To his mother he was “Renotte”, to the townsfolk of Vannes he was “the wee priest”. He was only 4’ 11” in height, and at the time of his death at the age of thirty-eight he was described as having brown hair around a bald pate, brown eyebrows above weak-sighted blue eyes, a red beard on a dimpled chin, and a fine singing voice. He had poor health from early childhood, with six bad bouts of pneumonia before he was twelve years old.
He was born on 11 June 1758 in Vannes, in Brittany. His father was a hatter and furrier from Angers who had come to the town with his new wife to set up business. A short while after Pierre-René’s birth the father died while away from home on a business trip; it is possible that he never saw his only child. The widow decided to continue the business, but in a less expensive part of the town.
Pierre-René finished school somewhat on the young side and went to spend a year with his mother’s relatives in Bourges; on his return to Vannes he entered the major seminary, at the age of eighteen; this was in 1776.
The seminary at that time was under Vincentian direction. Back in 1642 there had been some moves to get St Vincent to start a seminary in Vannes, but these came to nothing. In 1667 a start was made, and by 1679 the buildings were finished; this was thanks to the Vicar General, Louis Eudo de Kerlivio, though he died four years before their completion. He had spent four years as a seminarian in the Collège des Bons Enfants and had been prepared for ordination by St Vincent in 1645. From his return to Brittany as a priest he kept in touch with St Vincent, and some of their correspondence may be found in the Coste set and in the supplementary volume XV. The seminary opened for students in 1680 under the direction of diocesan priests. In 1693 the bishop invited the Vincentians to open a house for missions in the town, and then in 1701 they were given charge of the seminary. In 1706 they were given the church of Notre Dame du Mené, which served both as parish church and seminary chapel. Another Vincentian link with Vannes is the fact that a grand-uncle of St Louise had been bishop there.
We know from a legal document drawn up in connection with his mother’s business that he attended the seminary as a “day boy” apart from his two final years; this document lists all the contents of his room in his mother’s house, including a soft green armchair.
The seminary course was six years; he received tonsure and minor orders in 1779. subdiaconate in 1780, diaconate in 1781, and priesthood on 21 September 1782: he received all orders in Notre Dame du Mené, where he also celebrated his first Mass.
His first appointment was as chaplain to a women’s retreat house in Vannes. Eudo de Kerlivio, before his death, had founded a retreat house tor men, motivated by what he had seen St Vincent do in Paris. Shortly after his death a noblewoman in Vannes founded a similar house for women. Pierre-René held the post for four years and then decided he wanted to join the Vincentians: he has left no indication of what prompted this decision.
In late October 1786 he entered the seminaire in St Lazare. The normal duration of the seminaire was two years, but only one year for seminarists who were already priests; Pierre-René spent only-three months there, probably for reasons of health. His first Vincentian appointment was back to Vannes, to teach dogma in the seminary; betook his vows thereon 22 October 1788. The seminary catered also for seminarians of dioceses other than Vannes, and in addition provided courses in theology for laypeople; this latter point was to have some significance later on. About two and a half years after taking up his appointment he was given the additional one of curate in Notre Dame de Mené.
After 1789 the problems of the French Revolution, particularly that of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, began to have their effect in Brittany. In August the bishop of Vannes. Sébastien-Michel Amelot, rather inexplicably gave an undertaking that he and the chapter would accept all decrees already made, or which would in future be made, by the National Assembly. On 25 October 1790 the decree imposing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was officially promulgated in Vannes. At that stage Amelot refused to take the required oath and waited for directives from the Pope, Pius VI. The civil authorities, in a memo, estimated that only about six priests out of more than four hundred would probably take the oath.
At mid-day on 14 February 1791 some priests, including Jean-Mathurin LeGal CM, superior of the seminary, were summoned to appear before the city authorities. There is a surviving summary of what happened at the meeting, and after it they signed the following declaration:
The National Assembly having declared by its decree and instruction of 21 January that it neither intends to nor is empowered to interfere with spiritual matters I swear to fulfil my duties exactly, to be loyal to the state, to the law and to the King, and to uphold with all my power the constitution decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by the King.
We declare that at the end of the parish Mass next Sunday we will take the above-mentioned oath.
Vannes, 14 February 1791.
