Born in Aix-en-Provence, January 1, 1798
Taking of the habit, Aix, October 15, 1817
Oblation, November 1, 1818 (no. 4)
Ordination to Priesthood, July 30, 1820
Died in Aix, June 3, 1863.
Father Jean Joseph Hippolyte Courtès (1798-1863) was one of Father de Mazenod’s first companions and throughout his whole life remained the Founder’s confidant and friend.
He was born in Aix-en-Provence on January 1, 1798 of a well-to-do family. He received a good Christian upbringing, made his studies at the minor seminary and then entered the major seminary of Aix.
Deeply affected by the preaching of a Jesuit who extolled the greatness of the missionary vocation, he asked to enter the Company of Jesus; he left for the Jesuit novitiate at Montrouge at the end of December 1816. His poor health prevented him from staying and his father came to bring him home some months later. He returned to Aix on September 14, 1817.
As he had been a member of the Youth Congregation founded by Father de Mazenod, he was already known and esteemed by the latter. Thus he was received by the community of the Missionaries of Provence and allowed to stay with them to take a rest. Since he still wanted to consecrate himself to the Lord, he decided to join this group of missionaries. He began his novitiate on October 15, 1817 and made his oblation on November 1, 1818.
It was during his novitiate year that the first General Chapter, which approved the 1818 Constitutions and Rules, was held. At the second session of this Chapter, the scholastic Courtès was elected Procurator of the Congregation.
He was ordained on July 30, 1820. He wrote to his father on the same day: "So now I am a priest. You have no idea how happy I am. My good parents: I rejoice when I think of the joy that this information must bring you. You too should rejoice because I have today received from the good Lord the greatest grace that I can expect from him.”
Father Courtès’ life as an Oblate does not include any extraordinary event. When Father de Mazenod left for Marseilles in 1823, Father Courtès was appointed superior of the house in Aix, a post he held until his death.
He was elected Assistant General at the 1824 General Chapter, a post he also held until his death. It was also this Chapter which gave him the responsibility of working together with Fathers Jean-Baptiste Honorat and Marius Suzanne, to collect material which would be useful in composing the history of the Congregation.
The only break in Father Courtès’ stay in Aix was the founding of the house in Limoges in November 1847. To get this community off to a good start, the Founder wanted a man in whom he had complete confidence, and so he chose Father Courtès as interim superior: Father Burfin was to be the superior there, after the winter season of mission preaching. On February 22, 1848, the General Council noted that Father Courtès was courageously and admirably fulfilling the duties entrusted to him in Limoges. He was definitely back at Aix in August 1848. Here he stayed until he died on June 3, 1863.
The Founder’s Confidant
On March 5, 1837, the Founder wrote to Father Courtès: "Why do you consider yourself to be merely an ordinary member of the Congregation? In my opinion, you are one of its pivotal points, you form part of the structure’s foundations, you are identified and united with the head... This is a kind of solidarity which you and an infinitely small number of others share with me.”
This confidence was manifest during the crisis of 1823 when the Founder requested Father Courtès to confer with the Archbishop of Aix who was demanding that the missionaries from his diocese no longer make vows. For several years Fr. Courtes was entrusted with the formation of candidates to the Oblate life: of the novices from 1824 to 1826, of the scholastics and the junior seminarians during their stay at Aix.
When Father Tempier was sent to Rome on July 30, 1832, by Bishop Fortune de Mazenod to ask that his nephew be made a bishop, only Father Courtès was privy to this secret (REY, I, 537 ff.). Bishop de Mazenod gave him an account of his interview with the Holy Father (Mazenod to Courtès, 29 August 1832). In November 1845, Father Courtès and Bishop Guibert together were sent to Ajaccio and to Rome to present the Chapter’s decrees and Father Albini’s Cause for beatification. The Founder’s letter of March 1, 1850 is more evidence of how much he trusted Father Courtès.
His Poor Health
Nevertheless, this companion of the first beginnings was not always a great help to the Founder. Plagued by poor health, he was over-sensitive to difficulties and often became depressed when trials came. On occasion we read in the Founder’s diary: "Received a letter from Father Courtès who is complaining as usual” (JM, 28 February 1837); or again, "I received a letter from Father Courtès: three pages of the usual complaints when his spirits are down” (4 March 1837). Many similar examples could be given. He fell gravely ill in April 1829, and received Holy Viaticum on May 11th. This was only a temporary alarm, however. Yet, all his life, his health was poor. Quite often the Codex historicus of the house notes that Father Courtès could not attend the sessions of the General Council because he was ill.
