May 23, 1851.
Took the habit: Aug. 31, 1870; Easter,1871.
Vows: 1873 (N. 828).
Priest: June 10 or 14 or 16, 1876.
Died: July 22, 1938.
In 1862, at 11 years of age, John Baptist Lemius entered the minor seminary at Aire sur l'Adour, joining his brother Francis. All went well until 1865, when he underwent, in his own words, "a crise terrible." He blamed it partly on the severe Jansenism of the seminary, partly on the elderly superior, who preached only the austere virtues. Twelve of the best students left; absolution was generally refused, and Communion not allowed.
Then in 1867, a very young teacher, Fr. J.B. Dudon arrived; he had with him booklets describing devotion to the Sacred Heart. In 1870,the feast of the Sacred Heart fell on June 27, and the students built a beautiful repository, and practiced special hymns, looking forward to receiving Communion at the Mass, since special permission to receive Communion had been granted.
Then they watched in horror as the many candles exploded in fire during the Mass, completely destroying the repository. It was then discovered that the flames had traced a heart in the remains of the repository. A medical doctor who happened to be present declared it to be the perfect replica of a human heart. The Memoire des Landes describes this episode of the "Miracle of the Burnt Heart" to be "well known in the history of the minor seminary."
John Baptist had to begin his novitiate twice, the first Aug. 31, 1870, ending with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. At Easter, 1871, he began his novitiate again, at Notre Dame de l'Osier. He then did his scholasticate at Autun, being ordained there June 16, 1876. During these years, he deepened his devotion to the Sacred Heart, especially when he attended the solemn consecration of the Oblate Congregation to the Sacred Heart during the General Chapter of 1873, held at the scholasticate
His first assignment was to the scholasticate, where his knowledge of theology and spirituality increased. Then on Nov. 4, 1880, he and the other 70 Oblates were forced to leave the scholasticate as the police broke down the barricaded doors with axes, because of laws against religious orders. They spent until May, 1881, with the Oblates in Dublin, Ireland.
Beginning Aug., 1881, John Baptist was assigned to preach parish missions, out of Pontmain (until 1886), Limoges (until 1889), then at Angers. In 1890 he returned to Pontmain as superior, spending two years there. He had become convinced of two special insights: the power of the Sacred Heart, and of the men of France.
With his robust appearance, he seems to have attracted the confidence and trust of men. But it wasn't easy to convince the pastors to invite the men. In 1887, a parish leader predicted it would be a miracle if he got 30. Eight hundred came.
The episode which remained most vivid in his memory occurred at St. Pierre de Cholet during Lent, 1889. The pastor adamantly refused to have a session just for men. So John Baptist got permission to place a small statue of the Sacred Heart on the altar, and he preached how the love of the Sacred Heart would attract the men. The next evening was the gathering of the clergy for a banquet before the evening preaching. The sacristan came during the meal and asked the pastor what to do about seating the large crowd. The pastor thought John Baptist and the sacristan were playing a joke on him, and declined to budge. One of the curates said he didn't mind the joke being on him, and went to see. He returned "au galop." The large church was full; people were jammed into the three aisles and many hundreds at the church front door.
He began two projects, during his short superiorship at Pontamin, to make this Shrine and appearance of Mary better known: first was the publishing of the Annales de N.D. de Pontmain. But closer to his heart was founding a juniorate there, to make apostles for France and the foreign missions. He never forgot how Our Lady and the Sacred Heart guided him to put these two projects on a firm basis.
During Lent, 1883, he received his obedience to become superior of the Oblate community at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Montmartre, and to direct the bulding of that national shrine.
He had to combat a "truly diabolical intrigue, conducted underhandedly and skillfully." Finding much support, both financially and spiritually from Pope Leo XIII during a trip he made to Rome, John Baptist was able to see the basilica finished. Even more importantly, he insisted that it be a true refuge for the poor. "The wretched of Paris" filled the crypt "twice a week, praying the rosary, hearing a catechetical sermon, receiving a handshake and a loaf of bread from some men, friends of the poor."
The national elections of 1901 enabled the French government to again expel religious communities. John Baptist and the nuns from Montmartre went to England. He helped them buy a convent near the famous site of the English martyrs, Tyburn, London. He shared in their "bitter trials."
Using London as his base of operations, he worked mightily to establish Oblates and devotion to the Sacred Heart at Dinant, Belgium, from 1901-05. From 1905-11,he served as provincial of the France North Province, with Dinant as his base.
John Baptist had a talent for writing catechisms, to explain theological matters to the laity. An early one explained Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical Humanum Genus, Against Free-Masonry (1884); later he presented Pius X's Encyclical Pascendi (the encyclical was written mostly by his brother Joseph) . This was quickly translated into English and published in the United States (1908), then republished in 1981.
In 1912, a great fatigue forced him to rest until 1914, when he resumed his preaching. He sometimes replaced the provincial from 1914-18, and then for six years, he served as superior in Talence, a suburb of Bordeaux, during the 1919-38 period. He attended the general chapters of 1893, 1898, 1904, 1906, 1908, 1920 and 1926. He died at Talence on July 22, 1938, age 87, the last of the five children.
He estimated that in 1901 alone, he spoke to over 140,000 men, not counting those at Montmartre. He truly was the Apostle of the Sacred Heart, in France, England (especially through the nuns)and Belgium.
Harry Winter, o.m.i.
Sources and Bibliography
G.A.: Four hundred forty seven folders in 4 drawers.
Caloz, Jean Pierre, OMI, to Winter, Harry, OMI, Feb. 17, April 8, 1995.
Kedl, Aloysius, OMI, "Curriculum Vitae, John Baptiste Lemius," 1 page.
Laulom, Abbe Jean-Pierre, to Winter, Harry, OMI, Feb. 6,1995, Lemius folder.
Lemius, John Baptiste, OMI, Catechisme sur la Franc-Maconnerie (Paris: Librarie de L'Oeuvre de Saint- 1erAll, 1885) deuxieme edition.
Lemius, John Baptiste, OMI, A Catechism of Modernism, Society for the Propagation o f the Faith, NY (translated from French at St. Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, NY, 1908),reprint TAN, Rockford, IL, 1981.
Lemius, John Baptiste, OMI, "Quelques Pages sur La Vie du R.P. Jean Baptiste Lemius O.M.I," 32 pages, 1925, Archives Deschatelets.
Levasseur, Donat, OMI, A History of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (Rome: General House, 1985) I:195, 198, 201,205; II: 25-46, 62-65.
Pons, Jacques, to Jean Pierre Caloz, OMI, Jan. 18 and March 10, 1995, Lemius folder.
Suau, Bernadette (ed.), Memoire des Landes, Abbe Jean-Pierre Laulom.
Winter, Harry, OMI, "Searching for the Lemius Family," Vie Oblate Life 57 (Dec. 1998, 3): 501-19.