SECTION SEVEN: The More Remarkable Events in the Missions of the Barbary States
Although the missions authorized by Monsieur Vincent in France, Italy, and surrounding areas were greatly blessed, as we have seen in the preceding sections, we must affirm that the ones given in more distant regions have also borne their fruit. These successes may not have been as great as the ones on European soil, but they were equally appreciated and valued. These strange and savage lands were made fertile by the labors, but even more so by the blood of the missionaries. Several of them gave their lives by their untiring labors in the service of Jesus Christ. It was one of the most ardent desires of the worthy father of the missionaries to go himself to preach Jesus Christ among the infidels, and to risk martyrdom in confessing his holy name.
Other obligations imposed on him by divine Providence, however, made this impossible. He was heard to say, “Ah, miserable man that I am. My sins have made me unworthy to preach the word of God to peoples who do not know him.” Speaking to his confreres, he said, “How happy is the missionary who has no limit in this world on where he can go to preach the gospel. Why then do we hesitate and set limits, since God has given us the whole world to satisfy our zeal?”
He showed a special veneration for Saint Francis Xavier, who had carried the Gospel all the way to the Indies with such courage and blessings. He appreciated the religious of his order, and all others who worked on the foreign missions. When any of them returned and had occasion to visit Saint Lazare, he would assemble the entire household to hear of their work, with the hope of inspiring his own missionaries to imitate their zeal. He would have their printed accounts read in the refectory, and did what he could to help their missions in foreign lands, as we shall see in the following pages.
He recognized, in keeping with the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel, that the harvest of souls was great in foreign and barbarous lands, yet the workers were few. Thus he offered his confreres to Jesus Christ for the instruction of the poor and most abandoned, not only in Christian nations but also among the infidels and barbarians.
He inspired this same zeal and dispositions among the members of the Company. When someone would volunteer to go on the foreign missions he would rejoice with him because of the grace of the courage that God had bestowed upon him. Despite this, he never sent his men out haphazardly. His great maxim was never to push himself or his own ideas, but to wait simply and patiently for the manifestation of the will of divine Providence.
In beginning to speak of the missions given in foreign lands under the direction of Monsieur Vincent, among the infidels, heretics, or other enemies of our religion, we will begin in this section with those in the Barbary States. We will see how the missionaries worked and suffered to serve Jesus Christ in the persons of the poor Christian slaves. In later sections we will speak of the more remarkable events that took place in the other foreign missions.
PART ONE: The Beginning of the Missions in Tunis and Algiers, in the Barbary States
The experience of slavery that God allowed Monsieur Vincent to endure in 1605, as recounted in Book One,1 gave him a first-hand opportunity to realize the evils which these slaves endured in their bodies and the danger they ran of losing their souls. These experiences engendered a great compassion in his heart. He saw in this slavery an image of the human misery which had led the Son of God to come to earth to ransom those enslaved to sin and Satan. In this he saw an opportunity to imitate the Savior, by visiting, consoling, and helping these poor abandoned captives. He was so inflamed with the love of God that he was anxious to help, but he remained steadfast in his usual practice of awaiting the orders of divine Providence before embarking on this work. He prayed to know God’s will, and for the grace and means to carry it out in a way most pleasing to him.
This prayer was not in vain, for around 1642, God inspired the late king, Louis XIII, of glorious memory, with the desire of helping these poor slaves. His eyes fell upon Monsieur Vincent, whom he judged was most able to carry out this task. The king asked him to send some of his missionaries to Barbary for the corporal and spiritual relief of these poor captives. He supported this request with a sum of nine or ten thousand livres. God alone can say with what joy this charitable priest received this commission, since he had prayed for so long prayed that something would be done for these poor afflicted slaves.
