Many Oblates lived at Autun and worked in the diocese for almost one hundred years.
St. John: House of mission preachers and parish (1858-1947)
In November of 1857, Bishop François de Marguerye, bishop of Autun came to meet Bishop de Mazenod at Marseilles to ask him to provide some missionaries. The request was accepted and, in March of 1858, the Oblates were installed in Autun in a building of vast proportions which had previously been the abbey for the lady canons. It was adjoining to the parish church of Saint John’s, the pastoral charge of which parish the bishop entrusted to them.
This community always consisted of about ten Oblates, priests and brothers. The building remained the property of the diocese, but the Oblates did a lot of repairing and renovating of the house and the church subsequent to 1870-1871.
Bishop de Marguerye wanted missionaries above all. There were always five or six. Initially, welcome on the part of the clergy was guarded. Nevertheless, already in the first year, they preached seventeen parish missions and everywhere their work bore abundant fruit in terms of grace and salvation. In a July 3, 1859 letter to Bishop de Mazenod, the bishop wrote: “Your beloved sons have everywhere produced abundant fruit. The clergy and the people hold them in high regard and love them. From every side people tell me what a blessing this foundation is for my diocese.”
Missions O.M.I. often gave details about the retreats preached each summer and on the missions preached from November to May: 43 from 1859 to 1862, 27 from 1862 to 1863, 30 from 1864 to 1867, 38 from 1864 to 1865, 43 from 1875 to 1876, etc. In the position of superior, we find the following priests: Alphonse H. Cumin, Louis Soullier, Jules Martignat, Marie Joseph Royer, Lucien Reynaud, etc. In the years preceding the expulsions of 1903, the priests preached many more retreats than missions.
It seems that the community only assumed pastoral charge of the parish in 1859. In fact, on April 11 of that year, Bishop de Mazenod wrote to Father Soullier: “I have the impression that you must have taken possession of the parish adjacent to your establishment.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 12, no. 1422, p. 156)
This parish, situated in a suburb of the city, was populated by families that were poor and, in general, not very religious. In the 1800’s the parish contained fifteen to eighteen hundred people. Several priests succeeded each other as pastors in the parish: Jean B. Caille, Joseph H. Zabel, Jacques A. Brun, Joseph Magnin, Jean Ben. Bernard, and Jean Marchal. Missions O.M.I., which often published long reports on parish missions often, mentions very little about the ministry of pastor of the parish and his assistant, except in the case of extraordinary events. We do, however, know that the Oblates devoted a great deal of attention to the poor and opened a few Catholic schools directed by religious nuns and Brothers of the Christian schools.
The community at Saint-Jean was often subject to trials. During the 1870 war, the house and the church were initially occupied by Garibaldi army, which, after having fought for the unification of Italy, came to fight for France on the occasion of the Prussian invasion of 1870-1871. This army was made up of undisciplined volunteers of a number of different nationalities. They defaced and destroyed everything they could lay their hands on. Father Brun was parish priest at the time and was also acting superior. In Father Brun’s obituary, Father Joseph Fabre wrote (Notices nécrologiques, V, p. 179-180): “It was November 11, 1870, when Garibaldi’s army arrived at Autun where nothing had been readied to receive them. All establishments, public and private, and even the churches, were overrun and occupied by these greedy, impious and abusive bandits of the infamous ally of Gambetta. Our Annales reported what our house at Sacred Heart had to suffer at the hands of the hordes which resembled soldiers only in name and in dress. The parish house of Saint-Jean was hardly less subjected to trial. It was overrun in every direction from cellar to attic by this military mob whose thirst for destruction was equalled only by their impiety. Transformed into a barracks, the house, the parish church and even the interior chapel was used to house these escaped convicts; the Oblates had to yield to brute force. [...] In order to have fewer troops to house, or even in the hope of getting rid of them entirely, [Father Brun] felt he was adopting the best course of action to offer his house to care for the wounded and the sick. He never rid himself of a single one and the only thing he gained was to be saddled in addition with an temporary hospital for the small pox stricken. From that moment on, the soldiers were crammed into the church and the sick took up all the rooms on the first floor while the officers took up lodgings on the second floor. Since the community was left with not even a corner to lodge themselves, do their religious exercises and take their meals, the priests and brothers were compelled to seek refuge with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny who were in charge of the parish schools. In less than two months, two priests (Joseph Jacot and Stanislas Couasnon) and Brother Joseph Moiroud died of small pox which they contracted in service of the sick.
