Accepting this House for Mission Preachers
The year 1847 marked an important stage in the Congregation’s expansion in France. It took root in two dioceses far distant from Provence: Nancy in the northeast and Limoges in the centre.
The second of these foundations “was as if directed by Providence Itself,” wrote Father Ortolan, “because no one had thought of them.” On October 3, Bishop de Mazenod received a letter from Bishop Bernard Buissas, Bishop of Limoges from 1844 to 1856, who suggested he establish a house of mission preachers in his episcopal city. Without success, he had already approached several religious congregations. Since he had heard “many good things about the Oblates,” he hastened to ask for a few priests. The very same day, the Founder wrote to Father Courtès to come as soon as possible to Marseilles because he needed him to “answer a letter of great interest. “Already October 7, he sent an answer to Bishop Buissas telling him that “there does, indeed, exist in the Church a small congregation whose main end is to evangelize the poor and to come to the aid of the most abandoned souls.” He told him that he was sending him some priests at the end of the annual retreat at the beginning of November. On October 19, he designated the personnel of the future community: Father Hippolyte Courtès, superior, Fathers Jean Viala and Scipion Chauliac and Brother Jean Bernard Ferrand.
On November 17, accompanied by Father Tempier, they took possession of a huge house, recently constructed, surrounded by a garden that was adjacent to the park of the bishop’s house. The agreement for the foundation signed November 21 by Bishop Buissas and Father Tempier, contains two articles. The first concerns the obligations assumed by the bishop. He handed over in perpetuity the house with its outbuildings to the work of auxiliary priests who have the responsibility of carrying out the ministry of retreats and missions in the diocese. These priests are and always will be the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. For their maintenance and support the diocese will pay them an annual pension of 2,200 francs. In the second article, the Oblates took on the obligation in perpetuity of providing “usually six priests or less” to preach missions and retreats, minister to detainees in the prison and to the sick in the hospitals; moreover, the bishop will be able to “send them temporarily and by exception into parishes to replace pastors who were ill or absent for a short time.” The Oblates would be responsible for the taxes, insurance, cost of repair and maintenance.
The Community, its Works and its Difficulties from 1847 to 1861
Father Courtès was only sent to Limoges for the foundation and until Father Melchior Burfin would be free after the parish mission season. Fr. Burfin arrived in Limoges in May of 1848 and remained superior of that house until the end of 1850. His successors were Fathers Henry Cumin (1851-1854), Louis Soullier (1854-1856), Joseph Bise in 1856-1857, Burfin from 1857 to 1860 and Joseph M. F. Coste from 1861. The community soon numbered six priests among whom were Charles Baret and Pierre Nicolas, both good preachers. There were usually some of the priests who knew the Limousine dialect well such as Fathers Scipion Chauliac (1845-1888) and Louis Soullier (1856-1897).
During the course of the first years, the Oblates encountered a number of obstacles. From their very first sermons, Bishop Buissas did not seem to appreciate their style of preaching. He told Bishop de Mazenod as much. Bishop de Mazenod answered him as follows: “You will permit me, My Lord, to make an observation on what you are telling me that in Limoges virtues are not enough, you need to see talent in your mission preachers. I agree if it were a case of talent needed for the ministry which our missionaries must carry out. They are called to evangelize the poor and to work for the salvation of the most abandoned souls. In order to worthily carry out this ministry, virtue first and, then, a talent commensurate with the needs of those whom they must call back to God...”
As foreseen by the foundation agreement, the bishop of Limoges sent priests to replace parish priests, but he abused of this concession made by Father Tempier. Bishop de Mazenod lodged a complaint with the bishop in this regard in February of 1848. “I am suffering a distress it is impossible for me not to bring to your attention,” he wrote, “You know that each one must live the life specific to him and follow his vocation. It happens that, due to the system in place at Limoges, our Oblates are deprived of what they expected to find in the Congregation. It was to live life in community that they gave up the ordinary ministry in parishes and it is especially by conducting missions that they bring souls to God. The vow of our rule is so centered on them living in community that it is prescribed that they will always walk two by two... I understand that it is fitting sometimes to dispense with this point in the Rule, especially when a missionary must be sent to lend support to a parish priest, but it is essential that this should be done only temporarily...” Bishop Buissas hardly paid any attention to this letter and community life suffered in consequence. Father Tempier then took it upon himself to remind the bishop of the conditions of the foundation. He expressed himself frankly and in terms that angered Bishop Buissas. In July of 1848, Father Burfin thanked Father Tempier and added: “Do not repent of what you have done. In my view, that was one of the best acts of your life. Better a sincere anger than a fake moderation... The result will not be counter productive; on the contrary, now that the terms of agreement have been interpreted according to the written text, the bishop speaks of nothing other than missions and retreats.”
