Born at Aix-en-Provence, France, August 1 1782
Ordained to the priesthood, in Amiens, December 21, 1811.
Founded The Society of the Missionaries of Provence, in October 1815
Entered in community, January 25, 1816
Oblation in Aix-en-Provence, April 11, 1816
Bishop of Icosia in partibus, October 1, 1832
Ordained bishop in Rome, October 14, 1832
Bishop of Marseilles, October 2, 1837
Died in Marseilles, May 21 1861
Beatified by Paul VI, October 19, 1975
Canonized by John Paul II, December 3, 1995.
Charles Joseph Eugène de Mazenod was born at Aix-en-Provence, August 1, 1782, son of Charles Antoine de Mazenod, President of the Court of Accounts of Provence and of his wife, Rose Eugénie Joannis. He spent his childhood at the family mansion on the avenue known today as Le Cours Mirabeau. He was raised in the shadow of the Church and the throne. In the spring of 1789, he entered the Bourbon College just at the time when the French Revolution was ready to explode upon the scene. His father, who had traveled to Paris to make a vain attempt to defend the interests of his class, was forced to take flight in December 1790. At the beginning of the following year, he demanded that his son should come to be with him at Nice. Eugène was soon placed in the College of Nobles in Turin (1791-1794).
Subsequently, his family was forced to take refuge in Venice. They arrived there mid-May of 1794. Happily, Eugène was preserved from the influence of this dissolute milieu by the intervention of Don Bartolo Zinelli who played a decisive role in his life and led him to consider dedicating his life to the Church. In 1795, in the hope of recovering some of her goods and property confiscated by the revolutionaries, Mrs. de Mazenod returned to France with her daughter. Eugène found himself alone with his father and his two uncles. In order to survive, his father had to resort to engaging in a form of business, selling fabric and clothes. His success in this area was less than modest. In the summer of 1797, since the safety of the immigrant nobles seemed to be in jeopardy, they decided to withdraw to Naples where they arrived on January 1 of the following year after a long and harrowing journey by land and by sea. Since they heard nothing from Mrs. de Mazenod, they had to live on a subsidy provided by the generosity of Queen Marie Caroline. Eugène found himself completely at a loose end.
One year later, trouble broke out in Naples, compelling the Mazenods to take ship in wretched state for Palermo on January 6, 1799. Eugène had fonder memories of Sicily where he moved in circles of high society that welcomed him as one of their own. He arrogated to himself the title of Count, took part in the social scene, was adopted into a family of high nobility, while at the same time striving to finish his literary education and, perhaps inspired by the example of his uncle, the former canon, trying to hold steadfast to his religious convictions. Mrs. de Mazenod, who had obtained a divorce in order to protect the material wealth she had recovered, was soon vociferously demanding her son’s return to France. He shipped out of Palermo October 11, 1802.
Upon his arrival in France, he learned that, for all intents and purposes, the de Mazenods were penniless and his family was divided beyond recall. A trip to Paris, marriage schemes contrived by his mother, a profound boredom all testify to the emptiness and the indecision experienced by Eugène at this time. Nevertheless, he had not rejected the faith of his childhood. His conduct was considered blameless. Even if he was not thinking of the priesthood, he still dedicated himself to prison work. One Good Friday (most probably in 1807) during the liturgy, he felt touched by God and began to think of doing penance for his sins and of dedicating himself to the service of the Church.
To the great chagrin of his mother, he set his sights on the priesthood and chose to prepare himself for this role by entering the seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. He entered October 12, 1808. There, in addition to a worthy theological education, he found a high level of spirituality, and at the same time an openness to the problems with which the Church was struggling because of government policy under Napoleon. Especially noteworthy is the fact that he discipled himself to Father Emery and Father Duclaux. He became a member and even the secretary of the Association. As well, he rendered valuable service to the “black cardinals,” cardinals fallen out of favor because of Napoleon’s second marriage. It was these circumstances that taught him to respect the best traditions of the French church and to reject the excesses of caesaro-papism.