The authorities were overjoyed at this document, but when word of it reached Pierre-René he went to Le Gal, whom he found slumped in a chair exhausted1. He realised that the reputation of the superior of the seminary was such that if it became generally known that he had agreed to take the oath then many of the clergy would be prepared to follow his lead. He therefore made Le Gal write a letter to his dictation:
To the civic authorities, Vannes:
Having thought over everything that is involved I think that the preamble to the oath is not a sufficiently clear exclusion of spiritual matters, so I am notifying you that I will not take the oath next Sunday. I am therefore leaving and I will return to settle my accounts when peace returns to the town. If anyone interferes with what is in my room I will be unable to settle my accounts properly. My senior colleague will take over the running of the house; only outsiders need be feared. I request you to publish my retraction.
I am also notifying you that the seminarians wish to leave. I am of the opinion that there is nothing which they can do in the seminary.
I am, Gentlemen, with respect, your very humble and very obedient, servant,
Le Gal, Superior of the Seminary.
This retraction is dated the same day as the original letter. PierreRené was the senior confrère and he took the letter and delivered it personally to the municipal authorities. When this became known all the other priests who had signed the original document also withdrew their undertaking; as a result there was only one priest in Vannes who took the oath. The records are extant and the names of the priests who refused are listed; Pierre-René is mentioned twice, once as a professor in the seminary and again as a curate in Notre Dame du Mené.
A week later Le Gal returned to the seminary and things were reasonably quiet for some weeks; at this time Francis Clet spent a night in the seminary on his way from Paris to Lorient where he was to catch the boat for China.
On 1 April Le Gal and the seminary staff were declared suspect because they had not taken the oath. On the 20th the contents of the seminary were put up for sale and the staff were told to leave. They decided they were not going to leave without a fight, making use of every possible loophole which they could find in the decrees and laws.
The law about the confiscation and sale of ecclesiastical property had one exception. Church establishments which had been involved in public education, and had been providing it openly on 2 November 1789, were exempt from confiscation and sale. The seminary in Vannes had, on that date, been providing courses in theology for lay people. This was the first legal provision on which the staff intended to base their resistance. The second one was that the deed of foundation of the seminary dated 17 January 1701 made it clear that the seminary and its contents were the property of the Congregation of the Mission, a secular society which was not included in the suppression of the religious orders. The Congregation was not supressed until 18 August 1792.
The date fixed by the authorities for the staff to leave the seminary was 24 April, four days after the sale: the seminarians had left by then but the staff stayed on. Four days before the sale the authorities had provisionally fixed a salary scale for the superior and members of the staff; this had been in answer to a letter from Le Gal of 31 March in which he complained that although tithes had been collected in 1790 they had not been passed on to the clergy; he also complained that they had received no income for the first part of 1791. The authorities said that the arrears in tithes would be paid, and they also fixed a salary scale for the priests in the seminary; these sums were in fact paid. This encouraged Pierre-René to try something else. As well as being a professor in the seminary he was a curate in the parish, and therefore entitled to payment for that as well:
In the month of November 1789 I was assigned to parish work in the church of Le Menez. I think the decrees authorise me to receive a salary for 1790. Please forward a warrant for payment. During that year I was due only 5 Livres 12 sols in stole fees.
You fixed my salary at 800 livres; since the church of Le Menez was not closed until the last day of April I request you to authorise the payment of my salary for the first four months.
I have the honour to be, with respect, Gentlemen, Your very humble and obedient servant,
Rogue, Mission Priest.
Vannes 10 May 1791.
The authorities complied with this request, so he decided to raise a further matter. Since ordination he had had a small income from a benefice in the diocese of Angers, and this had been stopped. He had obtained a certificate from the authorities in Angers that the money had been paid into the public treasury and that the authorities in Vannes were to pass on the payment to him. He had to write twice more before the end of the year before he got his money; it was paid in instalments up to July 1792.
