Pierre-Joseph Dewailly

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Fr Pierre-Joseph Dewailly CM, eleventh Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission

Pierre-Joseph Dewailly (1759-1828)

As the first Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission since the death of Fr Jean Félix Cayla de la Garde in 1800, Pierre-Joseph Dewailly had many hurdles to overcome, not the least of which was the enduring question of French-Italian antagonisms. Francesco Antonio Baccari, former vicar general, continued his intrusive behavior in Rome. In any case, Dewailly’s term lasted a mere fifteen months.

Early Life

He was born 25 January 1759 in Vacqueriettes (now Vacqueriettes-Erquières), a rural town in the north of France. After his secondary studies in Douay, he entered the Congregation of the Mission, 6 December 1778, in Paris, where he took his vows two years later. Unlike most of his predecessors, he had some parish experience, serving in the royal parish of Saint Louis in Versailles, followed by mission work in the diocese of Amiens. He then served in the seminaries Chartres and Saint Brieuc, where he was when the Revolution broke out.

He had to flee into German territory amid great dangers. Thanks to a soldier, he even received a saber cut on his face, a scar he bore for the rest of his life. When he was able to return to France, he rejoined his native diocese of Arras. There the bishop, although absent, assigned him a few other hardy priests to minister together in abandoned country parishes. He paid for his devotion by mistreatment and confinement in a dank basement at the hands of troops. Local inhabitants secured his release. After the peace brought about by the Concordat, the bishop then assigned him to a parish.

His abiding wish to begin his community life again brought him to the seminary of Amiens, where he arrived in 1806. He was its superior in 1811, although the Congregation was still suppressed for the second time. Nevertheless, during his term, he founded two secondary schools, at Montdidier and Roye, not far from Amiens. He also supported a band of mission preachers, in keeping with his own first experiences as a Vincentian priest. Because he had some funds of his own as well as access to gifts from others, he supported several seminarians at Amiens, as well as members of his family and the parish of his birth.

Very little information exists in the archives concerning him, apart from everyday correspondence. We do know that he also took part in the assembly of 1816 in Paris, at which Father Verbert was elected. His testament, dated 2 May 1818, forms part of his files. He wrote it because he was “sick in body, but sound in spirit, memory and judgment.” He left his property to Ferdinand Bailly, in residence at the Amiens seminary. Bailly was a professor there at the time and would later become notorious for his lawsuits against Jean-Baptiste Nozo and the Congregation.

Superior General

His peaceful seminary life would change abruptly with his nomination as superior general. After months of research and negotiations, and with the approval of the French authorities, Leo XII appointed Pierre-Joseph Dewailly in the brief Anteactae temporum vicissitudines, dated 16 January 1827. The pope had reviewed the of the issues submitted by Charles X, who insisted on having a French priest, residing in Paris, named as superior general. The reasons alleged were that the superior general had always been French, and that he directed the Daughters of Charity, headquartered in France.

The pope therefore named Dewailly as “superior general of the entire Congregation of the Mission,” receiving all the faculties, honors, prerogatives, and rights of that office by apostolic authority, that is, not directly through an election held in a general assembly. Further, he was able to choose an admonitor and his assistants, and not have to wait to have them appointed by a general assembly, as foreseen by the Constitutions. His residence would be in Paris, “where the head of the Congregation is.” The pope concluded that everyone was to accept him under holy obedience.

Under French law, papal briefs had to be approved before they could be executed. This would take nearly six months and, for this reason, Dewailly was only nominally in charge during that period. As part of this process, Frayssinous prepared a memorandum for Charles X, in which he reviewed the history of the question and its ramifications. For some reason, he chose to recall that the Congregation of the Mission “used to serve the royal house of detention which was part of the priory of Saint Lazare.” The Congregation “is essentially French,” because of its birth in France, and because it had only French superiors general. In the case of the nomination of the Savoyard Maurice Faure in 1697, the “rights of France would have been wounded” by the choice of a foreigner, even someone, like Faure, who had lived continually in France. Also, if the superior general could have foreign assistants and could name non-French Vincentians to French houses in France or in French missions, then the Congregation of the Mission would cease being French.

