Italian Governance of the Congregation

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Benedetto Fenaja 1793

The first of the three Italian confreres to govern the Congregation during the period of the Revolution was Benedetto Fenaja. He was born in the Trastevere district of Rome, 20 February 1736. Although coming from a poor family, he received a good education at the Collegio Romano, under the direction of the Jesuits. He thought for a time about entering the Society of Jesus but came to the Congregation of the Mission instead. He entered 6 November 1751, and made his vows 22 February 1754, two days after his eighteenth birthday.

After his ordination to the priesthood in 1760, he devoted himself to the work of the missions in various dioceses around Rome. Like many others, his preaching abilities extended also to retreats and other conferences. His reputation was such that Father Jacquier appointed him superior of the central house in Rome and, in 1777, visitor of the province of Rome. From Montecitorio he moved to Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, a less complicated house to run alongside his other obligations.

When Cayla had to flee Paris in 1792, Pius VI turned to Fenaja for the temporary government of the Congregation, naming him vicar apostolic. As seen above, this responsibility lasted barely six months.

A major turning point in his life was his appointment by the pope to preach a mission to the people of Rome. In 1796, Pius VI proclaimed a mission and announced that Fenaja would preach at Piazza Navona, the largest and most frequented site. His instructions and exhortations were so powerful that he aroused sentiments in his hearers of support for the threatened pontiff.

When the Roman Republic was proclaimed in 1798, the pope was taken off into exile in Florence, and Fenaja followed. The elderly Pius VI died the following year, 29 August 1799, in Valence, France. Although revolutionary spirits predicted that he would be the last pope, they were disappointed when Pius VII was elected after a lengthy conclave in Venice. He returned to Rome where Fenaja had preceded him.


Not long after, the pope named Fenaja a bishop, with the title archbishop of Philippi. In some way he was an accidental bishop since the pope had set his eyes on Michele di Pietro to be vice-gerent of Rome, that is, the second in command after the vicar general of Rome. Di Pietro refused and asked his friend Fenaja to present his excuses to the pope. He was so effective that the pope accepted the refusal but appointed Fenaja in his place. He was ordained bishop on 27 September 1800, five days after his nomination. He accompanied the pope to Paris for the coronation of Napoleon as emperor. While in Paris, he joined the pope, 23 December 1804, in a visit to the new mother house of the Daughters of Charity to pray before the relics of Saint Vincent.

On their return to Rome, Pius made use of his skills to handle the case of Scipione de’ Ricci (1714-1810), bishop of Pistoia and Prato. Following orders from the duke of Tuscany, Ricci convoked a synod in Pistoia, 18-28 September 1786, noted for its political Jansenist tendencies. The pope condemned the synodal decisions by the bull Auctorem Fidei, 28 August 1794, but Ricci continued stubbornly to uphold what he had done. Thanks to the work of Fenaja, he recanted in 1805. In recognition of his efforts, the pope named Fenaja patriarch of Constantinople, an honorary designation of the highest rank, although he did not name him a cardinal. In this era of the Vincentian anomaly of divided government, Fenaja, vice-gerent of Rome, was himself an anomaly: an archbishop and assistant of the Congregation of the Mission simultaneously.

Exile in Paris

When French armies again invaded Rome, 2 February 1808, the pressure on Pius VII became severe. He and the members of his government were removed, Fenaja among them. He arrived in Paris toward the end of August 1809, and was put under a sort of house arrest. Since there was no Vincentian mother house, he found lodging in the buildings of the Foreign Mission Society of Paris, saved from destruction by a pious woman who purchased them after their expropriation. Fenaja spent three years there, attended by a faithful servant. An inventory of his goods, done before his forced transfer to Paris, shows that they consisted in the ordinary effects of daily clerical life. The inventory gives a brief glimpse into his personal life when it specifies a chocolate pot, a coffee mill and a box of tobacco among his possessions. This Vincentian, although not a martyr, was one of the countless number who suffered for their faith. He died in Paris 20 December 1812.

Fenaja governed the Congregation only briefly, but Carlo Domenico Sicardi exercised his responsibility under various titles for nearly fifteen years.