Eugène was ordained to the subdiaconate on December 22, 1810 and to the diaconate on June 16, 1811. In order to avoid being ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Maury who, in his eyes, had compromised himself too much with the Emperor, he eagerly accepted an invitation from a family friend, Bishop Demandolx, Bishop of Amiens and was ordained to the priesthood by him on December 21, 1812. As was customary, he celebrated his first Masses three days later on Christmas Day in the chapel of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart. At the time, he refused the position of vicar general and promises of future advancement. In Paris, since the Sulpicians had been forced to leave the premises, Eugène remained on at the seminary as director until the autumn of 1813. It was at that time that he returned to Aix, free for the moment of any commitments to the diocese. Since it was his wish to dedicate himself to the poor and to young people, even though he was living in his mother’s residence, the Joannis mansion, he set for himself a strict rule of life and remained in contact with his director Fr. Duclaux. During Lent of 1814, in the Provençal dialect, in the church of St. Madeleine, he delivered some down-to-earth sermons for people of the lower class. He had organized the society of Christian Youth of Aix. He dedicated a great deal of his time to this and drew up rules for them that proved very fruitful. He also took up being chaplain for the Austrian prisoners confined in Aix and, at the major seminary, he established an association dedicated to piety.
For a number of years already, while all his friend Charles de Forbin-Janson could dream of was foreign missions, Eugène was leaning toward the evangelization of the rural poor. With the encouragement of Pius VII, he decisively set his course toward this goal, being spurred on all the while by his friend who would dearly have loved to convince him to join the Missionaries of France. For his part, he felt it was better to preach in their own language to the abandoned people of the region. As well, in the course of the year 1815, he recruited some of his fellow priests, one of whom was H. Tempier who later became his right hand man, and laid the foundations of the Society of the Missionaries of Provence. Life in community was inaugurated January 25, 1816 in the former Carmelite convent in Aix, a building he later purchased. Having elected him as their superior, the group set out at once to preach missions. Eugène carried out this exhausting ministry for seven years. He threw himself into it body and soul, time and time again putting his health to the test.
In Paris in the summer of 1817, while taking care of business associated with the Society and with his family, he was able to arrange for his uncle, Fortuné to be appointed bishop of Marseilles. As a result, he recalled his family members from Palermo. They landed in Marseilles at the end of that year and, for the time being, found themselves penniless. Moreover, this whole business dragged on for more than five years. Even though these setbacks took their toll on him, he nevertheless devoted all his energies to his Society and to the works associated with the church of the Mission. In 1818, he drew up the first rules of the Institute. Acceptance of certain vows opened the road to religious life properly speaking. On April 11,1816, he and Father Tempier had already pronounced vows of obedience to each other. The founding of the houses Notre-Dame du Laus (1819) and of Le Calvaire in Marseilles (1821) also constituted an important step in the development of the Society.
At the beginning of 1823, his uncle Fortuné’s appointment was confirmed. Eugène went with him to Paris for the investigative process and his consecration as bishop. Along with Father Tempier, Eugène became vicar general. Consequently, he had to give up preaching parish missions and take up residence in Marseilles. These developments did not fail to send shock waves through the new Society of the Missionaries of Provence. Some of the charter members of the group left. As well, some bishops contested the validity of their vows. Thus it was that, more quickly than they had anticipated, they felt compelled to seek approbation from Rome for the Rules and for the Society which on the occasion of reaching beyond the confines of Provence had assumed the title of Oblates of Saint-Charles. Responding to the urgings of Father Albini, the superior left October 30, 1825 to plead his case. He received a kind welcome from Pope Leo XII who hurried the process along. On February 17, 1826, it culminated in the desired papal approbation, assuring the permanence and expansion of a congregation which would bear the title Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
The function of vicar general of Marseilles was far from being a sinecure. In spite of his age, Fortuné de Mazenod wanted to administer his diocese in person. But the negative reactions stirred up by the measures he had to adopt and the many demanding negotiations associated with them had to be handled by others. When he put forward Eugène as a candidate for bishop, Eugène travelled to Rome. On October 1, 1832, Gregory XVI named him bishop with the title of Apostolic Visitor of the Missions in Tunisia and Tripoli, and on the same day, he was named Bishop of Icosia in partibus. On October 14, he was consecrated bishop by Cardinal Odescalchi in the church of Saint Sylvester. His title bound him to no concrete assignment. He found himself to be, in fact, the auxiliary bishop of Marseilles, but in an position of ambiguity with regard to the French government. The government did not accept that any French citizen be named to any diocese in partibus without their consent. In addition to that, they considered Eugène de Mazenod a persona non grata. It took four years and the talent of Father Hippolyte Guibert to re-establish harmonious relations with the royal court.
