During the crossing that brought him to Corsica in March of 1834, nine months after his appointment as bishop of Ajaccio, Bishop Raphael Casanelli d'Istria confided to the Abbé Sarrebayrouse, his personal secretary and vicar general, that “I want to establish a seminary which can comparable with the best of those on the continent.”
The diocese was glutted with priests, at least one thousand for a population of hardly two hundred thousand inhabitants. Many of them, however, lived with their families, dressed in lay attire, with no ministry because they were poorly educated. The seminary, closed down during the Revolution, had not been re-opened by Bishop Sebastiani, the bishop from 1802 to 1831. From the time of this first pastoral letters, Bishop Casanelli declared that he would defer ordinations for the year 1834 and that, in the future, he would only ordain those who had pursued a regular course of studies and the formation in the seminary that he would soon open. He was unable to do so in the fall of 1834 because the failed to find a place to house his seminary and the diocesan clergy did not want to take on such a task.
Foundation by Father Hippolyte Guibert
During his stay with the Isoard family in Aix in 1833 and 1834, Bishop Casanelli met Bishop de Mazenod who promised to help him. In a September 19, 1834 letter, he communicated to him the sending, in a few months, of Fathers Dominique Albini, Adrien Telmon and the future superior, “the most distinguished priest in our area, either with regard to his piety, the richness of his erudition, or for the shrewdness of his cultured spirit.”
Father Hippolyte Gibert arrived at Ajaccio a the end of the month of March 1835. He rented the Ottavi house from which foundlings had just been removed and with all dispatch had the most urgent repairs carried out. In his April 15, 1835 pastoral letter, Bishop Casanelli announced the opening of that institution for May 6. On May 2, Bishop de Mazenod wrote to Father Vincent Mille, Father Guibert's successsor at Notre-Dame du Laus: “Father Guibert has won his spurs at the first attempt. You wouldn't believe the speed and ability he has shown in forwarding his task. [...] Ajaccio is agog to see the completion in such a short time of an operation which seemed interminable.” (Oblate Writings, I, vol. 8, no. 513, p. 155) Some fifteen students presented themselves and were duly impressed with the superior's fortiter et suaviter manner of handling affairs. During the summer vacations, they became recruiters of their peers, so much so that sixty seminarians began the 1835-1836 academic year.
By an agreement entered into by the Bishop of Ajaccio and the Superior General of the Oblates on January 1, 1836, the seminary was put in perpetuity under the direction of the Congregation. The Congregation, on its part, committed itself to provide at least five staff members who would receive the salary allotted by the government.
During the summer of 1837, they succeeded in acquiring the former seminary, built in 1710. It had been confiscated by the state in 1790 and, from that time on, occupied by the Prefecture. One hundred and thirty-seven seminarians and young priests spent the 1837-1838 academic year there under the direction of Fathers Guibert, François, Noël Moreau and Frédéric Mouchel. Fathers Albini and Telmon had become missionaries with their residence at Vico. In the year1838-1839, eighty students were crammed into the monastery at Vico while they were adding on three stories to the seminary.
Main Events. The Students from 1841 to 1952
After having written a few pages on the founding of the seminary, Father Jean Corne, in an article published in Missions O.M.I.., added: “From now on, our task became easy. We entered into that time of regularity where the seminary no longer has a history, because nothing much changed there. The seminary is the house of God. In some manner, it partakes of the divine unchangeableness. Its external appearance remains the same; it never grows old; time seems to have no hold over it. Like the waters of a river which are forever renewed, flowing in the same bed and following the same course, so too the generation of levites followed one upon the other in this holy house, living the same life, flowing quietly between the unmoving banks of study and of prayer, shedding the imperfections of their nature, purifying their thoughts and their affections, and flowing finally into the mysterious ocean of the priesthood.” (Missions O.M.I., 13 (1875), p. 19)
Happy times, when everything changed less rapidly than today! Even then, however, extraordinary events added some variety to the monotony of everyday life. In 1841, Father Guibert was appointed bishop of Viviers. To the great regret of the bishop and the students, he left the seminary. Father Moreau replaced him, but , in 1846, he died after an illness of only a few days. He had been overloaded with work and worry because Bishop Casanelli had compelled him to become the superior of two seminaries under the same roof. This situation continued with a few less minor seminarians until the opening of the new minor seminary in 1850. This explains why the number of major seminarians fell a great deal under the superiorships of Fathers Moreau and Jean Joseph Magan from 1841 to 1856. After the arrival of Father Jacques Santoni, the minor seminary-college, which housed over three hundred students, began to bear fruit. The number of major seminarians rose little by little and maintained itself at more than one hundred between the years 1860 and 1880, with about twenty ordinations per year.
In the spring of 1864, an incident came close to terminating the directorship of the Oblates. Bishop Casanelli always fought clergy involvement in politics and in election campaigns. In 1864, however, his nephew ran as a candidate for the general council of Corsica for the region of Vico. The bishop decided to cut the school year short by one month earlier than usual in order to allow a dozen seminarians from Vico to be present during the electoral campaign and to vote. Father Santoni, who had strenuously opposed this project and had declared that the Oblates would leave the seminary rather than be involved in these proceedings, returned to the continent firmly resolved to never to set foot in Corsica again. After and exchange of letters with Bishop Casanelli, Father Joseph Fabre and Father Santoni negotiated a peaceful agreement over the summer.
