At the beginning of summer 1830, Fr. Eugène de Mazenod who was not recovering from a serious illness, went to Switzerland for a few weeks of rest. At Fribourg, he heard of the grave events of the July Revolution. It seemed to be as anti-clerical as that of 1789. Upset by the turn of events and fearing for the safety of the young Oblates at Marseilles and Aix, he thought it necessary to send them to Switzerland. After several moves and visits to properties on sale, he came across the land he wanted. On the road from Lausanne to Fribourg, close to the city of Romont the castle of Billens was visible through the trees. He bought it along with its dependencies - farm, dairy, barn, sheds - in September 1830. At the beginning of October, novices and scholastics were sent, dressed as laymen in small groups and by different routes. From the middle of October regular life resumed, under the direction of Fr. Vincent Mille aided by Frs. Pascal Ricard, Alexandre-Marie Pons and Louis-Toussaint Dassy. Fr. de Mazenod followed their formation closely through frequent letters and a visit of a few weeks in 1831 and 1832.
While the July 1830 Revolution put an end to parish missions and destroyed many mission crosses, it soon gave the impression of posing no danger to seminaries and religious houses. The novices were therefore sent to Notre-Dame du Laus and the scholastics returned to Le Calvaire in Marseilles at the end of December of the same year, after the canonical visitation of Fr. Hippolyte Guibert.
After the departure of the students a few Fathers remained at Billens from 1833 untill 1837. Under the guidance of Fr. Pascal Ricard, they evangelised several parishes of the cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Geneva and the countryside of Gex. About thirty Fathers and Brothers passed through Billens during the Oblates’ seven-year sojourn there.
In June 1837 Bishop de Mazenod and Fr. Henry Tempier made a short trip to Switzerland in order to close the house and sell it. The Founder wrote in his journal on June 17: “What a delightful sojourn Billens was! What a site! What a view! What charms of every sort! A fine castle, beautiful gardens, charming groves, shade, abundant water, solitude, although within reach of eight villages, whose steeples are visible, two paces from the small village of Romont [...] and we had come to get rid of it, since it is not of any advantage to the Congregation to hold on to this establishment any longer. We cannot provide it with a sufficient number of men to form a significant community which is self-sufficient and which besides, does not any more offer a mission in conformity with our Institute, for those of us who live there.
Frs. Ricard and Joseph Alphonse Martin, preceded a little while before by Frs. Jean-Antoine Bernard and François-Xavier Bermond returned to France, but there was little success in selling the property either to the Ladies of the Sacred Heart of Montet or to the diocese for the purpose of a minor seminary. M. Willeret, justice of the peace was put in charge of managing the affairs of the property which was finally sold in 1840 to a certain M. Baudou. Today the old castle is a hospital.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
SOURCES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
General Archives, Rome: dossier Billens, France-Midi and many texts of de Mazenod, see Oblate Writings I, vol. 7,8 and 9.
ORTOLAN, Théophile: Les Oblats de Marle Immaculé..., vol. 1, Paris, p. 241-245.
Missions, 12 (1874), p. 185; 39 (1901), p. 285-287; 72 (1938), p. 120.