In 1877, the government bought one half of the property and built a barracks there. Father Bonnemaison, who was assistant priest at the time, became the chaplain of the soldiers. In 1884, the state took over the minor seminary situated within the parish limits and turned it into a preparatory school for the cavalry. One priest was given the responsibility to provide religious services for this school with 200 to 500 children and youths from 13 to 18 years of age. In 1891, these youth ceased attending Saint John’s school to attend the cathedral school. When the government took over the minor seminary, the bishop asked the Oblates to house at Saint Jean’s five professors and sixty minor seminarians. The community kept only a small part of the house for themselves.
The Oblates were driven out of Saint Jean’s on April 25, 1903. They trickled back little by little, but the Personnels and the Oblate reviews hardly ever speak of them because, officially, the Congregation no longer existed in France. The 1921 Missions O.M.I. (p. 355-361) does however tell of the celebration of Father Joseph Magnin’s fiftieth anniversary of priesthood, who had resided in the Oblate Autun community for fifty-one years. Twenty-five of those years he spent as parish priest. In July of 1927, the community withdrew from serving the parish. The Personnels subsequently give the name of a few Oblates at Saint Jean’s right up until after the 1939-1945 war. Oblate priests continued to preach in the diocese. Missions of 1929 mentions, for example, 32 missions preached from 1927 to 1929 and 150 retreats. In 1947, the community was transferred to Paray-le-Monial.
Scholasticate of the Sacred Heart (1862-1880)
After the death of Bishop de Mazenod, there was a strong backlash by the clergy of Marseilles against the Oblates whom, they thought, had for a long time been too numerous in the diocese and were in charge of too many works. Bishop de Mazenod’s successor, Bishop Patrick F.-M. Cruice, an intellectual who up until that time had been in charge of the church normal school in Paris, began by bringing in the priests of the Missions to replace the Oblates at the major seminary, a post they had held since 1827. Following the bad advice of some of the enemies of the Oblates, the bishop refused to recognize the last will and testament of his predecessor who allegedly had bequeathed good that did not belong to him but to the diocese.
Father Joseph Fabre, the Superior General, himself a native of Marseilles, well aware of the mindset of his fellow citizens and very conscious of the opposition facing the Oblates, for the sake of preserving the peace, decided to move his administration to Paris and to close down the scholasticate at Montolivet. The Congregation’s undeniable right to this house was not put into question, but he felt that the gesture of closing its doors would send a strong message and would show that the Oblates could survive even if they abandoned their stronghold, their properties and their works in Marseilles.
Bishop de Marguerye then offered Father Fabre the large boarding school at Autun which the Ladies of the Sacred Heart had just closed down. The negotiations moved along smartly. Acquisition of the building took place on July 15, 1862 and Father Henry Tempier immediately undertook the most necessary repairs. By the beginning of the month of August, the scholastic brothers packed up their books, clothes and other material to send everything to Autun. Father Aimé Martinet, who had been named superior of the scholasticate, arrived on August 21. At the end of September, the entire community was gathered there to begin the school year.
The scholastic brothers, usually numbering about fifty, remained only eighteen years in this house. Two hundred and fifty one of them spent a few years there. Among them were a good number of Irishmen and some Canadians. Three superiors succeeded each other: Aime Martinet from 1862 to 1868, Toussaint Rambert from 1868 to 1878 and Charles Tatin from 1878 to 1880. The first team of directors was made up of Fathers Charles Tatin, who taught dogma, Joseph Mangin, who taught moral theology, Célestin Augier, who taught Sacred Scripture, history and eloquence, assisted by Jerome Bécam; Jules Cosson who taught philosophy and Jean P. Guéguen, the treasurer. The professors sometimes were changed, but their number hardly varied, even after 1865-1866 when the scholastic brothers were obliged to make a fourth year of theological studies. In theology, per week, the students had five hours of dogma, five of moral theology, two of Sacred Scripture, one of history and one of eloquence. The professor of philosophy taught nine hours a week.
Bishop de Marguerye, very attached to the Oblates, often presided the exams. Father Fabre also came regularly to visit and always stated that he “was satisfied under the two aspects of studies and spirit of piety.” Each year, the school year began with the annual retreat preached by eminent Oblates such as Fathers Marc de L’Hermite, Célestin Augier, Jean Lagier, Florent Vandenberghe, etc.
