome about the condition of these missions and Cardinal Lambruschini relayed them to Salhorgne. Since the present pope, Gregory XVI, as Cardinal Cappellari, had been prefect of Propaganda Fide, he knew the situation. Lambruschini wrote: “It was told me that the greatest obstacle to the good success of this enterprise [missions in the Middle East] had been the superior general of your Congregation,” Father Dewailly. His excuse was that he had been obligated to come to an agreement with the French government, and so refused all direction coming from Propaganda Fide.

Etienne wrote the Congregation’s reply to the nuncio in Paris, 11 June 1832. Etienne noted that the official letter from Propaganda had disturbed and hurt them, since they had always tried their best, even in their weakened condition during the sixteen years since their reestablishment. Despite the abandonment of some missions, progress had been made. In Smyrna, for example, although the church had been burned down and the mission found itself burdened with debts, the missionaries were at work. The more telling point in his reply dealt with the three-way relationship existing among the Congregation, the French government and Propaganda Fide. The Congregation, in this reading of events, had come to the Middle East because of an agreement between the pope and the king, to whom alone temporal authority belonged. Propaganda claimed that “the superior general has refused constantly to cooperate with Propaganda Fide.” Etienne countered by appealing to the requirement to pass through government channels. A further complaint from Propaganda was that “the superior general never sent information to Propaganda Fide.” The reply was that correspondence by mail between Paris and Theodore Bricet, the vicar apostolic in Constantinople, was difficult. In these matters, as in so many others, the central government of the Congregation found itself caught between the varying requirements of Church and state.

Propaganda’s pique must have encouraged Salhorgne and Etienne to give more serious attention to these missions, since the superior general managed to reopen the college of Saint Benoît in Constantinople. Envying the success of the Jesuits in China, with their expertise in mathematics and sciences, the Vincentians planned that the college should have up-to-date programs in those fields. At the same time, plans were advancing for opening in Antoura, in present-day Lebanon, a college similar to that in Constantinople, as well as another in Damascus. Indicative of Salhorgne’s preference for this mission is the fact that he sent twenty-two missioners there but only nine to China.

One reason for sending fewer numbers to China must have been problems with the Portuguese government, who governed the colony of Macao. In this time, European missionaries were forced to leave Macao, and the Jean-Baptiste Torrette, the head of the French missionary effort in China, stayed with the French consul at Canton. This could be only a temporary solution, but his close relationship with France helped him greatly. The novitiate for the Chinese Vincentians in Macao was not affected and was able to continue, with seventeen novices in 1834-1835. Then, because of the illness of Portuguese visitor for Portugal and Macao, Salhorgne named Torrette as visitor over Saint Joseph in Macao and the Portuguese missions in China. In doing so, he was responding to a request from the Holy See to help the Portuguese. This interim appointment effectively put the Portuguese missions under the control of France. Although Torrette had the powers of a visitor, the Chinese missions were not erected into a province at this time, and he would not attend a general assembly.

Vincentian work in Algeria dated from the time of the founder. It had been supported, as well, by the French government. With the death of the vicar apostolic in 1789 and the loss of income from the old Saint Lazare, the mission ceased after the death of Jean-André Joussouy, the last Vincentian there in 1811. In 1814, the pope wanted to see it reestablished and, by 1825, the Congregation managed to send two of its members there. They worked for small numbers of Catholics and, in fishing season, one went to Bone (now Annaba) to minister to the fishermen, many of whom were Catholics, probably Europeans. The missionaries would remain in Algiers until France broke diplomatic relations in 1827.

Internal Concerns

Two sources allow us to gain insights into Salhorgne’s concern for the Congregation, one private, the other public. The minutes of the general council record in brief statements the decisions of the council, which met at least once a month. The decisions mostly concern every-day affairs, like property, legacies, acceptance of houses and works. Occasionally scandals arise, such as the case of a superior of the school at Montolieu who admitted committing “infamies” with a boy, who later accused him. Mercifully, such incidents involving Vincentians were very rare.

The second source, the public one, consists of the general’s circular letters. Typically, these documents have two sections. The first is more spiritual and exhortatory in tone, and the second carries news about the works of the Congregation, involving both houses and individuals. In general, the first sections are not original or revealing, since they repeat exhortations encountered often in past circulars. Topics treated, for example, are the renunciation of one’s own will, the interior life, a living prayer, observance of rules, mortification and traditional Vincentian virtues.

The New Year’s circular for 1833 introduces a topic not often encountered, the responsibilities of visitors. Here, Salhorgne reminded visitors outside of France that they were allowed to move the subjects of their own provinces from one house to another. This feature was not granted to the visitors of France for many decades; all personnel transfers were decided in Paris, undoubtedly on the recommendation of the visitors. He did not mention that, among other points of news, part of the mother house had served as a hospital during the cholera outbreak of July 1832. He was present for it, since he had returned at the end of May, and many members of the house distinguished themselves by their charity extended to the sick.