On 21 May 1791 an unlawfully consecrated, State appointed, bishop arrived in Vannes, taking over the cathedral and one other church; for each of these he appointed priests who had taken the oath. Priests who had refused the oath were forbidden to exercise any function other than celebrating Mass, and for that they were confined to parish churches; all other churches and chapels were closed. The Vincentians in the seminary were allowed celebrate Mass only in their community oratory, and with this no one interfered until January 1792. In December 1791 Le Gal had been asked by the authorities to prepare a detailed statement of the finances of the seminary; he tried to gain time by requesting that the statement should maintain the distinction between Vincentian and other ownership. He achieved only a slight delay, and at eight o’clock one evening towards the end of January they were forced out of the seminary. All the staff except Le Gal and Pierre-René left the town; the latter was able to take up residence with his mother and he tried to continue to work as curate of Notre Dame du Mené although it had been officially supressed on 30 April the previous year. He also tried to recover furniture and other personal property of the confrères who had been in the seminary, pointing out that he was entitled to this by a decree of the authorities of December 1791; however, by June 1792 earlier decrees were no longer accepted. In July he received a letter from the authorities saying that it appeared that he had received in error a double salary, and asking for the return of the excess. He replied:
Vannes 13 August 1792.
I have the honour to acknowledge receipt of your recent letter together with that of the Department concerning the payments I have received, and to add my comments.
My first comment is that, no doubt through a copyist’s mistake, it is said in that letter that I was given some 2.600 livres for the final four months of my ministry as curate, while a curate’s salary had been fixed at only 700 livres; but I worked for the entire year, so why should I be paid for only the final four months as referred to in the letter? Besides, since the salary was to be paid in one lump sum the right to it no longer existed when a salary for me as professor was fixed provisionally; this was fixed for us only in January 1792, while my salary as curate had been paid in May 1791,
A further comment I have to make is that if I have to pay anything back I must deduct the following:
1: 125 livres for my final term, which you refused to send me, and the same for Fr Le Gal, by order of the Department;
2: the sum of 21 livres 2 sols 5 deniers which M Bachelot (the Collector) held on to as the balance of the patriotic contribution which is claimed on the 200 livres. This leaves only the paltry sum of 100 livres and if you put that against the balance of 6,000 livres which has not been paid to us and which the Department admits is still due, you will see that I am not in arrears and that if there is anyone against whom you should take proceedings it is obvious who it is.
I even dare. Gentlemen, to take advantage of this opportunity to point out that 1 have the right to ask for my money. This is not on the ground of my being a salaried official but on the ground of compensation due to me; our property has been sold in spite of a veto referring to secular Congregations, and even in Paris the St Lazare property is still respected. Since, then, in accordance with the latest decree religious will receive their salary even if they do not take the oath, provided they do not wear the habit, we who do not present the same problem have the right to receive ours without taking the oath; the only difference between us is that their property was sold in accordance with the law while ours was sold independently of and antecedent lo any law.
Such, Gentlemen, are the comments which I have to make after an initial reading and which I forward to you as requested.
I have the honour to be, with respect. Gentlemen,
Your very humble and obedient servant,
Rogue, Priest of the Mission.
He carefully maintained good relations with the civil authorities and was not molested in his celebration of Mass in parish churches. Even before things got really difficult in Vannes in September 1792 he had probably begun the practice of celebrating Mass in private houses.
Three days before the letter just quoted the King had been arrested in Paris. Then came more trouble about another oath, that of Liberty and Equality; things worsened so rapidly that while Pierre-René had been on reasonably good terms with the authorities and able to negotiate with them on financial matters in mid-August, by 8 September he had gone underground, “on the run”. On 18 August secular Congregations were supressed; on 26 August a law deporting all priests who had not taken the required oaths was promulgated and all such priests had a fortnight to leave the country. On 13 October a further law provided that any priest who had not registered his place of residence was to be considered as having emigrated; all priests who had not taken the oath were to be arrested and deported to French Guyana. Priests therefore had three options: they could go into voluntary exile, they could submit to forced deportation, or they could go underground in disguise. Most of them saw no point in allowing themselves to be forcibly deported, so the choice was really between voluntary exile and going underground. Le Gal, as Parish Priest of Notre Dame du Mené was inclined to see it as his duty to stay. Guesdon says that Pierre-René convinced him that there was no point in the two of them staying, and that as he was determined to stay Le Gal might as well leave; he added: “If later on I become a victim of the Revolution you will be able to see what you will have to do to come to the help of your flock”. He does not explicitly say so but it would appear that his thinking was that since he was a native of the town he would have a much better chance than Le Gal in maintaining an underground ministry during the troubles. Le Gal went into voluntary exile in Spain2. Three other priests of the town stayed on with Pierre-René. He couldn’t pay anything more than hurried flying visits to his mother’s house because it was constantly raided in the hope of trapping him. It was a peculiar period in the town; on one occasion he was brought by a police officer to police headquarters to administer the last sacraments to the officer’s wife, and nobody interfered. It appears that he also secretly prepared seminarians for ordination, those who had already been ordained sub-deacons before the troubles started; many such sub-deacons made their way to Paris and were ordained there.
