Born in Vico, October 24 1794
Ordained Priest in 1817
Ordained Bishop, December 8 1833
Died in Vico, October 12 1869.
Xavier Toussaint Raphaël Casanelli was born in the hamlet of Chigliani, Municipality of Vico, on October 24 1794, son of Rose Mattei and Jourdan Casanelli, merchant then president of the district tribunal of Vico.
Infancy and Formation
The Genoese had ceded the island to France in 1768. There, as on the continent, the French Revolution had ordered the closure and sale of convents, the expulsion of priests and religious. The Franciscan convent of Vico, now property of the state, had however remained open and was occupied by a few Franciscans, protected by the faithful.
Raphael received his primary education under the direction of Fr. Simoni. He then pursued his secondary studies at Renno, under the Archpriest Susini. In 1814 he went to Orto to study his theology under the parish priest Massimi, who had been qualified in Rome.
Ordained a priest in 1817, he at first he taught grammar and literature to the youth in a school recently founded in Vico. Named vicar against his wishes in the parish of St. Roch in Ajaccio, he obtained permission in 1819 to complete or repeat his studies in Rome, at the Papal University of “La Sapienza”. He obtained his doctorate in philosophy in 1823 and in theology in 1826.
In Rome he made the acquaintance of Bishop Xavier d’Isoard (1766-1839), auditor of the Rota since 1803. The latter, named dean of the Rota, was created Cardinal in 1827 and appointed Archbishop of Auch in 1828. He took on Abbé Casanelli as secretary, then as Vicar General. In this capacity Abbé Casanelli followed Cardinal d’Isoard to the conclaves of 1829 and 1831 which elected Popes Pius VIII and Gregory XVI. He knew them well. Pius VIII introduced him to the Roman Prelature and ennobled him by adding the name Istria to his name, a title recognized later on by France’s State Council.
Bishop of Ajaccio (1833-1869).
At the death of Mgr. Louis Sebastiani, Bishop of Ajaccio from 1802 till 1831, urgent reforms were needed to restore dignity to the clergy and the religious life. The succession was difficult because of the influence exerted on the Government by General Sebastiani and by the diplomat Pozzo di Borgo, both Corsican political adversaries influential under Louis Philippe, each of whom proposed their own protégé. Bishop Garibaldi, internuncio and personal friend of Raphael, found a diplomatic solution in proposing this unknown person who had the titles and necessary experience to make a good Bishop. Despite the desperate opposition of Cardinal Isoard, who was greatly attached to his Vicar General, and of Raphael himself, the latter was named by the Royal Ordinance of June 28 1833, and recognized in Consistory on September 30. Cardinal Isoard ordained him Bishop in the cathedral of Auch on the following December 8th.
The new Bishop understood well the sad state of the Church in Corsica: poor parishes, numerous clergy but in general without formation, ignorant faithful, strife between families and clans, etc. For this reason he had at first refused the episcopacy and proposed rather a Bishop coming from the mainland. It is from there, that he chose his two Vicars General. At the beginning of 1834, he appealed to Abbé Sarrebayrouse, professor at the minor seminary of Toulouse and in October, obtained the services of Fr. Hippolyte Guibert o.m.i., superior of the community of Notre-Dame de Laus.
It would seem that Bishop Casanelli didn’t know the Oblates. In 1833 and 1834, he went for a rest in Aix with the d’Isoards, a family well known to Fr. de Mazenod. There he received the visit of Abbé Castelli, a Corsican priest working in Aix, who invited him to ask for help from the Superior General of the Oblates. The latter, urged on by Fr. Guibert, had been looking since a few years for new fields of apostolate for his sons. He readily accepted the offer of the Bishop, all the more because he proposed two works which responded to the goals of the Congregation: direction of a major seminary and foundation of a house of missionaries. Bishop de Mazenod wrote to him from Rome on September 19 1834: “I do not at all retract the promise that I made to support you with all my strength in the great mission that you must fulfill (...); the field seems so vast and fertile to me, though covered with thorns, that, if I were a simple priest, I would not yield to anyone else the honour of going myself to you amd helping you to clear it; but what I am unable to do myself, others will do for me”. He then announced the despatch of the first three Oblates: “I will give you (...) as Superior, the priest who is most distinguished in our regions [Hippolyte Guibert…] ; Fr. Dominique Albini, a learned theologian and a holy missionary [...]; a dogma professor will go with him, a man of talent, who teaches Holy Scripture and liturgy [Adrian Telmon]” (Oblate Writings I, vol.13, pp. 105-106).
