Martyrs and Confessors of the Faith

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The Congregation of the Mission lost some of its members to death in probable hatred of the faith before the Revolution. The first martyr was the Irish seminary student Thady Lye. Nicolas Etienne and Brother Philippe Patte died of poisoning in Madagascar in 1664, and Brothers Pierre Pilliers and Guillaume Gallet were massacred there in 1674. Jean Le Vacher and Brother François Francillon were executed in Algiers in the 1680s, and Fathers Appiani and Pedrini suffered imprisonment in China in the eighteenth century. Aside from these seven martyrs and two confessors, the Congregation had no others who received the crown of martyrdom.

This all changed during the years of the Revolution. Because they have been beatified, the best known are Louis-Joseph François and Jean-Henri Gruyer, who died in 1792, and Pierre-René Rogue, who was executed in 1796. They were not the only victims, however. These Vincentian martyrs and confessors of the faith are listed here in approximate chronological order of their date of death and generally not grouped together according to the place of their suffering. The reason is that the majority did not die with fellow Vincentians, but instead with other prisoners. Their causes for canonization either were never introduced or have not progressed, generally for lack of detailed information. Nonetheless, their stories are worth presenting, even briefly.

They can be divided into two main groups. The first suffered under the successive governments of the Constituent Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, and the Convention. The latter put Terror on the public agenda in 1793. The second period followed the death of Robespierre, continuing under the government of the Convention and then the Directory.

Under the Terror

Under the Terror, the principal cause of arrest and death was conviction for not having taken the oath to support the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. When it became evident that many of the clergy would not take the oath, the government gradually tightened the screws, resulting in a schism. One result was a second oath, which had come into force on 14 August 1792. This oath required priests to swear their allegiance to liberty and equality: “I swear to be faithful to the nation and to maintain liberty and equality or to die defending them.” This text seemed too weak to some, and so the National Assembly voted on a new text, 3 September 1792: “I swear that, preserving Liberty and Equality with all my power, as well as the security of persons and property, I will be faithful to the nation or die defending it if need be.” The problem with these oaths was the lack of agreement on their meaning. They could easily have implied that the church would be free of any outside authority, especially Rome’s, and that the hierarchy of the church would have to cease, since it would be against equality.

The penalty for non-compliance was either voluntary exile within two weeks or deportation to French Guiana. Abbé Barruel, an eyewitness, described the scene of the departures: “…all the highways of this empire, crowded by fifty thousand ecclesiastics… of all ranks, and all orders hurrying to the sea-ports, to the frontiers, and leaving France in every direction….”

As for deportation, a decree of the Committee of Public Safety (25 January 1794) organized the assembling of the non-juring priests in three ports on the Atlantic, while waiting for them to be deported in groups. The clergy were brought, often by foot, to the ports, where they were despoiled of their few possessions before being placed in the local prisons or on decommissioned ships at anchor in the river. Those in Nantes were simply drowned, while those in Bordeaux and Rochefort were treated as the decree specified.

Another result of the Terror was the Law of Suspects (17 September 1793), under which nearly anyone could be imprisoned merely on suspicion of anti-revolutionary activities.

Louis Hayer (1751-1793) was the earliest victim. He had been a professor at the seminary of Poitiers until the expulsion of the Congregation, when went to stay with a friend and remained in hiding with her. Nevertheless, he continued his priestly work at great peril to his life. This culminated on Easter night when he went to bring the eucharist to a sick person. He was stopped by soldiers, arrested and interrogated. The reason for his condemnation was that he supposedly had taken part in counter-revolutionary uprisings. He was guillotined in Niort, 2 April 1793.