After 1880, the number of students declined to fall to forty-five in 1890. Father Xavier Bessières, Father Santoni's successor, founded in 1892 the Corsica society for the priesthood. In a little work published in this regard, he attributed the decline in vocations to three causes: a lessening of faith and religious practice in families, the obligation for Corsican seminarians to serve in the military after 1870 (In 1835, Father Guibert had obtained an exemption from this obligation.), a reduction in government financial support. This work, under the direction of the Oblates right up until after Vatican Council II, at first blush, seemed to be very effective. The number of students once again hovered around the 100 number for a few years.
The decrees of expulsion of religious in 1880 and 1901 had no effect on the Oblates in the major seminary. But the law of separation of Church and State on December 9, 1905, had disastrous consequences for the church in Corsica. The two seminaries were confiscated by the state and were closed. The government allotment for public worship, formerly at 500,000 francs, was eliminated and replaced by the tithe for public worship. Tithes brought in only 50,000 francs in 1907, but increased little by little afterward when the faithful understood that they needed to support the clergy. In the seminary built by Father Guibert, the municipality put up families in need. Left to go to wrack and ruin, the building was torn down in 1968.
In 1908, Bishop Desanti had bought a house on Grandval Avenue where he gathered some fifteen seminarians under the direction of Father Bunoz and a few diocesan priests, soon replaced by Oblates. After the 1914-1918 war, Bishop Simeone bought the “Swiss Mansion” to make it into his major seminary. He had a church built beside it dedicated to the Sacred Heart in memory of the forty thousand Corsicans who died on the battlefields. Bishop Rodié, bishop from 1927 to 1938, relaunched the Society for the Priesthood and had both seminaries enlarged. Between 1920 and 1939, the number of seminarians went from ten to sixty. From May 17 to May 20, 1935, the centenary of the seminary was celebrated with great solemnity in the presence of Father Theodore Labouré, the Superior General, Cardinal Verdier, archbishop of Paris and the archbishops of Aix, Marseilles and Auch.
The 1940-1945 war dealt vocation recruitment another blow. Was it cost effective to keep a team of five or six priests present to serve a dozen seminarians? June 13 of 1951, Father Léo Deschâtelets wrote Father Joseph Pouts, provincial of France-Midi: “Everywhere they are talking about closing up ranks in the clergy, of reforming our line of attack and of defence in order to ensure a more effective sacerdotal ministry. In order not to content ourselves with being caught up in lovely theories, let us resolutely set about the task of checking out the facts that impinge on our existence and touch us personally.” Consequently, he added, the few seminarians would have to be sent to a diocese in the Midi and the priests be given employment some place else. Bishop Llosa, bishop of Ajaccio from 1938 to 1966, agreed to the departure of the professors in 1952. He closed his seminary which was the first to be absorbed into a regional seminary at Aix-en-Provence. The Congregation had directed the seminary for one hundred and seventeen years.
In 1952, Father Yves Guéguen retained his title of superior of seminarians studying outside the diocese and that of vicar general. Fathers Guéguen and Albert Schneider successively filled these functions until 1964 while at the same time caring for a small priestly community of the newly ordained. The young priests resided part of the week at the seminary and for a few days in the parishes where they were assistant priests. The Oblate community also continued to serve in the Sacred Heart chapel and take care of various projects among which was that of priestly vocations.
In 1965, the chapel, dubbed the major seminary chapel, became a parish church. The province entered into a ten-year contract in urban pastoral work. Initially, it was on the spot in the Sacred Heart parish; then they accepted to leave in 1968 to found a new parish in a working class more run down neighbourhood in the area of “Canne-Salines.” There, the Oblates built the church and rectory of Saints Peter and Paul. They left the city of Ajaccio in 1985.
The Oblate Community
Bishop Casanelli d'Istria often complained of the too frequent changes of priests in the two Oblate houses of Corsica. These complaints are not well founded as to the superiors of the major seminary since the average tenure of each was nine years. During those one hundred and seventeen years, there were, in fact, only twelve superiors: Hippolyte Guibert, 1835-1841, François No‘l Moreau, 1841-1846, Jean Joseph Magnan, 1846-1856, Jacques Santoni, 1856-1890, Xavier Bessières, 1890-1899, Théophile Ortolan, 1899-1908, Pierre Bunoz, 1908-1917, François Aubert, 1917-1926, Jean Émile Coumet, 1926-1934, Hilary Balmès, 1935-1939, Maurice Bros, 1939-1944, Yves Guéguen, 1945-1952. According to custom, the superior of the seminary also received the title of vicar general. Father Ortolan was even elected vicar capitular upon the death of Bishop M.J. Ollivier in 1906. For all intents and purposes, Father Balmès carried out the functions of that office when Bishop M.J. Rodié was transferred to Agen in 1938.
