Born at Dolomieu (Isère), October 22, 1809
Ordination to the priesthood at Grenoble, July 5, 1835
Taking of the habit at Notre-Dame de l’Osier, February 17, 1841
Oblation at Notre-Dame de l’Osier, February 17, 1842. (no. 92)
Died at Notre-Dame de l’Osier, February 23, 1900.
Joseph Melchior Burfin was born at Dolomieu, diocese of Grenoble, October 22, 1809. After his studies at the minor and the major seminaries of Grenoble, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Philibert de Bruillard on July 5, 1835. He was assistant parish priest, first at Allenard, then at Grenoble when he met Father Vincens and followed him him to Notre-Dame de l’Osier where he took the habit on February 17, 1841 as the first novice of this house which was destined to be the novitiate for France for sixty-nine years. He made his vows on February 17, 1842. November 12 1842, the Founder wrote Father Vincens: “You know, my dear Father Vincens, that all we ask God is to send us priests after his heart, who, filled with the holy desire for the joy of living in conformity with the divine Master’s counsels, wish to travel the same path the Apostles and the favoured disciples who followed them had trod. The person you mention in your letter to Father Tempier seems to be of this calibre. The way you praise him places him totally in this category. Hence, I can only bless the Lord for inspiring him to associate himself to a Society of evangelical labourers whose number is not sufficient to reap the great harvest entrusted to it by the Father of the family. since M[elchior] B[urfin] has the qualities fit to fulfill this great ministry, and his good character will make him appreciated in our communities where we love one another as brothers, I have no hesitation to agreeing that you give him a room where he can make a fire since this arrangement is necessary for his health: the latter is precious to us from the first moment he is a member of the family.” (Letters to the Oblates of France, 1837-1842, Oblate Writings I, vol. 9, no. 717, p. 154 & 155)
Missionary of the Countryside
For fifty years, from 1842 to 1892, Father Burfin preached constantly in the various dioceses of France where he was located: l’Osier, Limoges, Romans, Arcachon and Talence, Nancy and Sion, house were he successively resided. On October 24, 1847, Bishop de Mazenod wrote to Bishop Buissas, bishop of Limoges, that Father Burfin “had an outstanding talent” for preaching. Indeed, not only did he preach a lot of missions, but he also preached Lenten series and retreats in seminaries. The author of his obituary wrote: “We can say that God was not stingy in his regard. Providence had endowed him with marvellous gifts. He had a keen, penetrating and even powerful mind. He approached each issue boldly and faced them head on. Once his mind was made up, he steadfastly held his position to the point of being stubborn. There was something of the mountaineer in him, just like there was in his intellect all the distinguishing traits of the logician and the thinker. His spirit had a bent of addressing ideas that were important and crucial. He used to read the great writers and always had on his desk a book containing the writings of the Fathers of the Church. His work bore his personal stamp. His sermons, brimming with doctrine and ideas, were specifically his own flowing less from his heart than from his ingenious and sometimes caustic spirit. His sermons were polished, refined, witty and original, as well as being filled with doctrine and serious.”
Father Burfin often made a superior: at Notre-Dame de l’Osier in 1846-1848 and from 1851-1853; at Limoges from 1848 to 1851, from 1856-1861, from 1867-1872, at Saint-Jean d’Autun from 1872 to 1875. He was provincial of France Nord from December 23 1861 to August 18, 1867. He then resided at Limoges from 1876 to 1887 or 1888, then at Notre-Dame d’Arcachon where he celebrated his golden anniversary of oblation in 1892. From 1892 to 1900, he lived in the community of Notre-Dame de l’Osier.
