Historical dictionary  vol.: 1  let.: M

Marseilles, Le Calvaire

Le Calvaire in Marseilles was the third Oblate house after that of Aix and Notre-Dame du Laus.

Founding and Building (1821-1829)
The great mission of Marseilles, so successfully preached in January-February 1820 by the Missionaries of France and the Missionaries of Provence, proved to be at the origin of several associations and works which perpetuated the fruits of this religious renewal.

Marseilles, Le Calvaire Oblate House (Bernad).

Among these, two foundations that various groups of Marseilles faithful desired most were that of the Missionaries of France and of the Missionaries of Provence in 1821.

This third foundation of the Missionaries of Provence was rather difficult, though it corresponded quite well to the ends of the Institute. The Fathers, in fact, accepted the spiritual direction of the children at the Providence orphanage and the pastoral animation of the many pilgrims who came to pray at the foot of the mission cross erected at Le Calvaire (Calvary).

The installation at the Providence institution on Lenche Square, only a few steps removed from the Montée des Accoules (Hill of the Accoules), took place on May 13, 1821. Here were lodged Father Emmanuel Maunier, the superior, and Father François-Noël Moreau, soon replaced by Father Alexandre Dupuy, who were often assisted by Fathers Pierre Nolasque Mie, Sébastien Deblieu and Marius Suzanne. They had taken possession of Le Calvaire on May 6th, the preceding Sunday.

The little community stayed only one year at the Providence work and its apostolic work in this house ceased with the arrival in 1823 of Bishop Fortuné de Mazenod in Marseilles. It had been an intense apostolate. The Oblates here heard the confessions of several hundred children and catechized them. The Fathers also attracted the young people from the neighbouring parishes and prepared them for first holy communion. They even founded a Youth Congregation similar to that of Aix.

Marseilles, Le Calvaire (GA).

The work at Le Calvaire, which was far more important, soon took up all of their time. The location of the Accoules was seen as an important place in the religious life of Marseilles. Here was located one of the oldest churches in the city: it had been a parish already before the year 1000 A.D. In 1060, it was entrusted to the nuns of the Monastery of the Holy Saviour. It had been rebuilt in the 13th century and was considered to be the finest gothic structure in the city. In the 16th century, the nuns ceded the church to the diocese and thus it became a collegiate church with a chapter of 8 canons. The French Revolution demolished the church but did not have the time to damage the bell-tower which remained standing in the midst of the debris.

Charles de Forbin-Janson, the superior of the great mission preached in Marseilles in 1920, in his usual hasty and efficient manner, chose this site for raising the huge mission cross. In only a few days he had collected some 60,000 francs, had the place cleaned up and constructed a small hill which portrayed Calvary and, below it, a grotto which represented the holy Sepulchre. An iron grill enclosed the site. Many Marseilles people frequented this place. In 1823, Father Dupuy said that the number of pilgrims was increasing. On certain feastdays, the enclosure, which could only contain several thousand, was more than filled with people who came especially from the populated city sections that surrounded Le Calvaire. Here the missionaries found themselves in their real element. Zealously they applied themselves to serving the needs of the pilgrim poor.

Very soon there was an opportunity to acquire some property. The former cloister of the canons, consisting of nine houses, was put up for sale in May 1822. The Fathers purchased it for 12,000 francs. Two of these houses were empty and they took up residence there at the end of 1822. The tenants of the other houses all moved out more or less within one year. Even before he came to Marseilles as Vicar General in July 1823, Father de Mazenod had instructed Father Tempier to tear down these old houses and to built a vast monastery of some 50 rooms and halls. This was the first of many construction projects undertaken by Father Tempier in Marseilles; it was already completed by the beginning of 1825.

Father Maunier left the Congregation at the end of 1823. Father Suzanne became the second superior of this community (1823-1829), which was made up of Fathers Jeancard, Dupuy and Guibert. With Father Tempier, he saw to the construction of the monastery and was the chief artisan in constructing the church of the Accoules in 1824-1826. This church was dedicated to Notre-Dame de Bon Secours and was consecrated by Bishop Fortuné de Mazenod in 1828. This Greek style and rotunda church still exists today.

Father de Mazenod greatly appreciated Father Suzanne for the latter’s apostolic zeal and oratorical talent. During the time that Father Suzanne was at Le Calvaire, the church there became an important centre for religious activities with many feast days and relationships to various associations. The Fathers also ministered in the prisons, to the Sisters of St. Charles, and were especially active in mission preaching from the month of November to Easter. From 1824 to 1828, the Founder several times appointed Father Suzanne the superior of important missions, even though the latter was one of the youngest religious in the Congregation.

While the superior saw to the work on the church, Father Dupuy, who never did make the vow of poverty, built the house, still there today, that is attached to the back of the church. He sold it to the Founder in 1832.

The fourth General Chapter was held in the Le Calvaire monastery in July 10-13, 1826. Thus it was in this house, which Father Delpeuch called “our Sinai” (Missions, 27 (1889), p. 119), that our Rules, approved by Rome, were promulgated to the Congregation. Upon the invitation of the Superior General, Father Fabre, Father Delpeuch in 1889 put up a marble plaque that contains a long inscription and commemorates this event.

