The French Revolution and the Congregation of the Mission

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The French Revolution and the Congregation of the Mission

The effects of the Revolution, both direct and indirect, on the Congregation of the Mission are incalculable. Its mother house was looted on the day preceding the taking of the Bastille. Its students were affected by the new currents of thought sweeping the nation. The Congregation lost several of its members in the September massacres of 1792, to be followed by the death, imprisonment and exile of many others. While some fled the country, others remained and sought vainly to reach a personal accommodation with the new way of life ushered in by the Revolution. By 1800, the Congregation had virtually ceased to exist in the nation that saw its birth in 1625.

The Sack of Saint Lazare, 13 July 1789

The disaster that befell the mother house, Saint Lazare, stands out as a turning point in the history of the Congregation of the Mission. It proved, as nothing else could, how vulnerable the Congregation was as conditions were changing rapidly in France. It was in some way the end of the age of Vincent de Paul and the beginning of the new age that continues today.

Several accounts exist of what happened. The most important and the longest is the unpublished report of the official commission of inquiry sent to Saint Lazare at the request of Father Cayla, the superior general. Its chief value is that the inquiry took place beginning three days after the event, from 16 to 19 July. Five other accounts have been woven together with it here to present a unified version more complete in its details. Cayla wrote the earliest, and understandably brief, account in a circular letter to the Congregation, dated 24 July. A more thorough narrative is by Adrien Lamourette, a former Vincentian living in Paris at the time. His text served as a partial basis for another and more detailed text, by Gaspard-Jean-André Jauffret, bishop of Metz. The source of Jauffret’s Mémoire is unknown, but it has been published in full. A fourth printed narrative is by Pierre d’Hesminy d’Auribeau, a priest and historian. Another Vincentian eyewitness left his recollections, Brother Jean-Baptiste Mouflet (b. 1728). He recounted the story in a personal letter, written from Saint Lazare, 2 October 1789, to one of his confreres in Constantinople. These accounts demonstrate the horror of the unexpected.

On a hot Sunday, 12 July, uncertainty gripped Paris. One cause was political, the king’s removal of the popular minister of finances, Jacques Necker. This led to rumors that the king would dissolve the National Assembly and hand over the capital to royal troops. Another cause was specter of famine through the lack of bread: two years of cold winters and spring frost had ruined many crops and the price of bread was highest in twenty years. Because of this, unofficial groups, some spontaneous, others formed expressly, were gathering and making plans to erect barricades in the city against invasion, to search for weapons to defend their fellow Parisians, and to liberate hoarded grain. By nightfall, arson had destroyed the hated toll barriers, alarm bells were ringing from church towers, and gangs roamed the city.

One group of about twenty armed men (some texts say there were one hundred) arrived at the gates of Saint Lazare between 2:30 and 2:45 Monday morning. The procurator general, Jean-François Daudet, and his secretary, Brother Mouflet, saw them from a window. The men tried to force the gates and entered within a few minutes—either because the brother porter opened them to avoid more problems or because they did not hold. Once inside, the “brigands,” as they were called, started shooting in the darkened front courtyard. The first person to meet them was a deacon, who brought them to the Salle Saint Denis and gave them bread, wine, meat and some cherries as they ordered. They followed this up with demands for twenty louis each and threatened to kill the deacon unless he complied.

It has never been explained why they arrived in the middle of the night. If their search for grain or arms had been officially sanctioned, they would likely have arrived later, armed with search warrants. It is likewise unknown who their leader was, if any.

Mental patients and prisoners

While their companions were eating and drinking, about twelve and fifteen others remained in the courtyard and continued to terrorize the house by shooting wildly. It was probably this group that moved to release those who were confined in the prison on the property. They forced the guard, between 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning, to open all the doors and free the inmates. These numbered eighteen mentally ill patients, including four priests and one Vincentian. Although freed, they had nowhere to go and were confused by their new liberty. In addition, there were thirteen genuine prisoners sent there and supported either by their dioceses (four were priests) or by their respectable families. All these took the occasion to flee. They left behind whatever they had deposited with the authorities, which, in any case, would disappear in the looting.

The procurator brought some money to the men who had invaded the house in the vain hope that they would soon leave. Their real interest, however, was in uncovering the grain and flour that they were sure were being hoarded, as well as any weapons. This purpose, however, was overwhelmed by the arrival of a growing crowd intent on looting. Some teenaged boys came in through the open gates and began calling others on the street, both men and women, to follow them. As a result, hundreds and then thousands poured in. Estimates range from 4000 to twice that number, in any case a huge mob. They roamed everywhere in the building, stealing what they could carry and destroying what they could not. The accounts of the pillage are unanimous that the destruction was total: beds destroyed, mattresses ripped, doors smashed, clothing stolen or torn to shreds. The more than 300 residents of the house lost their personal work, along with their money, religious items, papers, tobacco and little souvenirs. Their books were often thrown out the windows and trampled below. The accounts are also unanimous that 1000 doors were ruined and 1500 windows broken in this vast complex of buildings, normally consisting of a ground floor, three upper floors, attics and cellars.

Dining Room and Kitchen

The dining room came in for special attention. Its tables and benches were overturned and broken into pieces, the great paintings vandalized, and the dishes, glassware and utensils carried off. The kitchen, too, suffered massive destruction, particularly in its pantries and food storerooms. In the large and recently-constructed cellars, the source of speculation about where a vast quantity of grain was supposedly stored, the grain and flour were soon bagged and loaded on carts for transfer to the market. Cooking oil was spilled, and the rest of the supplies, cheese, butter, herbs and the like, was stolen. As for the wine, it was stored there in both bottles and barrels. The bottles were stolen or simply opened and drunk on the spot, and the barrels were smashed. The resulting flood of wine and spilled oil, inches deep on the floors, led some to slip and fall, while other collapsed from drunkenness. The result was that many corpses were found there later in the afternoon, grimly described as having drowned in the wine. The account by Hesminy d’Auribeau mentioned thirty dead in the cellars with another seventy, both men and women, found in various parts of the building. This important detail is missing in the official report, probably because the bodies had already been removed.

The cause of those deaths is unknown, but some unfortunates were poisoned. The renowned pharmacy which served both the Saint Lazare community and the local populace was similarly ruined. A few unlucky looters sampled the various medicines, especially those mixed with alcohol, and died.

Libraries and offices

Saint Lazare contained several libraries, each one destined for different groups. All of them were damaged, with shelves overturned and individual volumes ripped apart. The main library, however, containing eighteen to twenty thousand volumes, lost mainly its rare and precious items. Although the damage was great, the collection was not totally ruined. The famous portrait gallery, with its numerous canvases representing popes, bishops and significant benefactors, was ravaged almost beyond repair.

The superior general’s office was thoroughly ransacked, as were the offices of the procurator general and the house treasurer. Many financial registers were destroyed, cash stolen, and deeds and other official papers removed. For some reason, a good part of the historical archives was preserved. Beginning 1 September 1792, most of their contents were removed to the National Archives, where they now form part of the historical patrimony of the state.

