The house where the Congregation was founded has remained a pilgrimage centre for the Oblates of the entire world. Its history, peaceful at times and sometimes very eventful, was typical of what religious communities lived through during that period of France’s history.
Before the Founding of the Oblates
From 1628 on, this house was the residence of the Carmelites. But it was only during the construction of the church (1695-1701) that the building took on its present form, a building complex of four wings forming a box around an interior court yard. The Carmelites, who numbered 18 at the time, were expelled by the Revolution in 1792 and their convent as well as its furnishings were sold as property confiscated by the state to some individuals from the city of Aix.
The church attached to the monastery is the work of the architect, Thomas Verrier, a pupil and nephew of Pierre Puget. It is in the form of a Greek cross, surmounted by an oval cupola. It was adorned with stucco decorations and paintings; a baldachin stood over the altar. These elements of baroque style have disappeared in the wake of changes wrought by successive restorations. After the Carmelites were expelled, for a few years, the church was transformed into a temple of Reason and then abandoned. In addition to this, on October 23, 1815, Eugene de Mazenod could write his friend Charles de Forbin-Janson: “the roof is in sad need of repair... it rains inside as if one were out in the street.” But he plans to set things in order: “Would it not be better to have the Divine Office celebrated here rather than to see it used as a storehouse for all the mountebanks that pass by and as a barracks for soldiers of every nation?”
Founding of the Oblates
During its first years, the history of the house at Aix is intermingled with the history of the Congregation. It is retold in all the biographies of Eugene de Mazenod and in the books that speak of the founding. The most detailed account is that given by Father Pielorz: “Nouvelles recherches sur la fondation de notre Congrégation” in Missions O.M.I., 83 (1956), p. 210-248.
Father de Mazenod planned to gather the missionary group he wanted to found in the convent of the Minimes, near what was called l’Enclos, a country house owned by his family where he stayed from time to time. But the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were quicker than he was; they bought the convent of the Minimes and Eugene had to seek elsewhere. It was then that, in 1815, he purchased a part of the former convent of the Carmelites. Three of the wings of this house were being used as a boarding school for young girls under the direction of a Mrs. Gontier. The west wing was owned by another individual and Father de Mazenod never bought it. (Twice during subsequent years, once in 1878 and again in 1942, the question arose of buying the whole building, but the initiatives taken did not bear fruit.)
As of November 21, 1815, the Youth Association founded by Father de Mazenod used the choir of the Carmelite church. It was hastily restored thanks to voluntary contributions made by the youth associates. And when the Missionaries of Provence met there on January 25 of 1826, they had available to them only the interior chapel and two rooms at the top of the stairs looking out into the street. (See LEFLON, II, p. 41) On May 13, 1816, Mrs. Gontier shut down her boarding school. The Oblates could then use the whole complex of the building that they owned. Until his departure for Marseilles in 1823, Father de Mazenod occupied a room on the first floor. After repairs on the church were completed, it was opened to public worship on Palm Sunday, April 7, 1816.
Life of the First Community
The first community was a missionary community. Already on February 11, 1816, less than three weeks after the foundation, four Oblates preached their first parish mission at Grans. It lasted until March 17. And there followed a steady demand for missions. The two great missions of Marseilles and Aix in 1820 deserve special mention. They were preached in conjunction with the Missionaries of France, who were the group to which Abbé Forbin-Janson, Father de Mazenod’s friend, belonged. The Oblates had asked to be assigned to the predominantly working class parishes where they preached in Provençal. (LEFLON, II, p. 107, no. 45) In spite of a few passing difficulties, parish missions remained the main apostolate of the missionaries established at Aix. The priests also preached at different special occasions and once in a while helped out the clergy of the city with their parish work.
Work with the poor entailed a variety of activities. The Association of Youth continued to flourish for some time. The priests worked as chaplains of hospitals and prisons. For example, we note that in 1827, Father Daniel André was appointed chaplain of the senior citizens’ homes, the barracks and the prisons. The Oblates took care of the prison ministry, including assisting those condemned to death, until their expulsion in 1903. On the occasion of every sentencing to death, one or two Oblates accompanied the condemned man to the scaffold and, as they themselves stated, in these circumstances, they wanted to be witnesses of God’s mercy. (See BAFFARY, Paul, Notice historique sur l’œuvre des prisons, Aix, 1908)
On August 2, 1841, the Oblates hosted the Saint Vincent de Paul Society which was established that year in Aix. They made available to them their inner chapel and a room for their meetings. The Society maintained its centre in our house until the expulsion of 1903. It subsequently returned when the Oblates came back.