His decision to go “on the run” in September 1792 was precipitated by the law requiring an oath of Liberty and Equality. The wording was:
I swear that, preserving Liberty and Equality, I will be faithful to the nation or die defending it.
At first sight this seems innocuous; the trouble lay in the meaning that “liberty” carried at that time; it was explained as meaning that every individual had the right to choose between good and evil, and the right not to have to submit himself to anyone else’s authority. On 21 October 1793 the penalty was increased from deportation to Guyana to sentence of death; it was under this law that Pierre-René was eventually to be executed. The first priest victim in the Vannes area was executed on 11 December 1793; during 1794 twelve more were guillotined.
Robespierre fell in July 1794 and there followed a relaxation of many of the anti-religious laws. In Vannes the civic authorities promulgated a decree of this nature on 26 March 1795; it granted an amnesty to all priests who were in prison for refusing the oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. These released priests, as well as all those who had been in hiding or “on the run” were to appear before an official and state in what area they wished to live “in peace, in submission to the laws and loyal to the Republic”. Pierre-René waited for a while before doing this; around the end of May he came out and admitted that he had been in hiding in France for refusing to take the oath. As a result he was able to resume the public exercise of his ministry. This respite lasted only two or three months.
At the end of June a group of emigrant royalists landed in Brittany from an English fleet; they were attacked by General Hoche, the man who eighteen months later was in command of the 14,000 troops which tried unsuccessfully to land in Ireland to help the United Irishmen. After the battles Vannes was filled with wounded, among whom typhus broke out. Guesdon reports that Pierre-René ministered to the plague-stricken as well as to the wounded, even Republican soldiers.
In September the authorities once again enacted anti-religious laws. On the 6th they banished again those priests who had been deported and who had returned. On the 21st they forbade all priests who had not taken the oath to exercise any public or civil functions. On the 29th they passed a law which included the following:
No one shall be allowed to carry on any religious ministry in any place whatsoever without previously having made, before the municipal authorities of the place in which he wishes to minister, a declatation such as the following: “I acknowledge that the entire body of French citizens is sovereign and I promise submission and obedience to the laws of the Republic”. Any declaration which shall contain anything either more or less shall be null and void.
A lot of priests in Paris took this oath, apparently thinking it was wide enough in its wording to allow them to do so; down the country it was different, and priests remembered some of the laws already passed by the authories since the Revolution. They decided that the wording was so wide that it could be regarded as advance acceptance of any laws passed, irrespective of what they were about. They once again refused the oath and opted for underground ministry. Pierre-René refused it, and at his subsequent trial he was specifically questioned about it and admitted that he had never taken it.
On 25 October 1795 the laws of 1792 and 1793, which had been temporarily suspended, were re-activated. Vannes became a heavily guarded town, after the attempted invasion, and its streets were constantly patrolled; no one could enter or leave the town after eight o’clock at night.
On Christmas Eve that year, between nine and ten at night, Pierre-René was bringing communion to a sick parishioner when he noticed he was being tailed by two men; outside the house to which he was going they came up to him and apprehended him. One of them, a cobbler named Le Meut, owed his job to his victim, and was also receiving financial help from Madame Rogue. They brought him to the hall where the municipal authorities were in session, but got a far different reception from what they had expected. They were told that they had no authority to make arrests and that if they wanted their victim detained they would have to go and find some police officers. When they left the members of the council, most of whom had been at school with Pierre-René, offered him the chance to escape. He declined, saying that that would get them into trouble; he got their permission to consume the Hosts he was carrying. Then the two returned with the police and he was handcuffed and removed to the jail, a double-towered building which incorporated one of the town gates.