Saint Vincent’s room also suffered damage. It contained the straw mat that covered the chair on which he died, a straw-bottomed chair, and items of his clothing, plus his walking stick, rosary and breviary. Perhaps because this clothing was of poor quality, it was not destroyed, merely tossed around. It still exists. However, the plaster model of a new statue of the saint, sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Stouf and presented to Father Jacquier, was vandalized. It had been placed in the internal seminary (or novitiate), and one arm was removed and the head cut off and paraded around. Some said that it was taken out into the streets of the city and was finally tossed into a pool of the fountain at the Palais Royal. The large collection of the original writings of the saint was somehow saved, but this is not mentioned in any account. Perhaps one of the Vincentians removed them as he was fleeing. Later on, they were divided among several individuals for safekeeping, to be returned later.

Laboratory and Workshops

The students’ science laboratory was ruined too and its contents utterly destroyed. Pierre Ratinod (b. 1767), the science professor, drew up a list of what he had lost, particularly his telescopes, microscopes, and samples of gems, such as emeralds, opals, lapis lazuli and sapphires. His famous collection of seashells was also looted or destroyed, along with samples of fossils, Chinese porcelain, and various “curiosities” assembled in the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment.

The many workshops required for such a large institution, such as the laundry, shops for the tailor, the cobbler and the butcher, were also ruined, and their tools and supplies disappeared. In the garden, orchard and nursery, planting boxes were overturned, some trees were cut down and the sixty grazing sheep were stolen. On a butte in the middle of the farm were the water reservoir and a small house, generally used for recreational purposes. The official report notes that its billiard table was damaged as well as other board games. Nothing was spared, in other words.

Someone also set fire to the grain barn about 3:00 in the afternoon, and the fire could easily have spread to the rest of the buildings were it not for the arrival of some volunteer fire fighters. Hastily summoned militia members also arrived about 5:30 and tried to stop the looting and bring some order, but by then it was too late in the day. One wonders why the troops stationed in various barracks facing the property did not arrive. According to testimony in the official inquiry, four of them were part of the original troop invading the house. More loyal ones were probably under attack themselves or fearful of the mobs which by then were roaming the city.

The house had a few carriages and wagons, but all of these were ruined. A few horses were left behind, probably unfit for any work.


Curiously, the various chapels in the house are not mentioned in the accounts of the sack, leaving the impression that the looters spared them. Later accounts do relate, however, that a relic of Saint Vincent preserved in the community’s private chapel was reverently removed to Saint Laurent church nearby. Brother Mouflet’s account, in addition, adds that the historic public chapel was not badly damaged thanks to the efforts of Louis-Pierre Piorette (b. 1735), the brother sacristan who defended it with the help of some lay friends. In this way, the gilded reliquary containing the remains of Saint Vincent was preserved, along with the paintings in the great canonization series. By contrast, the tribune, accessible from the upper floors, was not spared. Chairs and windows were broken, and the pipe organ was left useless. The principal sacristy, also, lost some items such as vellum music books and candlesticks, but ecclesiastical linen was of little use to the mobs. The other chapels suffered some damage, particularly to their windows, doors and cabinets.


What happened to the inhabitants of the house? Did they stay to try to defend it or did they flee? Most of them fled on foot after being threatened with murder, although, in fact, no one was killed. After about six hours of horror, Fathers Cayla and Brunet, the superior general and his assistant, managed to escape over the garden walls about 8:30 a.m. by means of a ladder. Cayla went to Saint Firmin, but Brunet was not immediately so fortunate. He was arrested with a subdeacon and forced to mount a wagon on top of the sacks of grain that were being taken to the public grain market. Narrowly escaping execution, he then sought shelter with neighbors. He is depicted in one of the contemporary engravings of the disaster, showing him on top of the wagon. Ferris, another assistant, attempted to move through the crowds searching for help, but he was severely beaten.

The two procurators, Jean-François Daudet, procurator general, and Christophe-Simon Rouyer, the house treasurer, succeeded in escaping by crawling along the gutters of the main chapel. Since the chapel roof abutted the large apartment buildings built seventy years earlier under the generalate of Father Bonnet, their proximity gave the two access to the apartments through their balconies and windows. Quite possibly others joined them in this dramatic flight.

The house customarily welcomed non-Vincentian guests, such as priests on retreat or overnight guests. Those visiting lost everything, too. For example, an art student who had permission to paint in the garden lost his canvas. There must have been some bedridden sick and elderly in the house. One of these, Marc-François Bourgeat (1711-1790), was carried unconscious and paralyzed on a chair through the mob. His helpers crossed the rue du faubourg Saint Denis to the safety of the house of the Daughters of Charity. Two others succeeded in reaching the nearby monastery of the Augustinian Recollects, who received them charitably. One, Domenico Sicardi, assistant general and director of the Sisters, managed to cross the street about 5:30 in the morning to celebrate mass for them. He remained there all day, taking refuge in a confessional and later in the Sisters’ infirmary, disguised as an elderly Daughter of Charity, complete with her coif, confined to bed.

Daughters of Charity

As it happened, the Sisters were not harmed. A group of fifteen armed men demanded admission about 11:00 o’clock and looked through the house for ninety minutes or so. The men reportedly told the Sisters that they were being paid for Saint Lazare, and not for their house, and so they left. Another group of about 200 armed men and women demanded entry about 5:00 in the afternoon. They managed to frighten the young ones gathered in the chapel, afraid of being raped in the course of the violence (which one of the looters later admitted was their “most terrible plan”). Instead, the leader genuflected and left in awe after some of the novices fainted. The group demanded food and money as happened across the street but, after receiving some token help and seeing the general poverty of the mother house, they left after forty-five minutes of searching through the building. Later, the Sisters would secure the protection of members of the popular militia.

The director of the Vincentian novices, Francis Regis Clet, the future canonized martyr, wisely instructed his charges to return to their homes. They must have done so in a hurry, since Clet was unable to return to them their personal money and other items left on deposit with him. He himself declared that he lost documents, personal items and a few handkerchiefs. Older students, some with only a few clothes, fled as best they could into the streets. The brothers, too, dispersed, but were in less danger than the clerics, all of whom bore the distinguishing clerical tonsure. Brother Mouflet mentions that he and some twenty others made it to Soissons, where they took refuge in the seminary. Others, both priests and students, received a welcome at nearby country parishes.

The day after

Once this dreadful day was over and the fires put out, there was nearly nothing to return to. However, as many as thirty resourceful students, priests and brothers returned about 4:00 the next morning to try to salvage what they could. Sicardi retrieved a valuable painting of Saint Vincent, now in Turin, as well as some important books scattered in the street. Passers-by returned items that they had found, such as papers and small objects, even a few lottery tickets. The returnees found no food or drink left and no way to cook even if they had any. The water distribution system had been destroyed and the faucets stolen, leaving not a drop of water for them in the house. The clock mechanism too had been destroyed and the ever-present bells had ceased to call them to prayer. Because it was summer, they had little pressing need for shelter, but they still had to sleep on the bare floors. The Daughters must have offered what help they could, although the records do not mention this. Other religious communities offered help to aid in rebuilding. For example, the Foreign Mission Society sent 1200 livres in recognition of their sufferings, and in thanks for Vincentian hospitality given in better times to their missionaries. The king, the archbishop, the chapter and other benefactors likewise offered some financial assistance to the community as it slowly began to reconstitute itself.

Cayla returned in a day or so and, as part of the reconstruction efforts, wrote his account of the sack in a circular letter, dated 24 July. In it, he appealed to the other houses of the Congregation to send aid. He promised to live frugally, and urged his confreres to practice prayer, sacrifice and acceptance of what was, he suggested, punishment for their sins.