The Oblates feasts were solemnly celebrated and even the feast of St. Patrick. In his October 21, 1866 report, Father Martinet gave the following details on the celebration of January 25 and that of March 17: “The feast of January 25,’ he wrote, “ was patterned on the program of December 8. Before dawn, the oblation of Brother August Roux. At seven thirty, community Mass celebrated by the Bishop. At ten o’clock, Mass celebrated by Bishop Bouange and sung by our choir with compositions by Haydn and Weber. After the Gospel, homily preached by Bishop [de Marguerye]. According to the thinking of the eminent prelate, it was by circumstances most fortunate and most providential that a great institution like that of Bishop de Mazenod conceived the plan of which we see today the development and the works which came to birth on the day of the conversion of St. Paul. The conversion of the Apostle is a monument to the power and mercy of God. Indeed, it is precisely this two-fold attribute of grace that the apostolic man is called to make prevail through his virtues and his ministry. So it is made obvious that the great miracle which characterizes the date of our mission in the Church is a harbinger of the miracles that we should work in the souls of sinners and the infidel. Such a dazzling triumph of the supernatural order in Saint Paul’s case should bolster our confidence, energize our zeal and encourage our works. We are repositories of the divine Omnipotence. It should also inspire us with humility, compassion and gentleness. We are the ambassadors of mercy [...]
“The annual return of March 17 brings a patriotic and religious feast which cannot be ignored at the scholasticate since the number of candidates sent to us by the province of Britain seriously challenges the number of those provided to us by France’s two provinces. In addition to that, so that there is no cause for tension, we all become Irish on that day. The ceremonies are carried out with all the pomp they can muster; the chapel is decked out in its most festive decorations. Under the inspired hands of Brother Barnett, our worthy representative of Catholic Britain, the organ plays the most splendid pieces. Irishmen at the altar, Irishmen at the pulpit! You would think yourself transported to primatial Armagh our to the cardinal’s chapel in Dublin...”
Extraordinary events. The scholasticate of the Sacred Heart was the seat of a number of events, some happy and some unfortunate. Three General Chapters, chapters 11, 12 and 13, were held here: 1867 (August 5-18), 1873 (July 31-August 8), and 1879 (July 30-August 6). A few years after his election, Father Fabre convened a meeting of all the superiors of France and the Anglo-Irish province for the annual retreat. Four of these annual retreats took place at Autun, preached by Father Fabre himself in July of 1864 then by Fathers Marc de L’Hermite in June of 1868, Robert Cooke at the end of August in 1872 and Jacques Santoni in the month of August in 1876.
However, the Sacred Heart scholasticate knew only a few years of peace and prosperity. In November of 1870, the house was occupied by hundreds of soldiers of Garibaldi’s army. On November 11, in less than twenty-four hours, the scholastic brothers were all sent home to their families. In addition to the soldiers who stole everything and broke up the house furniture to stoke their fires, from the end of December until March 18 of 1871, one part of the house served as a temporary hospital for the victims of small pox and infectious cases.
The 1871-1872 academic year began more or less regularly in a ransacked and plundered house, but on November 4, 1880, enforcing the decrees of March 29, 1879 aimed at the Jesuits and non-authorized congregations, the Oblates were driven from their building, manu militari (every door was broken down). The scholastic brothers were to continue their studies in Ireland and later on at Liège.
Fathers Magnin and Fayard were authorized to act as custodians of the building which remained the property of the Congregation. When the state took over the minor seminary in 1884, the Sacred Heart house received the majority of the professors and the one hundred and twenty-five seminarians. The bishop bought the property at the end of the month of December, 1896.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
Sources and bibliography
Oblate General Archives in Rome: Section Provinces, France-Nord, Autun: Saint Jean: 2 dossiers (missions preached; canonical visits; revenue and expenses; Sacré-Coeur; 1 dossier (novitiate) and 6 dossiers on the scholastics (Notes on the scholastics from 1862 to 1880); expulsions, property deeds.
AUBERT, Casimir, Notices historiques et statistiques sur la Congrégation, 1857-1858, 13 p.
ORTOLAN, Théophile, Les Oblats de M.I. durant le premier siècle de leur existence, vol. 1, 1914, 492-496.
Missions O.M.I. (1862-1968) passim and letters of Bishop de Mazenod in Oblate Writings I, vol. 12 (1856-1861)