According to the commitments made January 1, 1836, the directors were never less than five, and after the death of the Founder, changed rarely. Some of them, Fathers Théophile Ortolan, Paul Pompei and Augustin Beaume even remained there twenty or twenty-five years.
According to the correspondence exchanged between the superiors and the general administration, an abundant communication in the time of the Founder, and the reports made by canonical visitors, especially Fathers Casimir Aubert, AmbroiseVincens and Célestin Augier the priests always proved equal to the situation from the point of view of religious life and without serious problems in their functions as professors and directors. Teaching was hardly a difficulty. During the 19th century, the seminarians only took two classes a day. The professors used manuals and commented on them and, by frequent exams, checked to see that the students had assimilated the matter taught. Intellectuals and an inveterate readers that they were, Bishop Casanelli and Father Guibert required that the young priests take away with them their manuals and a few other important books. In addition to that, the diocesan synod of 1853 drew up a list of works which could be considered the ideal library list for a priest. Among the thirty odd books recommended, we find the Summa of St. Thomas, the decrees of the Council of Trent, St. Alphonse Liguori's moral theology, the Cursus theologiae completus and the Cursus Scripturae Sanctae of Migne, etc.
If the canonical visitors had any suggestions to make, it was about external ministry (chaplaincies, cooperation with the local clergy, etc.) which they tended to get too involved in to the detriment of their direction of the students or of their teaching. Especially during the summer vacations, they went preaching, following in the tradition marked out by Fathers Albini and Telmon and praised by the Founder. The review Missions often gives statistics about this: for example, the priests preached twenty-one retreats from 1873 to 1879, fifteen from 1886 to 1892 and twenty from 1892 to 1898.
According to the agreement between Bishop Casanelli and Bishop de Mazenod concluded in 1836, the priests could receive into the Congregation young men or seminarians who wanted to become Oblates. The Founder sometimes rebuked Father Guibert for not doing anything in this regard. Father Guibert, for his part, had been an excellent recruiter before going to Corsica, but there, as a measure of prudence, he judged it best not to provoke the clergy who were initially not well disposed toward having religious in the major seminary. Nevertheless, he did sent to the novitiate Louis Morandini and Dominique Luigi. The superiors who followed him showed less reserve in this regard. Father Moreau received four postulants in five years. Among these was Father Jacques Santoni, who would be superior of the seminary for thirty-four years. During this period of time, he sent twenty one young Corsicans to the novitiate. Only two or three Corsicans became Oblates from that time on.
In a speech given on May 17, 1935 on the occasion of the centenary of the major seminary, Canon Morazzani said: “How far-sighted and fruitful was Bishop Casanelli's idea of entrusting the formation of his candidates for the priesthood to a religious congregation which provided for a hundred years ‑ rare occurrence ‑ with an unflagging devotion the continuity of his work! [...] This continuity of direction produced the most happy and consoling results. I summarize them in the line of Bishops who, almost all graduates of this house, have brought renown to this see [...] From this house came, not only bishops, but also priests, brimming with the spirit of their calling, priest with a catholic soul.” At this point in this speech, the speaker cited a prayer of Bishop Casanelli dating from the last years of his life: “When I arrived here, O God, I found that I had many priests, but no clergy! Now, on the point of appearing before you, I hand back over to you the vineyard you entrusted to me. I worked it with love and I planted vigorous vine-stocks which will grow to their full potential and all of them will bear fruit.”
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
Sources and Bibliography
Oblate General Archives in Rome. Exchange of correspondence between the superiors of the major seminary and the General Administration and five dossiers on the major seminary: finances, centenary, canonical visits.
Archives of the O.M.I. postulation: General rule of the major seminary of Ajaccio, manuscript, 12 pages in the hand of Father Hippolyte Guibert, DM IX 7b. Agreement entered into by Bishop Casanelli d'Istria and Bishop de Mazenod January 1, 1936, manuscript, 2 pages, DM XIII 5.
History archives of the diocese of Ajaccio and the national archives in Paris, Ministry of Public Worship.
CORNE, Jean, “Le grand séminaire d'Ajaccio” in Missons, 13 (1875), p. 5-26.
MORAZZINI, Canon, Discours prononcé ... à l'occasion du centenaire du grand séminaire d'Aajaccio, May 17, 1935, Bastia, 1935, 12 p.
“Le centenaire de la fondation du grand séminaire d'Ajaccio” in Missions, 71 (1937), p. 149-164.
Règlement du grand séminaire d'Ajaccio promulgué par Mgr Rodié, February 6, 1937, 23 p.
LE FRIANT, Pierre, Les Oblats et la Corse. A propos d'un centenaire: Mgr Casanelli d'Istria, évêque d'Ajaccio, 1833-1869, Vico, 1969, Oblate General Archives in Rome, 16 p.
LE FRIANT, Pierre, L'apostolat des Oblats en Corse, 1869-1969, Vico, 1969, Oblate General Archives in Rome, 16 p.