Accusations of hoarding

The day after, he wrote a letter to the Journal de Paris, giving his version of the accusation about hoarding. He explained that Saint Lazare had not been hoarding, but had delivered grain to the market in large quantities during the year, as requested by the magistrates, and that he had the documents to prove this. Further, he reminded the readers that the community regularly fed many poor persons who presented themselves. Although the quantity of grain brought to the market the day of the sack amounted to 305 bags of grain and 311 of flour, this was supposed to last Saint Lazare for three months. Now they had nothing. Cayla was also in contact with Count Devonshire, commandant of the local militia, since his report, also in the Journal de Paris, contains much of the same information and he likewise provided the same documentary proof, vouched for by the editors, that Cayla had mentioned.

Devonshire’s report also refuted the charge that arms had been found. The only items were one rusty rifle and an air rifle kept in the science laboratory. Others charged that it was one of the brothers who set fire to the barn, but the only brother remaining on the property in the afternoon, he continued, was Brother Piorette, still guarding the chapel.

Devonshire’s account jibed with Lamourette’s in expressing amazement that it was felt necessary to loot an institution that had been so noteworthy for its charity and simple in its lifestyle. It has sometimes been supposed that Saint Lazare was targeted because of its close relationship with the monarchy. While the closeness was true, such targeting was not true in 1789. It would be more justified in the following three or four years. More likely, there was no guiding reason for the looting except the madness of crowds, a common experience in every society.

Were some of the looters paid? This has never been proven one way or another. It seems likely that their payment could be understood simply as permission for them to take what they could after solving the problem of the hoarded grain. Certainly, the official inquiry into the disaster did not look into its causes, but merely described the results.


What made the sack even more awful was that the whole complex had been carefully refurbished in recent decades. The renovations had left Saint Lazare in the best condition of its entire existence. Besides, thanks to the Congregation’s close ties with the royal government, it enjoyed great prominence. This “headquarters of charity”, as it was sometimes called, was also enjoying a glittering reputation for its works, while maintaining a spirit of humility and modesty at home. Lamourette’s account closes with these effusive words of praise for his erstwhile confreres: “May you be appreciated and known throughout France just as you are dear and respectable to all the hearts that have tasted the sweetness of your dealings, and just as you are precious in the eyes of those who have been able to contemplate the holiness of your behavior and the inexhaustible outpouring of your charity and zeal.”

The Revolt of the Saint Lazare Students (1790-1792

Among the many problems facing Cayla amid the chaos of the revolution, was an almost unknown incident. Seemingly of little importance, it actually concretizes the generalized commotion that was besetting France early in its Revolution, and demonstrates how the Congregation in all its members, both young and old, was also affected.

The Constituent Assembly, on 28 October 1789, provisionally decreed the suppression of monastic vows. The final decree was dated 13 February 1790, and declared that “the Law will no longer recognize solemn monastic vows of persons of either sex.” Further, such congregations were thereby suppressed in France, but religious would receive a suitable pension. It was expressly stated, however, that those involved in education and charity were, for the moment, to be left as they were. This decision applied to the Congregation of the Mission.

Student pension

However, in June 1790, sixteen Vincentian seminarians at the mother house, all with vows, drew up a petition to the Assembly, asking for a pension. The judgment of their superiors was that these students were living dissipated lives, often in the city in lay clothes, even carrying weapons (such as daggers and pistols), and drinking wine in their rooms. A couple of them, in their dissipation, had even stolen the doors from their professors’ rooms, although the reason for this is unclear. Since they refused to return them, Cayla had recourse to a magistrate and the students were threatened with prison.

No action was taken on their unusual petition. By January of the following year, 1791, most of the seminarians had already left Saint Lazare. Those who remained, however, did not want to wait any longer to receive their government pension and so began to demand it from their superiors instead. They naturally refused but, in the spirit of the age, allowed the students to see financial records, probably to show them how little money was actually available.

Since they still did not receive their money, the students began another campaign. This time, they submitted a formal complaint to the municipality of Paris concerning the theft of books by priests. Their point was that taking books was the same as stealing the nation’s patrimony that should by rights belong also to the students. To correct this two of them also signed a separate complaint asking that the rules of Saint Lazare be subjected to an official scrutiny to check for the principles of liberty and equality.


Two of the students then asked for their dismissal, and Cayla obliged, giving them 300 livres each. Their companions, also on the point of leaving, found this sum too small and decided to demand more, both for themselves and for their former confreres. Cayla resisted and made them sign a receipt for the 300 that he gave them. A few days later, the superior general was surprised to find two of the young revolutionaries still in the house. They claimed that they would remain until the Congregation was dissolved, so as to be able to seize part of its goods.

Part of Cayla’s response to this challenge was to protect his administration by having the other members of the local community sign a document deploring the student intrigues. This made no difference to them, and they continued to live at Saint Lazare. They then submitted other official complaints, couched in revolutionary rhetoric, portraying Cayla and officers of the Congregation as unenlightened, intolerant, liars and full of hatred.

Meanwhile, Cayla began to send away secretly such documents and financial papers as still remained in the possession of the Congregation. The students got wind of this and, on 20 November 1791, formally denounced the priests for disobeying the law. In their submission to the Legislative Assembly, they complained about Cayla’s administration and noted that many of the members of the Congregation had already fled to Spain or Italy. This was, of course, proof of the anti-revolutionary sentiment of Saint Lazare. Further, the students found the Brothers to be generally bad citizens, who did nothing but obey their superiors blindly and thus live as middle-class domestics. Therefore, since the goods of Saint Lazare were national goods, in their judgment, and the Congregation did not own them, they asked for at least two of their number to participate in the management of those goods. The response of the assembly was prudent: someone was deputed to write the students to ask for the statutes which would prove that they had the rights they were demanding.

Address to the Legislative Assembly

In response, the students asked to address the Legislative Assembly, and at the evening session of 8 December 1791, two of them were admitted to speak. During their address, which characterized their superiors as infatuated with aristocracy, they repeated some of the same charges as before. They added that when their superiors saw students spying on them in the course of their sending away the Congregation’s belongings, they beat and even wounded them. The students were even obliged to hale them before a justice of the peace just to get something to eat. Consequently, they repeated their request to have a say in the finances of the house, to enjoy equal rights with the others, and to be spared any harassment for favoring the new constitution and for their choice to dedicate themselves not to theology but to national education. The delegates greeted their address with lively applause and passed on the students’ statement to the committee dealing with ecclesiastical and other property.

Two weeks later, Jean-César Vincens-Plauchut, a deputy and member of the committee on property, presented a thorough summary of the issues. The students, he reported, felt mistreated for not having equal access to common goods. On the political side, they claimed that the superiors were supporting “enemies of our homeland along with the priests who had decided not to take the civic oath.” The superiors responded that the inexperienced students were making demands against the law and community practice. Besides, these students, they said, were living an irregular life, not attending prayers and insulting their elders. The student rejoinder was that they were simply trying to think on their own and that, in any case, they preferred literature to long prayers, and the new constitution to scholastic theology. They had, they concluded, suffered six long years of superstition and despotism. As it happened, only three students signed the original petition, and Vincens-Plauchut judged that these signatures were false. The student petitioners consequently lost, but the assembly ordered that a committee of the assembly be formed to examine the furnishings and financial records of Saint Lazare, and that the superior general, the procurator and two students, chosen by the students themselves, should receive the committee’s reports and sign them.

