Who was Paul Lamache?

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoAt the time of Frédéric Ozanam, Lay Vincentians BiographiesLeave a Comment

Author: Ralph Middlecamp · Source: Vincentian Encyclopedia.
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“I have a circle of friends who gather every day in worthwhile enterprises and whom I love as brothers.… Lamache with the soul of an artist; and practically a knight.… What delightful hours we have spent together speaking of country, family, religion, science, literature, legislation, everything beautiful, everything great, everything which ought to be treasured in the heart.”
– Frederic Ozanam to his mother, March 19, 1833

Paul Lamache was the oldest of the six students who came together to form the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He was also the last living member of the group. Born at Saint- Pierre Eglise in Normandy on July 18, 1810, he belonged to an ancient family of landowners and administrators. On the fringe of Norman nobility, the Lamache family had experienced major hardship during the Revolution.

Although less well-known today than his friend Frederic Ozanam, Lamache was a truly remarkable man who was recognized and respected in his day. Many aspects of his life have striking parallels to that of Ozanam.

Like three of the other founders, Lamache had a doctor for a father. The elder Lamache was a surgeon in Napoleon’s navy. He had returned to his home village in 1816 and became its mayor. Paul was the youngest of three sons. Like Frederic, Paul followed his father’s wishes and became a lawyer – with the intention of becoming a magistrate. The Frederic parallel continues with Paul’s older brother, Jerome, being a priest and his other brother, Charles, being a doctor. There were two sisters in the Lamache family – Virginia and Justine. Virginia became a nun in the Augustinian Order of St. Thomas of Villanova.

Paul’s brothers were sent to study with the Jesuits at St. Acheul. Paul, however, won a scholarship and attended the secular College of Rouen. He was known to be a bright student and leader of his classmates. In this secular environment his faith was frequently tested, but he was fortunate to have found a mentor in the headmaster, a Monsieur Faucon, and several good priests as advisors. After graduating, Lamache considered studying mathematics at the Polytechnique de Rouen but ended up going to Paris to study law.

Lamache arrived in Paris in 1830 just after Charles X abdicated, ending the revolution of 1830. In 1832 he met Frederic Ozanam and Francois Lallier. A devout Catholic from the provinces, Lamache was delighted to find like-minded students; he had experienced the same alienation and isolation as they had. During these college years, Lamache enjoyed the support and friendship of his younger sister, Justine, who moved to Paris to study at the Convent of the Ladies of Thomas-de-Villeneuve, as did older sister, Virginia. Although Justine never entered the order, she also never married and lived a life devoted to service of the needy.

Joining the History Conference, Lamache took an active part in its debates. He then joined the Charity Conference and took part with Ozanam and Lallier in organizing the Notre Dame Lenten Conferences and met at least once with Archbishop Quelen for this purpose. While always being in the core group of friends, Lamache never took on a role of leadership or held office. Yet he remained an active Vincentian in multiple cities for almost 60 years.

Paul had a keen interest in history and while attending law school published several papers. After receiving his law degree, he went on to complete a doctoral degree in law in 1838. He did his internship as an attorney in Paris and then tried to follow the career path his father desired. Despite very good recommendations, when he applied to become a substitute magistrate, he was unable to secure a position. Instead, he was offered an appointment as a judge in the colonies. This presented him with a moral dilemma. He was strongly against slavery, as was Ozanam. Certainly, it would have been a topic of debate and conversation among these intellectual students. The magistrates in the colonies were not under the structure of the French judicial system but rather that of the French Navy, which was closely aligned with the interests of the wealthy landowning slaveholders.

A missionary priest on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, Fr. Jerome Lamache had shared much with his brother about the evils of slavery. Jerome was a priest dedicated to ministering to the black slaves, and he set up institutions to evangelize them and improve their lives. He also wrote and distributed a brochure outlining anti-slavery principles, including those promulgated in the 1839 encyclical by Pope Gregory XVI against slavery. The final chapters of Fr. Lamache’s brochure included many moving personal stories he had collected from people subjected to slavery. When the brochure was distributed, Fr. Jerome was held for 24 hours, while the military patrolled the streets to prepare for a slave uprising. Fr. Jerome was expelled from the colonies, but the pamphlet went into a second printing and was distributed in France.