For lack of being able to have his nephew as his coadjutor, the Bishop of Marseilles finally accepted to resign, on the condition that his nephew would be his successor. On October 2, 1837, Eugène de Mazenod was canonically installed. He was among the first openly ultramontain bishops named in France. As a defender of Provençal traditions, Bishop de Mazenod always considered himself the successor of Saint Lazarus. His concerns did not extend only to his entire diocese and the Oblate Congregation, but to the church of France and churches everywhere. Meanwhile, at home, in spite of all that had been accomplished, the task remained enormous. Large segments of the lower class as well as the middle class had lost contact with the Church. Several new mission chapels were established and common life for the clergy was established little by little, in spite of much coolness toward this idea. The major seminary had been entrusted to the Oblates since 1827, but vocation recruitment to the priesthood remained difficult. Bishop de Mazenod encouraged a solid, although well adapted to its audience, kind of preaching, and he always gave top priority to parish missions. In the diocese, he established several new religious congregations of men and of women. To the traditional associations and confraternities, there were added other works of charity and teaching, including works of a more social character aimed at youth.
As the bishop of the second leading city in France, Eugène could not remain aloof from contemporary issues where religion was much intertwined with politics. In the process, he often had to deal with governments that opposed his family traditions and his own personal convictions. The Orleans monarchy of July 1830 with its king, Louis-Philippe had been difficult to accept for both himself and his uncle, in spite of directives from Pius VII. A genuine reconciliation took years to effect. With the proclamation of the Second Empire on December 5, 1852, one would have believed one was witnessing a renewed alliance of the throne and the cross. September 26 of that year, Louis-Napoléon laid the cornerstone of the new cathedral of Marseilles. When he was in Paris for the baptism of the imperial prince, Bishop de Mazenod was named senator on June 24, 1856. Each year he came to Paris to sit in this capacity, at least from January to Holy Week. In 1858, he had asked for and was granted as auxiliary bishop, a former member of the Missionaries of Provence, Father Jean-Jacques Jeancard who was the bishop’s secretary. He was named Bishop of Cérame.
Bishop de Mazenod held the office of bishop in high regard. He was mistrustful of initiatives taken by clergy or laity which would impinge upon his prerogatives. It was his wish to govern with a firm, but fatherly hand. A diocesan synod, held from September 28 to October 1 of 1856, like many other synods held before it, merely rubber stamped conclusions already reached beforehand. Later on, it would be charged that he showed much too much favour to the Oblates, that it was difficult to approach him due to the fact that his inner circle protected him too well from outsiders. A number of people found his lively character difficult to accept and interpreted his authoritarian style and his demands as being intransigent. Reactions after his death give evidence of misunderstandings from one quarter or the other on the part of some people.
The bishop was, of necessity, involved in the important issues of his time: the Church in France, with, perhaps foremost of all, freedom of instruction. One can also mention the introduction of the Roman liturgy with Dom Guéranger, the condemnation of Félicité de Lamennais, the quarrel of the classics, the role played by the Correspondance de Rome and of L’Univers. Done with a view of being at the service of the Catholic faith and the Holy See, some of his initiatives were not well received and brought a lot of trouble down upon his head. Even though he was not personally in favour of provincial councils, he took part in the provincial council of Aix from the 8 to the 23 September 1850. From 1848 on, the convulsive resurgence of the Roman question had a serious impact on his life. For him, the issues at stake went far beyond the political parameters to sometimes test both his commitment to being a French citizen while remaining at the same time a man of the Pope.
His role as Superior General of the Oblates was something which always held high priority for Bishop de Mazenod. He followed closely the work being done by his sons throughout the whole of France, in the British Isles, the present territory of the United States and Canada, the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and South Africa. He is the one who oversaw the transformation of the Society of the Missionaries of Provence into a congregation known worldwide for its work in the foreign missions. In 1851, when the Congregation was divided into provinces or vicariates, this brought a certain amount of decentralization. Assistants General and Counsellors like Father Tempier and Father Casimir Aubert continued to assist him in his role as Superior General. Not only did he remain directly in contact with the local Oblate communities, he also maintained contact with the bishops in whose territories the Oblates worked and carried out negotiations without number on behalf of his Oblates with regard to the Roman Congregations and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Twice, once in 1850 and again in 1857, he crossed the English channel to visit our Oblate establishments in England. In 1857, he visited the Oblate establishments in Ireland and Scotland. It would seem he had better success from afar off in convincing his Oblates, who were able to adapt themselves to the political and living conditions of the countries in which they found themselves, to accept the concrete measures he wanted to see implemented than he was in convincing the clergy who lived close to him.
Unfortunately overlooked, he was not included in the list of invited guests for the definition of the Immaculate Conception. Nevertheless, Bishop de Mazenod went to Rome and found lodging at the Quirinal. He set himself to counteract the movements of opposition to the definition. He was present at the proclamation on December 8, 1854. A number of shrines entrusted to the Oblates such as: the column of the Immaculate Conception (1857), the shrine of Notre-Dame de la Garde (1858) in Marseilles, stand as witnesses of his devotion to our gracious Mother.