Brothers’ request

Quite different was another petition to the Legislative Assembly. The Brothers at Saint Lazare asked for expressly for a pension. Their reasons for requesting support were that they had worked, saved money, made improvements on land and farms, and had fulfilled other functions. Since they had the same rights as other members of the Congregation, they should likewise be worthy of justice and equity. They feared simply being cut off without any resources. The assembly approved their petition and a pension was assigned. Eventually, forty-eight out of the fifty-eight Brothers at Saint Lazare received their payments.

At about the same time, the troublesome students enrolled in the National Guard and asked for someone to come to Saint Lazare regularly to train them in weapons and tactics. They claimed to prefer military dress to ecclesiastical, and never to have wanted to be in Holy Orders anyway. This pushed Cayla to the limit and he sought to have them expelled, at least for disturbing the peace.

At length, the Legislative Assembly agreed with him and decided that Saint Lazare had been following its own norms about expelling members. The next day, 29 January 1792, the superior general and his assistants decreed the expulsion of the offending students from the Congregation. But it was one thing to make a declaration and quite another to get the students to actually leave. Civil authorities were summoned to Saint Lazare to try to force them out, but even they were unsuccessful. The Directory of the Department of Paris, the highest local authority, then stepped in and the students were gone by 24 February. All was not settled, however, since the students appealed their exclusion on the legal grounds that the decree referring to religious houses dedicated to instruction and public education did not apply to Saint Lazare. The newly appointed minister of the interior, Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, also wanted to reverse the decision.

Reversing the decision

On 9 April, the Legislative Assembly agreed with Roland’s recommendations and allowed the students to return on condition of their good behavior. Eight of the expelled were thus forcibly readmitted and of these, six took the oath of liberty-equality, while the rest of local community remained firm in its opposition to the oath and to the students. Whether they realized it or not, in sixty days the Legislative Assembly would dissolve the Congregation, and their antics would no longer be of any avail. Just prior to leaving Saint Lazare forever, Cayla agreed to sign a declaration that the eight students were members of the Congregation and he then gave each one twenty livres for each year that they had been members. Thus ended the revolt of the students. As of 1 September 1792, Saint Lazare ceased to be the mother house of the Congregation of the Mission.

Vincentian Disintegration in France

Before the Revolution, the Congregation of the Mission was charged with the care of about fifty-six seminaries in France. Although exact figures are lacking some 825 Vincentian priests served in France. In all, there were seven French provinces, with approximately seventy-nine houses. The Congregation of the Mission was one of the largest and most influential of all religious congregations in the country, doubtlessly helped by its responsibility for the principal royal parishes of Fontainebleau and Versailles. In at least one written opinion, the French government regarded the Congregation as “the most ancient, the most numerous, and the most extended of the ecclesiastical congregations.”

During the Revolution, the Congregation lost twenty-five of its members to execution and eighty to deportation. Another forty or so left and married, approximately five percent of the total. That left about 680 dispersed in France. What happened to them?

Ministry and exile

Because of the chaos of the period, it is difficult to be certain about each case. As will be seen below, many simply withdrew from their apostolate and sought other work to make a living. Some of these Vincentians courageously continued their ministry as they could, always at great danger to their lives. In general, the dispersed Vincentians joined the mass of other clergy in flight to other countries. It is estimated that 30,000 clergy, both diocesan and religious, left France in the revolutionary period. Of those, about 8000 went to Spain, 3000 to various Italian states and the States of the Church, and the surprising figure of 10,000, including thirty bishops, sought refuge in Protestant England. Others traveled north to present-day Belgium and Holland, but they would have to flee again in the face of Napoleon’s advance into their countries. Vincentian totals are impossible to verify, but about forty-seven fled to the Papal States, some thirty-three to Spain, and about the same number to England. At least ten fled to the Palatinate, and a handful took temporary refuge in the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland.

For those remaining in France, their options gradually became limited. On 6 April 1792, all religious orders were disbanded by the Legislative Assembly (this did not apply to the Congregation of the Mission, however), and some congregations were forced to merge. The next day, the Assembly prohibited all clergy from wearing clerical dress outside of ceremonies. Then, all religious garb of any sort was abolished on 26 May 1792, on the basis of freedom of choice and the abolition of distinctions among citizens. At last, on 18 August 1792, all religious corporations were dissolved, including the Congregation of the Mission. This would leave the Vincentians existing only in three non-French provinces: Rome, Lombardy and Poland, in addition to missions elsewhere: China, Middle East, Spain, Portugal, and North Africa (until financial support and a supply of personnel ceased).

The stories of three Vincentians in this period illustrate what must have been the more general history of a large majority.

Three cases

Simon-Bruno Fontaine (1735-1805) was born in Arras and entered the Congregation in Paris in 1752. After his ordination, he became a professor of theology, and later the superior of the diocesan seminary of Noyon. Father Jacquier sent him to serve in Rome about 1780, and then he returned to France as the superior of the seminary of Beauvais. In this position he was a delegate of the province of Picardy at the general assembly of 1788. At the Revolution, he publicly declared his opposition to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and, after refusing the constitutional oath, he had to flee. He went first to near-by Belgium, and then probably passed through the German states and reached Italy where he found refuge in Rome. Since he had already served there, he knew Italian, and had established such a solid reputation that Pius VI received him in audience. While in Rome, he wrote various works on the issues of the day. The most noteworthy of his writings (Vains efforts d’un jureur de Liberté et d’Egalité, Brussels, 1794) dealt with a discussion of the oath of liberty and equality. It attained such renown that it was also translated into Italian. In 1796, when Pius VI was captured, Fontaine was forced to leave Rome, and went to Ljubljana, where he ministered to hospital patients. He caught an infection from hospitalized French soldiers and died there; he was seventy years old. Although not a martyr in the strict sense, he has been called a martyr to charity.

Giovanni Agostino Giudicelli (1766-1805) was a native of Corsica. He began his theological studies for his own diocese in 1786, but at the same time was professor of physics and humanities for younger students. He was ordained priest in 1789 with a dispensation, since he was barely twenty-three years old. The following year, he entered the Congregation at its house in Bastia, but was arrested and jailed the next year. Luckily, he was freed by a general decree of Louis XVI, who insisted on the release of political prisoners. Under the harsher regimes to follow, Giudicelli spent the next several months in flight and hiding out with his family. He returned at one point to the Vincentian house at Bastia, but had to flee again in 1793. He then managed to reach Italy, living in the house of Genoa, where he took his vows, 24 July 1793 (after an amazing and certainly unparalleled novitiate experience.) During the next ten years, his life continued as before, alternating ministry and flight, sometimes with his brother and fellow Vincentian, Jules-François. Agostino returned to his native Corsica in 1803, dying there in 1805.

Quite a different personality was the renowned scientist Pierre-Nicolas Bertholon (1741-1799). A native of Lyons, he joined the Congregation there at the young age of fifteen. After his ordination, he taught theology at Marseilles, 1767-1770, and at Beziers, 1770-1782. In Montpellier, his love of the natural sciences brought him to the professorship of physics there from 1782 to the Revolution. He had time to write several important scientific books. His De l'électricité du corps humain dans l'état de santé et de Maladie (Paris and Lyon, 1780) was a groundbreaking attempt to describe atmospheric electricity affecting the human body. His scientific interests were broad and included areas of economics, public health, agriculture, ballooning and fireworks. His friendship with Benjamin Franklin let him to pioneer the installation of lightning-rods wherever he was.

