Claude-Joseph Placiard

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The short vicariate of Father Placiard, exactly one year, is no less interesting and full of conflict and intrigue for being brief.

Claude Joseph Placiard was born in Lure, in the diocese of Besançon, 6 June 1756. He entered the internal seminary of Paris in 1775, took his vows two years later, and was in due time ordained to the priesthood. His assignments included both seminaries and popular missions, but these were cut short at the Revolution. Unlike some of his confreres, he did not leave France during that period but remained in hiding. As soon as the Daughters of Charity began to resume their ministry, toward the end of 1800, he volunteered to help Laurent Philippe, the novice director at Saint Lazare from 1779 or 1780, and now director of the Sisters. Brunet, who appointed them, described his qualities to the Sisters: “Father Placiard, a man of God, a virtuous priest of the Congregation of the Mission, worthy son of St. Vincent of Paul, and who after having given during more than twenty years, proofs of his regularity, virtue and merit at St. Lazare’s in Paris, in quality of professor….” Placiard and Philippe lived in the chaplains’ quarters at the back of the Sisters’ mother house, rue du Vieux Colombier. His work seems to have been centered completely in his service to the Daughters.

Vicar General

When Brunet settled in Paris, he shared Placiard’s lodgings, and doubtless came to appreciate the qualities of his confrere. After Brunet’s death in the evening of 15 September 1806, Pierre Claude (1738-1816), the first assistant, assembled such Vincentians in Paris the next day as he could find for the formalities of naming a successor as vicar general. The meeting took place in the meeting room of the mother house of the Daughters of Charity, Vieux Colombier, but Claude could not follow the normal procedure of opening the locked box containing the name of the person designated as Brunet’s successor. The reason was that, on his deathbed, he had given to Placiard a sealed letter to be opened only after his death. At this first meeting of nine Vincentians, the name of Placiard was found in the letter, dated 8 August 1806. He requested a postponement until after Brunet’s funeral the following morning. Two other Vincentians joined the second session of this informal assembly, 17 September, and Placiard accepted his nomination.

Placiard set to work quickly, asking the pope to confirm his appointment; informing Sicardi, who continued as pro-vicar general; informing the minister of foreign affairs, Portalis, as he was required to do; and communicating his appointment to the Congregation through a circular letter. In it, Placiard referred to the brief Tua in Galliam of 13 May 1806, which his counterpart in Rome, Sicardi, had chosen to ignore. The government responded within three days that “M. Placiard is confirmed as superior of the Mission, known under the name of Saint Lazare.”

Sicardi did not respond quickly since he had been absent when notification of Placiard’s nomination arrived. Yet, when he returned, he congratulated Placiard on his nomination and offered him some advice. “Listen to me once and for all. If you need something from the Holy See, write to the pope directly. Do not do what your predecessor did. I am speaking to you as a friend, and you will be content with [my suggestion].” He explained that Brunet had sought the protections of persons of the world for his affairs. The irony is that Sicardi had regularly made use, not of persons of the world, but of ecclesiastical intermediaries between himself and the pope, not the least of whom was the vice-gerent of Rome, Archbishop Fenaja.

Placiard had his own views on the Italians. In writing to his eventual successor, Dominique Hanon, in Amiens, he noted: “The Italians were separated de facto, and they wanted to be so de jure.” But, since he was unsure whether the Poles and Spaniards were with him or not, he had written to them simply. Their replies were gracious. He had not been helped in this by his predecessor, since Brunet kept few if any notes about the affairs of the Congregation.

It took Sicardi a while to mount another offensive. He began by laying out his basic principles in a long letter dated 15 November 1806, perhaps regarded as a circular directed to the Congregation. First, he acknowledged that Placiard governed the Daughters of Charity as well as those missioners destined to go to foreign missions in pagan lands, according to the brief Quum uti accepimus (30 October 1804). This was the brief overturned by Tua in Galliam (13 May 1806), but which Sicardi did not mention. Second, the pro-vicar in Rome, himself, would continue to govern the Congregation of the Mission wherever else it existed (more than ninety percent of all Vincentians), according to the same brief, with a council and assistants general. He conveniently omitted referring to the specific prohibition issued by Brunet against this. Nevertheless, he claimed to be under the vicar general in Paris, from whom he would receive dispositions useful to the entire Congregation, and which he would presumably forward to the members. He tactfully suggested, in the third place, that Placiard should send authentic copies of the pontifical decrees to all visitors to disperse any worries about government of the Congregation, all the while acknowledging differences of interpretation in the phrase “ita tamen ut…” in Tua in Galliam.