For several years Fathers de Mazenod and Tempier, both Vicars General, were resident in this monastery. The Founder was even superior here for some months in 1827, after he had deposed Father Suzanne for not having sufficiently looked after the community’s religious life.

A Period of Slow Growth (1829-1862)
Eight Fathers were superiors of this house between 1829 and 1862, 3 of them appointed twice to this post: Fathers Jean-Baptiste Honorat, Cassien Augier and Joseph-Alphonse Martin. The community generally consisted of some ten Fathers and Brothers, though few were posted there in any permanent way, to serve the various apostolic works. The house served more as a temporary residence for many: young Fathers stayed there, awaiting their assignment and the religious who were momentarily without an assignment found temporary stay here near the Founder and Father Tempier.

It would seem that this large house was rarely filled, except perhaps when it was used to house the novices in 1833-1834 and in 1836-1841, the scholastics in 1833-1835 and in 1848, and the young Fathers who had to spend a year in preparation for preaching - this during the years from 1851 to 1861.

Marseilles, Le Calvaire Church (Bernad).

The apostolic work was mostly centred on the place itself, i.e. looking after the religious needs of the faithful who came to Le Calvaire and to the church of Notre-Dame de Bon Secours. Several pious associations were founded, that of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows and that of the Passion of our Lord among them. The most noteworthy work at Le Calvaire was that “of the Italians”: it was started by the Founder after he came to Marseilles in 1823. He handed it over to Father Dominique Albini in 1835, then to Fathers Étienne Semeria and Antoine Rolleri. In 1835, about 6000 Italians on great occasions came to their own chapel which was located near Le Calvaire on the Hôtel-Dieu street. As Bishop of Marseilles, the Founder began a similar work for the Germans: Father Martens was in charge of it from 1857 to 1861.

Besides this pastoral work centred at Le Calvaire itself, the Fathers were chaplains of Notre-Dame de la Garde (1835-1850), of the prisons (both the holding and detention prisons), of the Sisters of Saint Charles and, later, the Sisters of the Holy Family. Some teamed up each year with the Fathers at Aix to preach some missions. Father Dassy, appointed superior of Le Calvaire in 1855, wrote in the Codex historicus that the Fathers of Le Calvaire had no end of work: even if the church was less frequented than formerly because of the Jesuit and Capuchin establishments, the area was swamped with “thousands of persons of bad repute” who had been forced into these old sectors because they had been giving the finer sections of the city a bad name.

Flourishing Works (1862-1901)
After the Founder’s death and the reaction against the Oblates that followed under Bishop Cruice, the activities at Calvary also slowed down for some months. The superiors were changed often and the community slowly grew to about fifteen Fathers and Brothers; this did not include the Provincial and Provincial Treasurer of France-South (Midi) who resided at Le Calvaire, nor the many visitors and bishops on their way to Rome, nor the Oblate missionaries who were waiting to leave for their missions abroad.

The works of Le Calvaire began to flourish especially during the superiorship of the following Fathers: Célestin Augier (1872-1876), Augustin Vassal (1876-1880), François Bellon (1881-1887), Léon Delpeuch (1887-1893) and Victor Roux (1893-1897).

During this period, the Oblates truly became the preachers for the Marseilles diocese and those surrounding it. They were asked to preach missions (though these were dwindling in number), to preach during Advent and Lent (where the aim was conversion, as in missions), to preach retreats, months of Mary or the Sacred Heart, to preach on great occasions and the like. In 1865, Father Bellon wrote that the Fathers of his house had in one year preached 9 retreats, 5 missions and 1 Advent. Ten years later, the superior, Father Célestin Augier stated that in three years the house of Le Calvaire had accomplished 220 apostolic tasks: 28 missions, 18 Lents, 7 Advents, 4 months of Mary and 163 retreats of all kinds - all this in 18 parishes of Marseilles and in 12 other dioceses.

In his November 7, 1874 letter to Father Fabre, Father Augier says that the Oblates are receiving requests from all the parishes in the city. This shows that the pastors of these parishes, most of them former students of the Oblates at the major seminary, knew how to appreciate the Oblates’ talent and zeal.

The 1880 unjust laws against religious, unfortunately, expelled the religious and closed their chapel. It was to remain thus until 1891. The Bishop rented the larger part of the house from 1883 to 1892, and this became a school attended by some 700 girls under the direction of the Sisters of Saint Charles.

Some Fathers had always remained in the house. In 1892, all of them returned. They had not stopped preaching in the meantime. In his report to the 1893 General Chapter, Father Célestin Augier, the Provincial, wrote that in 6 years the house of Le Calvaire had accomplished 426 apostolic tasks: 20 missions, 25 Lents, 18 months of Mary, 330 retreats, novenas and octaves, 33 perpetual adorations.