If Bishop de Mazenod appreciated his talents as an orator, he did not have much confidence in him as a superior because of his forthright manner of speaking, his critical spirit and his lack of regularity in community life. In January of 1842 already, the Founder had some doubts as to the wisdom of admitting Father Burfin to vows. In a January 12, 1842 letter to Father Guigues, he wrote: “I agree that there may be serious disadvantages in sending this person away after he has spent such a long time in the house, but the harm may be a hundred times worse if he left us afte his profession; and from the picture you give me of this man don’t you have reason to fear this new scandal? If he is never satisfied with anything that is done, if he cannot get along with anyone of the Society’s members, can we flatter ourselves and say that he will change his exaggerated and unjust view on so many points? this is what I would have liked you to tell me, you who know him and live with him since one year.” (Letters to the Oblates of France, 1837-1842, Oblate Writings I, vol. 9, no. 756, p. 203)
In March of 1846, consideration was given to sending him to be treasurer at the major seminary of Ajaccio, but the Founder changed his mind on this because, as he wrote, Father Burfin “has a sieve between his fingers and doesn’t take small sums into account.” (Letters to the Oblates of France, 1843-1849, Oblate Writings I, vol. 9, no. 893, p. 125) Nevertheless, it was at that time that he was appointed superior of Notre-Dame de l’Osier at the time when that house was filled with novices. Father Burfin was always asking Father Tempier for money. He received some money in the month of August and wrote: “Your money order for 1400 francs arrived in fine health. I welcomed it in the most gracious way possible in order to encourage more of the same coming my way... I urge you to have perseverance, because I am the kind of person who will scream and protest until my mouth is crammed to the full... Parménie is devouring me and we are awash in brothers; it is a real catastrophe. I beg you, close off the tap and let everyone in the Congregation cease sending us candidates indiscriminately, candidates that are as poor as the Wandering Jew and whose heads are as empty as their purses...” On September 5, 1846 he wrote once again to Father Tempier: “If savings need to be made, as I think there is need, it should not be made by cutting back on repair work which is urgent, but should concentrate on the door of the house which opens much to readily to receive people from all over... When I complain about this, people here have an answer all ready for me: Rev. Father Tempier has stated that we had to fling the gates wide open, that we should not worry what it costs, that money should not be an issue. There you have it, Reverend Father; this is what they say you are saying. If this is not your thinking, then deny it; if it is your way of thinking, then pay up...” There we have some examples of the rather cheeky way Father Burfin wrote to his superiors. If Father Tempier seemed to take this in stride, the Founder did not take it lying down. In 1853, after he had been superior for two years at Notre-Dame de l’Osier, Father Burfin threatened to resign if he was not listened to. Bishop de Mazenod took him at his word and replaced him with Father Vincens. He did not suffer gladly the thinking of these “cross-grained spirits” which criticized his administration. On his part, Father Burfin considered this “a rebuff” which was administered to him “in the presence of his entire diocese.” And yet, the Superior General had put a sugar coating on the pill when he wrote: “I hold you in genuine esteem and true affection. I owe it to the regularity of yor life, to the services you render, and to your attachment to the Congregation. you would be mistaken to think that the occasional little reprimands that I have made to you in the past concerning certain procedures have in any way attenuated this sentiment the least in the world. It is nothing of the sort. I have always recognized the true merit that I find in you and for which I thank God that you were employing for his glory...” (Letters to the Oblates of France, 1850-1855, Oblate Writings I, vol. 11, no. 1141, p. 126 & 127)
The relations between Father Fabre, the Superior General from 1861 to 1892 and a somewhat mellowed Father Burfin were better. Father Fabre showed his confidence in Father Burfin by appointing him provincial and several times as superior. Father Burfin expressed his gratitude by engaging in a regular correspondence with him and by conducting a good administration. The obituary tells us: “Everywhere he distinguished himself for the wisdom of his direction and his interest in the affairs of his religious family.”
Father Burfin spent the last eight years of his life in semi-retirement at Notre-Dame de l’Osier. The writer of this obituary notes once again that he always availed himself “of that outspokenness and critical comment of which he was a consummate model all his life. During his last years at l’Osier, he remained what he always was. He was himself! He serenely held to his own ideas, his own judgments, and more or less his own life...”
His health remained very good until the month of February 1900. At that time an epidemic of influenza was raging. The illness quickly laid him low. He received the Sacrament of the Sick and died February 23, 1900 in his ninety-first year. His remains were laid to rest in the Oblate cemetery at Notre-Dame de l’Osier.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
Sources and Bibliography
Oblate General Archives in Rome. Oblation formula, February 17, 1842; will, January 1, 1864; 22 letters to Bishop de Mazenod (1847-1858); 4l letters to Father Tempier and Vincens (1846-1860); 180 letters to Father Fabre (1852-1892); 50 letters to Father Souillier (1862-1894); some twenty letters to other correspondents; two notebooks for preaching notes, about 500 and 800 pages.
Obituary (author unknown): 26 typewritten pages.
BURFIN, M., o.m.i. Testament d’un missionnaire des campagnes, Paris, 1894, 64 p. (Published in Missions OMI, 1894)