Later in the same year, 20 October, Salhorgne issued another circular to the Vincentians of France. Because of its more specific character, it was not reprinted in the three-volume collection of circulars. In it, he detailed numerous points about Vincentian life: the use of money, trips, recreation and tobacco, to name a few. He was especially severe on the issue of which and how much clothing one was allowed to bring from one house to another: one cassock or riding coat, one shirt, one pair of shoes, one pair of shorts, a night cap, one pair of slippers, personal books and copies of sermons, but nothing else. All other clothing would be provided from common supplies in the house of destination. Cassocks were not to be too long, nor the collar hidden. Those who still used a skull cap should have it made of cloth. The cincture should be of wool, and five or six inches in breadth. However, if secular dress was required because of the law, it was to be very simple.

The principle here was uniformity, applied to life-style as well as to teaching. As Saint Vincent did, Salhorgne urged his confreres to avoid new or modern opinions in theology, concluding “In matters of religion, all truths are ancient.” He also tried to avoid specializing in teaching, having Vincentians be generalists, with every professor able to teach everything in a seminary. This remarkable document ends with the signatures of thirteen confreres of the Paris house, who stated: “we freely give our adhesion to all the articles of this letter, and we promise to conform to it.” The cause of this statement remains unknown, but must have come from certain reports reaching the council. He followed up this circular by another issued some months later and directed to the superiors of houses. In it he expressed his gratitude to their submission, and concluded: “Lighten my load by not transgressing our rules.”

For his New Year’s circular of 1834, he reported on the missions, and indicated that “the majority [of new vocations] manifest the desire of being sent to the foreign missions.” Seen from the perspective of the developing mission movement in France, this makes sense, but it contrasts sharply with the Congregation’s original purposes as outlined in its founding documents. The letter from the following year reported mainly good news in the missions. This was tempered, however, by news of the mistreatment and expulsion of Vincentians from Spain. He linked their relief to the regular observance of rules by others in the Congregation. “If we wish our prayers to be heard, we should turn to Saint Vincent, make ourselves worthy of his powerful intercession by exact observance of rules, and by no relaxation of observance.”

One event of great significance was the departure for China of John Gabriel Perboyre, 6 January 1835. Deeply moved by the loss of his brother Louis, who had died at sea while accompanying the Chinese students back to their home, John Gabriel determined to follow in his footsteps. He was serving as the assistant director of the novitiate in Paris since the director was ill. As a member of the house, he lived and worked with those who would have a great role to play in his cause for canonization after his martyrdom in 1840, notably Jean-Baptiste Etienne. Their friendship must certainly have been one of the reasons why the Congregation supported his cause to the detriment of Francis Regis Clet.

Resignation, General Assembly of 1835

The year 1835 marked the sixth year since the general assembly that elected Father Salhorgne. According to the constitutions, he should have called for a sexennial assembly. Considering his age and health, he decided to summon a general assembly instead, to begin on 15 August 1835. He had wanted to resign as early as 1834, but put it off to wait for the right moment. The assembly offered him just the opportunity he was seeking. He began by writing a request, dated 20 May, requesting that the members of the assembly excuse him from participating in the assembly because of illness. This document, however, may be a draft, since he actually did participate and the assembly never formally considered his request.

The assembly opened with twenty-eight members. All eligible members attended, save for the delegates from Poland and Portugal. The governments of both of these countries did not allow their travel to France.

One of the first orders of business dealt with the full participation, with the right to vote, of Jean-Baptiste Etienne, secretary general and procurator general. His right had been guaranteed by the Constitutions, but a doubt must have arisen whether he could participate during the discussion of the Salhorgne’s resignation. The delegates approved his participation. They next dealt with the question of Salhorgne’s offer to resign. In answer to the question of whether the superior general could be permitted to resign, the vote was twenty in favor, seven against, with one abstention, his own. A committee was constituted to inform him, and he then accepted their invitation to join the general assembly, with the right of vote in all sessions. Etienne, however, believed that such a resignation went contrary to the Constitutions despite the vote of the assembly. He perhaps had overlooked the fact that Father Pierron had resigned for reasons of health in 1703. His perspective was, however, that since the Constitutions had not foreseen resignation, they thus had forbidden it.

The next point was the election of the new superior general. Pierre Le Go, first assistant, addressed the members and proposed traditional qualities to be sought in a candidate: wisdom, good intellect, good will and right judgment. “May our votes be an expression of His divine will. God preserve us from all human respect and earthly considerations….” It was all over quickly. On the first ballot, Jean-Baptiste Nozo was elected. His election must have been a foregone conclusion, since he received sixteen votes. The remaining ones were divided up among the elderly Le Go, with four; Salhorgne (who had just resigned), with two; Roca, visitor of Spain, one; Giriodi, an Italian from the province of Lombardy, one; and Ferdinand Bailly, two. The total was twenty-six, meaning that two had not voted, probably Salhorgne, plus someone else.