A Talented Preacher
Because of his poor health, he was hardly able to take an active part in mission preaching; in fact, he went on missions only on rare occasions. He was rather much in demand for preaching retreats to priests and women religious. His preaching was much appreciated. Bishop de Mazenod, for example, noted in his diary on August 5, 1838, concerning the panegyric on Bl. Alphonse de Liguori that Father Courtès had preached: "He showed himself worthy of his talent. He was listened to with great attention, even though he was above the heads of a great portion of his audience.” The following year, the Mémorial d’Aix, a local newspaper, noted that, for a similar occasion when the scheduled preacher was unable to come because he was indisposed, "the superior himself (i.e. Father Courtès) improvised a short discourse on the Saint’s canonization in a manner that was appreciated by all.” For the provincial council of Aix, held in September 1850, he was chosen to be the Archbishop’s personal theologian. He was always admired as a priest of solid doctrine and virtue.
Model of Charity
It was therefore in the house of Aix that Father Courtès carried out his apostolate. He animated the services in the church of the Mission, was chaplain at the college, chaplain and confessor of several communities of religious women. Day after day he devoted himself to these works and was much appreciated by the people to whom he ministered.
Three areas in particular fully benefited from his apostolic charity. First, he served the Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul. These Conferences were established in Aix in 1841 and benefited from facilities provided for them by the Oblates who gave them a room for their meetings and allowed them to use the inner chapel for their prayer. Father Courtès was not content with only this: he took an active part in their good works, contacting the poor, looking after the Savoyard youngsters, helping families, providing for children, and so forth. In the Conferences’ own reports we find lavish praise of Father Courtès’ charity: "The Conferences in Aix have found in him not only a supporter and protector who has provided a locale for them, but also a guide, a councilor and a father” (31st December 1855). In speaking of the poor who came every Sunday, the reports say: "There is great admiration for the profound attention with which they listen to God’s Word which Father Courtès, the superior of the Oblates, so capably presents in a way to suit their understanding and condition” (report for 1857).
The cholera epidemics which struck the city of Aix were for Father Courtès and the Oblates of his community a call from God to devote themselves without counting the cost. The outbreak of 1835 was the most devastating. Bishop de Mazenod’s letter of August 1, 1835 to Father Guigues, in which he praised the Oblates of Aix and Marseilles, made no exaggeration when he said that at Aix the house was as though besieged and invaded by death: "What a beautiful page in the history of our Congregation!” It is well worthwhile to read the entire letter.
Another area of apostolate in which Father Courtès dedicated himself to the full measure of his zeal was that of chaplain to the prisons. The Oblates fulfilled this ministry in Aix from 1921 until they were expelled in 1903. Even though during his long superiorship he did not hold the title of prison chaplain, he often carried on this ministry in the prisons and accompanied condemned persons to the scaffold. In a letter to the Founder dated January 17, 1860, he gave a long description of one of these latter events in which he wanted above all to be a witness to the Lord’s mercy, the Lord who comes to meet the condemned person and who is even willing to embrace him with affection.
Life of union with God
The secret of Father Courtès’ devotedness was his life of prayer. He writes in his diary: "If a person does not pray, his heart becomes dry and hardens... The Holy Spirit is the light... The Holy Spirit gives a divine savor to the senses... we must therefore withdraw into ourselves in order to love and to pray; within ourselves we will hear God’s voice and, under this inspiration, our activities will be holier and our influence upon our brothers all the more decisive.”
In our Lady he saw especially her gift of self: "Mary is strength in sacrifice and love; on the day of her betrothal with divinity, the humble Virgin became the Mother of all the unfortunate.”
His attachment to Jesus Christ is expressed in the same tones as that of St. Eugene: "And you, my Jesus, my life, my light, you, Incarnate Word, is it possible to hear you and not believe in you? You, the ideal of perfection, you who lived and died as God made man, I embrace you with all the strength of my mind, I love you and praise you with all the powers of my heart!”
René Motte, o.m.i.