At the request of Blessed Father Pierre Bienvenu Noailles, Bishop de Mazenod travelled to Bordeaux to prepare the affiliation of the Association of the Sisters of the Holy Family with the Oblate Congregation. The agreement was signed in January of 1858 and Bishop de Mazenod became, so to speak, their titular director. August 13, 1859, they communicated to him the fact that he had been proposed as a member of the cardinalate. This made him happy since he considered it a recognition of his devotion to the Holy See. The question had already been raised, but this time, it was Rome that began to equivocate as a protest against the policies of the Emperor with regard to the Papal States. Once again, the Bishop’s reactions were not favourably interpreted by everyone.
Although to this point he was hale and hearty, he was reaching the end of his life. A tumour had made its appearance in the upper chest on the left-hand side. Bishop Hippolyte Guibert, bishop of Viviers who had been his close associate, administered to him the Last Rites on January 28, 1861. May 21, after having given his final exhortations to the Oblates, he breathed his last while around him they were reciting the Salve Regina. Funeral services for Eugène were celebrated at the church of Saint-Martin which, at the time, was serving as cathedral. He was subsequently beatified by Paul VI, October 19, 1975 and canonized by John-Paul II, December 3, 1995.
Consequently, the Church recognized the virtues of Bishop de Mazenod and no one will deny that he was a man of a high degree of generosity and selflessness. Even though his spirituality bears the stamp of Saint-Sulpice, nevertheless, he took as his models men of action: St. Charles Borromeo, St. Francis de Sales, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Alphonsus Liguori. Since he considered extraordinary ways of doing things as suspect, he sought to find in their lives examples of zeal and abnegation. He never forgot the grand ideals that had inspired his first years in the priesthood and which gave rise to the founding of the Missionaries of Provence, namely, stressing the ministry of the Word, concern for youth and the most abandoned, unlimited devotion to the Church.
His was a rich temperament whose qualities sometimes appeared to clash. Even though he was an aristocrat, his option was for those most deprived. A spontaneous person, he still hesitated before making certain decisions. Apparently at ease with the active live, he claimed he was drawn to solitude and contemplation. Strict for himself and for others, he fought the remnants of rigorism. Though one would not call him an innovator, he did not shy away from innovation. Deeply rooted to his own convictions, on certain points he could easily change his mind or abandon projects in the planning stage. In spite of an education that was deficient in a number of areas, with great poise, he could move in all social circles. As one inclined to trust others, he was often disappointed in his hopes, as was the case with regard to a number of members of his Oblate family. A conservative in theology as well as in politics, he was less aware than some of the changes taking place and would not easily accept governments that dealt with people as citizens rather than as Christians. Since his life was at the end of an era, he tended to take a defensive stance and he had to make heroic efforts to overcome his setbacks and disappointments. Throughout all this, he remained a man who followed his heart, while leaving us from several points of view the impression of true greatness.
Sources and Bibliography
General Archives: The main sources (originals or copies) are to be found in the General archives of the General House in Rome.
Collection Oblate Writings I, 18 volumes.
PIELORZ, J., “Sources and studies of Oblate values”, in Dictionary of Oblate Values, p. 841-854.
Although works such as those of T. Rambert and A. Rey still retain their documentary value, the authoritative biography is that of J. Leflon, Eugène de Mazenod, Paris, 1957-1965, 3 volumes.
JETTÉ, F., Mazenod (Eugène de) in Dictionary of Oblate Values, p. 553-579;
J. Pielorz, The Spiritual Life of Bishop de Mazenod, 1782-1812, a critical study, Association of Oblate Studies and Research, Rome, 1998.
TACHÉ, A., La vie spirituelle de Mgr de Mazenod aux origines de la Société (1812-1818), Rome, 1963;
MOOSEBRUGGER, R., The Spirituality of Blessed Eugene de Mazenod (1818-1837), Rome, 1981.
Numerous other studies can be found especially in Études oblates (which then became Vie Oblate Life) and in Dictionary of Oblate Values.
BOUDENS, R., Mgr Ch.-J.-E. de Mazenod et la politique, Lyon, 1951.
HUBENIG, A., Living in the Spirit’s Fire. Saint Eugene de Mazenod, Ottawa, 1995.
CELINI, J., dir., Saint Eugène de Mazenod, Acts of the Colloquium of November 18, 1995 on the occasion of his canonization, Aix-en-Provence, 1997.