He gave some thought to the best way to carry out this complicated enterprise, for the Moslems were not anxious to have priests among them, unless they happened to be slaves themselves. He recalled that a treaty had been worked out between France and the sultan to develop commerce between the two regions. The king was to be permitted to send consuls to the seaport cities, to look after French commercial interests and the conditions of the Christian slaves. The consuls, in turn, were to be allowed to have a priest as chaplain in their homes. In 1645, this permitted Monsieur Martin, then consul in Tunis, to invite a priest of the Congregation of the Mission to this office. Father Julien Guerin and a brother named Francois Francillon were sent.2
After working zealously for two years, and seeing that the harvest was beyond his own unaided efforts, Monsieur Guerin resolved to see the dey, a sort of king in the country, to ask if another priest might be allowed to come to help him in his work. God touched the heart of the dey, for he replied that this would be agreeable, and that if one additional priest were insufficient, he might then invite two or three. He promised that he would serve as his protector, and would grant him anything he asked, for he appreciated his example of doing nothing but good for everyone he met.
In reply to this request for an additional priest Monsieur Vincent send Jean le Vacher.3 He arrived in Tunis in the beginning of 1648 at a most opportune time, for the plague had broken out, and it affected a large number of the Moslem natives and slaves alike. Both priests worked strenuously in this critical situation, but unfortunately Monsieur le Vacher himself was stricken in May of the same year and was soon near death. It pleased God, however, to deliver him from the danger to enable him to give life to the many souls whom he served, and to continue to minister in that country.
Monsieur Guerin wrote to Monsieur Vincent about the plague:
It is impossible to express the depth of the sufferings and tears of the poor slaves, merchants, and even the consul, and what consolation we received from everyone here. The Moslems themselves come to visit us in our distress, and the leading people of Tunis have offered their help and service. I am convinced, Monsieur, that we must serve God faithfully, for in this tribulation he even inspires our enemies to help his unworthy servants. We are scourged by war, the plague, and famine, and have no funds, but despite how severely we are tried our courage has not faltered. We treat the plague as though it did not exist. The joy that our brother and I experienced at the recovery of Monsieur le Vacher has made us as strong as mountain lions.4
Soon after Monsieur le Vacher recovered and returned to work, Monsieur Guerin, that man of God, himself fell victim to this dread disease. His zeal had made him disregard the dangers of death all around him, and forgetting himself, worked for the relief and salvation of those stricken by the plague. He was not taken by surprise, and prepared for death not simply with patient endurance but with an entire conformity to the good pleasure of God. He accepted death as the crown of his labors, and the beginning of the life of glory he hoped for from the mercy of God.5 We cannot adequately describe the sorrow of the Christians for whom he had given his life, nor the sorrow of Monsieur Vincent who lost in this good missionary one of his dearest and most worthy sons. The consul died soon after, leading the dey to order Monsieur le Vacher to fulfill the office of Consul until the king of France should send another to take his place.
While thus occupied with the spiritual care of the five or six thousand slaves in Tunis, and sometimes with their temporal relief as well, as we shall see later, his attention turned to the needs of the slaves at Algiers, a much larger city. There were usually more than twenty thousand enslaved Christians there. They were very poorly treated by their masters in comparison with those of Tunis. It was impossible for the priests to do much unless they had the full cooperation of the consuls. If the consuls paid more attention to their own interests and convenience and failed to help in the salvation and relief of the poor captives, the goals of Monsieur Vincent could hardly be attained.
Aided by the Duchess d’Aiguillon, who indemnified the consul of Algiers, it was arranged that in 1646 he would be replaced by the king’s appointment of Monsieur Jean Barreau.6 A native of Paris, he was zealous for the service of God and of the poor slaves. He had no greater ambition than to cooperate with the designs of Monsieur Vincent, as he did during several years of service.
Before the consul left for his post, Monsieur Vincent gave him the following advice:
At the heart of your activity must be the intention of promoting the greater glory of God. Remain in a constant state of interior humiliation at not being able to accomplish much in the circumstances in which you work. Practice submission to the judgment and will of the priest of the Mission given you as your counselor. Do nothing without informing him, unless obliged to answer some matter on the spot. Jesus Christ was the Sovereign Lord, and yet during the time he lived with Mary and Joseph he did nothing without their advice. I would ask you to honor this mystery by acting accordingly, so that God will lead you and aid you in this position, to which his Providence has called you.7
Later Monsieur Vincent sent three good priests, veteran missionaries, to the city of Algiers, Messieurs [Boniface] Nouelly, [Jacques] le Sage, and [Jean] Dieppe. All three gave their lives in courageously devoting themselves day and night to those stricken by the plague which gripped the city in 1647 and 1648. They served the poor Christian slaves who had fallen ill, who, had it not been for them, would have been abandoned like wild animals. These good priests showed at the approach of their own deaths the spirit which had dominated their lives, and the charity for their neighbor which animated them.