Alexis-Julien Lucas (1764-1793) was assigned to the parish in Rochefort at the time of the Revolution. Instead of leaving France as the law required, he fled the town to safety with his brother in Nantes and, to make a living, became an apprentice printer. He was soon betrayed by someone who wanted the promised reward. He was arrested, 21 May 1793, and, after interrogation, was condemned to deportation to French Guiana. In the meantime, because of the English naval blockade, and because there were so many priests in a similar situation, he was put on a ship in the river Loire, ostensibly awaiting deportation. In fact, the guards treated the prisoners with great severity, gradually withdrawing food for those who had no funds to pay. At length, Lucas was moved to a barge with some ninety others. On 17 November 1793, below-water port holes were opened, the ship filled with water, and the prisoners drowned. They had been stripped to their underwear and shackled four by four to keep them from swimming to safety. Lucas was only twenty-nine. In announcing the loss of the non-juring clergy, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the Convention’s special envoy, overlooked the fact that he had ordered their execution.

Two of Lucas’s confreres suffered in Rochefort. Jean-Louis Janet (1761-1794) was a professor of theology at the seminary of Angoulême. He refused the oath but, instead of returning to his family after the seminary was suppressed, remained openly ministering in the city. In April 1793 he too was imprisoned and condemned to deportation. In Rochefort, he was put on an old slave ship, the “Washington.” Here he would meet another Vincentian, Nicolas Parisot (1757-1794). The latter had been econome of the seminary of Sainte Anne in Metz. Like the others, he refused the oath, then went into hiding but continued his ministry. Parisot arrived in Rochefort in May. The guard regularly stripped new arrivals of everything and left them to rot on the ship. During the day they were exposed on the deck, standing for hours, forced to maintain silence, and packed together in all weathers. The night was even worse below decks. Their poor food consisted in rough bread, often mixed with straw and sawdust. Parisot somehow wrote to Hanon from the ship, describing these conditions. Scurvy and typhoid raged among the prisoners, and Janet died 10 September, with Parisot following six weeks later, 14 October. They were buried in a large common grave, still venerated, on Ile Madame. In all, more than 500 other prisoners died on board these ships.

Louis Guinand (1733-1794) was a member of the house of Valfleury, devoted to the care of pilgrims. When the date came to take the oath, he refused, and then left Valfleury for Mornant, his birthplace, and then moved to Lyons. He was arrested there at the end of 1793. With several other priests, he was condemned as a “refractory priest, preaching fanaticism,” and was shot to death in Lyons on the day of his trial, 16 January 1794. He was sixty years old.

Claude Leclerc (1720-1794), a member of the house of Lyons, suffered the same fate, 24 February 1794. He was nearly seventy-five years old.

Jean Guibaud (1761-1794), a nephew of the renowned bishop Jean-Baptiste Massillon, had been a mission preacher stationed in Le Mans from 1787. With the installation of its constitutional bishop, he was forced to leave the Vincentian house. Instead of fleeing, he lived for six or seven months with a friend in the city and continued his priestly ministry in private. He was being sought, and a woman, eager to claim the reward of one hundred livres promised to anyone who could snare a priest, came to his house supposedly to go to confession. She then betrayed Guibaud, who was arrested. Friends arranged for him to escape, but he chose to remain in prison and was then condemned for not having left the country freely. He was executed in Le Mans, 19 March 1794, the day of his trial. Appeal of a death sentence was not possible in those conditions.

Nicolas Dodin (1755-1794) had been pastor of the parish in Richelieu, an establishment going back to the days of Saint Vincent. When faced with the demand to take the oath, he agreed and took it, but soon changed his mind and retracted it officially. For this, he had to go into hiding in Poitiers, where, like Louis Hayer, he continued to minister to the faithful. He was finally arrested and condemned for not having left the country, the same charge made against Guibaud. Dodin was killed on Good Friday, 18 April 1794, in Poitiers.

André Borie (known as Portefaix, the porter) (1736-1794) entered the Congregation at the internal seminary of Cahors. He was assigned in 1774 to teach at the seminary of Albi. In 1792, he returned to his birthplace after his expulsion. He was discovered there, arrested and imprisoned at Mende. There, he was condemned as a non-juring priest and executed 2 May 1794.