The Oblates took an active part in the many works of the Society: help to poor families, gathering up the little chimney-sweeps, catechizing the children of the poor, receiving military personnel. Two Oblates stood out especially in their devotion to the poor, Father Daniel André and Father Hippolyte Courtès, superior of the house for more than forty years. Father André had the opportunity to expend the full measure of his charity when the cholera epidemic of 1835 raged. For more than a month, he attended the sick and the dying, almost day and night, working along with a team of lay people whom he had gathered in a city pub where he used to take a few hours of rest on a bench.
The church served by the Oblates, dubbed “the Mission Church” by the people of Aix, soon became a centre of prayer. During the mission of Grans, Father Henry Tempier remained in Aix in order to lead the prayer there every night. The Oblates of Aix were apostles of devotion to the Sacred Heart. A group devoted to the Sacred Heart was set up by Father de Mazenod on December 29, 1819 and he edited a pamphlet entitled: Exercises in honour of the Sacred Heart, carried out by the associates on the first Friday of every month, for which he obtain the imprimatur on May 24, 1822. The house at Aix preserves a copy of this pamphlet.
The Christians of Aix and the surrounding area were always sure of finding an Oblate available to them to hear their confessions. This ministry would develop and would remain until the present day one of the great tasks of this community. What Father Rambert stated in an 1866 report is still true: “Our chapel, situated in the best location in the city and always crowded with faithful, demands a daily, sustained service...” (Missions O.M.I., 5 (1866), p. 582).
First Expulsion, 1880
During the years that followed the 1870-1871 war, especially after the Mac-Mahon failure and the republican party taking power in 1877, there occurred several anti-clerical demonstrations the brunt of which the Oblates had to endure: disturbances during liturgical ceremonies, protests during the sermons. Already on January 23, 1873, there was an organization founded as a “Catholic association for the preservation and the defence of the faith,” which indicated a firm resolve to be proactive. It was in vain! The major blow fell in 1880 when the religious orders were expelled from France. For the Oblates, this took place on October 20. Only Fathers Jean Garnier and Émile Lamblin were allowed to remain in the building. The others were obliged to disperse and were banned from regrouping as a community. At the time, there were only five Oblates present; three others were out preaching missions. The church was shut and the door sealed. (See Missons O.M.I., 18 (1880), p. 317-320 on the preparations in view of being expelled and Missions O.M.I., 19 (1881) for an account of the expulsions.)
In order that not all of the Oblates should be forced to leave the city, Bishop Fourcade, archbishop of Aix, gave three of them the pastoral charge of Notre-Dame de la Seds. They lived in residence at l’Enclos right close by. They brought there the altar before which Fathers de Mazenod and Tempier had pronounced their vows on April 11, 1816 and the statue of the Virgin Mary, blessed on August 15, 1822.
This trial did not cause the Oblates to lose heart. From July 15 on, Father Célestin Augier was appointed superior of the community and Father Jean Françon was able to come to Aix the following September 15. Without any authorization to do so, the priests returned progressively and were not harassed.
The preaching of parish missions resumed and it seems that the difficult situation both spurred the Oblates’ zeal and increased the requests coming from parishes. In the 1887 Chapter, the report from Aix states: “The vast field of parish missions and retreats became increasingly open in face of their zeal.”
The church remained sealed shut but the people entered via the monastery. So much so that liturgical services and community life resumed to their normal rhythm along with all the above mentioned works on behalf of the poor, in spite of the fact that all this activity was illegal. Several times the reports of the superior or of the provincial cited the words of St. Paul: “Verbum Dei non est alligatum.” (The Word of God cannot be bound in chains, 2 Timothy 2:9) The altar of the vows was brought back to the interior chapel and Father Joseph Fabre, the Superior General, had a marble pedestal set up for the statue of the Virgin Mary and placed it as well in the interior chapel. (This pedestal is presently in the General House gardens as the stand for the statue of the Immaculate Conception.) As Daniel-Rops remarked in Un combat pour Dieu (A battle for God), p. 162, when he was addressing the question of the expulsion of the religious in 1880, “It was evident that the republicans, fragmented as they were, did not seek to press their offensive to the extreme since the members of religious congregations which had been expelled, and even the Jesuits, were not violently prevented from remaining in France clandestinely.”