Formation and reform of the clergy
Bishop Casanelli proposed first of all to form the young clergy better and to reform the older (clergy). He succeeded in this thanks especially to Fr. Guibert and to the Oblates.
The diocese didn’t have a major seminary. Since his arrival Bishop Casanelli, still young and nurturing great projects, encountered only obstacles everywhere: the Government refused to give back the major seminary occupied by the Prefecture, Cardinal Fesch refused to rent him his unoccupied hotel, the clergy opposed the very idea of a seminary which they judged superfluous. In 1835, Fr. Guibert, a greater realist, succeeded in a few months in overcoming these obstacles. He rented the Ottavi house and opened the seminary on May 6 with about fifteen seminarians. During the summer, these latter made known to others the advantages of the house, which at the beginning of the school year 1835-1836 welcomed sixty students. Fr. Guibert then went to Paris and obtained subsidies from the Government, scholarships for poor seminarians and exemption from military service for all. In 1837, the Prefecture finally gave up the old premises. The Superior built three floors in 1838-1839 and could thus receive a hundred and fifty seminarians and young priests. Bishop de Mazenod who followed the events, wrote in his journal on April 27 1839: “Fifty-two ordinations in Ajaccio of which twenty-eight are for the Diaconate. This is enough to make one’s mouth water”.
To assure good recruiting, a minor seminary was needed. Bishop Casanelli had much more difficulty in this regard. The Government gave nothing and the authorities of the local secondary school did everything possible to oppose this institution. Premises were however rented and the Bishop found directors in Ajaccio, Lyon and Grenoble, with Abbé Guedy as Superior. The official opening took place on November 5 1836 with a hundred and thirty students. This experience lasted only one year. Too many seminarians in make-shift accommodations, the high cost, dissension between the directors and the revolt of the seminarians against one professor obliged Bishop Casanelli to re-unite the two seminaries under the direction of Fr. Guibert. The latter could then organize the house according to the project which he had submitted to the Bishop as early as 1836 namely, begin on a small scale with only the three lower classes. He transferred the residence of the minor seminary to the Ottavi house and named Abbé Silve of Manosque as delegate in charge of the house; he knew his talents as an educator. The school year 1837-1838 began with a hundred students.
With the departure of Fr. Guibert in 1841, Bishop Casanelli, to cut the costs, sent the students to the major seminary. Fr. Guibert and Bishop de Mazenod had always opposed such a measure. Poor Fr. François-Noël Moreau, the successor of Fr. Guibert, from the time of his arrival carried a responsibility beyond his strength. He died after a few days’ illness in 1846. In a moment of discouragement, Bishop Casanelli sent the greater number of minor seminarians home, while awaiting the construction of the minor seminary. This building, begun in 1836-1837, was not completed till 1950. Thereafter it prospered and each year counted more than three hundred students, both boarders and day students.
At the end of his life. Bishop Casanelli was happy to announce to the Emperor Napoleon III that he had at least succeeded in forming good priests. “The actual clergy of Corsica”, he wrote on June 18 1868, “formed mostly in my seminaries, are on a par with those in the best dioceses of the continent, both in regard to knowledge and virtue as well as in zeal and devotedness under any trial. The Bishop of Ajaccio has the right to be proud of such a clergy”.