Two days after the date of this circular, Sicardi then turned to Pius VII to try to have Tua in Galliam changed. In his reading of it, that decree had removed all authority from Brunet, transferring it to Sicardi. He was interpreting the expression “loco tui” to mean “instead of you,” rather than as “acting in your name,” which had been Brunet’s interpretation. Sicardi proposed that the pope remove the words “in Urbe,” since some (the French and probably others) believed that Sicardi could be vicar general only in Rome, that is, in dealings with the Holy See. Lacking that, he suggested that the pope add “in Urbe degens,” residing in the City. This he thought would remove the bone of contention, and everyone would return to peace, “without anyone noticing it.”

He was more forthright in a memorandum directed to a Monsignor Berni, substitute for Cardinal Braschi, the secretary of briefs, responsible for the composition of papal decrees. Sicardi wanted a new and corrected brief to say that Placiard would be named for six months only, for the Daughters of Charity and for those members of the Congregation of the Mission destined for foreign missions; and that Sicardi would have the responsibility of the entire Congregation, dependent on Placiard. He noted as well that the Holy See should not grant Placiard the power to name a successor. This had been a special faculty given by the pope to Brunet, forced to it by Cardinal Fesch. He correctly claimed it was contrary to the Constitutions, which granted it only to the superior general. In any case, according to the same Constitutions, a vicar general was named for no more than six months, in the ordinary course of events. But he neatly overlooked the fact that the Constitutions were written for ordinary times and circumstances.

Placiard weighed in with his own reading of the events. He addressed a lengthy memorandum to a cardinal, probably Carafa, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars. He asked the cardinal’s help in presenting the true situation to the pope, such as the reasons for prolonging his six-month appointment. Further, he presented the state of the Congregation in France: its six major seminaries, its other houses (in France and in the French empire), his good relations with the Congregation in Portugal, Spain and Naples, despite governmental pressures, and the improvement in the foreign missions.

Like his counterpart, Placiard, too, asked for changes in Tua in Galliam, since he could not change superiors without papal permission, making such appointments unnecessarily complex and inconvenient. He concluded by repeating information that Brunet had already shared, namely that Napoleon would insist that the superior general of the Congregation reside in France. If he did not, there was danger that houses would close, both in France and in Poland.

On the same day, Placiard wrote Sicardi, thanking him for his good wishes. “I believe that there is no division in authority, whether in name or in fact; Saint Vincent established only one Congregation, and one Daughters of Charity.” He added, however, that, for the Sisters, “having now one head and now another cannot lead to any good, especially among the Daughters. Excuse me for speaking so frankly, since I am sure that you do not disapprove of my observations.”

Accepimus nuper

Unfortunately for the entire situation, Pius VII had already written a new brief, Accepimus nuper, dated 9 December 1806, which only made matters worse. The pope basically followed Sicardi’s suggestion about removing “in Urbe” from the text, and revised the problematic sentence in Tua in Galliam to read “such that, during your office, the pro-vicar general shall exercise your functions in your place over the entire Congregation of the Mission.” This was clearly a victory for Sicardi and his council, especially when read from their perspective. Yet Placiard could have taken some consolation also, since the pope confirmed him as “vicar general of the entire Congregation of the Mission,” while leaving Sicardi with the title of pro-vicar general.

Placiard’s own private thoughts on the issue were that, as several others believed, Sicardi was “an intriguer and mischief maker.” He pointed directly to the confreres in Rome as the source of his problem, since he believed that all the other Italian Vincentians were on his side. Speaking of a nearly inevitable schism, he held that should the Romans separate from the Congregation, they would have only the two houses in Rome. “If they want to leave, I will let them go willingly. They have been nothing but trouble and have provoked a very disagreeable correspondence.”

Sicardi and his assistants must have felt that they needed to explain their position once again, since they sent another memorandum to the pope in January of 1807. They asserted that they wanted only peace in the Congregation, not wishing to separate from it or causing provinces to separate. They professed their loyalty to the Holy See, promising even to take a formal oath if required.