As his reputation grew, Bertholon received many awards in the physical sciences. Just prior to the Revolution, he was even giving private lessons to the noble Henriette-Lucy Dillon, Marquise de la Tour du Pin. In her memoirs, she recounted that “I used to go three times a week to the lovely studio of experimental physics of the State, where the head professor, the abbé Bertholon, wished to give a special course just to me.” She was able to roam the laboratory and experiment at will, and Bertholon quite naturally showed himself satisfied with her intelligence. Her chambermaid who accompanied her did not speak French but was happy to examine and clean the equipment, much to Bertholon’s satisfaction.

It is unclear if he ever left the Congregation officially, but by the time of the Revolution he was in Lyons, where he would later receive a pension from the state. After his death in 1799, a notice appeared in the pro-government Annales de la Religion, announcing the death of the abbé Bertholon after receiving the sacraments from a constitutional priest. His obituary concluded by remarking that the “dissidents,” (loyal Catholics), had tried to dissuade him from doing so.

Leaving Saint Lazare

As for Saint Lazare, the departure of the Vincentians was ordered for 27 August 1792. The house numbered about 100 at the time, and it is unclear whether everyone actually left on that day, but certainly the majority had already gone by them. The removal of the archives took three weeks, from 1 to 25 September. Saint Vincent’s reliquary was requisitioned likewise on 1 September, and the saint’s skeleton was then handed to Edward Ferris, the acting superior of the house. He signed a simple receipt for one skeleton. It appears that the reliquary was taken away to be melted down to benefit the state. The fate of the gilded mask that covered its face is, however, unknown. The public chapel was then closed and never used again for worship. The renowned series of eighteenth-century paintings prepared for the canonization of Saint Vincent were removed to storage, and the other furnishings were also dispersed.

Once Saint Vincent’s skeleton and its accompanying documents were handed over to Ferris, he confided them to Jean-François Daudet, the procurator general. He kept them for some time in the house of his nephew, M. Joubert. During a dangerous illness, Daudet confided them to Louis-André Clairet, the Congregation’s notary. The dates for this are not clear, but it must have been during the darkest days of the Terror. When conditions improved, in 1797, and Daudet obtained a house of his own, he retrieved the relics and hid them in an opening in a wall on the third floor of this house. He took the precaution of showing their hiding place to Sister Dubois, former superioress general, who was living in the house at the same time. Ten years later, she then took possession of them, as will be mentioned below, when the Sisters were able to have their own mother house.

In these various ways, therefore, the Congregation in France gradually disintegrated. It lost its legal standing, its salaries from the State, its income from property and investments, and its mission. Its members were expelled from all their works, and the Congregation’s centuries-old networks of service and support were ruptured. It could no longer, therefore, accept any candidates to fill the ranks of its members reduced by exile, imprisonment, illness and death.

As for the mother house, it was turned into a general prison of great rigor, and then became a women’s prison, with an equally appalling reputation.

The September Massacres in Paris and Versailles

The law of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy formed part of a larger agenda to subordinate the church to the state in France. Even under the old regime, the Church had traditionally exercised a subordinate role, and the revolutionary government continued and codified this in the Civil Constitution.

Previous to this law, several other steps had been taken that affected the status of the church, principally the abolition of tithes (4 August 1789); the nationalization of property used to generate revenue (2 November 1789); the abolition of monastic vows (13 February 1790), which did not, however, affect those taken in the Congregation of the Mission; and the transfer of the administration of all other church property to the state (19 April 1790).

These decisions need to be viewed in the context of the time, in which the government was nearly bankrupt, but the church was deemed to be enormously rich. Besides, the popular culture had strong strains of anticlericalism, even atheism, and many of the educated classes regarded the church as the opponent of enlightened change. When debate began in the national assembly concerning the proposed reorganization of ecclesiastical life, some clergy supported it, especially those with Jansenist leanings, while the majority did not. Nonetheless, the assembly approved the Civil Constitution of the Clergy on 12 July 1790. In general, it provided one diocese for each civil department, with the bishop and the pastors to be elected locally. Being a Catholic was not a requirement for the electors. The role of the pope was reduced to the right of being informed of their election.

Rejecting the Civil Constitution

The pope, of course, steadfastly rejected this infringement on his authority, even after several attempts to abridge or change the meaning of certain elements of the text. What made matters more serious was the law of 27 November 1790, requiring the clergy to sign an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution. This was to be done in the first months of 1791. At the beginning, only seven bishops and about half the diocesan clergy agreed and took the oath. Not surprisingly, the pope repudiated the juring clergy, but the damage was done, and a true schism began. French Catholics generally followed the lead of the pope and shunned the constitutional clergy. They preferred to seek out their old pastors for the celebration of the sacraments.

The non-juring, or refractory, clergy lived principally in the countryside and in the west of France. The Assembly then had to determine how to deal with them. After violence occurred on both sides toward the clergy of the other side, the assembly permitted the non-juring to continue in their ministry, but on 29 November 1791, the new Legislative Assembly, which had replaced the National Constituent Assembly, decreed the arrest of refractory priests. Those detained could be subject to deportation or even prison if twenty citizens of a canton requested it.

On 10 August 1792, the king was arrested after an ill-conceived attempt to flee the country in the direction of the Austrian troops, and his Parisian residence, the Tuileries palace, was seized by a radical group in a bloody uprising. Calling themselves an “Insurrectional Commune,” they seized the city of Paris from its regularly elected officials and then, the next day, called for the imprisonment of non-juring clergy. The arrests began in the follow days.

Although not strictly connected with the subsequent massacres, the suppression of the Congregation of the Mission was decreed by the Legislative Assembly on 18 August along with that of others: the Oratorians, the Priests of Christian Doctrine, the Eudists, the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, and the Priests of Saint Sulpice.

To increase the tension, Prussian armies were also marching toward Paris at the same time, and this led to an inevitable sense of panic. It was this atmosphere that led to the events commonly known as the September massacres of 1792.

Paris Massacres

To this day it is unknown how the massacres of prisoners, many of whom were priests, began. The most convincing opinion holds that it was a sort of collective insanity, based on the fear of “traitors” in their jail cells, who might engineer an escape and help the enemies of France. Another common feeling was that the city had to be purged of the non-juring clergy and those supporters of the deposed king who had not yet been condemned. The decision to eliminate the prisoners was not taken by the central government, that is, the National Assembly, or by any national ministry, principally since such matters as local prisons were in the hands of the commune of Paris. Neither were the massacres planned well in advance. Rather, the passion of the moment led to an act of popular justice, very likely coming out of the “Great Fear” that spread over France after the seizure of the Bastille.

In the version of events presented by Joseph-Mansuet Boullangier, the Vincentian treasurer of the house and probably a witness of the event, someone made a motion during a political meeting held in the dining room of Saint Firmin. (Its old name was the College des Bons Enfants, the first house of the Congregation of the Mission.) The motion was to lock up the non-juring priests of the neighborhood at Saint Firmin. It carried and, beginning 13 August, groups of armed officers began to round them up and bring them through the unruly crowds, some of whom yelled “String them up!”