The local reaction to the arrest is described by Guesdon:
The following day when the townspeople of Vannes heard of Fr Rogue’s arrest there was consternation everywhere; a cry of indignation escaped from every mouth. The patriots themselves, who had seen him born and growing up among themselves, were dismayed and couldn’t help expressing their indignation; everyone thought so highly of this holy priest that those who arrested him were not welcome at meetings, meetings at which priests were insulted and slandered every day.
The impression which the Canon gives is that the local civil authorities, even if they carried out the revolutionary laws, were of the opinion that they did not apply to someone like Pierre-René.
On Christmas Day he wrote to his mother:
Please accept my gratitude for everything so far. Give my regards to the whole heavenly court3. I’m well aware of the interest they take there in my little accident (as the fashionable expression goes)! Give my regards also the the pigeon-house. I pray that their health may improve; mine is perfect, thank God. So, till we meet again, God willing, or at least on the way to the main square if I leave. There, with a full heart, I’ll give you my last loving blessing, at least in spirit, and also to all the others I’d be pleased to see then; but I’m unworthy of this. However, be that as it may, if it comes to pass I’d very much like to see all my friends, at least in passing. Keep well, always good and charitable, and believe me in life as well as afterwards your very humble and obedient servant
Guesdon gives this letter in its entirety and he presumably saw the original; it was probably brought out of prison the day it was written. A woman who had sheltered him when he was “on the run” came to visit him in prison and offered the jailer a watch to let him escape; the jailer was willing but the prisoner was not prepared to be the possible cause of other retaliatory arrests.
In prison he exercised his ministry for the other prisoners, hearing their confessions and helping them in whatever ways he could. His mother was allowed to visit him from time to time, and she used to send in his meals; when she discovered he was sharing them with others she doubled up the quantity. During his time in prison he wrote poetry; Brétaudeau quotes a five stanza canticle which he wrote, and which he later sang on his way to the guillotine; he was well known for his singing.
The revolutionary Tribunal of Vannes set itself up at first in the seminary, and then in February 1796 it transferred to the women’s retreat house, which had been the scene of Pierre-René’s first ministry after ordination; the chapel was used as the actual courtroom, while the rest of the building was used for offices. In that same month a circular came from Paris urging all local authorities to arrest, try, convict and execute as quickly as possible all refractory priests. On the 15th, in Vannes, twelve prisoners, including Pierre-René, were listed for trial. The public prosecutor, Lucas Bourgerel, refused to act against Pierre-René’s. He said that before the Revolution he had known him and three others of the imprisoned priests very well and for that reason he was not prepared to act and requested a replacement; his request was granted4.
At his first interrogation on 29 February it was established that he had not taken the oath to uphold the Civil Constitution of the Clergy; that he had not taken the oath of Liberty and Equality; that he had neither voluntarily left France nor been deported; that he had continued to exercise priestly ministry after having given an undertaking to live peacefully and contribute to peace and good order; that he had not made the declaration recognising the sovereignty of the people of France; and finally that he had not promised submission and obedience to the laws of the Republic. The Prosecutor then concluded that it had been established that the prisoner must be numbered among the refractory priests and should be brought before the Tribunal as soon a possible in order to be sentenced.
On 2 March he was brought before the Court to receive sentence. He was again put through the same sort of questioning as before, but this time the question of his health was raised. The previous day he had been examined by two doctors and the history of his weak health was established. The judges, however, did not consider his health was sufficiently poor to warrant a mitigated sentence since he had been able to carry out all his functions at the seminary; he was sentenced to death, without the right of appeal, and the sentence was to be carried out in public within twenty-four hours. His mother was in Court and a bystander asked her if the prisoner was her son; when she replied affirmatively he said: “You have reared a monster!”.
On his return to prison he wrote a last letter to his mother; Guesdon does not quote it but says that in it he asked her not to discontinue the financial aid which she had been giving to Le Meut. He also wrote to his confrères,’ and Guesdon quotes this letter, though apparently omitting a section, indicated by three dots. The letter is in the ANNALES, Brétaudeau, Misermont and Gonthier. Brétaudeau omits both proper names, and Misermont and Gonthier omit Robin. Yves Le Manour was a Breton priest who had been executed in January; Alain Robin was in prison and due to be executed the same day as Pierre-René; neither was a Vincentian:
Gentlemen and my dear confrères,
God is granting me the same favour as our friend Manour. I ask for your prayers; I hope you won’t deny them to me, nor to Robin either. God honoured me by making me bear a cross; necessity added another one, that I don’t have the chance to embrace you one last time: on top of these God arranged another, the sight of my poor mother in Court, where she broke down like a Mother of Sorrows, though sustained by her religion as I expected. I want you to pray for her. . . It appears that the speedy carrying-out of the sentence will be about ten o’clock. Let us love each other in time and eternity. Amen.
