During Bishop de Mazenod’s episcopacy, cholera raged often - five times according to two of his biographers: Toussaint Rambert, Vie de Charles Joseph Eugène de Mazenod, vol. 2, p. 410 and Achille Rey, Histoire de Mgr Charles Joseph Eugène de Mazenod, vol. 2, p. 502.
Bishop de Mazenod’s diary and letters give us a clear idea of the gravity of the misfortune. For example, this letter to Father Hippolyte Courtès dated July 17, 1854: “The number of the dead is over [...] one hundred per day, but there has been up to sixty and sixty-five children [...] The Italians especially have been hit very hard and so a great number of them have fled and they are not the only ones. I am convinced that the city has now a population that is less by some 60,000 people. It is a raging storm.” (Oblate Writings I, no. 1221, p. 211) Even if, a few days later, in a letter to Father Aimé Martinet, he indicates a slight improvement, it is not great: “Yesterday we counted a small drop in the number of deaths. There were 15 less than the day before. The number is still over one hundred, yesterday it was 130. Half of these, however, were still children.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 11, no. 1224, p. 216)
Bishop de Mazenod responds by putting himself at the service of the sick. He wrote to Father Casimir Aubert: “My dear Son, the demands made on me increase by the day. It was two hours past midnight before I got to bed yesterday. We are in a state of maximum alert on account of the re-appearance of the horrid disease that is afflicting our city. We have had to bring immediate relief to the most urgent cases. [...] I have given two missionaries to St. Laurent. Le Calvaire is doing more in the line of service than a parish; the people like to come to the missionaries in their need. I am myself on call in every district for the administration of the sacrament of confirmation to the large number of those who’ve neglected to receive it; I am fresh from the hospital, and on my return there are a host of matters to be attended to from all over. I have just received a summons at this very moment to a poor woman who will not be for this world tomorrow. I take up my pen again to express my regrets at my inability to respond to your requests which I would love to satisfy, but you understand that my place is here, and that I must give an example of a holy courage.” Oblate Writings I, vol. 8, no. 508, p. 150) This letter is dated March 10, 1835. At the time, Bishop de Mazenod had lost his civil rights because he accepted to be consecrated bishop without the authorization of the French government. He did not react negatively, asserting that Marseilles had no more claim on him, that he could have left the city like those who had enough money to find a safe place in the rural area. Quite to the contrary, he was aware that the Lord had called him to remain with the poor, “my place is here.” Moreover, his ministry as a bishop prompted him to administer confirmation to the sick who had not received this sacrament. His faith in the role of the Holy Spirit in the every Christian life prompted him to make himself available to everyone to make sure that they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is faithful to this calling in spite of the danger of becoming infected.
He expressed his joy at seeing the same kind of generosity in the priests of the diocese, the Oblates and the religious sisters: “...Only those of Le Calvaire are tired out because of the excessive work that the confidence of the people brings them. There isn’t a night when they do not ring three or four times to call them to attend the sick.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 11, no. 1221, p. 211) To Father Antoine Mouchette as well he mentioned the dedication of the diocesan clergy: “Up to the present none of our men has been taken ill, it is the same with the other priests who are there doing their duty as they must.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 11, no. 1223, p. 215) Bishop de Mazenod notes in his diary: “For their part, the diocesan priests displayed a devotion equal to that which was shown during III, Paris, 1965, p. 17)
The Gazette du Midi of July 23, 1854 wrote at length about the dedication of the religious sisters: “The Sisters of Saint Augustine who staff the poorhouse and the insane asylum have lost five of their members through exhaustion due to round the clock answering the needs of the sick upon whom they lavish every kind of care. The Ladies of Saint Thomas of Villeneuve have been more cruelly tried. Out of fifteen of their members, six have died, seven are gravely ill.” The same diary also mentions the Sisters of Hope, the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul. (See REY, p. 505)
To his great regret, Bishop de Mazenod bemoaned the lack of courage of Father Andrew Sumien who abandoned his post out of fear of the cholera: “I became red in the face, my dear Courtès, when Father Aubert read me the passage in your letter which concerned Father S(umien). What a shame! How can a priest, a missionary a religious be afraid! No, he does not have any other illness. [...] And just at a time when anyone who has a sense of duty hands himself over to unceasing work that one could term excessive, we discover a coward in our ranks who deserts his post!” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 11, no. 1228, p. 220) This is the only case mentioned in such circumstances.
Many Christians gather to pray for protection from the danger that threatens them. The Gazette du Midi quoted above wrote: “The people of religious bent in Marseilles perfectly grasped today an important Catholic idea and if, like its leading Pastor, it considers it important to honour ever more the Holy Virgin under the deservedly revered title of Notre-Dame de la Garde, if, as he himself does, they continue to frequent her shrine, they still do not fail to crowd every night into the churches to pray for nine days in union with the diocese and the Mother of God and all the saints, and the Holy of Holies, solemnly exposed on their altars [...] The heart of the leading Pastor so painfully wrung by the suffering of his beloved flock is consoled by the display of their faith and their eagerness to share his feeling in the matter and he is pleased with the good already achieved.” (In REY, p. 504)
The bishop of Marseilles did not limit himself to prescribing prayers to be said, he organized a concrete project for the effective support of the poor. “The ravages of cholera demanded that religion do more than bring spiritual and moral comfort to the population; religion also had to take the initiative in bringing whatever physical relief it could procure for the poor sick people. The prelate, therefore, called a meeting of all the heads of the religious institutions ... and proposed that they take charge of the field-hospitals which were being planned.” (N.B.: What were formerly called “ambulance” in French were temporary clinics where first-aid was dispensed.) “As had been expected from these fervent communities, acceptance was unanimous. The bishop then went directly to the prefect’s office and the latter enthusiastically and gratefully accepted the bishop’s proposal. The mayor, on the contrary, simply gave a “polite” refusal; actually he feared “that no one would want to go to the general hospital once the field-hospitals were opened,” and he told the prelate that he would be resigned to establishing them only as a last resort. “He will do what he wants,” noted the bishop of Marseilles in his Journal. “Meanwhile, the good impression I wanted to make had all the success I could desire since the newspapers of every hue have praised the idea in their columns.” (LEFLON, III, p. 18)
Another grave consequence of the cholera epidemic: poverty. Many ostentatious fundraising campaigns were launched, but the Bishop did not rely upon them. On the occasion of the previous epidemic, the moneys gathered gave rise to misappropriation of funds. Bishop de Mazenod noted in his diary: “No one ever learned what became of 60,00 francs. No one benefited from the 50,000 francs which were supposed to have been distributed, while the 20,000 francs which remained were allocated to the theatres by the municipal council.” Leflon continues the narrative. “Bishop Fortuné and his nephew were reduced to selling their silverware, for lack of receiving a single “penny from all the philanthropic collections whose proceeds are disappearing into certain pockets.” (LEFLON, III, p. 19) As a result, Bishop de Mazenod did not limit himself to fine sounding words; he acted and called others to action. His blunt speech brought him nothing more than sympathy. We have to remember that this took place at the height of the Icosia crisis (1835). Eugene de Mazenod was not all wrapped up in himself in spite of the bitter trial he was undergoing.
He was an example of a genuine pastor who was watching out for the spiritual and material needs of his people.
René Motte, o.m.i.