However, they had also studied Accepimus nuper with the help and counsel of various Roman ecclesiastics, probably Monsignor Dassani, auditor of the Rota, and Monsignor Giganti, secretary of the Apostolic Council. In their view, the source of the problem was Brunet, who asked that the brief of 1804 be annulled and substituted by another, establishing him as vicar general and allowing him to designate his assistants and a successor, while retaining Sicardi as vicar general. This happened thanks to the brief Tua in Galliam of 13 May 1806. Brunet should have passed his decisions through Sicardi for him to know them and then to send them to the members of the Congregation in the rest of the world. This was not schism. In fact, they asserted, according to the constitutions of the Congregation, the superior general should have assistants elected by a general assembly, live with them in the same house, obtain their advice and consent, travel with at least one of them, have a procurator general and a secretary chosen by him. Since this was not possible in France at that time, and since Placiard was without a central house or other resources, the French should have followed completely the decisions of the brief of 9 December 1806, Accepimus nuper, in Sicardi’s reading: that Placiard had the title of vicar general in name only, and that Sicardi was exercising all the functions of the vicar general.

In a cover letter to this document addressed to Pius VII, Sicardi wrote to Cardinal Carafa. Looking for any legal loophole, he proposed delays until he could receive a genuine copy of the imperial decree to know whether the house assigned in Paris was really for forming young seminarians, etc., and whether they would be for France or only for foreign missions. If for France, as Placiard asserted, then the matter would have been settled in Placiard’s favor. If not, then Sicardi would have been vindicated. He repeated his contention that “the successor of M. Brunet,” whom he did not name, was not authorized to deal with the affairs of the Congregation; that only Sicardi was, and that Placiard has not been confirmed by the Holy Father. Sicardi claimed that he had never lost his authority. If he did lose this struggle, he said that he was ready to give up everything if so ordered.

Next, it was Placiard’s turn to respond in this seemingly endless conflict over power. He wrote a memorandum to the pope with a cover letter to the same Congregation of Bishops and Regulars. He countered, first, that the title of pro-vicar general was unknown in the constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission and was never needed. He objected to Sicardi’s contention that the title of vicar general was merely honorary. If this was so, he wrote, why did the Holy See approve Brunet’s assistants and give him the right to name a successor? Since the pope had granted this right, this act could not be null—an assertion contrary to Sicardi. Second, he believed that Sicardi was trying to divide the Congregation of the Mission, since there would be two independent councils. Placiard foresaw the development of a schism and concluded that he had accepted the office of vicar reluctantly and would readily give it up if he was useless, which Sicardi thought he was. He added that those who issued the papal decree would not have done so had they understood better the French situation. “I hope the Pope will issue an interpretation of this brief, which has caused so many problems. If not, I will resign and return to my solitude from which I was wrenched against my will.”

Qua semper voluntate

After such appeals, Pius VII and the Roman authorities undoubtedly believed they had to respond. Therefore, on 19 June 1807, the pope issued yet another brief to restore unity in the Congregation, Qua semper voluntate, addressed to Placiard. In it, the pontiff reviewed the complex history of the various briefs. What had changed since the last one was the assurance of a large residence in France for the superior general and his assistants, as well as of sufficient funds. He then revoked all previous briefs, dispensing from any possible ecclesiastical penalties incurred. He granted Placiard almost all that he had asked: all the rights, privileges and faculties for a vicar general and for a superior general according to the Constitutions, to name assistants and an admonitor and to name a successor as vicar general for six months, depending on the Holy See. In virtue of this new brief, Sicardi was no longer pro-vicar general, but restored as first assistant. However, because of Sicardi’s age, seventy-seven, the pope was allowing him to continue to live in Rome. He concluded this document by ordering everyone to accept Placiard as vicar general, including all officers of the Holy See and all bishops. Further, he ordered him to convoke a general assembly as soon as possible, when he and the visitors would judge it proper, in keeping with the Constitutions.

The publication of this new brief gave Cardinal Carafa the occasion to respond to the most recent appeal from Placiard, which must have arrived just as Qua semper voluntate was being completed. He praised the spirit of the Congregation and willingly acknowledged that more than one error or ambiguity had crept into the whole sad matter. He felt, however, that he needed to absolve Sicardi’s conduct by saying that he had always acted with legitimate power and inviolably fulfilled the pope’s orders. Further, Sicardi’s way of acting and his interpretations of the brief sent to Brunet should not be condemned. Finally, since Sicardi had not arrogated to himself the office of superior general, all suspicion had vanished. “Enough; there is no reason to go back over all this.” Should there still be any doubts and varying interpretations, the pope would supply any defects about decisions previously made, that is, about their validity.

Placiard communicated with Sicardi after this, choosing the feast of Saint Vincent to do so, 19 July 1807. In a couple of sentences dripping with irony, he made his point: “I did not think I had anything better to do than to follow your advice. ... After the most mature examination, the pope has finally acquiesced with a very special kindness to my humble supplication.”