François Bergon (1758-1794) was another southerner who entered the Congregation at Cahors. Like André Borie, he had to take refuge with his family when the Vincentian house was closed. However, he then began a more adventuresome life. He was at first imprisoned in the seminary of Cahors, which he knew well. This knowledge likely aided his escape to his home town. After being discovered there, he fled to the woods and lived for some time on the run. Like Louis Hayer, he was caught when bringing the eucharist to a sick person. He was returned for the final time to Cahors, where he was executed 17 May 1794. On approaching the guillotine, he said to a woman: “Give [my shoes] to a poor person. Jesus Christ went barefoot to Calvary. I want to do the same.”

Two other Vincentians, one a brother and the other a priest, were guillotined in Feurs in July 1794. Brother Jean-Antoine Martin (1766-1794) entered the Congregation in Lyons, taking his vows in 1789. Antoine Imbert (1727-1794), a priest many years his senior, had been assigned to the Valfleury house. He took the required oath, but then publicly retracted it, thereby virtually signing his own death warrant. He was arrested in Saint Chamond and brought to the tribunal established in Feurs, where he was executed. Brother Martin was also a victim of the guillotine in the same city. A small votive chapel was built under Louis XVIII to honor those killed there.

Jean-Elie Bories (1720-1794) entered the Congregation in Cahors, in 1739. In later years he was assigned to his home town, Sarlat, where the Congregation staffed the major seminary and preached missions. Bories served as superior of the seminary at the time of the Revolution. He refused to take the constitutional oath and, at age seventy-four, was executed in Perigueux for his steadfastness. The exact date of his death is unknown.

In addition to these twelve martyrs, there were certainly others whose deaths escaped the notice of historians because of the confusion and disorder of the entire period. Several others, however, whose names are given below, died either in prison or in exile and consequently can be regarded as confessors of the faith.

Victor-Jacques Julienne (1738-1793) was the first of these confessors to die. He had been at Saint Lazare at the outbreak of the Revolution, directing the retreats being given there. He chose to accompany the superior general, Father Cayla, into exile. They were together in Amiens, about to leave the country for Belgium, when Julienne was recognized and captured. He had been condemned to the guillotine but died in prison in Amiens, 10 October 1793.

Paul-Nicolas-Raymond Brochois (1742-1793) was in Amiens when he was arrested. He too had hoped to leave France with Cayla, Julienne and the general’s assistants. Condemned as a non-juring priest, he died in prison, 12 December 1793.

Nicolas-Joseph Bailly (1764-1793) was the third Vincentian to die in Amiens. He had been stationed at the diocese’s major seminary and was its last superior before the Revolution. In company with Cayla he fled the city for Heilly, where the archbishop of Reims and other clergy were taking shelter. Bailly was captured while saying mass, and thrown into prison while still vested. This young priest of twenty-nine died in prison in Amiens, 16 November 1793.

Two nephews of the constitutional bishop, Antoine-Adrien Lamourette, also lived in Amiens and probably Heilly at this time. Louis-Antoine-Eugène (b. 1766) and his brother, Ange-Bernard-Joseph (1767-1793), both had entered the Congregation in Paris. They would also share the hardships of the Revolution. After the closure of the Amiens seminary, Ange-Bernard-Joseph lived in a hotel and afterwards with various individuals. When he was found in hiding in the house of a certain Madame Asselin, 19 October 1793, the two of them were arrested, imprisoned and interrogated about the objects found in his hiding place, mainly church ornaments and linens. These had apparently been brought to Madame Asselin’s home for safekeeping. Also, he admitted that he had not taken the required oath, although he said he thought he was not obligated. He was twenty-nine when he died in prison a month later, 16 November, probably in Amiens.

Louis Verne (1732-1794) was, like Fathers Guinand and Imbert, a member of the house of Valfleury who fled to his family when he refused to take the oath. He was betrayed and died on an unknown date in prison in Le Puy.

Under the Directory

Fewer members of the Congregation were executed under the Directory, the name of a new form of government established to avoid dictatorship through divided responsibilities. It came into force at the end of October 1795. In this time, a further oath was imposed on the clergy. This oath required fidelity to the laws of the republic: “I recognize that the entire body of citizens is sovereign, and I promise submission and obedience to the laws of the Republic.” Unlike the oaths to support the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, or to support liberty and equality, this one proved more acceptable to some. However, its lack of clarity and the consequent lack of jurisprudence to interpret it rendered it unacceptable to most clergy. The penalty for non-compliance was at first deportation, and later death. The most regrettable aspect of this period was that it happened at the same time that decisions were being made to liberalize the laws concerning religious worship and its clergy.