After his sentence had been passed some of his friends once again tried to engineer an opportunity for his escape, but as on the previous occasions he refused to avail of their offer because of the troubles such an escape would bring to others.
He spent much of the time remaining to him in trying to prepare Robin to accept death; he had refused all the oaths, had remained at his post in his parish and had been condemned to death, but as the time drew near for his execution he seemed to want to draw back. Pierre-René was successful in getting him to see things in their proper perspective and when the time came he faced death calmly. PierreRené’s whole attitude during his time in prison was also the cause of the conversion of a young sergeant among the guards. He had been notoriously cruel in his treatment of Catholics in another part of France earlier on; what he observed in the prison in Vannes made him seek out a priest later on and change his life.
At three o’clock in the afternoon of 3 March 1796 the two priests were led out from prison with the collars of their shirts cut back, the hair shaved from the back of their necks, and their hands tied behind them. Pierre-René sang the canticle which he had composed in prison, and with his glance he gave his blessing to all to whom he had promised this. On arrival at the guillotine he noticed Le Meut, and he gave him his watch. The executioner was one of his former pupils and was worried about what he should do; he was told to do his duty. He did.
The two priest-victims were buried in the same plot, unmarked, but from then on poor Robin was more or less forgotten; it was simply Pierre-René’s grave and became a place of pilgrimage. Although it was forbidden to identify it in any way Madame Rogue and very many others knew exactly where it was. When times improved she had a cross erected over it, and when she died in 1812 she was buried in the next plot. In 1856 Canon Guesdon started a subscription to have a granite and marble monument erected over the grave; this remained until 1934, the year of the beatification, when the body was exhumed and transferred to a shrine in the cathedral. It was in connection with this subscription that Guesdon wrote his biography of Pierre-René. At the end of it he refers to the crowds who were already coming to the grave and to cures which were being claimed there.
The cause for beatification was introduced in 1907, sponsored jointly by the diocese of Vannes and the Vincentians. Two Vincentian priests working on it were Léon Brétaudeau and Lucien Misermont, each of whom wrote a biography; Brétaudeau’s was ready for the formal opening of the cause and Misermont’s came out in 1937, three years after the beatification. The earlier one is the better, being more fully documented, and Misermont bases much of his work on it. Misermont, though, adds much in the area of the various oaths during the Revolution, a subject on which he also published six specialist studies. The latest biography is by Jean Gonthier CM, published in Mulhouse in 1979.
- Details like this are provided in a short biography written by Canon Alexandra Guesdon, who was born in Vannes in 1804. While a seminarian he acted as secretary to the Rector, Jean-Mathurin Le Gal CM, who had been Rector during the early revolutionary period. Guesdon learned from him about the happenings of those years and he became very interested in Pierre-René; this led him to seek for more information from first-hand sources in the town. He often told his nephew, Canon Chauffier, that he would like to see Pierre-René canonised. He died in 1885. His biography of Pierre-René is printed in a slightly abbreviated form, without mention of its authorship, in Recueil des Principales Circulaires des Supérieurs Généraux de la Congrégation de la Mission, II, pp 613-621; it is given in its entirety in the ANNALES, tome 99, pp 494-514.
- When things became more settled in France Le Gal returned and resumed his work as Rector of the seminary in Vannes. Gradually the Vincentians began to reorganise themselves in France under a succession of Vicars General. One of these, Dominique-François Hanon, died in 1816 and nominated Le Gal as his successor, but he refused the post. He died in Vannes in 1831.
- Guesdon says that “the heavenly court” and the “pigeon-house” refer to two houses which he did not want to name explicitly.
- The document in which Bourgerel makes this request was found in 1937 after Misermont’s book had been set up in print; he gives it in an appendix.