The reform of the clergy was perhaps less apparent but, like the de Mazenods in Marseilles, Bishop Casanelli worked hard at it with precise and severe measures. He imposed the wearing of the soutane, unknown until then, and appointed priests to parishes or ministries only if they accepted to pass examinations or spent a year in the seminary. He made it an obligation to preach the word and to teach catechism; as early as 1834 he published a catechism in French and Italian for this purpose. He opposed the custom of letters of recommendation for appointments to important parishes or canonships. He insisted that priests not mix with politics and made an effort to place parish priests and rectors away from their birth-places in order to thus distance themselves from family or clan disputes in political or business affairs. In 1845 he took severe measures against the custom of permitting lay persons to deliver speeches in church in connection with elections to the Assembly, for drawing lots for recruits to the army and for medical examinations of future soldiers. Churches used for these purposes would be interdicted ipso facto. However he didn’t succeed in organizing annual pastoral retreats until 1844, in view of the difficulty of bringing priests together because of distances and bad roads.
Meanwhile Bishop Casanelli didn’t stop intervening with the Government and local authorities for the creation of new auxiliary chapels in distant villages; he obtained plenty of money for the repair or the construction of churches and rectories, and also to help aged priests.
The Reform of Morals
The reform of morals went hand in hand with that of the clergy. Bishop Casanelli took ten years to make a first pastoral visit to the four hundred parishes and numerous hamlets of his diocese... tiring journeys, almost always on horse-back, sometimes across high mountains. He always had one Vicar General or missionaries accompany him. Nothing stopped him, even when parish priests opposed these visits by telling him that his life was in danger.
During this first visit he saw all the evil that derived from ignorance of religion, vendettas and banditry, from the absence of schools, from illegitimate unions, etc.
To combat ignorance of religion and vendettas, he wanted a team of missionaries. In 1836, he bought the convent of Vico and offered it to the Oblates. Frs. Albini and Telmon, directors at the seminary, began preaching already during the summer vacations of 1836. Their success was overwhelming. Fr. Albini stood out immediately as an extraordinary apostle who obtained numerous conversions, achieved reconciliations everywhere and performed miracles. After his death in 1839, Fr. Étienne Semeria and then, after 1847, Frs. Antoine Rolleri and Dominique Luigi continued the work that was so well begun. Later on, the Franciscans and the Capuchins, so numerous in Corsica before the Revolution, returned to reside in many cities and the Jesuits opened a residence in Bastia in 1859.
In 1834, there was only one school for girls in Ajaccio, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon. These religious agreed to open a boarding-school in Ajaccio and schools in Bastia, Corte, Calvi, Sartène and Bonifacio. The Daughters of Mary Immaculate of Agen too took up residence in Ajaccio, Île Rousse, Sartène, Olmeto, Cervione and Vico, while the Benedictines established a boarding-school in Erbalunga. The Brothers of the Christian Schools, resident in Ajaccio before 1834, also opened eleven schools for boys, of which one was in Vico. A Church-school was opened by the Oblates also in the convent of Vico, from 1855 till 1864.
In 1856, Bishop Casanelli decided to proceed with rigor against illegitimate unions. In order to give this undertaking the least publicity possible in France, he wrote his Pastoral Instruction in Italian. Using expressions of a rare crudity he described the sad situation of several families and afterwards took measures of extreme severity, for example: major excommunication after three warnings, against all those who continued to live together without being united by the bonds of marriage; if after being struck by major excommunication the delinquents persisted in living together scandalously, the parish priest was obliged to denounce them by name to the diocesan authority so that the obstinate could be declared by the Bishop to be excommunicated vitandi, etc.
This Instruction had the result of legitimizing about two thousand unions, but was strongly decried by the civil authorities, especially by the Minister of Worship Roland. Napoleon III thought that he had been targeted indirectly because one of his cousins. Prince Lucien Bonaparte wanted to marry a rich English lady with whom he seems to have lived since 1848. He therefore demanded an annulment of his previous marriage to a Florentine girl and sanctioned by sixteen years’ cohabitation. In vain did Lucien Bonaparte demand the support of Bishop Casanelli in order to obtain a sentence of annulment of this marriage by Rome.