The best known of the martyrs in this second period is Pierre-René Rogue (1758-1796). This little man, just under five feet tall (1.5 cm), entered the diocesan seminary at Vannes in 1776. After his ordination to the priesthood, 21 September 1782, he worked in his diocese, principally in a retreat house established for women. Rogue was their chaplain and took an active part in the work of retreats. It is unknown why he decided to join the Congregation of the Mission, but it must have had something to do with the example he received at the seminary, under Vincentian direction. He spent only a few months at the internal seminary in Paris in 1786 and then returned to complete his novitiate in Vannes. His weak health is cited as a plausible reason for not completing it in Paris.

It was during this period that Francis Regis Clet came through Vannes on his way to board ship for China. It is probable that he and Rogue met on that occasion, but there is no record.

When the order arrived to take the new oath of fidelity, Rogue was shocked to discover that the superior, Jean-Mathurin Le Gal (1746-1831), had signed a declaration stating that he would shortly take the oath in public. Rogue and Le Gal spent much time in discussion, with the result that the superior retracted his promise the same day that he signed his original promise.

Shortly after, the seminary was closed and its furnishings stripped. Rogue stayed in Vannes but urged Le Gal to leave. The latter would spend some years in Bilbao, Spain, with fellow priests from Vannes, before returning to the city.

Rogue’s strength of character is easily discovered in his dealings with the local authorities during this problematic period. He stood up for his rights, for example, in demanding his salary as an associate in the parish attached to the seminary. Increasing persecution led him to go into hiding, but he carried on his ministry by night. He also continued to celebrate mass in private homes as well as in available churches. Possibly because of his determination, he survived the first period of persecution, lasting until the fall of Robespierre and his dictatorial regime in July 1794. Soon thereafter, the application of harsh penalties for clergy was somewhat relaxed, and Rogue was able to exercise his ministry more openly. Within a year, however, the oath of submission and obedience was enacted, and many priests took it since it did not mention the church or religion, but others found it too sweeping. Rogue was one of these.

An outbreak of typhoid fever is credited with causing his discovery. He had been ministering to the sick and, on Christmas Eve, 1795, he left his residence to bring the eucharist to a sick person. Two men, one of whom was a shoemaker of his acquaintance, who had even received help from Rogue’s mother, turned him over to the authorities, and saw him put in chains. Despite many petitions for his release coming from his admirers, Rogue was imprisoned and tried for continuing his priestly ministry. During his confinement, he encouraged his fellow prisoners and prepared himself for death. He left behind a five-verse “canticle,” in which he prayed for his persecutors and begged God to turn his eyes on the evils of France. René’s mother was present at his trial and, after his condemnation, he was able to bid farewell to her. One of the guards remarked sneeringly to her: “You have raised a monster.” She continued at René’s side, sending him food and witnessing his execution by guillotine, 3 March 1796.

Thanks to his mother, the exact location of his burial was identified and, in better times, a monument was erected there to his memory. He was beatified 10 May 1934.

A few other Vincentians also gave their lives in this period, through either execution or a rigorous confinement in the prison camp at Sinnamary, French Guiana, located near Devil’s Island. Some would also perish in prisons in metropolitan France.

François-Bernard Martelet (1760-1798) had always shown a strong artistic temperament. After his ordination, he was sent to the seminary at Le Mans to teach chant and ceremonies. He refused to take the required oath and returned to his family, but later voluntarily went into exile. He returned to France and went to Saint Omer to recommence his priestly life. Like many of his confreres he continued to minister there in secret for two years. He wanted to return to the area of Le Mans, but because of civil disturbances he went instead to visit his mother, where he was soon recognized and arrested, 21 October 1797. He underwent a particularly grueling series of interrogations during four months in prison. The officials had tried to force him to renounce his priesthood. His last letters to his family and address to the people reveal his faith and trust in God. His final words to the witnesses at his execution were recorded: “O my brothers, my fellow citizens, as a man, I forgive you for my death. I beg God to pardon you for the death of his minister, since it is He who granted me the power to be a mediator between you and Him, and since it is through my hands that you should have received the source of graces.” He was shot to death in the military prison of Besançon, 9 February 1798. Preliminary studies were made in 1930 to open the cause for his beatification but they have not progressed.

