Born at Marseilles, May 1, 1812
Taking of the habit at Saint-Just, May 1, 1829
Oblation at Saint-Just, May 1, 1830 (no. 38)
Ordination to priesthood at Le Calvaire, November 1, 1834
Dispensation from vows, March 16, 1866.
Jean Joseph Magnan was born in Marseilles, May 1, 1812. He began his novitiate at a very early age May 1, 1829 at Saint-Just. It was here that he made his oblation on May 1, 1830. His masters of novice were Fathers Guigues, Capmas and Honorat. He studied theology in Billens 1830-1832, and then at the major seminary of Marseilles in 1833 and 1834 while living at Le Calvaire where Father Casimir Aubert was master of novices and director of the scholastic brothers. In his April 20, 1834 report on the Oblates, he wrote: “Without a doubt, Magnan and Semeria rank first as far as their observance of regularity and goodness of character.”
Jean Joseph was ordained to the priesthood at the hands of Bishop Eugene de Mazenod in the chapel at Le Calvaire, on November 1, 1834 and received his obedience for the house at Aix where he remained until 1845. Father Courtès, the superior of this community, had always been dissatisfied with all his collaborators. He could not stand Father Magnan and was a special source of suffering for him, while at the same time considering him indispensable. November 11, 1836, the Founder wrote to Father Courtès: “It pains me to hear what you tell me about Father Magnan after the praises he’d earned from you. You tell me he has lost the ability that he was beginning to acquire for the work of the locality. The conclusion must be that this work is not practical, for of all the Society’s members Magnan is the one who submits himself with the best grace and has even reached the point of doing willingly for a religious motive and out of duty things that everyone else finds repugnant and he balks [sic] only at the impossible. What I’m saying is that if this fine man is not up to carrying out the ministries that the house of Aix has taken on, you’ll have to give up completely any further involvement in them. This judgment that you are passing on him is one of the things that grieves me the most for I was rejoicing up until then to have found someone who was able to play his part through virtue and who, when all is said and done, had enough ability to carry through with credit whatever his wholly sincere and very real zeal inspired him to undertake.” (Letters to the Oblates of France, 1831-1836, Oblate Writings I, vol. 8, no. 595, p. 261)
Father Magnan had, indeed, always been rather independent. He had his own personal ideas which he expressed freely. He was successful in everything to which he put his hand, even in music. The June 16, 1837 entry in the Founder’s Diary reads: “Father Mouchel has communicated to me his concerns about Father Magnan whom he accuses of being too involved in his music. I was compelled to enjoin upon this worthy Father Magnan, whose levity can match his gravity, that he be zealous in seeking perfection and charity, while correcting laxity and self love. His is a character in need of ongoing reform.”
In the fall of 1837, Bishop de Mazenod noticed that Father Courtès could not forgive Father Magnan for holding “opinions different from his own on matters he considered very important.” He decided to send him to take on the office of treasurer at the major seminary of Ajaccio. Father Courtès protested that he did not want him to leave since he was “his most industrious and the most personable subject he had... I had him preach the retreat at Mallemort. He took part in the amendment ceremonies of La Fare when a sacrilege had been committed in the parish. He had prepared himself to preach a retreat planned for Rognes. More attentive than he had been in the past concerning the Children of Charity, he had organized a group among their members. He is much in demand at our church. He does have his faults; that is true. I told you about them so that you would be equipped to correct him in this regard because, among his qualities which include a sincere affection for the Congregation, a genuine understanding of the virtue of obedience, I discern a great respect for you personally, a fact which could not be other than beneficial to him.”
Father Magnan was chosen as delegate for the house in Aix to the General Chapter of 1837 and he remained in Aix, even though Father Courtès continued to complain of this. In his December 29, 1838 entry in his Diary, Bishop de Mazenod tells of receiving a letter from Father Courtès containing “a long paragraph about Father Magnan prompted by the most outrageous bias.” From 1838 to 1845, Father Magnan did a lot of preaching. On occasion, he even went to replace other missionaries at Notre-Dame du Laus, Notre-Dame de l’Osier and Notre-Dame de Lumières.
