Who was Felix Clavé?

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoAt the time of Frédéric Ozanam, Lay Vincentians Biographies0 Comments

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Author: Ralph Middlecamp · Source: Vincentian Encyclopedia.
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

“Even Algiers is answering our call, an association, of which Clavé and several of our old friends form the nucleus, is being formed under the auspices of its saintly bishop.”
– letter from Ozanam to Pessoneaux, March 13, 1840

Felix Clavé is said to be the least known of our Society’s founders. That is only partially true, however. He was born in southern France on July 8, 1811, probably in the Province of Haute-Pyrenees. Often he is described as being from Toulouse, but – if that is the case – he was there only a short time. His father, Guillaume Clavé, may have been from a noble family, but if so, the Clavés had experienced setbacks. The elder Clavé made his living operating a series of boarding schools. Before Felix’s birth his father was teaching in Bordeaux. Because of Guillaume’s loyalty to the monarchy, however, he lost this position and returned to the Pyrenees. His loyalty was rewarded with a position as Principal of the College of Dax, where he stayed for one year before opening his own boarding school in Bordeaux in 1821. Felix was undoubtedly one of his first students.

This school became a well-regarded and successful institution, but after some unknown difficulties Guillaume chose to settle in Paris in May 1830. He experienced some obstacles in setting up his school in Paris because the education officials required him to have a Bachelor of Science degree in addition to his arts degree. He was admitted to the university and was allowed to open a school while he pursued his degree, which he received in 1838. His school, called the “Clavé Institution,” was located close to the Church of St. Philippe du Roule, and Guillaume taught the children of prosperous tradesman. About half of the students were boarders. The student body is largely young Spaniards and Mexicans. This may be explained by the likelihood that Guillaume spoke fluent Spanish and that the second of his daughters, Petronille Mary-Louise Celina, married a prosperous Mexican, Don Manuel Zulayeta, in Paris in February 1833.

As a university student, Felix was an adherent of the utopian-socialist St. Simonian teachings, but he was won over by the arguments of Ozanam and the other Catholics who took part in the Conference of History. What course of study Clavé pursued is unclear; many sources say it was law. Clavé associated himself with Ozanam’s friends and was a present at the first meeting of the Conference of Charity. Clavé remained an active member while he lived in Paris. When a new pastor, Fr. Faudet, came to St.-Etienne-du- Mont within a year of the founding of the Conference, Mr. Bailly gave an indication of his regard for Felix by choosing him to meet with and explain to the priest the nature and workings of the Conference of Charity that existed within his parish bounds. Fr. Faudet was a little uncertain about the novel group but accepted an invitation to attend a conference meeting. He left the meeting a dedicated supporter of the new Society.

After the initial 1835 split of the first conference into two groups – one at St.-Etienne-du- Mont and one at St. Sulpice – Clavé formed the third conference at St. Philippe du Roule with the help of the pastor, Fr. Maret. This parish was a distance from St. Sulpice and was close to where Clavé and a number of other early members lived. This third conference was a significant step in the organization’s development because it was more than just a division of the original group. It demonstrated that the structure could actually be duplicated in new parishes. Assistance in organizing this new conference was provided by a team of visitors consisting of Frederic Ozanam and Francois Lallier.

Clavé’s career seemed uncertain after university. Some of his writings were published, and he may have assisted his father by teaching at the boarding school. He regularly attended daily Mass at St. Philippe, and it was there around Easter of 1838 that he met an attractive woman, Marie de Nicolai, a woman above his social class. Their mutual attraction would come to an unhappy end when she discovered that he was the son of a mere schoolteacher and without wealth or position. It was this woman’s close companion, Marie Capelle (after marriage to be known as Marie Lafarge), who would later destroy Felix’s reputation and cause his name to be associated with the 19th century’s most sensational criminal case.

After a set of flirtatious encounters and poetic letters, Marie Nicolai wished to know :the identity of this handsome stranger. In her memoirs Marie Lafarge recalled,

“I learned that his name was Felix Clavé; I learned that he was a Spaniard, and a literary man. These details were a shock to Mlle. de Nicolai. ‘My God!’ she cried, ‘have you not observed, a few paces from St. Philippe, a large white house with a great black sign, on which are several immense yellow letters? … Well, that great sign and those large letters are without doubt the arms and blazon of our noble unknown. It is the Institution Clavé… My God! I love him still – I shall love him always; but I could never become Madame Clavé, the wife of a man who gets his money by writing! My mother, my father, would never consent.

What part shall I do?’

‘Tell him you will courageously sacrifice him to a prejudice, and will see him no more, in order that he may forget you as speedily as you will forget him!’”

These details are without dispute, but within two years the story became extremely convoluted. Marie Capelle encouraged this relationship and acted as an intermediary who befriended Clavé along the way. Marie Nicolai, however, put a definite end to the relationship in the fall of 1838 and pursued the courtship of another, the Marquis Leautaud.

