Under the title of Saint Sulpice, we will deal with four different subjects: the church of Saint Sulpice in Paris, the Society of Saint Sulpice, the seminary of Saint Sulpice and Issy.
The Church of Saint Sulpice
Sulpice was born in 570 in Vatan in Berry from a family that was of franco-roman origin. Ordained to the priesthood in 618, he became the bishop of Bourges and the metropolitan of a vast ecclesiastical province. He was concerned for the poor and the sick and was well beloved of the people. No surprise, then, when at his death which took place on January 17, 644, people began to venerate him as a saint. Several churches were dedicated to him. Among others, there is that of Saint Sulpice in the Fields. This humble village church was built at the beginning of the XII century and it was enlarged in the XIV and XVI centuries. In the middle ages, this site was still outside the walls of Paris. The present-day church of Saint Sulpice conserves in its crypt the base of the walls and the pillars of the ancient church.
Mr. Jean-Jacques Olier, parish priest of Saint Sulpice
from 1642 to 1652, undertook in 1646 the construction of the huge present-day church. It measures 119 meters in length and 57 meters in width; it is five times bigger than
the church that preceded it and bigger than Notre Dame de Paris. In 1789, the Revolution prevented the finishing of the southern tower of the façade; it is still unfinished
During the Revolution, the church ceased being a religious shrine to become a place for public meetings. The public worship of Reason was performed there and, from April until July, 1794, the worship of the Supreme Being took place there. From 1797 to 1801, the Directoire turned the building over to theophilanthropists who transformed it into the temple of victory. It was in this huge deconsecrated church that on November 6, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory was celebrated by a banquet with 750 guests. After the signing of the Concordat in 1801, the church was restored to public catholic worship. The parish priest, Charles de Pierre (1762-1836) set to work to revive its former glory. It was in this church that he welcomed Pope Pius VII who came from Rome for the coronation of Napoleon I. He remained parish priest of Saint Sulpice for thirty-four years, until his death which took place in 1836.
It was in this church that Abbé Eugene de Mazenod received the tonsure from Bishop Claude André on December 17, 1808, minor orders on May 27, 1809 from Cardinal Fesch, the subdiaconate on December 23, 1809 from Bishop Claude André and the diaconate on June 16, 1810 from Cardinal Fesch. Since Saint Sulpice was very close to the seminary of the same name, the Founder of the Oblates would often go there during his stays in Paris from 1808 to 1812.
During the period from 1813 to 2002, the church was enriched with a few painting and sculptures. In this venerated building, the heir of centuries past, a tradition of an intense spiritual life has always been maintained by top quality liturgical celebrations that were very well attended. Still today, there is always a priest available there to hear confessions or to meet and talk with the faithful.
The Society of Priests of Saint Sulpice (p.s.s.)
The Society of Saint Sulpice is a society of diocesan priests who have as their goal to be of service to those who are destined for the priestly ministry. It is a society of apostolic life of pontifical right. The Society is not a religious congregation because its members do not make any religious vows. As the saying goes: “Those who are able to enter it; those who wish to leave, leave.”
It was founded in Paris in 1641 by Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657). It was Mr. Olier’s vision to renew the clergy of France that was very lax at the time by following the example of Saint Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), the founder of the first seminaries for priestly formation. On December 29, 1641, he opened a seminary at Vaugirard which, at the time, was a parish southwest of Paris. The following year in August 1642, he transferred his seminary to the parish of Saint Sulpice of which he had been appointed parish priest. At the time, the parish held 150,000 people, a large number of whom were libertines, heretics or even atheists. The parish was subject to the powerful abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and not to the archdiocese of Paris.
On September 6, 1645, Mr. Olier signed a notarized contract with his first two coworkers, thus establishing “a community dedicated to all the functions of a seminary.” It was immediately approved by the superior of the abbey and by patent letters from the king. Partially paralysed in September 1653, Mr. Olier died on April 2, 1657. During the Revolution, his body disappeared, but his heart and his tongue are still kept in the Society’s seminary at Issy.
If Mr. Olier gave the Society his spirit and Mr. de Bretonvilliers, his successor from 1657 to 1676, bequeathed to it his immense wealth, it was Mr. Louis Tronson, the third superior general (1676-1700) who was to give the Society its organization and its definitive rule. The Society, which before the Revolution had 155 members, was suppressed in 1792. It was Mr. Jacques-André Émery, the ninth superior general who, in fact, re-established it in 1801. It was dissolved anew by an October 8, 1811 decree of Napoleon. After the Restoration, it regained its status as an approved Congregation in virtue of a royal edict dated April 3, 1816. From 1864 on, the Society was represented in Rome by a procurator and its statutes were definitively approved by the Holy See on July 8, 1931.
