EUROPELest we forget: La Brosse-Montceaux, 70 years ago
On 25 August
1944, the Nazi garrison that had occupied the French capital since 1940 surrendered
to the French Army of the Interior which had been reinforced by the French Army
of Liberation and the Third American Army. But a month before that historic
day, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate were in mourning because of the execution
of five of their confreres at the hands of a brutal Nazi officer, Wilhelm Korf,
a well-known torturer. Seventy years later, we remember the sacrifice of
Brothers Jean CUNY, Lucien PERRIER, Joachim NIO and Fathers Albert PIAT and
Christian GILBERT, all of whom were executed at La Brosse-Montceaux on 24 July 1944.
Since 1934, the
chateau of La Brosse-Montceaux had served as a scholasticate of the Oblates of
Mary Immaculate, a house of formation for future missionaries to the North
Pole, South Africa, Laos, the Philippines and Ceylon.
Beginning in 1941, some Oblates from the scholasticate became involved in the Resistance. Resistance newspapers were distributed; false documents were produced at the seminary. In July 1944, weapons and ammunitions were dropped nearby by parachute. The weapons were brought to the scholasticate, hidden and then relocated, with the collaboration of some of the Oblates. Only a few of the religious, including Father Pierre LETOURNEUR, the bursar, and Father Henri DU HALGOUET had contacts with networks of the resistance.
On 17 July at 11 o’clock in the morning, some members of the Resistance, along with a very young boy, came to the scholasticate to pick up weapons and take them immediately to Paris. The religious were surprised that this was happening in broad daylight, but they complied and had the weapons removed from their hiding place.
On 22 July, a member of the Resistance, known at La Brosse-Montceaux as the “Fox,” presented himself at the scholasticate. The automobile that took him to Melun was watched by the Feldengendarmerie in the area of Fontainbleau. The “Fox” was arrested with his chauffeur. He had in his pocket a notebook where, in spite of the orders he had received, he had written the names and the pseudonyms of his comrades. The Nazis would know how to make good use of these names.
At dawn on Monday, 24 July, a 5 o’clock, the whole community was gathered in the chapel and had finished their prayers. A truck pulled into the courtyard; then three groups of German soldiers, armed with machine guns, ran onto the property. The religious had to leave the chapel and two by two, as they received the order, line up in front of the portico of the cloister.
Wilhelm Korf, head of the Gestapo at Melun, was looking for weapons parachuted a few days earlier by the allies. After gathering the entire community in a clearing of the park, the Gestapo took five of the confreres to the basement of the chateau. Brothers Jean Cuny, Lucien Perrier, Joachim Nio and Fathers Albert Piat and Christian Gilbert were then tortured. The legs of one were broken, the feet of another were burned with a torch; in the shoeshine room, each was subjected to waterboarding in a hundred liter cooking pot.
In spite of the brutality and the torture, the Oblates did not talk. Finally, they were gunned down in front of the whole community gathered there and the bodies were thrown into a well.
Later, a large Wehrmacht truck came to get the containers and parachutes out of the well. At 4 in the afternoon, two more trucks arrived and the 86 priests and brothers were ordered to pile in. The religious were taken to Fontainebleau. Then they were transferred from Fontainebleau to Compiegne, except for Father Louis, who was considered too old and was left to his fate. The Oblates were shipped to Germany on 25 August, but the train carrying them could not get past Peronne. Settled down in a makeshift camp, on the 31st, they could watch the collapse of the Germans. At three in the afternoon, the Red Cross replaced the Nazi authorities and evacuated the camp. At six in the afternoon of 1 September, the bells rang out the liberation of the city. One after another, the Oblates returned to their scholasticate at La Brosse-Montceaux which they found thoroughly wrecked.
Scholastic Brother Dawid KARCHUT, from Assumption Province in Canada, recently completed his third year of theology at the Oblate scholasticate in San Antonio, Texas. During the summer, he had the opportunity to minister for a month with the Oblates who are responsible for Services Jeunes (Youth Service) at Our Lady’s shrine in Lourdes. He wrote about it for his province’s newsletter.
Fr. Wojciech KOWALEWSKI is responsible for youth ministry at the most popular Marian shrine in Europe. Together with Fr. Roberto VILLA, two lay assistants and groups of volunteers that come to work at the shrine for two-week sessions, Fr. Wojciech serves the youth that come to Lourdes.
Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine consists of the famous grotto where Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette, as well as several chapels and basilicas built to accommodate the millions of faithful who make a pilgrimage to this holy site.
The Service Jeunes headed by Fr. Wojciech is an integral arm of the life of the Lourdes shrine. In our work with the youth who come to Lourdes, among the first things offered is a two-hour pilgrimage along the path of the life of St. Bernadette. This is a powerful experience for many young people. As they realize that Our Lady chose to appear to this young, ignorant, and poor girl, the fact that God may desire to have a relationship with them begins to become real in their hearts.
The level of maturity, hope and faith displayed by the predominantly French youth to whom the Service Jeunes ministers is impressive by any standards. In addition to providing tours centered on the life of St. Bernadette and through the Shrine and Grotto, the Service Jeunes provides catechesis of the signs and messages at Lourdes. It also organizes two prayer events at the Grotto. The two international Masses at the Pope St. Pius X Basilica, named in honor of his effort to promote frequent participation at the table of our Lord by all of the Christian faithful, are in part animated by the Service Jeunes.
During my stay of six weeks, it was my privilege and pleasure to participate in each of these activities on many occasions. Apart from the daily encounters with youth from around the world, the most profound experience I had while working here at Lourdes was assisting at the miraculous pools at Lourdes. One particular moment stands out for me: when two older gentlemen found out that they were just assisted by three Oblates who were volunteering at the same pool, they offered us their episcopal blessings in thanksgiving for our quiet, behind the scenes, yet important work. (News & Views, Assumption Province August-September 2104)
On 26 July, Pope Francis made a quick trip to Caserta, a city not far from Naples. While there, he had a private visit with the priests who serve in the diocese, among them Oblates from the town of Maddaloni, just a few kilometers from Caserta. Fr. Giovanni SODDU tells us of some of the brief exchanges that took place between the Oblates and Pope Francis:
know you and I admire you,” said the pope to Fr. Antonio CICCONE when the
Oblate told him the name of his religious family.
Claudio BERTUCCIO, a missionary in Thailand, was there in his white cassock.
When Pope Francis asked him about that, Fr. Claudio explained that he has been
a missionary in Thailand for 21 years. The pope told him that he too had a
cousin, a Salesian sister, working in that country. He was surprised to learn
that Fr. Claudio knows her. Then he told Fr. Claudio that he knew the Oblates
in Argentina. “In Argentina, in Buenos Aires where I was bishop, you had a
parish, a beautiful parish, but because of the shortage of vocations, you had
to leave it and we took it over. But it was all done well, in full agreement.”
He added that the Oblates are doing beautiful work with the poor in Argentina.
Fr. Giovanni Soddu promised to pray for the Holy Father and his ministry. Fr. Renato CICCONE was standing there, leaning on his cane and holding his rosary. When the pope learned that he was 92 years old, he placed his hand on the Oblate’s head and gave a special blessing. Fr. Tonino CAMELO told the pope that he works with the sick in a hospital and he had some letters for the pope written by the sick. “The sick….take them my greetings and by blessing,” said Pope Francis.
Fr. Aniello RIVETTI said, “The nicest thing was when the pope greeted each one of us; at that moment, it seemed as if the others were not there, he was there only for us; at least for that moment, for the pope, only I was there.”
The last one in line was Fr. Vincenzo SGAMBATO who said: “I am 75 years old. I had never seen a pope from so close. It was a most touching moment. When I kissed his hand, I told him thanks and that I too am an OMI.” “Good for you!” he said.
The Provincial of the Mediterranean Province, Fr. Alberto GNEMMI, has announced the September 21 inauguration of a new Youth and Vocation Center in Pozuelo-Madrid.
The Oblates of the former Italian Province opened a similar house in 1968 in Marino, near Rome. While the community’s purpose was not primarily a place of vocational recruitment, nevertheless many of the youth who shared the Marino community later became Oblates.
Likewise in Pozuelo, Spain, there will be a community where youth will be able to “go, to see and to listen.” Youth will be able to find in Pozuelo, a suburb of Madrid, a welcoming milieu amidst Missionary Oblates who live together a life marked by prayer, sharing of meals, fraternal conversations and a variety of pastoral ministries. They will be able to witness these religious missionaries living the Gospel together, attentive always to the call of the Lord Jesus.