This Instruction cost Bishop Casanelli dearly. Since the election of Louis-Bonaparte as President of the Republic in 1848, the return of a Bonaparte as head of France led to expectations that a golden age was beginning for the diocese. During his journey to Paris in 1851, the Bishop in fact received promises for the construction of a new cathedral, a Bishopric and a chapel for the seminary; he also immediately obtained the appointment of an auxiliary. Bishop Sarrebayrousse was ordained in Ajaccio on October 19 1851 by Bishop Casanelli, with Bishop de Mazenod and Bishop Guibert as assistants. But thereafter Bishop Casanelli received nothing else. Until his death in 1869, he wrote numerous letters, made various visits to Paris, asked, begged and always in vain.
Death. Character. Relations with the Oblates.
Bishop Casanelli, of rather fragile health, had the courage of making pastoral visits for many months each year. In 1869, after his visits, he presided over two pastoral retreats in Ajaccio and left as he did every year, for a period of rest in the convent of Vico, in order to prepare for Vatican Council I, which was due to begin soon. On his arrival in Vico, he fell ill and died a few days later, on October 12 1869.
Fr. Théophile Ortolan states that Bishop Casanelli distinguished himself by an astonishing force of character. During his thirty-six years as Bishop, he had realised the projects which he had formed in 1834, in spite of much opposition and obstacles. “Obstacles”, wrote Fr. Ortolan, “far from discouraging him, gave him the opportunity to develop all his resources: finesse, artifice, energy, sometimes even violence, because he was extremely vivacious - a quality which on more than one occasion alienated certain people”. Bishop Baunard, in his work on The French Episcopacy from 1802 till 1905 wrote: “Bishop Casanelli d’Istria was one of the great bishops of France in the XIXth century. Of rare energy, constancy in every ordeal, he created his diocese, in a certain sense, from scratch”.
His relations with Bishop de Mazenod and the Oblates were always friendly but difficult. If he admired the good will of the Bishop of Ajaccio, Bishop de Mazenod sometimes judged him severely. For example, in his Journal of February 26 1838, he wrote, that Bishop Casanelli “shows himself incapable of governing his diocese”. This reflection could be explained in a certain sense at the beginning of the Bishop’s administration; inclined to ‘aim too high’ and to demand “everything or nothing” from the Government, whereas Fr. Guibert, a greater realist, believed that a little was better than nothing. But the opinion of the Bishop of Marseilles remained the same six years later, at the time when the Bishop asked for an auxiliary in Corsica. Bishop de Mazenod complained that Bishop Guibert did nothing in Paris to get Abbé Sarrebayrousse named Bishop of Ajaccio and have Bishop Casanelli transferred to the continent. He wrote to Fr. Moreau on April 30 1844: “that this plan be put through for the good of Corsica and the peace of the Congregation is desirable, however” (Oblate Writings, 10, p.62).
Bishop de Mazenod speaks here of “the peace of the Congregation” and often he ascertained that the Bishop of Ajaccio “had little recognition of all that the Oblates had done; it would be better to be on guard” - he wrote in his Journal of February 2 6 18 38.
It seems certain that Bishop Casanelli didn’t leave the Congregation in peace. He intervened often enough, but according to his rights, in the internal regime of the seminary and above all he complained unceasingly about the too frequent transfer of Fathers in the two Oblate communities, and the fact that the professors and missionaries, being too young, came to make their ‘Novitiate’, in a certain sense, in Corsica. Indeed, Bishop de Mazenod did not succeed in replacing perfectly men of the stature of Bishop Guibert and Fr. Albini. To follow in the foot-steps of a saint, in particular, is quite difficult. Beside great men, one appears small, if one is not equal to them. Bishop de Mazenod wasn’t always to blame and Bishop Casanelli understood this. Excessive work, for example, took away in the prime of their lives Fathers Joseph Richaud, in 1837, Albini, in 1839, Moreau, in 1846, Jean-Paul Pasqualini and Luigi, in 1855. But it is also true that the Superior General withdrew from Corsica men of value, like Fathers Semeria, Frédéric Mouchel, Paul Pompei, etc., and made frequent changes, as he did in all the houses of France, of personnel needed for new foundations each year on the four continents.