Frayssinous was apparently citing an undated and unsigned document attached to the archival copy. French Vincentians addressed it to “Your Excellency,” and it was the handwriting of Etienne, the secretary general. Their claim was that “the needs of the Congregation of Saint Lazare demand that its government always be the same, that is, that its superior general be French and live in Paris.” The reason was that Urban VIII founded the Congregation as a French congregation and, with a foreigner at its head, it would lose its legal existence. These assertions would be repeated and insisted on by both the Congregation and the French government in the later history of the Congregation, especially during the search for a successor to Jean-Baptiste Nozo in 1842-1843. These same principles would also have a role to play in the decision taken a century later to move the general curia and the residence of the superior general to Rome.

Frayssinous also reviewed the decree of the general assembly of 1703, which determined that no member of proper age and without any canonical impediment, and from any nation or fatherland, could be excluded from election to office. Clement XI confirmed this decree. He believed that this decree was not precisely contrary to the French law.

Dewailly was naturally reluctant to accept the nomination, since he was already sixty-eight years old. Indeed, he could be regarded as a sort of pawn in the game of the restoration of French governmental power over the Church. Perhaps for this reason, and because the decree of his nomination took some time to approve, Dewailly continued to live mainly in Amiens.

At length the Council of State registered the papal brief, and Frayssinous wrote a covering letter of congratulation. Within a few days, 1 July 1827, Charles X issued his approval. This document reviewed the Congregation’s legislation and included the consideration that “the said brief conforms to the usages invariably received in the kingdom, according to which, the superior general of the priest of the Mission should be of French origin; and it is recognized that the headquarters of the Congregation is in Paris, and that the superior general is obliged to live there.” An important proviso was attached to the approval, however. “Article 2: The said brief is received without approval of the clauses, formulas or expressions that it contains, and which are or might be contrary to the constitutional charter, to the laws of the kingdom, to the franchises, liberties and maxims of the Gallican Church.” This text demonstrates that, although the Congregation was now restored to its full constitutional state, relations with the Holy See concerning the Congregation could be serious threats for the future. Dewailly received these documents in Amiens, but shortly afterward moved to Paris.

Within a few days, he penned his first Circular to the Congregation. He admitted his surprise that the choice of a superior general had fallen on him, an office he accepted only after consulting many others. His perspective, not surprisingly, was that the reborn Congregation should avoid any novelties, especially in its teaching. As part of his administrative reorganization, he began the practice of keeping a large register containing the decisions of his council, a system retained until 1964, the time of William Slattery. One of the major decisions was the reconstitution of the French provinces, disrupted by the suppression of the Congregation in France. To put the system back in place, he appointed provincials for the provinces of Aquitaine, Ile de France, and Picardy in 1829. The province of Lyons had already been at least informally restored in 1816. In fact, the visitors (provincial superiors) of these three provinces did not yet enjoy the full authority granted them by the Constitutions.

Dewailly’s second circular, to mark the New Year of 1828, repeated some of the same ideas. Interestingly, he framed the history of the Revolution as a period of the “genius of evil,” and the attacks of the prince of darkness. This was one of many possible interpretations, but a common one in traditionalist Catholic circles in his day. To overcome these assaults in the future, he recommended in this letter the traditional Vincentian spiritual life, with the observance of the five virtues enshrined in the Common Rules, the practice of mental prayer for the community’s works of evangelization and formation of the clergy, and the faithful practice of its rules. He expressed his thankfulness for the members who had returned and had hope in the new candidates who had arrived, although he found them not as plentiful as he would like. After reviewing rapidly the situation of the Congregation outside of France, he announced that he had selected an admonitor, Augustin Delgorgues; as well as three assistants: Fathers Salhorgne (slated also to be the director of the Daughters of Charity), Boullangier, and Le Go. Jean-Baptiste Etienne would serve a dual role, procurator general and secretary of the Congregation, duties he fulfilled until his election as superior general in 1843. For the moment, Dewailly did not name an Italian assistant, as the Congregation’s legislation demanded, in view of certain unspecified difficulties in Italy.

Major issues

Two major concerns would also threaten the stability of his new role, another attempt by Baccari to seize power, and a debate in the national assembly touching on the legal existence of the Congregation.