In their ministry, the Oblates also ran afoul of the indifference of the clergy with regard to missions. Little by little, however, they succeeded in overcoming these prejudices and the fruits of salvation that flowed from their work contributed to their winning good will from the bishop’s palace, esteem from the clergy and respect from the people. We only know the list of their work for a few years. In 1850-1851, the priests preached 12 missions, 19 retreats and 2 Lenten stations, 7 missions, 11 retreats and individual sermons in 1853-1854; 10 missions or jubilees and 2 months of Mary in 1854-1855; 8 missions, 6 retreats, 3 Lenten series, 2 Advent series and 2 months of Mary in 1857-1858. Each year, they preached a retreat to 1,000 detainees in prison.
Upon this return from his trip to England in August of 1850, Bishop de Mazenod spent a few days in Limoges. He was well received by the bishop and the clergy. It was on this occasion that he also met Bishop Bertaud, the bishop of Tulle who is alleged to have said: “I have seen Paul.” (Missions O.M.I., 1928, p. 98)
In 1855, the General Council planned to leave Limoges because of the unfavourable conditions both from a material as well as from a spiritual point of view. Indeed, the house had accrued a deficit every year and the existence of community life depended entirely on the good will of the bishop who took over one part of the house, obliged the superior to host non-Oblate preachers and constantly complained that the priests were changed too frequently. Nevertheless, the decision was made a few months later to remain. Bishop Buissas relinquished some of his claims and offered the Oblates chaplaincies of charitable institutions with much larger revenues. In 1856, the diocesan administration offered the Oblates to go and establish themselves in a new quarter of the city and also offered to let them take charge of the shrine of Notre-Dame de Sauvagnac about thirty kilometres from Limoges in the mountains of Ambazac. Bishop de Mazenod made a second visit to Limoges in July of 1856; it was at that time, it seems, that for all practical purposes it was decided to remain in the house near the bishop’s palace and continue the ministries they were engaged in until this point.
The Community and its Works from 1861 to 1904
From the reports published in Missions O.M.I., annually at first and then on the occasion of General Chapters, the history of this house is well known from 1861 to 1904. During the year following his election Father Joseph Fabre visited the Oblate houses of France. He visited Limoges at the end of the month of October 1862. He found the house very well suited for the purpose for which it was built. He visited it again in 1877. We are aware of how attentive he always was with regard to the observance of the rules. In their reports to the General Administration, the superiors drew attention to the fact that the house at Limoges lent itself well to regular observance since there were six months of intense work outside the house and six months regular life with little preaching and more community life during the summer. They remained faithful to the commitment made to Bishop Buissas by always maintaining at least six priests there, but the superiors changed often. There were at least 13 from 1861 to 1904 for an average of less than 3 years each.