Claude-François Guin (1759-1799) took his vows in the Congregation in 1777, at age eighteen. At that young age, he could never have imagined the horrors in store for him. It is unknown where he was assigned as a priest but, at the Revolution, he followed the majority of his confreres in refusing the oath. He spent a time in hiding, but entered a more public ministry after the death of Robespierre. Under a subsequent return to stricter laws, he was arrested and condemned to deportation. He departed his native France at Rochefort and arrived in Sinnamary with a boatload of other prisoners. Mistreatment amid terrible heat, lack of water and clouds of insects sapped his strength. He fell ill and died there, 3 January 1799. He was one of more than a thousand priests brought to French Guiana between 1797 and 1799.

César-Auguste Rimbault (1741-1799) underwent a similar fate. He had been a professor at the seminary of Tours at the outbreak of the Revolution. He was one of those who took the oath of faithfulness to the nation, but he quickly retracted it. As a result, he was arrested, 4 September 1797, and condemned to deportation to French Guiana. Many of his fellow deportees perished during the passage from Rochefort, since they were involved in a naval battle with the English. Their trip took forty-five days, made indescribable by the brutality of the captain and his crew. They disembarked at Counamama, where many died of misery in a few months. The survivors were moved to nearby Sinnamary, known as the “dry guillotine.” Rimbault distinguished himself by the service he offered to help the sick. He contracted tuberculosis and died there 18 June 1799.

Much less is known about several other Vincentians condemned to prison and exile, many of whom survived their punishment. Their names are listed here for the sake of completeness. Claude-Joseph Vaucheret (1727-1795), died in exile in Saxony. André Chambovet (1739-1794?) had been the prefect apostolic of the Ile de France (now Mauritius). He returned to France in 1788 and died in prison, but when and where are unknown. Jean-Pierre Frayssé (1739-1795) had refused the prescribed oath and was imprisoned in various locations. He is believed to have died at Marennes, but the date is unknown. Xavier-Benoît Péliard (1756-1797), Claude Bonnabé (b. 1764), Joseph Perrin and Jean Rambour (1735-1797) were all imprisoned and deported. Jacques-Eugène Bourquin, François Greffier (b. 1767), and Jean-Baptiste Thiédey (b. 1763) shared imprisonment at the Ile de Ré. Tiédey was released in 1800 and was able to return to his home diocese of Besançon. François Messin (1725-1796) is one of those about whom little is recorded. He is said to have died at Versailles, though under unknown circumstances.

A special case is that of Giovanni Agostino Giudicelli (1766-1805), a native of Corsica. He began his study of theology in 1786 but, because he was already a professor of physics and humanities, he was ordained a priest at age twenty-three with a dispensation. The next year, he entered the Congregation of the Mission in Bastia, Corsica. He was arrested and jailed in 1791 but freed after several months because of a general decree of Louis XVI, who had insisted that political prisoners be released. Under the harsher regimes to follow, Giudicelli was forced to flee to his family, but here again he was arrested and tried. He once again took flight to Italy, staying in the Vincentian house of Genoa. After this amazing novitiate experience, he took vows, 24 July 1793. His life continued as before, alternating ministry and flight, sometimes with his brother and fellow Vincentian, Jules-François. Agostino died in his native Corsica in 1805. There must have been others with similar experiences of persecution, exile and imprisonment, but their names and their sacrifices remain lost to history.

François-Florentin Brunet (1731-1806)

Continue the history: François-Florentin Brunet (1731-1806)

History of the Congregation after the French Revolution

Beginning of the History of the Congregation after the French Revolution

Outside Reading

The Congregation of the Mission (official site)