Carlo Domenico Sicardi 1804-1819

He was born on 30 October 1730 in Frabosa, a small town in the province of Cuneo. He entered the Congregation in Turin in 1751, taking his vows two years later. He was assigned to teach theology and eventually became superior of the house of Turin. In this role, he was elected as a delegate to the general assembly of 1788, at which he was elected assistant. In that office, he also served as the director of the Daughters of Charity. As mentioned above, he managed to hide from the pillagers of Saint Lazare by remaining in the Sisters’ mother house the whole day of 13 July 1789.

He returned to Saint Lazare from the Sisters when it was safe to begin to pick up the pieces. Since it was increasingly clear that the Congregation would be suppressed or at least moved from Saint Lazare, he joined Cayla and his fellow assistants in gradually preparing the remaining treasures of the Congregation for safekeeping. The relic of the heart of Saint Vincent was put in his charge sometime in 1790. He seems also to have been given the responsibility of guarding the Founder’s clothing as well as his personal items (breviary, walking stick and the like), a valuable painting of the saint and a collection of his writings. Someone, possibly Sicardi, developed a method to hide the relic: hollowing out the pages of a large book, volume two of François Giry’s Vie des Saints. When it was closed, it was just one of a number of books and other objects and gave no hint of its contents. Among the personal items Sicardi took is a manuscript of meditations for the annual eight-day retreat at Saint Lazare, copied by Cyr-Jacques Renaudon (b. 1695) in 1720. Sicardi’s name appears on the title page of his important witness to the piety of pre-Revolutionary French Vincentians.

Saint Vincent’s Relics

The plan developed to transfer these objects to the Vincentian house in Turin, which Sicardi knew well. He would be accompanied by two other Vincentians, Edward Ferris and Thomas-Félix Lebrun. Four Daughters of Charity would make up the rest of the traveling party, Sisters Colasson, Jolié, Lespinasse and Maltret, who wrote up an account of their adventures. This group of Sisters had been missioned to Hennebont but, when in 1791 they refused to take a prescribed oath, they left their house. According to Sister Maltret, “A cannon had been aimed at our door and the wick was lit” to force them out. After seeking refuge in other houses in Belle-Ile and Rennes, they arrived in Paris. Their new mission was to begin a house in Turin. The group of seven, all in lay clothing, left Paris 12 September 1792. Despite their secular dress, they were recognized one day in an inn and were in peril of their lives. Providentially, a general who had come to know the Vincentians during a retreat he made at Saint Lazare vouched for them and sent them safely on their way.

Once arrived in Turin, the letters and the clothing were recognized officially, and the heart relic was exposed in the Vincentian chapel there. On one occasion, 17 July 1793, the relic was brought about in procession through the city to pray for rain, which subsequently fell in torrents. When Sicardi left for three months, he entrusted the precious relic again to the Daughters of Charity in the city. The reliquary apparently tipped over on the Sisters’ altar, and small fragments of the heart fell out. The Sisters gathered them up into four little reliquaries which Sicardi allowed the Sisters to retain. When, in 1796, the Sisters were forced to leave Turin for Vienna ahead of Napoleon’s troops, they had seals put on their relics to authenticate them. In 1800, the Vincentian house in Turin was suppressed, so Sicardi, still responsible for the now-reduced relic, brought it to his family and then deposited it with his confrere Georges-François Bertholdi (or Bertoldo) (1742-1804). He died only two months later but, fortunately, he had deposited it for safekeeping with an acquaintance whose name has not been recorded, and Sicardi was then able to recover it from him.

Heart relic to France

In late 1804, Cardinal Fesch, archbishop of Lyons, learned of its existence probably while attending the coronation of his nephew, and he determined to ask for the heart for himself. In a few days, he decreed that the Turin Vincentians should hand it over to a French general, Jacques-François de Menou, sent to transfer it to France, along with the book in which it had been kept. The cardinal’s reasons were that he loved relics in the first place and that, since Paris had the body, so Lyons, where Vincent had been a pastor, should have his heart, before which Fesch would be able to pray.

The transfer was more difficult and less complete than the cardinal imagined. One issue was the ownership of the relic. The archbishop of Turin wrote to Fesch declaring, incorrectly, that it was the property of the Vincentian house in Turin, having been given to them, and not just placed there on deposit by permission of the superior general. This would have made the transfer to Fesch more difficult. The cardinal would not be convinced and insisted that Menou take possession as quickly as possible. The Turin Vincentians, however, had their own plans and secretly excised two heart valves which they placed in another reliquary and which remain in Turin.