In the days and weeks preceding the events of September, many non-juring clergy had already come to stay at seminary of Saint Firmin, since they had studied there. The bulk of the detainees, however, came from the seminary of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet, the house of the Nouveaux Convertis and the monastery of Saint Victor, all in the vicinity. Much of what took place at this time is unclear, including the number of those imprisoned. One list held ninety-four names, but not all of these would be killed. Those in charge of their imprisonment, the commissioners, were ordinary citizens, but they gradually let it be known to the detainees that they were in the gravest danger from others. The news spread, and the prisoners at Saint Firmin prepared themselves for death by prayer and the sacrament of reconciliation.

In terms of chronology, on Saturday, 1 September, the names of the clerical prisoners were drawn up, and a decree for their deportation was handed down the next day. However, the wholesale slaughter of criminals imprisoned at the Conciergerie and of the clergy at the monastery of the Carmelites had already happened, and so deportation ceased to be an option. At the same time, in the Bernardins prison, dating from the time of Vincent de Paul and destined for those condemned to the galleys, sixty common criminals were killed by crowds of citizens who had burst into the precincts. For several reasons, such as confusion, fear and lack of precise information, local authorities and the assembly did nothing effective to stop the slaughter.

Louis-Joseph François

For members of the Congregation of the Mission, the most notable victim at Saint Firmin was its superior, Louis-Joseph François. He was born 3 February 1751 in Busigny, a town north of Paris. It is unknown what had attracted him to the Congregation, but it might have been a mutual decision taken with Jean-Jacques Dubois (1750-1817), also a native of Busigny. The two of them entered the internal seminary in Paris, 4 October 1766. François was only fifteen and a half. After completing his internal seminary, he had to wait until his eighteenth birthday to take his vows. The date of his ordination to the priesthood is unknown.

Two of his brothers, Jean-Baptiste (1753-1839) and Jean-Jacques (b. 1760) likewise entered the Congregation. By a strange coincidence and in contrast to the principled stance of their older brother, both took the constitutional oath. Jean-Baptiste did so at Chartres and became the superior of the constitutional seminary there. Jean-Jacques was assigned to Metz in 1791. He is thought to have become a parish priest and then married. Their sister Marie-Louise followed them into the Double Family of Saint Vincent, entering the Daughters of Charity 15 January 1775.

After Louis-Joseph’s ordination, he spent eighteen years in seminary work, during the last of which (1781) he was the superior of seminary at Troyes. Following the resignation of the secretary general of the Congregation, Father Antoine Jacquier, the superior general, appointed François secretary general, sometime between 15 July and 1 October 1786. He already had a reputation as a gifted preacher, and he received invitations to give important sermons, such as the eulogies of Madame de Maintenon, 26 July 1786, and Madame Louise de France, a Carmelite and daughter of Louis XV, 15 April 1788. He was also on call to give clergy retreats for priests and to speak at the Tuesday Conferences, still being held after more than a century at Saint Lazare.

François at Saint Firmin

After Father Cayla was elected superior general, he appointed another secretary general and sent François to Saint Firmin, whose superior had just died. There, he would face great challenges: repairing the old buildings, building up the number of students and securing the seminary’s financial future. Cayla and his assistant Brunet fled to safety with François at the moment of the sack of Saint Lazare. After this, François would no longer be able to count on help from the mother house, and he would have to live from income from the rental of houses and the fees paid by students. He instituted severe economic measures, such as letting go some personnel, but his debts grew. All of his efforts to redress them, however, were for naught, because of the massacres.

When the time came for him to take the oath, he determined that he could not, since it was unclear what one was to swear to. In the face of threats and insults to force him, he studied its ramifications and, in January 1791, published his best-known work, Mon Apologie. This began his veritable war of pamphlets over the oath demanded by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. In this pamphlet he sought to explain to other clergy why he did not take the oath. He refuted various claims and objections, but for him the central point was that the appointment of the clergy depended on the church and not on the state. He concluded presciently: “To die of hunger is an evil, but there is a greater unhappiness living as an apostate or unfaithful to one’s religion.” Mon Apologie went through seven reprints and had a major influence on the clergy.

During his four years at Saint Firmin, he composed several other pamphlets for and against certain other topics, all on the issues of the day and published anonymously, including one against the pretensions of his confrere, the constitutional bishop Gratien. All this made him famous in clerical and political circles and sealed his doom.

The killing of the clergy had begun during the afternoon of 2 September at the abbey of Saint Germain des Prés and continued at the monastery of the Carmelites. To preserve a sense of order, however, so-called revolutionary “tribunals” were established at the scenes of some massacres, but they were a parody of justice.

Massacre at Saint Firmin

Various attempts were then made to save those confined at Saint Firmin. The best-known example in the Congregation was Father Boullangier. A butcher’s delivery boy, about eight in the evening of the second, knew of the massacres at the Carmelites. He came to warn Boullangier, but he suspected a trap of some sort. He consulted with François, who sought to get more information. When that failed, the young man and two friends escorted Boullangier through the crowd to safety. In later years, he composed an important account of what he had gone through, but he never wanted to speak about the events of that terrible day.

Another case of escape was the result of repeated attempts by Etienne-Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a medical student living at the adjacent College of Cardinal Lemoine, and later a renowned naturalist, to save some of his professors incarcerated at Saint Firmin. He had tried various means to secure their release, including disguising himself as an official and entering the seminary buildings. He finally succeeded by bringing a ladder to the walls during the night by which twelve priests escaped, including the Vincentian Etienne Delangres (b. 1724). Poor Delangres had taken the oath and, after escaping the massacre, reportedly abandoned his priesthood, married and had two children.

By 5:30 in the morning of Monday, 3 September, a mob had arrived at Saint Firmin. Once inside the compound, they began to round up the prisoners, taking some of them out to the streets for their execution. The atmosphere was such that the priests were brought back inside the courtyard and slaughtered in the most brutal fashion, with pikes, sabers and clubs. Those found on the upper floors were generally killed on the spot. A Vincentian, Nicolas Gaumer (1746-1819) ran to warn François but was unable to get to him. He succeeded in climbing to safety over a back wall, avoiding gun shots as he ran.

There is scant information about how individuals met their death. It is known, however, that François and two other were hurled from third floor windows to the ground below. There women beat them to death with large bats used to stir and harden plaster. Other victims who were thrown landed on pikes. Some were held dangling out the windows by their feet until dropped to their death. Boullangier reported that some women gouged out the eyes from some cadavers with their scissors. Luckily, a few of the prisoners escaped or hid, for example, behind furniture, in the attic or in the toilets. Among them are counted four other Vincentians, Philippe-Bernard Adam (b. 1749), a guest in the house at the time of its closure, and three lay brothers, Louis Danois (b. 1771), Jean-Baptiste Ducroux (b. 1740) and Pierre-Joseph Leroy (b. 1761).

Jean-Henri Gruyer and others

Jean-Henri Gruyer, another Vincentian victim, was an accidental martyr. He had been somewhat obscure in the Congregation and his death was nearly forgotten, as seen by the fact that Boullangier did not mention him, and his name was often misspelled in accounts of the massacres, Guillier, Griller or Gouyer. In addition, early records confused two men, Jean-Henri Gruyer and Jean-François-Henri Grillet, visitor of Picardy, who died in 1802.

Gruyer was born in Dole, in the east of France, on 13 June 1734 and ordained a secular priest for the diocese of Saint-Claude. For some reason, he applied to enter the Congregation in 1770, doing so on 23 January 1771. After a year of formation, he was assigned to the mission house in Angers, where he took vows 24 January 1773. His next posts were Notre Dame of Versailles, about 1774, and, after ten years there, its companion parish, Saint Louis of Versailles. When the constitutional clergy took it over on 27 April 1791, he had to leave, and returned to his native region.