In the course of the 1845-1846 school year, he was called to the major seminary of Marseilles to teach moral theology and be the spiritual director for the seminarians. May 11, 1846, the Founder appointed him as a “replacement” for Bishop Guibert, first assistant general.
Superior of the Seminaries of Ajaccio (1846-1856) and of Fréjus (1856-1859)
When Father Noël Moreau died, on February 2, 1846, there was the problem of appointing a successor to him at the major seminary of Ajaccio. Bishop Casanelli d’Istria refused to accept Fathers Jean Lagier and Étienne Semeria. He did accept Father Courtès, but the archbishop of Aix refused to let him leave. On June 22, the choice of the General Council fell upon Father Magnan. At the beginning of the school year, he was in Corsica and, for ten years, corresponded regularly with the Founder. The Founder enjoined him to provide the best possible direction for the professors and the staff, to consult them by holding regular meetings, to keep the account books up to date and show them to the bishop, etc. Things went well at the seminary, especially after 1850 when the minor seminarians left to take up a separate residence. The number of seminarians held at about 50.
In 1855, the superior had a falling out with Bishop Casanelli d’Istria and especially with Bishop Sarrebayrouse, his auxiliary, overseer of the seminary who imposed his views upon them. Father Casimir Aubert, provincial for Midi province, made a canonical visit in April of 1856 and judged it necessary to replace Father Magnan with Father Jacques Santoni, a Corsican by birth, who was finishing his term as provincial in Canada. In an August 24 letter, Father Aubert informed the bishop of the change and cited as justification of his actions the superior’s bad state of health. “In recent times, his health has suffered a considerable down turn.”
However, Father Magnan’s health does not seem to have been of great concern to his Oblate superiors since, already on August 17, the General Council appointed him as superior of the major seminary of Fréjus to replace Father Jean Lagier, who was appointed superior of the major seminary of Quimper, the direction of which the Congregation had just accepted. In a September 3, 1856 letter, the Founder informed the bishop of Fréjus, Bishop Jordany, of the change: “The superior I am sending you and whom it is my privilege to introduce to you is a very capable man of sound character, very presentable, and already seasoned in the ministry of major seminaries. For the past ten years, he has been the superior of the major seminary of Ajaccio. There, he had the gift of living through that long period of time in the most complete harmony, I do not say only with the bishops, one of whom trusted him to the extent of making him his confessor, but with the clergy of the entire diocese...”
Shortly after his arrival in Fréjus, November 23, 1856, Father Magnan informed Bishop de Mazenod that his health was good and that he was satisfied with the conduct of the staff fathers and the 57 seminarians. However, it seems Bishop Jordany had no liking for this superior who did not meet his expectations. In the September 26, 1858 report of the General Council, we read the following: [Father Magnan will receive] “some cautious bits of advice with regard to the negligence with which he is charged in carrying out his role of superior.” In June of 1859, the Founder wrote to Father Vincens, provincial of the province of the north that he appointed Father Magnan superior of the new house in Paris. And he adds that “Replacing Father Magnan at Frejus will be a major item, not in the sense that he will be greatly missed there, but because we will be dismantling Vico when we take away from there Father Balaïn,” who will be appointed to Fréjus. (Letters to the Oblates of France, 1856-1861, Oblate Writings I, vol. 12, no. 1427, p. 161)
Superior in Paris (1859-1865)
At the time, the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux had a number of houses and works in Paris. Following their affiliation to the Congregation in 1859, they requested to have Oblates as their chaplains. In order to enable these priests to live in community, Bishop de Mazenod decided to open a house in the capital city. He looked in vain for a parish. In 1859, he found temporary lodging at no. 22, des Batignolles street and assigned Fathers Magnan, Charles Baret and Léon F. Delpeuch to that residence. He wrote to the provincial that what was needed was: “Men of a regular life, edifying men, competent to direct religious communities and capable of distinguishing themselves in the pulpits of Paris.”