The further diminished relic and reliquary were replaced in the book that had brought them to Turin, and arrived in Paris in May 1805, where they were authenticated in the presence of Brunet and Sister Deschaux, who had seen the heart exposed in Saint Lazare. Then the three items were brought to Lyons about 1 August 1805, and a solemn festival was organized on 29 September to welcome them to the cathedral where the reliquary was enshrined. The Daughters of Charity of Lyons received the large book, which is now kept at the rue du Bac in Paris. In 1814, when Hanon left prison, he tried to get the relic back. He queried Sicardi about it, and the latter explained that Cayla had left the heart with him not as a gift but as a deposit to be returned to the superior general once the Congregation had been restored in France. Hanon then went to Lyons with this document and talked with the vicar general, but its return was deemed impossible. Although a subsequent archbishop of Lyons eventually returned the heart to the Daughters of Charity, he placed the original reliquary in the diocesan museum, where it remains.

During the years of repression, Sicardi spent his time with his confreres in the province, and then with his family. He met the superior general when the latter was making his way to Rome, but returned to his family so as not to burden Cayla with the cost of providing for his upkeep. After Cayla’s death, it took Sicardi six months to join Brunet in Rome. He became vicar general, as explained above, and undertook his governance of the Congregation.

Daughter of Charity Separation in Spain

Because of his responsibility for the Congregation outside of France, Sicardi had to deal with the question of the identity of the Daughters of Charity in Spain. King Ferdinand VII (1788-1833) held views similar to Napoleon and other European monarchs concerning religious communities, in that they often tried to enforce a separation of their citizens who were religious from any correspondence with foreign superiors. Further, the visitors of the Congregation in Spain did not believe it was their responsibility to direct the Daughters, with the result that a secular priest became their director. The king persuaded Pius VII to approve new constitutions for the Daughters of Charity in Spain, which he did in a bull of 26 March 1816. By this decree he approved the rules prepared by Francisco Antonio Cebrián y Valda, Patriarch of the (West) Indies, which placed them under his jurisdiction as “first administrator of this society.”

Problems soon arose, and the pope realized that the whole affair had to be undone. By two new documents in late 1818, he placed the Daughters of Charity “entirely and for ever under the full jurisdiction, obedience, superiorship and dependence on the current vicar general of the Congregation of the Priests of Saint Vincent de Paul and his successors,” and then revoked the new rules in favor of “the single rule given by Saint Vincent de Paul which remained in use in the kingdom of Spain until our pontificate,” changing nothing concerning the governance of the Company.

Administration and Spiritual Teaching

In 1815 a new book appeared in Rome, De Privilegiis et Indulgentiis Congregationi Missionis auctoritate apostolica concessis et confirmatis. In keeping with Vincentian practice, the author’s name was not given, but it soon became known that Sicardi was its author. His purpose was to remove doubts about certain points of privileges and indulgences. This was the first publication of this type and, despite the author’s erudition, the work caused more problems than it solved. Subsequent editions would seek to clarify it. It was reported, orally, that Pius VII responded to further doubts that it was his intention to grant whatever appeared in this book. Legally, however, this had no standing, and the book never had much currency within the Congregation.

Sicardi felt empowered to continue the practice of writing an annual circular letter to the Congregation as the superiors general had done. His first, the New Year’s letter for 1816, is full of laments for the evils wrought by the Revolution, particularly on the Congregation. He summoned his confreres to a return to the observance of the rules, community life and the traditional Vincentian virtues, after the example of Vincent de Paul and other good models of observance. Interestingly, his emphasis was not on France but on Italy and other parts of the Congregation over which he had responsibility. He condemned, though not harshly, those Vincentians who had begun to live on their own, particularly members in Poland and Russia (or Lithuania). The conditions in these two countries would be a cause of some unhappiness in the Congregation for decades.

He announced in this same letter the erection of the province of Naples. He praised the confreres of the new province for their dedication to the works given them. His decision to erect this new province was unique in the sense that it was the only one that he established, even though he had the power to do so. Its founding as a province was proof, if any was needed, that the Congregation was still a vital entity. He concluded with other good news about the development of various missions, such as Spain, Portugal and the United States.