Monsieur Dieppe died with a crucifix in his hand, with his eyes fixed upon it, repeating during the half hour of his agony these words: Majorem charitatem nemo habet, quam ut animam suam ponat quis pro amicis suis [“There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”].8 These three priests were followed by Monsieur Philippe le Vacher, the brother of Monsieur le Vacher who was at Tunis. Like his brother, he served God for many years in the persons of the poor slaves in this city whose inhabitants, with the demons of hell, seemed to have no other preoccupation than to persecute the Christians.
Monsieur le Vacher, at Tunis, continued to hold the office of consul, and this prevented him from the usual duties of the missionaries of Monsieur Vincent. It came about that a Monsieur Huguier, in charge of the temporalities at the Chatelet in Paris, was appointed to this post. He put himself under the direction of Monsieur Vincent, to give himself completely to the service of God and to the glory of his name. When he arrived in Tunis he proved unacceptable to the Moslems, who refused to allow him to serve as consul. He stayed for some time in the city, however, helping Monsieur le Vacher in the position. He later returned to France, where he received holy orders, following the advice of Monsieur Vincent. He was sent later to Algiers, not only as a priest of the Congregation of the Mission, but as apostolic nuncio. He worked earnestly for the poor slaves until the month of April, of 1663, when he succumbed to the plague in very saintly dispositions of soul.
Monsieur Vincent was unhappy to see Monsieur le Vacher in Tunis burdened with the office of consul. It prevented him from carrying out his ordinary missionary duties. Also, he did not like to see him hold a secular office, even though it provided him opportunities to help the Christian slaves. He arranged that a lawyer of the Parlement, Monsieur Husson, a native of Paris, be appointed by the king as consul at Tunis. He was a person of high virtue. Monsieur Vincent wrote about him in a letter at that time:
He is wise, impartial, pious, prudent, and as able as any man I know of his age. He acts solely for the service of God and the slaves, and despite the tears and arguments of his dear parents, finally won their blessing on his ministry. He acts together with Monsieur le Vacher as though he were a member of our Congregation, although he is not.9
He left for Barbary in 1653, and has remained there serving very successfully as consul for several years.
- Ch. 4.
- Julien Guerin was born in 1605 at Selles, in the diocese of Bayeux. He entered the Congregation of the Mission, January 30, 1640. In his youth he had been a soldier. This experience made him fearless. While he was stationed at Saintes, some travelers stopped him on his journey and pointing a pistol, asked him: “Who goes there?” Without any concern, he presented his crucifix and said, “It is he who goes there.” The thieves, taken aback by his answer, allowed him to pass. When he learned that he would be going to Tunis, he was filled with joy as if he was going to a victory rather than to a place where he would be in imminent danger of death. Brother Francois Francillon, born at Ceaux in the diocese of Poitiers, entered the Congregation of the Mission at Paris in April 1645. After serving the slaves in Tunis for many years, he was martyred. When the fleet of Louis XIV was bombarding Algiers in 1688, Brother Francois refused to renounce his faith to save his life. On July 6, he was executed by being tied to the mouth of a cannon. The day before, Michel Montmasson, a priest of the Congregation and vicar-apostolic at Algiers, met the same fate.
- Jean le Vacher was born at Ecouen, in the diocese of Paris, March 19, 1619. He was received into the Congregation, October 5, 1643.
- CED III:300.
- May 13, 1648.
- Jean Barreau was received into the Congregation, May 14, 1645. Saint Vincent believed that Barreau would be more effective as consul in Algiers if he were not a priest. Barreau agreed to delay his ordination, and left for his new post in 1646.
- CED III:43. Abelly’s text differs in many respects from the original letter.
- John 15:13.
- CED IV:625.