Just when Placiard must have been confident that the difficulties had been put to rest, Sicardi shot back: “For without contradiction, you cannot yet exercise any jurisdiction in the Congregation.” The reason was that since Placiard had no proper mother house, he had no authority and the decisions in Qua semper voluntate would remain a dead letter until he did. He changed his tone a little with another circular addressed to the Congregation, a letter pitiful in its self-justifying and pious tone. He copied a letter from Carafa to Placiard, to eliminate ambiguities and to restore peace to all Vincentians. “If therefore anyone still has doubts about the substance or the truth of those things that were explained in my letter, he should consult directly with the Holy Apostolic See, and not write to me any more, since I have finished the job given me, and even more, and I will now in the future keep silence about these matters.” Professing his delight that the Congregation of the Mission was beginning again in France, he claimed to be glad to be free of his responsibility, since he had never wanted to hold on to government. “I know that I am not lying; my conscience is my witness.” He begged pardon for whatever he might have done, and urged his confreres to try to be of one heart, having reverence for the pope and faithful obedience. “And so farewell to you all; once again, farewell in the Lord.”

The last word had not, however, been heard from Sicardi, who believed he had found one more loophole. He addressed a new circular to the Congregation, dated 2 September 1807. Here, he informed everyone of Qua semper voluntate, but pointed to a condition, “in virtue of which the Pope suspended the right of exercising this office [i.e., with clause uti non valeas, nisi cum in possessionem domus...] until the affairs of the Congregation would be arranged and order established in the new house of Paris, so that the Community exercises would be observed as in the past. While waiting, the government of the Company still rests in the hands of your humble servant, not as vicar, nor as pro-vicar, but as first assistant general, according to the decree of the general assembly, confirmed by the bull of Clement XII [Ex injuncto nobis, 26 March 1737]. . . . Providence has chained me still.”

The last word in this sordid episode fell to Placiard. He addressed his own circular to the Congregation on 9 September 1807, exactly a week before his death, and it may be doubted whether he ever saw Sicardi’s latest circular. Placiard explained that he had two sorts of powers, those of a vicar general, which were unconditional, and those of a superior general, which were conditional on papal permission. He planned to use the unconditional powers and so named two new assistants, besides Sicardi and Claude, Jacques Martin Braud (b. 1751) and Louis Jerome Lemaire (1758-1826). These two must have been ad hoc substitutes, since he did not mention Edward Ferris, still living in Ireland.

Restoration in France

Besides the time and energy devoted to the affair of his relationship with Sicardi, Placiard had many other responsibilities. Principally, they were the foreign missions, ostensibly the new raison d’être of the Congregation, the restoration of the Vincentian houses of France, the reintegration into the Congregation of former Vincentians dispersed after its suppression, and the care of the Daughters of Charity.

One may suppose that the time needed for Placiard to learn what he needed to know about the state of the Congregation was lengthy. As mentioned above, Brunet had kept virtually no notes about its affairs, and so to help him, Placiard made use of the skills of Fathers Viguier, his secretary, and Claude. He came to realize how expensive it was to provide for the China mission, but also that he had to rely almost completely on the state for the needed support. Several letters attest to this concern and go into details, particularly concerning the astronomical equipment to be sent to the imperial Chinese court.

When he had grown more familiar with the situation, he realized that everything depended on His Imperial and Royal Majesty, Napoleon, and on the decisions of his uncle, Cardinal Fesch. If the Congregation were to provide missionaries according to the new charter issued by the emperor, it would also have to have a central house in Paris to form them, as well as the seminaries which certain bishops wished to entrust to the Vincentians. To prove his point, he addressed a report to Jean-Etienne Portalis, the minister of foreign affairs, providing statistics of the missionaries before Revolution: China, six; Ile de France and Bourbon, twenty-two; Algiers, three; Turkey, twenty-two. At the time of writing, 2 March 1807, the data showed: China, four, all of them sick, including Clet; Ile de France and Bourbon, seven, half of whom were sick; Algiers, one, sick and aged; and Turkey, fifteen. They would need, therefore, a regular central house (part of Sicardi’s demand), money for the upkeep of the Congregation and its buildings, and a steady supply of candidates.