In April of 1860, paying through the nose, the Oblates bought a piece of land in the Europe quarter, at that time on the northern edge of the city at no. 26 Saint-Pétersbourg street. In a year and a half, Father Magnan and Baret, the treasurer, had built a spacious house and a chapel. It was there that the chapter of December 1861 was held. The General Administration took up residence there the following year. The priests from that house did a lot of preaching in Paris while serving the people who came to the chapel.
In 1865, the Oblates bought what remained of the royal abbey of Royaumont, thirty kilometres north of Paris. According to Father Ortolan, this purchase was Father Fabre’s special project. He wanted to lodge the scholastic brothers there since their number was growing and they would soon be overcrowded at their quarters in the former Visitandines’ convent in Autun where they had taken up residence after leaving Montolivet in 1862. From the Registry of the General Council from 1865-1867, we learn that, without the authorization of his superiors, Father Magnan had taken on the responsibility of a loan for at least 210,000 francs. Did he undertake these loans to purchase Royaumont and for the construction work in Paris? We are not sure what happened. What is clear is that Father Magnan was unable to pay back his loans and the Congregation was unable, or at least, unwilling to do so. The Congregation decided to rid itself as soon as possible of Royaumont. The affair went before the courts. The Archbishop of Paris no longer wanted to have Father Magnan in his diocese. On March 16, 1866, Father Magnan requested and obtained immediately dispensation from his vows “in order to free the Congregation of the debts he had contracted.”
Among his murky financial transactions, Father Magnan accepted many Mass stipends for which he never celebrated Mass. In 1867, he requested of the Congregation to refund him the value of some property that he had received by inheritance and that Father Tempier sold He offered to give this sum of money to Fr. Fabre on the condition that the Oblates would have the Masses celebrated, in order, as he put it, to at least satisfy the debt he owed the souls in Purgatory. By a November 1, 1867 letter, Father Fabre responded, saying that the inheritance received between the years 1837 and 1845 amounted to about 10000 francs and that he would use this sum to have the Masses celebrated.
The Congregation owes a great deal to Father Magnan who preached successfully in several dioceses and held important posts. His letters of 1865-1867 reveal his deep chagrin. His father was dying in Marseilles. He suffered from seeing himself estranged from his mother, the Congregation. He never belonged to any diocese and did not know where to go. In 1869, he asked the Congregation to grant him an annual pension of 1,000 francs. We do not know whether this was granted him. On July 16, 1891, in a letter written by a Miss Marie Gardial from Mâcon to Father Fabre, we learn that she is giving Abbé Magnan a life pension and that, subsequent to the death of this individual, she would give the money to the Oblates for their works.
He was assistant priest a the parish of Saint Vincent in Mâcon from 1873 until his death on February 5, 1893.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
Sources and Bibliography
Father Magnan’s dossier in the General Archives is well stocked. It contains his oblation formula and many original letters: 30 to Father Casimir Aubert, 3 to Father Charles Bellon, 41 to Father Fabre from 1860 to 1892, 97 to Bishop de Mazenod from 1846 to 1860, 2 to Father Soullier, 20 to Father Vincens, the same number to Father Tempier and a great deal of paper work handled by Father Tempier with regard to Father Magnan’s inheritance.
Father Magnan’s name appears in the correspondence of 35 Oblates who were his contemporaries. But we have found only extracts of five letters from the Founder to this priest.
Two of Father Magnan’s letters to Father Fabre (June 21 and November 3 of 1863) tell the story of the Oblate foundation in Paris, cf. Missions OMI 1863, pp. 242-252 and 539-548.
Cf. also: Th. Ortolan, Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée durant le premier siècle de leur existence: vol. I, Maison de Paris (1859-1861), pp. 497-502; vol. III, Royaumont (1865-1869), pp. 58-82.