During that period when the French government was making war on religious Congregations (1901-1914), all the Sulpicians who wanted to teach were obliged to join the secular clergy and revert to the jurisdiction of their own diocesan bishop. But since the Society was an authorized group, it was not dissolved. The leadership and their members were able to remain in their houses, for example, at Issy. The Society temporarily lodged a part of their student body at 19, Notre Dame in the Fields street. It was only in 1908 that they had constructed the house on Regard street as a place to house the Society’s seminarians. Since the Sulpicians could no longer run seminaries, they began to set up ordinary private teaching establishments which were authorized by law. For a long time, they were called: “Advanced Schools of Theology.”
After the 1914-1918 war, a more relaxed atmosphere prevailed. In 1921, France re-established diplomatic relations with the Holy See and the Sulpicians, taking advantage of this period of peace, reassumed their roles in the seminaries as directors and professors. At the present time, there are about three hundred and fifty Sulpicians worldwide, most of them in France. The superior general resides in Paris at number 6 Regard street. Right up until 1996, all the superiors general were French by nationality. In July of 1996, Lawrence B. Terrien, an American, was elected the 25th superior general.
Saint Sulpice Seminary
The first seminary was opened by Jean-Jacques Olier on December 29, 1641 at Vaugirard, a departmental subdivision southwest of Paris; it was incorporated into the capital in 1859. He was assisted in his work by two other priests: François de Caulet and Jean du Ferrier. In August 1642, this seminary was transferred to the parish of Saint Sulpice where Mr. Olier had become parish priest. In order to be able to house the seminarians who came from different dioceses, Mr. Olier purchased a large house with a garden from Mr. Blaise Méliaud and two other small houses near the church of Saint Sulpice. After a number of renovations, in 1646, he established his seminary there. But this was only a temporary measure. In 1648, Mr. Olier undertook the construction of a huge seminary on the present site of Saint Sulpice. It was solemnly inaugurated on August 15, 1651 and on August 3, 1664, it received approval from the Holy See. When, in 1668, the parish passed under the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Paris, the seminary did not become a diocesan seminary; it remained sulpician at the service of the dioceses of France and even of other countries. Mr. de Bretonvilliers (1620-1676), the second superior general purchased at Issy, located five kilometres southwest of Saint Sulpice, a vast piece of property which would serve as a country house for the seminarians of Paris. The rules and the statutes of the seminary were approved by patent letters of Louis XIV in June of 1713. In 1684, behind the garden of the major seminary, another, humbler building was built; it was destined for seminarians coming from families of lesser means. Since their rent was “more modest,” they called it the minor seminary. But the intellectual and the spiritual formation were the same. Finally, in 1708, they opened the house of the Robertines, naming it after one of its superiors. In this institution, the indigent candidates who wanted to enter the seminary of Saint Sulpice could compete to win the cost of their room and board and thus pursue their studies at the seminary.
During the Revolution, the seminary was confiscated by the state and several seminarians were arrested, some even executed. Taking advantage of the period of peace that reigned when Napoleon came to power, in September of 1800, Mr. Émery opened a house of formation on Saint Jacques street at the sign of the Black Cow. After the signing of the 1801 Concordat, the archbishop of Paris, Bishop de Belloy asked Napoleon to be able to set up his diocesan seminary in the former Saint Sulpice seminary. They had never lost ownership of the seminary; rather it had been given over as a shelter for the widows of the brave soldiers killed in war. But Napoleon wanted to enhance the splendour of the Saint Sulpice church and, on October 9, 1802, ordered the demolition of the seminary building in order to clear away a large square in front of the church. After evicting the one hundred and eighty-three women living there, the buildings were completely destroyed in 1803. Mr. Émery had to resign himself to this and temporarily transferred his seminary to Notre Dame in the Fields street. Finally, in 1804, he succeeded in buying a property owned by the Daughters of Christian Instruction on the corner of Pot-de-Fer and Vaugirard street very close to the church of Saint Sulpice. It was there that he began teaching on October 10, 1804. It was in this seminary as well that Abbé de Mazenod spent three years (1808-1811) as a seminarian and one year (1812) as professor and director. The seminary could lodge at least one hundred seminarians. Mr. Émery, justifiably considered the second founder of the seminary, succeeded, not without a struggle, to revive some of its former glory.
During Abbé de Mazenod’s time there as a student, the directorship of the seminary was in the hands of seven Sulpicians: Mr. Émery, the superior; Mr. Duclaux, spiritual director; Mr. Montaigne, professor of moral theology; Mr. Garnier, professor of Sacred Scripture; Mr. Legris, master of ceremonies and Mr. Giraud, treasurer. All of these men were prayerful priests, well equipped to address any of the duties of spiritual and intellectual formation of future priests. They used to faithfully follow the traditions of the Society, adapting them as the circumstances of that post-revolution period required. If the moral and spiritual formation was excellent, we cannot say the same of the intellectual formation. In point of fact, studies lasted only two or three years because there was a lot of pressure to fill in the gaps left by the Revolution.
Mr. Émery, a fearless defender of the Pope against the encroachments of the emperor, set the tone for the seminary. A furious Napoleon ordered him to leave the seminary in June of 1810 and on October 8, 1811 simply decreed the dissolution of the Society of Saint Sulpice. The directors were forced to leave the seminary before the end of 1811. As a result, the seminary became the diocesan seminary of Paris.