Second Expulsion, 1903
The enforcement of the law of expulsion was, in this instance, more severe because anti-clericalism had become more virulent and led to the separation of Church and State voted in July, 1905 under pressure from the minister Combes. The central commissioner arrived on April 9, 1903 to draw up an inventory. He came at 5:15 in the morning to avoid popular protests on behalf of the Oblates. The expulsion went into effect May 7. They had time to send to Rome the altar of the vows and the statue of the Blessed Virgin with its pedestal. The house was emptied and everything was sold at public auction.
In accordance with the directives laid down by Bishop Augustin Dontenwill, Superior General, and as confirmed by the General Chapter of 1908, the Oblates of Aix who were scattered remained in contact with each other. We have proof of this in the book of Masses celebrated. The book begins in 1907 and is kept in the community archives. It shows that the priests reported regularly to their superior. In 1909, Father Théophile Odoul was sent to 30, Cardinal street, a few hundred metres from our monastery where he set up house as a private individual along with Brother Joseph Ohl. He acted as assistant parish priest at the parish of St. John of Malta nearby and maintained an Oblate presence in the city of Aix. He also preached six day retreats or sermons for special occasions in the city parishes.
When war was declared in 1914, all the Oblates of age for military service were mobilized just like all other French citizens and answered the call, whether they had remained dispersed within France or had emigrated to other countries. After the war, all religious decided to remain in France and refused to obey the laws of expulsion.
The Oblates of Aix regrouped at 30, Cardinal street on August 8, 1921 and prepared for their definitive return to the original community. On September 14, 1921, after carrying out some repair work, they took their first meal in the house and, the next day, celebrated Mas in the interior chapel. The church of the Mission, sealed from 1880 on, was re-opened for public worship on July 11, 1922 with a solemn ceremony presided by the archbishop of Aix.
The legal situation of the community was regularized a few years later through the good offices of a Christian family. This is how it came about. The Oblate house could to be classified, not as property of a religious community, but as the private property of the Boisgelin family which Bishop de Mazenod received in inheritance. To show this, Bishop de Mazenod’s title to the property was presented. A Christian man from Marseilles, Mr. Léon Bergasse, bought it in several portions en 1905 and 1908. The sales were registered in Paris and their validity were acknowledged by the civil tribunal of the Seine. Mr. Bergasse bought the church as well according to the report of the public auction set up by the sub-prefect of Aix on May 28, 1912 and transcribed the following June 12. (vol. 1829, no. 105) By his will, Mr. Léon Bergasse designated his brother Paul as the inheritor of all his goods. On May 2, 1931, Paul set up an anonymous corporation to administer the property of the Oblates and devolved to the assets of the corporation what he had received from his brother, that is, the Oblate monastery and the Mission church. That is how the Oblates legally regained their property. (See the study by Master Lombard, notary public at Aix, BA 24021 and the deposition 1233 at the Bureau of Mortgages of Aix.)
The community resumed its normal rhythm of life. It consisted of ten Oblates, three of whom were brothers and three were retired priests. These latter three provided the celebration of Mass and prayers at the Mission church and the ministry of confessions, a ministry which was always flourishing as we can gather from what Cardinal Rodrigue Villeneuve stated on June 21, 1939 when he was travelling through. He “had the impression it was an ongoing mission. This is true, at least as far as confessions are concerned, since confessions are going on continually.” (Codex)
The most important ministry remained the parish missions. The report of the Codex of the house notes the new problems the missionaries have to face: Social action and especially “the labour scene could bear watching, being fostered and followed more closely.” We can attribute this concern to contacts with the Social Weeks of France set up by the community and the meetings of Catholic Action held in the house. With adjustments with regard to new problems, the ministries of the community continued to be those in which it was engaged before the expulsion.
In 1939, the community acquired for a few years, a country house in the Tubet sector of the suburbs of Aix where Father Benjamin Salel resided with a few brothers who maintained the vegetable garden to feed the community. This residence would see the birth of the congregation of the Little Sisters of Jesus where Father Salel would remain for some time as chaplain.
The Ordeal of the 1939-1945 War
Several Oblates were coned. In spite of the departure of its most active members, those who remained continued their ministry of preaching. The term missions was no longer used, but they spoke of retreats, parish retreats, retreats in religious houses and sermons for special occasions. Services offered in the church continued as well. Prayer services for peace were held there, as well as special services for different groups of soldiers. The house in Aix was a rallying point for the Oblates in the military on leave and also for other priests. It housed a Jewish man who was trying to escape from persecution.