Besides these outside works, the Fathers continued to foster those that had been traditional to the place itself: looking after Le Calvaire and the church of Notre-Dame de Bon Secours, prison chaplaincies, those of the Sisters of Saint Charles and of the Holy Family Sisters of Bordeaux, and, from 1875 to 1886, of Fr. Allemand’s youth work.

For over a century the Oblates directed two associations: that of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows and the arch-confraternity of our Lord’s Passion for the benefit of the souls in Purgatory. The former numbered some 500-600 members in 1887 and the latter over 5000, people from all over the city. When the chapel of the Accoules was closed in 1880, their monthly meetings and annual retreats were held in parish churches. Father Fabre, on the occasion of his canonical visit in 1890, could rightly say: “They closed your church, but have been unable to seal your lips or to chain your devotedness” (Delpeuch report, June 1890).

The work among the Italians always remained the most important, for the number of Italians was increasing. They were some 30,000 or 40,000 in 1873, about 80,000 in 1889. They were, in fact, dispersed all over the city but readily came on the occasion of the feasts of the many Madonnas and saints which had their statues, paintings, associations, etc. in the chapel where the faithful gathered. This chapel, moreover, stayed open after 1880 and only rarely changed rector: Father Joseph Zirio held that post from 1849 to 1881, and Jean Léonard Gallo from 1882 to 1918.

In a report of 1888 (Missions, 26(1888), 250 ff.) Father Delpeuch writes: solemn feasts “succeed each other in the shrine of the Italians without a break. We must even avow that the colony is insatiable for solemnities... These faithful find a rich mine of new devotions in the cities and country places they have left behind in coming to France and they import here all the feasts of their respective localities...”

Decline of Works and Leaving the House (1901-1979)
In 1903, following the law of 1901 on Associations, the church of Notre-Dame de Bon Secours or of the Accoules was closed and the community was chased out by armed force. Most of the Fathers remained dispersed in Marseilles either as assistant priests in parishes or as preachers. The monastery, taken over by the State. was sold for about 50,000 francs. Vain attempts were made to buy it back between 1934 and 1944. Some 15 families were then living in it and a public school used it for classrooms. The owner would have sold it back to the Oblates for 500,000 francs!

As for the church, the Bishop on the morrow of the expulsions claimed rights on it in the name of the diocese. It was reopened for cult in 1907 and entrusted to the diocesan clergy until 1919.

The Italian chapel, however, remained open. When Father Gallo died in 1918, its direction was given to Fathers Jean-Baptiste Lingueglia and Pierre Centurioni. The latter even obtained from the Bishop that the church of the Accoules could be used for the ministry to the Italians and he was named rector of this church. At that time there were some 150,000 Italian immigrants in Marseilles.

Conflict arose between the faithful of the two chapels and, to end it, the Provincial had to replace the two Fathers. Father D’Eramo was put in charge of the chapel of the Italians and he stayed at this post from 1921 to 1946. This work began to diminish little by little and the chapel was closed in 1953. Pastoral care of the Italians in Marseilles had passed either to the Salesians or to the Missionaries of Saint Charles and was focused at different points across the city.

After 1920, the church of the Accoules was again in the hands of the French Oblates. It was attended by French and Italian faithful and the preaching and hearing of confessions was done in the two languages. In 1922, the Fathers managed to establish themselves in the narrow house at the back of the church; it had become city property as a result of the expulsions.

In 1940, bombardment by the Italians damaged both the house and the church; they were completely restored in 1951-1952.

The residence, or house canonically in existence from 1935 to 1965, could only house 3 or 4 Fathers. The ministry was therefore limited to the chaplaincies at the Institute for the Blind and the Hôtel-Dieu, and to serving the church where there was a boys and girls club from 1935 onwards.

The faithful came in lesser numbers from 1943 on, because the quarter, destroyed by the Nazis - some 20,000 people lost their housing - was only rebuilt in 1956. The decline, which began with the expulsions, was continuing. Father Théodore Labouré quite rightly wrote in his October 19, 1936 Acts of Visitation: “Alas! Le Calvaire is no longer what it used to be. The whole quarter is changed and the glory of earlier days is only a memory. We cannot help but feel deep chagrin at this!”

During the 1960s and 1970s, on account of the Moslem immigrants and a noteworthy decline in religious practice, the number of faithful decreased even more at Le Calvaire and the neighbouring churches. On September 23, 1979, Cardinal Etchegaray incorporaterd into one the parishes of La Major and of Saint-Laurent; this amalgamation was entrusted to a team of two Oblates and a diocesan priest, the latter being in charge of the team. They lived at Le Calvaire.

The Oblates, who had been placed at the disposition of the Bishop for three years, left at the end of this commitment (Notre Midi, July 1982). And thus it was very quietly and almost on tiptoe that the Congregation moved away from its own “Sinai”.

Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.

Sources and Bibliography
GABEN, Victor, O.M.I., Chronique de la maison du Calvaire à Marseilles de 1821 à 1865, 3 volumes, typescript. This work contains the text of all documentation on Le Calvaire that can be found in the main Oblate archives.

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