Although everything depended on Napoleon’s favor, Placiard’s responsibility was to develop the source of candidates, and for this he looked to diocesan seminaries. Since the Congregation of the Mission had a double role as teachers in seminaries and foreign missionaries, one or other of these would have appealed to a certain number of idealistic seminarians. By the end of 1806, he could write that Vincentians were staffing, with at least one or two of its members, the seminaries of Amiens, Vannes, Carcassonne, Poitiers, Sarlat and Albi, and they would soon assume the direction of the seminary of Tours. In addition, he already had some candidates, whom he placed in a seminary, probably at Amiens. The future, looked at in this light, seemed less bleak.

The case of the Amiens seminary was especially important, since the property likely belonged to the Congregation. There, Placiard recommended admitting boarders, not just seminary students, as a way to make money, and a further source of vocations. The house in Lyons, while not a seminary but just a secondary school, offered the same promise.

The other way to secure members was to invite his confreres to resume their Vincentian life. Since the suppression of the Congregation the Mission in 1792, its members had been dispersed, some outside of France, particularly in Spain. Since the Concordat of 1801, others, apart from those who abandoned their priesthood and membership, had returned to priestly work in France. He wrote to those whose names and contact information he had, but he came to realize that many excuses existed for not returning. Bishops were unwilling to let some return, since they were fulfilling important posts in their dioceses. Besides, the bishops of France had received authorization allowing them to receive into their dioceses clergy belonging to secular congregations, and so they presumed that they were doing the right thing in not letting them return. The bishop of Nancy, for example, wrote that he would sooner give up his see than let Dominique Salhorgne return. Others cited, as reasons for remaining at their posts, the difficulty of finding a replacement, their age and health, or family obligations, such as the support of sick relatives. Some felt, besides, that there was not enough truly Vincentian work for them to do if they returned, and they worried about their salaries being paid by the state. Cardinal Fesch, in his role as the supervisor of the Congregation, promised to put pressure on the bishops to allow the former Vincentians to return. The issue of the return of the men to community life would drag on for many years. Placiard had merely taken the first steps, but was discouraged to find only five or six willing to come back.

The search for a suitable headquarters for the Congregation continued during Placiard’s term. It may have appeared that the problem was solved by the imperial decree giving to the Congregation the house at Vieux Colombier, once the Daughters of Charity had moved away to the Maison de la Croix, which had been assigned to them. All this was quickly challenged by others who had designs on both properties, and the decree ultimately proved useless. Although a mere fraction of the size of Saint Lazare, it would have been a suitable house at the beginning. The same decree authorized Fesch to accept legacies and gifts for the use of the Congregation, an important step in developing some independence.

Placiard’s work as the superior general of the Daughters of Charity is not well detailed, but it involved the usual permissions, such as the renovation of vows, and presiding at the assembly of 18 May 1807, at which Mother Deschaux was elected to a second term. Eighty-seven Sisters participated. It is believed, however, that he was kept somewhat in the dark about the inner workings of the Sisters, particularly since the movement to place the Daughters of Charity under the archbishop of Paris was taking shape.

Perhaps because he was feeling exhausted, or was being ignored by the leadership of the Daughters, he moved from his apartments at the Vieux Colombier to the hospital of the Incurables, rue de Sèvres, staffed by the Daughters of Charity. There, suddenly and probably without warning, Claude Joseph Placiard had a stroke and died, 16 September 1807. He was only fifty-one, doubtless worn down by the incessant complications of his office, particularly his conflicts with Sicardi. Although he had drawn up his last will a few months before, by which he left his lands and other goods to the Congregation, he did not leave behind the name of someone to succeed him as vicar general. Following the Constitutions, therefore, Pierre Claude, the first assistant, assumed the interim government of the Congregation, notified the members in a circular, and convoked the meeting to nominate a successor.

In his letter to the Vincentians, Claude noted that Placiard had had a large funeral, attended by numerous diocesan clergy, Vincentians and Daughters of Charity. He recalled the conversions he had obtained, possibly during a tiring mission he gave in the Vendée region, his theological knowledge, his care for the Sisters, and his personal qualities of modesty and modesty joined to firmness. Cardinal Fesch, with whom the vicar general had worked so frequently, said that his death was a loss not only to the double family of Saint Vincent, but to France as a whole, and he pledged to continue his work for the Congregation. Father Placiard was buried in the Vaugirard Cemetery.

Sicardi, his erstwhile opponent, praised his character. “I found in him the character of a person who was pious, just, zealous, exemplary, firm and constant in matters of order and truth. Although he died young, he nevertheless died plenus dierum, since he always made a good use of his talent and his time.”

Dominique-François Hanon (1757-1816)

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