Like all the other communities, the house at Aix was subject to food rationing, “starvation is on the doorstep if the war continues much longer.” (Codex) Because of many priests going off to war, the Oblates began to take on parish ministry in the diocese of Aix.
On August 20, 1944, the opposing armies clashed in the city streets. A shell wounded Brother Jean-Baptiste Becker who died five days later. On August 27, the city of Aix turned out for a pilgrimage to Notre-Dame de la Seds as a thanksgiving gesture when the hostilities ended. The statue of Notre-Dame de Boulogne which toured France after the liberation visited the different churches of the city. This prayer movement of devotion to Our Lady was inspired and led by Father Louis Devineau, o.m.i.
Life Returns to Normal
At the beginning of 1945, thirteen priests and three brothers were present in the community. Four priests in charge of parishes were attached to the community, one priest was still a prisoner and the provincial had his residence in Aix. Parish missions resumed. Shorter now, they only lasted from ten to fifteen days. Gradually, the character of the community changed. It was made up mostly of priests more advanced in age. Nevertheless, some of them joined up with Oblates of other communities to preach missions. On the other hand, for the general mission of Aix in November of 1959, the Oblate preachers were drawn from other communities.
The fact that the priests were well on in age did not mean they remained inactive. The house continued to be a centre which hosted the St. Vincent de Paul Society, different groups of Catholic Action and student groups. Father Robert Huot set up a mission team. In the church religious services were provided such as the celebration of Mass, preaching, exercises of piety: month of Mary, month of the Rosary, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The ministry of confessions was always brisk. A few priests were chaplains in religious communities and gave spiritual conferences to the nuns as well as retreats. The priests helped out at a few parishes in the city. The community remained missionary and exercised as much outreach as its resources allowed.
Among the salient events of this period, we can note the following. On March 16, 1949, “Father Edmond Servel, the General Treasurer, took a stone from the church to be brought to Rome. It was to be the foundation stone for the General House when the construction began.” (Codex) And there were the celebrations held in honour of the Founder: in 1961, from April 30 to May 14, to celebrate the centenary of his death; in 1975, from October 7 to 12 in preparation for his beatification; in 1982, from May 9 to 16, for the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. For each of these celebrations, a solemn Mass was held and prayer services were held in the Mission church and other churches of the city, with lectures on Bishop de Mazenod’s activities presented by professors from the universities of Aix and of Paris. The Superiors General were present: Father Leo Deschâtelets in 1961, Father Fernand Jetté for the two other occasions. Several missionary bishops and a good number of Oblates took part in these celebrations and some of them brought with them large groups of pilgrims.
From 1983 to 1985, under the direction of the architect, Philippe Kaeppelin, repair work was carried out in the church and some rearranging of the choir. An oak statue of Blessed Eugene de Mazenod, the work of the sculptor, Dominique Kaeppelin, was blessed on May 20, 1984 and placed on its pedestal the next day.
Looking Toward the Future
Because, according to Father Rambert quoted above, its house is situated in the best location in the city, the Oblate community of Aix understands that it is called by God to be open to the expectations of the city as it exists today, a university city with more then thirty thousand students and many young people in the lyceums and colleges and a city in full growth.
The Aix community has another responsibility, that of hosting Oblates who wish to pray and renew themselves in that place where our religious family got its start. It was to enable this building to house these study and prayer sessions that the work of refitting the house were undertaken. It is in its role of double service, service to local and international Oblates, that the Aix community hopes to expand and foster the vitality communicated to it by our Blessed Founder.
René Motte, o.m.i.
Sources and Bibliography
Archives of the house of Aix: Codex Historicus of Aix for the years, 1815-1903, reconstituted by Father Charles Séty, o.m.i., thanks to articles in Missions O.M.I., and the local press; for the years 1921-1931: a summary, from 1931 until today: methodically.
Archives of the local treasurer’s office: copies of property deeds.
Oblate General Archives in Rome: 12 dossiers: Expulsion 1903, finances, Le Tubet, property deeds, canonical visits.
AC n. 74, III, 1-6; no. 76, III, 11-26; no. 84, III, 83.
Missions O.M.I., 5 (1866), p. 582; 18 (1880), p. 317-332; 19 (1881), p. 41-49; 45 (1907), p. 19-42; 76 (1949), p. 517; 82 (1955), p. 549-561, 641-655; 83 (1956), p. 210-248.
LEFLON, Jean, Eugène de Mazenod, II, passim.
La séparation de l’Église et de l’État en France: exposé et documents, white book of the Holy See, Questions actuelles ed., Bayard, 1906.