The assembly then proceeded to the election of the assistants. In doing so, they accepted the point of the Lyons provincial assembly that the assistants should be experts and devoted to studies. The insult implied in this must not have escaped the previous assistants. Those elected were Fathers Le Go (first assistant, reelected), Grappin (second assistant), Aladel (third assistant, who had not been present at the assembly), and Fiorillo (fourth assistant).

As usual, the members then discussed the various proposals sent in from the provinces. One major issue would have far-reaching consequences for the Congregation, that dealing with Vincentian bishops. The question was asked whether “the superior general should, in his prudence, use ways to keep members of the Congregation from accepting this office.” This question had been discussed in the provincial assembly of the province of “France,” that is, Paris. Its five members, including Jean-Baptiste Etienne, formulated the question: “whether it would be proper for the general assembly to propose the means by which, in its prudence, our members could be impeded from accepting the episcopacy.” They answered negatively, since enough concerning this abuse had already been determined in the rules of the superior general. One is entitled, however, to believe that Etienne himself had proposed this to the others, since it surfaced again in the general assembly, despite the decision of the provincial assembly not to send it on.

In the general assembly’s discussion, the members went on record deploring “the huge damage done both to the soul and the body of the Congregation” by Vincentians becoming bishops. They therefore urged the superior general to recall for his confreres the humility of Saint Vincent and the prohibition in the Common Rules against accepting ecclesiastical dignities. A related question was raised later in the same session: whether the superior general might permit members to accept ecclesiastical dignities that had a salary attached. The answer in this was yes, provided that the income would belong to the Congregation, and be under the supervision of the superior general.

It should be noted that the assembly did not go on record in the minutes concerning the means to be used to keep members from accepting the office of bishop. Personal notes of the discussion, kept by Nozo, however, are more revealing. The question was posed whether Vincentians who accepted the episcopacy would lose the rights and privileges of membership in the Congregation, or whether they should be deemed as having left it entirely. (This would be the stand taken by Etienne during his administration.) The presumption seems to have been that the Holy See was at fault by removing the best members of provinces, whose leadership would then be left impoverished. In addition, another presumption is based on a reading of the Constitutiones Selectae (1670), article 9: “He [the superior general] will be unable to accept ecclesiastical dignities without the consent of the general assembly, unless the Supreme Pontiff demands it in virtue of holy obedience.” Since the superior general would be unable to accept such dignities, otherwise unspecified, despite his high office, how much more would an ordinary member of the Congregation be unable to do so. A third presumption was clearly that some members had sought the episcopacy for themselves, something clearly against the thought of Saint Vincent. It seems more likely, however, that the founder had envisioned ecclesiastical dignities to be canonries, prelacies or salaried benefices within a diocese, such as being a pastor or a member of the diocesan curia. The members of the assembly, on the other hand, were clearly thinking about Vincentians becoming bishops.

Yet another issue with wide-ranging implications came from an innocent request to continue the process for the beatification of Francesco Folchi (1794-1823). He was a young priest of the Roman province, its novice director, with a reputation for sanctity. The assembly’s response was negative since, in their view, the promotion of Vincentians was absolutely against community tradition. It is instructive, however, to consider that very shortly after the martyrdom of John Gabriel Perboyre, a French missionary, this prohibition was laid aside. Folchi’s cause has never been resumed.

A persistent question was also considered, the gratuity of Vincentian missions. Since the time of Saint Vincent, foundations had been set aside to assure that the poor would not have to pay for hearing the Gospel preached to them during a mission. The question now was whether a house without such a foundation could give missions and collect money, or abandon missions because of their poverty. The answer was that such a house should abandon missions. If, however, a bishop, pastor, or rich person of good life would pay, then a poor house could accept the money. This issue would surface at many other levels in the history of the Congregation, with varying responses depending on circumstances.

Illness and death

At the conclusion of the assembly, the new superior general graciously decided to appoint his predecessor as his admonitor. However, gout soon took its toll on Salhorgne’s feet and legs, and he eventually could no longer walk nor stand for mass. He found it difficult to sleep, and the medicines prescribed for him were harsh and difficult to support. In his last months, he edified the community of the mother house by his faithfulness to the recitation of the Breviary and to his daily reading of the New Testament. Death came during the night between 24 and 25 May 1836. His funeral, celebrated in the chapel of the mother house that he had watched over with such care, took place the next day, followed by burial at the Vaugirard Cemetery. He was eighty.

Jean-Baptiste Etienne, who had worked closely with Dominique Salhorgne, praised him for the good example that he gave to others. He had been severe with himself, and regular in rising for morning prayer. The rule of silence, however, was not hard for him because of his personality. He breathed Vincentian simplicity and valued uniformity among his confreres.


Vincentian Encyclopedia, The Restoration Superiors General, Section 2, Dominique Salhorgne.