In October 1838 Felix Clavé decided it was best to leave Paris and work in Algeria. Frederic Ozanam related in a letter of July 9, 1839, “Even Algiers is answering our call, an association, of which Clavé and several of our old friends form the nucleus, is being formed under the auspices of its saintly bishop.” Clavé’s presence there was known by Bishop Dupuch of Algeria, with whom Ozanam met in March 1840. The Bishop gave news of Clavé, “for whom he had boundless love,” Ozanam wrote. These expressions of affirmation are of interest because they came just at the time when Felix Clavé was dragged into a scandal and criminal trial of international interest. His old friends were undoubtedly dumbfounded.

During Clavé’s absence from France, Marie Cappelle was duped – to obtain comfort and status – into a loveless marriage with an older man who purportedly was a prosperous iron manufacturer. Discovering that the facts of his situation were incorrect, she allegedly poisoned him with arsenic. She was not very clever or cautious in committing the crime, however, and was immediately suspected by the family and police. She was soon arrested. Her arrest renewed suspicions of the Marquis Leautaud, – now the husband of her old friend Marie Nicolai – regarding a jewel theft that occurred when Lafarge had visited them the previous summer. The police were informed and found the diamonds in the Lafarge house. In order to justify this theft, Madame Lafarge invented a story in which Felix Clavé was threatening to tell terrible tales about his romance with Marie Nicolai unless he would be paid off.

The trial of the attractive Marie Lafarge, who declared she was innocent of the charges of both murder and theft, became one of the first truly international media spectacles. It was covered throughout Europe and was a source of conversation, as one source described it, “from cottage to court.” Marie Lafarge received thousands of letters and responded to them all. The scandal did great damage to Clavé’s reputation. A Paris newspaper carried this statement of Lafarge as part of a front-page article: “M. Felix Clavé, you are a coward. I have cried to you from the depth of my prison, I have demanded from everybody, from the world, from the Press, from your own remorse, to carry my voice to the interior of the desert where you hide yourself. Why do you delay to avenge your honor and that of her whom you ruin? You have crossed the seas to remake your fortune. Could not you cross them to remake your reputation?”

Clavé never returned to testify, but around the time of the trial he traveled to Mexico and worked for several years for his sister’s husband, Don Manuel Zulayeta. Back in France, people came from all over to attend the trial. According to witnesses on his behalf at the Lafarge trial, Clavé was an honorable person who had good employment and no need of blackmail money. The woman allegedly being blackmailed also adamantly denied that the blackmail threats had any basis in fact.

Marie Lafarge offered no defense at trial but maintained her innocence. She was convicted of theft. A later appeal upheld the verdict but raised many questions that were never satisfactorily answered. Lafarge went on to be convicted of murder in a trial that became an even bigger media circus. The case is notable for being the first in history in which scientific forensic testing for evidence was employed. The prosecution used the newly developed Marsh Test for arsenic in the corpse of Mr. Lafarge. The test having first been done improperly by local investigators occasioned the calling of Dr. Orfila, the most famous toxicologist of his day. He arrived – attended by great publicity – to redo the tests on the exhumed body of Mr. Lafarge and testified against Marie. Since the entire murder plot closely resembled a fictional murder case that had been serialized in French newspapers several years prior to the crime, the trial also provoked a series of social commentaries questioning the advisability of husbands allowing their wives to read newspapers or fiction. Such was the drama into which Felix Clavé was unwittingly drawn.

Even while in prison as a convicted murderer and jewel thief, Madame Lafarge continued to damage the reputation of Felix Clavé. Her well-written “Memoirs of Madame Lafarge” identified him on page after page and cast him as the least-sympathetic character in the entire saga. The work became an international bestseller and was translated into many languages. She continued to get thousands of supporting letters, many containing proposals of marriage.

Clavé returned to France but was deeply affected by these incidents. His health was damaged and his reason was affected. He nevertheless married and published several works, among which were collections of poetry and a book on Pius IX, published in 1848. His nervous troubles increased, and his wife resigned herself to committing him to an asylum in the Pyrenees. Felix Clavé died at 42 in Pau on November 9, 1853 – two months after Frederic Ozanam’s death.

It is not surprising that for a long time the Society refused to speak of this founder, whose portrait did not even appear in the gallery devoted to early members. It was not truly because Clavé was the least-known among our founders, but rather because the scandal did not suit a fledgling society of devout Catholics dedicated to service of the poor.

Francisco Javier Fernández Chento

The Vincentian Formation Network CEO & co-founder.

Javier is a Spanish lay Vincentian. He is an affiliate of the Congregation of the Mission and a member of the Popular Mission Team of the Zaragoza (Spain) Province of the Congregation of the Mission.

Click for more information on Javier

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