Bishop Casanelli also caused quite some concern to the superiors of Vico. Especially in summer, he went to spend a period of holidays at the convent, taking several guests with him There were plenty of visitors therefore, and in addition to the impossibility of leading a regular life, everyone had to be fed, while the Bishop paid only half the expenses. “This abuse is intolerable” wrote Bishop de Mazenod to Fr. Semeria on August 4 1842 (Oblate Writings 9, p. 231).
Did Bishop Casanelli show himself ungrateful towards the Congregation? When speaking of the want of recognition, Bishop de Mazenod seems rather to underline the fact that sometimes the Bishop of Ajaccio, in asking for a successor to a superior who died or retired from Corsica, in particular after the death of Fr. Moreau in 1846, asked for the best subject of the Congregation, otherwise he would deprive him of the direction of the seminary (see the letter of Eugene de Mazenod to Hippolyte Courtès, April 1 1846, in Oblate Writings, 10, p. 127). He refused to accept as Superior Fr. Semeria and even Fr. Jean-Joseph Lagier. The Founder insisted, saying: if he refuses to accept Fr. Lagier as Superior “we will lock up and go away” (Letter of Bishop de Mazenod to Fr. Ambroise Vincens, May 5 1846, in Oblate Writingsr 10, p. 130). He must have given in however, and sent Fr. Jean-Joseph Magnan. Later on Bishop Casanelli proposed an establishment in Corte or Bastia. Bishop de Mazenod confided in Bishop Guibert, saying: “It remains to be seen if it is the right thing for us to do to make such an investment of personnel (...) in a country upon whose Bishop we cannot rely” (Letter of May 5 1853, in Oblate Writings, 11, p. 133).
Bishop de Mazenod undoubtedly exaggerated a bit in saying that the Bishop of Ajaccio was not too grateful. The latter considered Fr. Guibert as his “right hand and the principal instrument of all his works” (Eugene de Mazenod, Journal, October 17 1841). He admired the talents of Fr. Telmon who, he said, “brings the rain and good weather to Ajaccio” (ibidem, May 15, 1837). On July 1, 1839, he wrote a touching circular letter, after the death of Fr. Albini, in which he said: “May the holy ashes of him whom we mourn become a fertile seed of apostolic men to replace the losses of this fervent Congregation which has dedicated itself to the service of our diocese and to whom we owe so much”.
Bishop Casanelli always considered the Oblate Congregation as the family on whom he could depend the most. He asked for a great deal of service and perhaps didn’t always think of voicing his thanks, just like a father who always counts on the devotedness of his children. But on all painful occasions, he knew how to repeat with conviction his gratitude, especially in his circular letters to the clergy on the occasion of the departure of Fr. Guibert in 1841 and of Fr. Semeria in 1847, at the death of Fr. Albini, of Fr. Luigi and of Bishop de Mazenod.
Despite these few shadows on the landscape, the collaboration of the Oblates in the work of Bishop Casanelli was efficacious and beneficial to the diocese; it was also founded on such solid bases that it did not cease with the death of the Bishop. The involvement of the Oblates in the service of Corsica still continues.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
SOURCES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
General Archives, Rome. Sixteen letters of Bishop
Casanelli to Bishop de Mazenod and to Fathers Casimir Aubert, Ambroise Vincens and Joseph Fabre.
Many papers of Bishop Casanelli are found in Ajaccio, in the historical archives of the diocese, in the departmental archives of Corsica and in the archives of the convent of Vico, etc.
ORTOLAN, Théophile, Diplomate et soldat, Mgr Casanelli d’Istria, évêque d’Ajaccio (1794-1869), Paris, Bloud and Barral, 1900, 2 vols.
CASTA, François J., Monseigneur Casanelli d’Istria, évêque d’Ajaccio (1794-1869), Église de Corse, 1969, 35 p.
CASTA, Francois J., Le diocèse d’Ajaccio, Collection: Histoire des diocèses de France, I, Paris, Beauchesne, 1974, 293 p. (Mgr Casanelli, p. 178-206).