In his second circular, he presented a lengthy reflection on Divine Providence in the midst of disasters, beginning in the Old Testament. His central point, however, was that God had divinely preserved the house of Montecitorio in Rome as the sole beacon of true Vincentian life and character, “the object of divine predilection.” The reason for this was the “spirit of religion, regularity and the observance of the duties of our state, perceived ever in force among the children of Vincent de Paul, their founder. This has been the general impression shared with me by laity as well as by members of the clergy.” The political overtones of this comment should not be overlooked, inasmuch as he had been engaged in a struggle with the French vicars over leadership. In his view, therefore, the French had lost their leadership because of their lack of exactly those elements that had preserved his house in Rome.

The reason for the flourishing condition of the Roman province, which he urged on others, was strict observance of the rules, in the spirit of Saint Vincent. The two other Italian provinces, in his opinion, were likewise flourishing. Spain and Portugal were advancing, but he registered some hesitation about France, to which he gave a mere four sentences. The missions of the Middle East, too, were in good condition, and the new American mission, founded by the Roman province, was full of promise.

The successes of the Roman province were doubtless due, in no small measure, to the work of Sicardi, although he was never the provincial. In his personal life, he was of a retiring and quiet character, with good manners and affability. Clearly, he also indulged in intrigue and fights, but undoubtedly for the honor of God and the glory of the Congregation. While in Rome, it is said that he left only on business, not to make friends. In his last years, this persistent and politically astute Vincentian received an assistant in the person of Francesco Antonio Baccari, 1818-1819. Sicardi died 13 June 1819, at the age of ninety. In his last will, dated Rome, 21 October 1812, he left his goods to his beloved house of Montecitorio, to be used “for pious causes.”

Francesco Antonio Baccari 1819-1827

This Vincentian, who also had a reputation as a church architect, was born on 11 August 1747 in Lendinara, a small town in the northeast of Italy. After attending missions given by the Vincentians from Ferrara, he decided to join the Congregation. He entered at the young age of fourteen, in 1763, and pronounced his vows two years later. He was sent to teach at Fermo after his ordination, and while there developed his interests in architecture. His life then alternated between periods of teaching, preaching missions and ill health.

As the French Revolution reached into northern Italy, he had to stay home and lay aside his clerical dress. Nevertheless, he was working as a priest, after 1799, in Ferrara. In approximately fifteen years living apart from the Congregation he worked especially on architecture, which he studied and then moved into designing and building. A tower and church at Lendinara as well as a church in Salodeccio, diocese of Rimini, are his work, although the tower was not completed until 1827. He was able to count on his brothers, both diocesan priests, for financing.

Vincentian life resumed

He was able to resume his Vincentian life in 1807 at the house in Florence. On 3 May 1810, however, Napoleon’s decree of the general suppression of religious congregations in the Papal States was issued, and Baccari was forced for a second time to return to Lendinara. He worked there as an assistant in a parish and helped to rehabilitate a closed parish in the town.

Six years later he wrote to Sicardi to place him in a Vincentian house once again, and his appointment was to Montecitorio. He would be superior of this important house from 1817 to 1820. Sicardi recognized his qualities, and Baccari was appointed his substitute, or “pro-vicar,” and then became vicar general in his own right, 21 May 1821.

During his time in Rome, he pursued several courses, in addition to his architectural interests. He wrote a book on helps for confessors, noted for its rigid morality, published in 1827 and often reprinted. He was also noted for his help in solidifying the work of the Italian houses and called them to faithfulness to the traditions of the Congregation. For this, he enjoyed the esteem of the popes during whose pontificate he lived and worked. This detail may also explain the easy access he enjoyed to the officials of the Holy See, as well as to the pope. He used this influence, as noted above, to further his perspective of the Italian ascendancy in the Congregation.

His major preserved output, however, lies in his lengthy circular letters addressed to the members of the Congregation under his leadership. In the printed edition, they cover seventy pages and treat of a large number of subjects. Mainly, however, they are exhortations to faithfulness to the rules and practices of the Congregation, all done in a spirit of prayer and self-denial. For this purpose, he urged his confreres to root out any abuses that had crept in, particularly because of the evils of the age. If we credit the observations of his companions, he was a good model of what he urged on others. His testament, signed first in 1832, shows that he had a significant amount of personal money, but that he continued his interests in family and in many charitable works. He suffered a paralyzing stroke on 3 March 1835 and died within the hour in his beloved Montecitorio.