Thanks to information in a travel document of 1792, it is known that he was five feet four inches tall (162 cm), with white hair, balding in the back. He had deep-set grey-blue eyes, a round face and narrow chin. The same document relates that he was coming to Paris where he intended to resume his residence. He arrived in June, visited his old parishes in Versailles from 8 to 12 or 13 August and returned to the city to lodge at Saint Firmin. He was killed there with the others, but there is no information about his death or the disposition of his remains.

Caron and Colin

Two other Vincentians were also slaughtered at Saint Firmin, Jean-Charles Caron (1730-1792) and Nicolas Colin (Collin) (1730-1792). Caron entered the Congregation in 1747, but from about 1770 he was pastor of Genevrières, in the diocese of Langres. Some sources say that he left the community, but he always signed his name as “priest of the Mission.” Worn out with the work in his diocese, he came to stay with his confreres in Paris. Nicolas Colin’s story is similar. A renowned preacher, he was invited by the bishop of his native diocese to take a parish. He became pastor of Collégien, in the diocese of Meaux, but was imprisoned at Saint Firmin for some reason. He too signed his name officially as a missioner. Although he took the oath of fidelity to the nation, he added so many qualifications as to render the original declaration meaningless.

Another victim with a Vincentian connection was a retired soldier, Jean-Antoine- Joseph de Villette, one of ten retired laymen living at Saint Firmin. Doubtless because he was a relative of Jean-Humbert Cousin (1731-1788), François’ predecessor at Saint Firmin, he retired there, spending his days in prayerful service. In his six years or residence, he became known as “the blessing of the house.” He had been warned of his possible fate, but said: “I am well enough. I am happy to remain where I am.”

The problem of the disposition of corpses and body parts was huge. When possible, the victims were stripped of their clothes and their naked corpses thrown into carts for disposition in the Vaugirard cemetery or elsewhere, leaving behind trails of blood on the ground as they rumbled along. Some of the dead were even tossed into wells or buried in shallow graves where they fell.

The church beatified François, Gruyer, Caron and Colin, with Villette, in 1926. In fact, the attention given to the cause of beatification was what saved Gruyer from obscurity. Probably because of their uncertain relationship with the Congregation, Caron and Colin were not originally included among the beati of the Vincentian Family, being added only in 2005.

Totals, Emigration

The totals are not sure, but about seventy-five were killed at Saint Firmin (seventy-four priests and one layman, Villette). Those massacred there were the third smallest in number, above Saint Germain des Prés (called the Abbaye), with thirty-two priests out of a total of between 156 and 196, and the Salpêtrière, which held mainly women. These women were principally prostitutes, criminals, the mentally ill and orphan girls, who were raped and slaughtered there on the following day in the same murderous orgy. In all of Paris, the total of those killed in the prisons is estimated at 1400. Rumors later circulated that the killers had been hired. It is more probable, however, that they were paid after the fact, although the issue is obscure. The events were so hideous, soaked in blood and shameful that the citizens of Paris are supposed to have drawn a veil over the deaths. Judicial killing of prisoners, carried out in public, was normal in the old regime, after all, and so for various reasons the events soon slipped out of common consciousness.

Nonetheless, one effect of the massacres was a rapid increase in waves of emigration. Another was the search for those responsible. The core was possibly a group of volunteer soldiers from Châlons who had already been brutalized by war. The largest group consisted of local people, including hotheads and criminals. None were ever punished for their activities. It is instructive to ponder whether the women on the streets at Saint Firmin, described by contemporary witnesses as tigers and cannibals, who stripped their victims of their clothing and dismembered them, had been peaceable churchgoers in previous weeks.

Massacre in Versailles

A related effect of the Paris massacres was a series of killings in Versailles. These are less well known since there were many fewer victims, but the slaughter claimed three Vincentians lives.

Practically since its foundation, the Congregation of the Mission had been in close contact with the royal family, first with the regent, Anne of Austria, then her son Louis XIV. These had engaged the Vincentians as parish priests and chaplains for the royal establishments at Fontainebleau, Versailles, Saint Cyr and Saint Cloud. Their service in Versailles began in 1672, when the king summoned them there. By the time of the Revolution, the Congregation was providing pastors and clergy for its two most important parishes, as well as chaplains for the hospital and the palace.

Jean-Paul Galoy

After their expulsion from the parishes in Versailles, the majority of the Vincentians fled. Some remained, however, and were arrested for refusing to take the oath. All were soon released except for the sacristan of the royal chapel, Jean-Paul Galoy (or Galois/Gallois) (1727-1792). He had been seized “after having saved to the king’s advantage a considerable quantity of precious items from that chapel [of Versailles].” Following immediately upon another massacre of prisoners then being transported through Versailles, the mob, motivated by the massacres in Paris, broke in to the prison set up in the queen’s stables. Seven or eight men examined superficially the jailer’s record book and condemned “this monster, sold to the court, . . . an aristocrat.” They took Galoy to the kitchen, where his legs were broken with an iron bar and his skull smashed. (Thanks to his confrere, Jean-André Jacob, we have many of these details.) The following day, the mob returned to the prison and dispatched thirteen prisoners, including two other Vincentians, Mathieu Caron (1739-1792) and Alexis-Jean Colin (1755-1792). Both had been stationed in Versailles and had been imprisoned for a month.

A further death took place in Versailles, that of Jean-Joseph Avril (1720-1792). He was the last superior of the Vincentian house in Saint Cloud. The circumstances surrounding his death, however, are not known.

The blood lust of the crowd may have been satisfied momentarily in early September, 1792, but these senseless murders accomplished nothing, apart from permanently staining the Revolution and inaugurating a new and bloody chapter in its development. The event gave new words to the French language, septembrisades (with septembrisation,) and septembriseur. The first two simply marked the events, whereas the third referred to anyone who had taken part in the massacres, and was generalized to include anyone involved in an act of savagery.

The church began the lengthy process of investigation of the deaths of the clergy in these massacres. A group of them, for whom there was sufficient documentation demonstrating death through hatred of the faith, were beatified 17 October 1926.

Martyrs and Confessors of the Faith

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 slaughtered 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.

Martyrs 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.” For some observers, this text seemed too weak, and so the National Assembly agreed 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.

What was the Vincentian record for compliance? The numbers of those who took the oath are quite small. The Vincentian historian Guichard gathered the following data. Of the twenty-one Vincentians at Cahors, none took the oath. The Daughters of Charity were likely unanimous. A contemporary commentary on their refusal said that their “fanaticism” spread to those confided to their care and vigilance. In Amiens, the twelve Vincentians also rejected the oath; two were to die for their decision. At the small house in Angoulême, none of the six took it either. The same was true for the ten at the seminary of Annecy. The notable exceptions were the Invalides in Paris (five out of eight took the oath), and Versailles, where two of thirty took it. Data from the other houses are more difficult to establish.

Exile and deportation

The penalty for non-compliance was either voluntary exile within two weeks or deportation to French Guiana. Abbé Augustin 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 was arrested in Metz, and was sent to Rochefort in the month of May 1793. The guards 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 from the ship to a friend in Metz, 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 sixteen other priests, he was condemned as a “refractory priest, preaching fanaticism, an enraged counter-revolutionary” and was guillotined at Place des Terreaux in Lyons on the day of his trial, 16 January 1794. He was sixty years old. The executions took only thirteen minutes.