The missions. The priests preached between 10 and 15 parish missions a year between 1862 and 1868. We subsequently see this number grow smaller for the next twenty years. Already in 1865 in his report, Father Alexander Chaine, the superior, wrote that in the department of Creuse “most of the male population is made up of immigrant workers, masons for the most part, attracted here by the lure of making money in our large centres and especially Paris for three quarters of the year and that they return to winter in their own territory bringing back to their families the products of modern civilization: little liking of saving money, but, on the other hand, the love of high living and of the wine shops; add to that a certain number of negative ideas about religion and of depraved morals...” (Missions O.M.I., 1865, P. 516)
In his report for 1874, Father Leon François Delpeuch added: “The Creuse region, formerly so good and so Christian, is today corrupted by an international element, the sad result of immigration which, each year, turns loose thousands of masons on the streets of Paris... The milieu in Limoges also sets up a deplorable front of inertia against which the efforts of the missionaries will often spend their force in vain...” (Missions O.M.I., 1875, p. 339) In 1867, Father Alexandre Audruger wrote: “The house at Limoges is deteriorating with age; that is why it is taking some rest. From the end of the jubilee in April 1867, we have had only three or four parish missions, and only one in the diocese, in a tiny little parish. One has the impression that the parish priests no longer want missions because they are so discouraged or given to railing against the evils of the times as an excuse to put off the missions to an undetermined, unforeseeable future. One has to admit that a very large number of parishes are almost or entirely impervious to missions since religion is so lacking in the lives of their wretched inhabitants.” (Missions O.M.I., 1878, p. 126)
Ten years later, Father Victor Bourde, the superior, remarked that “apostolic ministry is almost extinct. The missionaries of Limoges are, like the workers in the Creuse area, are obliged to emigrate to find work.” (Missions O.M.I., 1888, p. 238) After 1890, the superiors launched this ministry once again, but they did it by going to preach in several dioceses. In his report to the Chapter of 1893, Father Achille Rey, the provincial, wrote: “The work of preaching parish missions is booming.” (Missions O.M.I., 1893, p. 279)
Other works. The priests, however, did not remain unemployed. They preached between twenty and forty retreats per year in the parishes and religious communities, the works, etc., months of May, a few Advent and Lenten series and many individual sermons.
The little community chapel, opened to the public in 1850, was ever more used by the public until its closing in 1880 because of the expulsions. It became the meeting place and prayer centre for three works: the Archconfraternity of Our Lady of la Salette for the conversion of sinners, the Lady Servants and the Military, for a long time under the zealous and successful direction of Father Basil Bouniol. Meetings, religious ceremonies, the sacrament of reconciliation for the faithful involved in these works took up the time of especially the older priests in the house. (Missions O.M.I., 1868, p. 406-407)
A few important events. In 1880, the French government forcibly expelled the majority of the congregations of religious men and women from their houses. On November 5, 1880, the Oblates of Limoges were cast out, manu militari [by military might]. Father Bourde, the superior, was left in the house as custodian. Covertly, the priests and brothers returned during the years that followed and were not disturbed.
In 1888, the department of public worship compelled the episcopal corporations to sell their properties. In order to remain in Limoges, the Oblates were obliged to buy the house for 60,000 francs and to borrow and additional 30,000 francs. This rendered them more independent from the diocesan administration, but soon encumbered the province Nord with a heavy debt. Indeed, after the expulsions of 1903-1904, this house, like those of most of the religious, became state property. In 1907, the agent in charge of liquidation sold it to an association of church people and laity in order to make of it the bishop’s residence since he, too, had been turned out of his bishop’s palace. The Oblates were stuck with the debt and the payment of its annual interest.
The temporary expulsions of 1880 were only the harbingers of events more serious to come. On November 14, 1899, prime minister Waldeck-Rousseau, who, at this time, also held the office of Minister of the Interior and of Public Worship, tabled a legislative program with regard to religious associations and congregations. The law was passed July 1, 1901. Congregations formed without government approval were declared unlawful and “the liquidation of the properties they hold will be carried out by law.” The majority of the religious congregations had been founded without government authorization. The Oblates submitted a request for authorization on September 24, 1901. On March 23 and 24, 1903, the legislative assembly considered the requests for authorization from 28 preaching congregation, one of whom was the Oblates, in the light of the series of laws dealing with this issue. All of the requests were rejected. A delay of a few weeks was granted to the religious to enable them to vacate their houses. The Oblates of various houses refused to leave. They were forcibly expelled during the year 1904. In his report to the General Chapter of 1904, Father Charles Brulé, provincial of province Nord, wrote: “The province listed “9 houses. These 9 houses have been closed and sealed up. They have been put up for sale or rent through the state liquidator and the members of those houses have been dispersed.” (Missions O.M.I., 1905, p. 12)
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
Sources and Bibliography
Oblate General Archives in Rome. Sector of the province France-Nord: Limoges: three dossiers: generalities, reports, canonical visits. Section Personnel: letters of various superiors.
Oblate Writings I, passim.
Missions OMI. passim.
ORTOLAN, Théophile, Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée, vol. I (1914), p. 396-402.