The general council had already dealt with Baccari’s request to be relieved as visitor, which had been countermanded by the pope, who had asked him to stay on. Dewailly correctly asked to see written proof of this. Baccari requested it and sent the letter to Paris. The issue, reported to the council by the visitors of Naples and Portugal, was that the pope was on the point of naming a vicar general or procurator general, “who will handle the affairs of the Congregation of the Mission, and to whom he will give the power needed to administer the provinces outside of France.” The members of the council suspected Baccari was behind this and reacted with suspicion of his motives.

Father Baccari then broke some news to Dewailly in a letter of 31 January 1828, which he received from the nuncio in Paris. Baccari announced that the Holy See had appointed him “commissary general” of the Congregation of the Mission for a term to last “at the good pleasure of the Holy See,” and that his responsibility was to treat the affairs of the Congregation in Rome. The origin of this development is to be sought principally in the custom of many congregations with headquarters outside of Rome. They all needed someone to treat of their affairs with the Holy See. Some bishops of distant dioceses relied on agents in the city, such as bishops or others with residence there. Congregations normally had a member of their community stationed there. The strange character of Baccari’s appointment is that it came, not from the new superior general, but from the Leo XII, acting through the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars.

The general council treated this matter at length several months later, 9 May. They blamed Baccari for having solicited this appointment and for then acting on his own—accepting a house for the Congregation without either asking permission for it from the superior general, or giving information. He also, on his own, and “on apostolic authority,” (since he had received his appointment from the pope), dismissed a student, again contrary to the Constitutions. He later claimed he had forgotten to tell Dewailly.

According to information sent from someone in Naples, probably the visitor, Baccari as commissary general was claiming that he enjoyed all the powers of the superior general, but that was exercising them prudently and in secret. This office, however, was unknown in the Congregation, at least under the name of “commissary general,” although the Holy See regularly used this designation for representatives of orders and congregations in Rome. The title “commissary” appeared in the Constitutions, chap. 1 art. 4, referring to members appointed by the superior general to specific tasks, but who were “however not ordinary officials.” There had never been a commissary general in the Congregation, but from the time of Saint Vincent certain members were deputed to the same tasks until the creation of the office of procurator general in 1843. Baccari read his letter of appointment very broadly, seeing the description, “to be able to transact before the Holy See the business of the houses of the Congregation of the Mission,” as without restrictions or dependence on the superior general. It was effectively a resurrection of the system of two heads of the Congregation, both appointed by the pope, which had existed before the appointment of Dewailly. This opinion was shared by Baccari’s Italian confreres, who did not approve of it.

Baccari, however, did cooperate with Dewailly, as in the case of the appointment of a new visitor (provincial superior) of Rome after the death of Antonio Giovanelli. Despite his presentation of the name of Filippo Giriodi (1781-1842), the council named Baccari to the office of visitor, which he exercised from 1827 to 1834. In practice, however, Baccari was old and ill to accomplish much as commissary general beyond the standard requests for ordinary permissions from offices of the Holy See.

The second major issue to confront Dewailly was the growing anti-clerical movement in France. It colored the thinking of the government and worried the congregations, all of whom were under suspicion of being disloyal to the state. The issue would come to the fore, however, only in the administration of Father Salhorgne, in 1829.

Illness and Death

In the fall, Dewailly began to take sick. His illness was at first not regarded as life-threatening, but he worsened. Thinking of the problem of his successor, the assistants tried to find the box with the paper on which the superior general had written the name of the vicar general. Etienne, secretary general, asked him about it in his last moments, and he confessed that he had written down a name but later tore it up. His intention had been to think about the matter again during the next annual retreat, to be held in October. He was too sick to attend, however, and there the matter remained. He told Le Go and Etienne that he wanted Salhorgne, and so the general council agreed, although this procedure was contrary to the Constitutions. In any case, however, Salhorgne was already the first assistant and would legally be able to assume the reins of government as vicar general after Dewailly’s death.

Pierre-Joseph Dewailly, the eleventh superior general of the Congregation of the Mission, died on 25 October 1828. The Congregation was thus again struck by either the early death of one its leaders. The notice in the collection of Circulars says about his character: “In him meekness was joined to firmness, and zeal to prudence.”


Vincentian Encyclopedia, The Restoration Superiors General, Section 1, Pierre-Joseph Dewailly.