Claude Leclerc (1720-1794), a member of the house of Lyons, is said to have taken the oath, possibly in view of his advanced age and mental condition. Nevertheless, he retracted it and continued to minister in Mornant. He was arrested and brought to Lyons, where he was condemned to death and brutally executed on the same day, 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 after 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, after his expulsion from the seminary, he returned to his birthplace. He was discovered there, arrested and imprisoned at Mende. There, he was condemned as a non-juring priest and executed 2 May 1794. His sister Marie, who had sheltered him, was condemned to perpetual banishment.

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 and René Rogue, 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. Imbert 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, on 1 July 1794. 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 and was vicar general of the diocese. After his arrest for refusing to take the prescribed oath, he was imprisoned at Périgueux. His trial took place 2 July 1794 and, at age seventy-four, he was executed there the following day.


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, either in Amiens or in Bicêtre, 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. Some sources say that he was condemned as a non-juring priest and died in prison, 12 December 1793, while others believe that he escaped death and continued as a priest in Amiens.

Nicolas-Joseph-Damien 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 the town of Heilly, where the archbishop of Reims and other clergy were taking shelter in the chateau. Bailly was captured while saying mass, paraded still vested through the city, and imprisoned. This young priest of twenty-nine died in prison in either in Amiens or in the Conciergerie in Paris, 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 Lamourette 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. According to one account, he died in prison a month later, 16 November, probably in Amiens. Another version, however, has him surviving the revolution, and returning to the ministry in his home diocese of Arras. His older brother, called Antoine, escaped death, hiding first at Heilly, and later in Amiens where he continued his ministry in secret.

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.

Martyrs 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.

Pierre-René Rogue

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 his 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 latter 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, and 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 in 1794 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. He prepared a final exhortation for the witnesses at his execution but he was not permitted to deliver it. “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.” Because he was condemned as a returned émigré, 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 in Besançon after the death of Robespierre. Under a subsequent return to stricter laws, he was arrested and condemned to deportation. He left 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 in Blois, 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.

Confessors and Exiles

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. There must have been others with similar experiences of persecution, exile and imprisonment, but their names and their sacrifices remain lost to history.

Constitutional Clergy

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

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

Antoine-Adrien Lamourette

Antoine-Adrien Lamourette was born 31 May 1742. He entered the Congregation of the Mission in Paris in 1759, where he made his vows. After his ordination as a deacon, he was sent to teach at the seminary of Metz. He then transferred to the seminary of Toul, becoming its superior at age thirty-three. There, however, conflicts arose between the older professors and himself. He spent a little time as director of retreats at Saint Lazare but soon asked for his dismissal from the Congregation, entering the diocese of Toul in 1784. At some point he received his doctorate in theology and was elected to the Royal Academy of Literature of Arras. He is described as educated and pious, but of a sentimental piety and weak faith. In keeping with the mood of the times, he adopted much of the new thinking, partly under the pressure of his friend the Comte de Mirabeau, a leader of the Revolution. His account of the sack of Saint Lazare is one of the important documents about that tragedy. It is unknown why he composed it or under what circumstances.

Under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, he was elected bishop of Rhone-et-Loire, with his seat at Lyons, and was ordained by Gobel, the constitutional archbishop of Paris, 27 March 1791. The following September, Lamourette was elected to the legislative assembly, taking a place among the moderates. He protested against the September Massacres, the laws leading to the suppression of religious congregations and the prohibition of clerical dress. He also published his rejoinder to Abbé Maury in which Lamourette favored the inclusion of Jews as part of the official life of France.

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

There, he defended the city against those sent to besiege it in 1793. He was arrested 4 October 1793 for “having committed revolutionary acts and for have written things which would kill liberty.” He was then remanded to Paris, where he was judged and condemned. One author cites as a reason his “kiss”: “for having delayed for two months the establishment of the republic by attempting, during the session of 7 July 92, through a treacherous maneuver, to reconcile the aristocrats and the patriots in the assembly.” He was executed at the guillotine the same day as his trial, 11 January 1794. Just prior to his death, he seems to have penned a retraction of his errors, later published. In it he wrote: “I declare that I repent with all my heart of all I have said, done and written tending to support the principles according to which changes have been made in France which have become so disastrous for religion…. I ask pardon of God for having received episcopal consecration, of which I was unworthy.”

Nicolas Philbert

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

Philbert’s ministry as a bishop was far from easy. He participated in various public activities but was called to account for a “little civic catechism” and had to explain his views before the National Convention. He had many opponents among the clergy, and little success in his new seminary, which opened with only two students. Under the new laws of 1793, he was ordered to go to Paris and nearly was condemned to death. He was supposed to hand over his ordination documents, thereby renouncing his priesthood, but he refused. He did, however, renounce his episcopal functions, 24 November 1793. From that time until 1795, he spent his time at his property, Villette, on the outskirts of Sedan. Although he was able to resume his episcopal functions, many rejected him. Consequently, he found himself, at age seventy, out of money and unable to visit his diocese. There is likewise no indication of any contacts with the Congregation during his episcopacy. He died at Villette, 22 June 1797. His tombstone takes a prudent course: “forced rather than elected, he did not abandon his flock when he saw the wolf.” Despite everything, he was appreciated for his dignity, eloquence, austerity, integrity and fidelity to the task as he saw it.

Jean-Baptiste-Guillaume Gratien

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

A year later, Gratien was elected bishop for Seine-Inférieure, with his seat at Rouen, where he was consecrated on 18 March 1792. He suffered greatly for his support of revolutionary ideas, being rejected by many people in his diocese. He also lost the support of the local government because of his opposition to clerical marriage and, as a result, was denied the use of his episcopal palace. When ordered, as Philbert was, to hand over his document of priestly ordination and to apostatize, he refused. He was then arrested and imprisoned first in Rouen and then for two years in the former Vincentian parish of Saint Louis in Versailles. He was in turn released and returned to Rouen in October 1795 but continued to have a role with the “reunited bishops” in Paris. These few formed a sort of executive council among the constitutional bishops. Nevertheless, he basically passed the remainder of his life as a poor outcast, as a “Citizen Bishop.” He left behind several pastoral letters to his diocese, which normally would begin with these words: “Jean-Baptiste Gratien, by Divine Providence, and in Communion with the Holy Apostolic See...” He had been deluding himself about his communion with the pope. Before the reconciliation brought about by the Concordat, he died in a little house he owned in Rouen, 4 June 1799. He was buried from the cathedral of his diocese.

The constitutional clergy sought to defend themselves through various means, particularly in Annales de la Religion, a journal published from 1795 to 1803. Its pages overflow with accounts of the misdeeds of the non-juring clergy and the outrages suffered by the juring clergy. A propaganda campaign to win over the people is evident in the characterization of the non-juring as dissidents, fanatics and assassins, and of themselves as ready to pay contributions to the state, defend the fatherland, respect property and persons, submit to the law of the nation and the like. This overheated rhetoric gradually cooled with the adoption of the concordat of 1801.

Vincentians in Versailles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of the approximately forty Vincentians serving in Versailles at the Revolution, only a small percentage took the oath. At this distance in time, it is difficult to judge the motives of the juring Vincentians. Some were clearly motivated by pastoral considerations, wanting to stay with their people as best they could, whatever the circumstances. Others, however, were likely moved by personal considerations.

return to History of the Congregation after the French Revolution