The departure of the directors brought on the appointment of their replacements. Fr. Jalabert, the vicar general of Paris, took direction of the seminary in hand. Among the most zealous of the seminarians, they chose the replacements for the other directors. So it was that Fr. Tharin, a priest, was given the task of teaching moral theology; Mr. Gosselin, who was still a sub-deacon, had to teach dogma; Fr. Teyssère, a priest, taught Sacred Scripture and Abbé de Mazenod became master of ceremonies. Financial affairs were entrusted to the care of Mr. Lacombe, a priest. In order to fully exercise his responsibilities of professor and director, Abbé de Mazenod made his way to Amiens and there, on December 21, 1811, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Demandolx. But he carried out his functions for only ten months, from January to October of 1812. At the beginning of November, he returned to Aix to take up his apostolate for the poor and the most abandoned souls.
After Napoleon’s fall from power in 1814, Saint Sulpice seminary was restored to the Society of Saint Sulpice and the Society was legally recognized by a royal ordinance of April 3, 1816. In 1820, they would go on to build a new seminary capable of housing at least two hundred seminarians; it was finished only in 1838. After the completion of the new seminary, the Christian Instruction building was demolished in order to enlarge the garden area of the new seminary. The 1905 law on the separation of Church and State brought about the confiscation of the seminary. The decree of November 27, 1920 gave the building to the ministry of finance. In 1931, an inscription was placed on the façade. You can see it there today. It reads: “French Republic, Headquarters for Financial Affairs.”
Issy, Country House for the Seminary
In Abbé de Mazenod’s time, Issy served as a summerhouse for the seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris, hardly five kilometres away. This property had been bought in 1655 by Mr. de Bretonvilliers, the second superior general of Saint Sulpice who subsequently made a gift of it to the Society. The property held a manor house and extensive grounds. It then became a house for rest for the seminary and also hosted the Solitude, the novitiate of the Sulpicians.
The Revolution confiscated the property, divided it into four lots and sold them to four different people. When Napoleon rose to power in 1799 and especially after the signing of the Concordat of 1801, repurchasing this land became possible. So it was that, from 1804 on, Mr. Émery began to progressively reacquire the property that was lost. Since the Society had not yet been approved and consequently could not legally own anything, Mr. Émery, in his will, bequeathed this property to Fr. Antoine Garnier. It was only in 1865 that the Society of Saint Sulpice once again became the owner of Issy.
During his time at the seminary of Saint Sulpice, Abbé de Mazenod used to walk to Issy and
spent his vacations of 1809, 1811 and 1812 there. In 1804, Mr.
Émery built there the chapel of Our Lady of All Graces as a memorial to Our Lady of Loreto, built in 1683. This chapel was repurchased by Mr. Émery only on March 9, 1811,
fifty days before his death. Abbé de Mazenod often paused before these chapels to pray. One time when Mr. Émery was strolling with the seminarians, making reference to
the trees he had planted, he told them: “My children, you will see these tree grow; it does not seem that I will ever enjoy their shade, but then I will see heaven sooner
than you will.” (Eugene to this mother, May 2, 1811)
At Issy, on December 1, 1811, Abbé de Mazenod began his retreat in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. He continued the retreat at the seminary in Amiens to be ordained to the priesthood on December 21, 1811.
On July 6, 1823, Bishop Charles Fortuné de Mazenod was consecrated bishop in the chapel of Notre-Dame de Lorette at Issy. Father de Mazenod went to stand in the gallery in order to better absorb this “scene that so touched his heart.” (REY I, p. 309)
At the end of the XIX century, the construction of a new seminary was begun to serve the seminarians of Paris. Everything was completed in 1901. In 1930, it was expanded once again. Today, it stands as an imposing structure. On June 1, 1980, the seminary had the honour of receiving Pope John Paul II. As a memorial of this visit, the park that had been put at the disposal of the town Issy-les-Moulineaux, now bears the name John Paul II Park.
Jósef Pielorz, o.m.i.
Sources and Bibliography
CARBON, Jean-Louis, Du séminaire aux Finances. Un bâtiment héritier de 350 ans d’histoire, Paris, 1999, 190 p.
Spiritual Writings, among which we find extracts from Eugene’s correspondence in Oblate Writings I, vols. 14 and 15.
LEFLON, Jean, Eugene de Mazenod, vol. I, 1961, New York, trans. Francis D. Flanagan, o.m.i., p. 287-403.
PIELORZ, Jósef, o.m.i., The Spiritual Life of Bishop de Mazenod 1782-1812…, Rome, 1998, 214-228.
BOISARD, P., La Compagnie de Saint-Sulpice, trois siècles d’histoire, 2 vol., 1959.
BOISARD, P., Issy, le séminaire et la Compagnie de Saint-Sulpice, Issy, 1942, 68 p.