Paul Lamache worked to end slavery in the French colonies with such notables as Victor Schoelcher and the Duke of Broglie. In 1843 Lamache published a major L’Correspondant article titled, “Slavery in the French Colonies.” He wrote of slavery as a religious issue – and a serious disgrace to Catholics because the practice had been abolished earlier in England and other Protestant countries. Abolition in French territory was finally achieved by the Republican Assembly in 1851.

In addition to his scholarly publications, Lamache wrote a short classic on the life of St. Chlotilde. He completed it in the style of a very popular work by his friend Count Montalembert on the life of St. Elisabeth of Hungary. A short, pious work from the heart, the book was read with great interest by a young woman from St. Dizier – Mademoiselle Le Bon d’Humbersin – the daughter of a lieutenant colonel in the infantry and granddaughter of a famous inventor. She let in be known that she wanted to meet the book’s author, and they married in 1844. After Lamache died, she told a young lawyer that they never had a moment of discord in their long married life.

With the reorganization of civic institutions during the Second Republic, Lamache was appointed Rector of the Departmental Academy in the Cotes du-Nord, Brittany. The structure of the education system was very controversial, and by all accounts he was able to win the respect of those he administered. With the fall of the Second Republic and the rise of Napoleon III, structures were reorganized again and his position eliminated. He was, however, recognized by the Emperor for his service. The Cross of the Legion of Honor was awarded to him, as it also was to Sister Rosalie Rendu, Francois Lallier and Frederic Ozanam.

Next, Lamache went to the University of Strasbourg, where he received an appointment as professor of law, teaching both Roman law and administrative law. These were happy times for Lamache. He enjoyed teaching, the practice of his faith, watching his family grow and participating in works of charity. He was an excellent teacher, but he did not hide his commitment to Catholicism. This may have damaged his prospects for advancement in the political environment of the time. He welcomed students into his home for discussions and hospitality and undoubtedly remembered how important these opportunities had been to him and his friends in Paris.

This was a particularly difficult period for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Fearing any movement that was organized nationally and could threaten the government, the national authorities disbanded the Councils of the Society, although individual conferences were allowed to operate. Lamache’s own conference in Strasbourg remained active, and his letters describe several incidents in which the conference worked cooperatively with the municipal government.

Lamache enjoyed hiking with his family and with his young students. His hikes would take him deep into the mountains of the Alsace region, where he would visit the residents and get to know them and their legends. He also observed the damage that, in his opinion, Luther and Protestantism had done to the faith of the population.

With the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian wars, the city of Strasbourg was ceded to Prussia in the Frankfort Treaty of 1871. During the siege of Strasbourg, Lamache’s two sons were in the military and were captured and held as prisoners of war. Lamache chose to leave the city and took a position teaching the civil code at Bordeaux. When civil unrest began in that area, however, he took a position in the law school at Grenoble. In his subsequent writings he would vehemently protest against any new legislation or acts that threatened the fundamentals of law. He became equally involved in the campaigns of Montalembert in support of the freedom of education by Catholic institutions.

In 1886, because of age, he was forced to retire from his chair as professor of law in Grenoble. At this point he was 76 years old but was still healthy and active. His colleagues tried in vain to obtain an exception for him from the mandatory retirement. They honored him by presenting him with an artistic cup recognizing his life of service to education.

Being with his family and friends, spending time in prayer, reading, and performing works of charity occupied most of Mr. Lamache’s time during his last years. He was also committed to physical exercise, and so by walking, swimming and gardening he was able to maintain his good health into old age.

Works of charity were especially important to Lamache. At the end of his life, he was increasingly active in works of charity through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. As he had been in Paris and in Strasbourg, Lamache was faithful in Grenoble to the meeting of the conference and to visiting the poor. A biographer noted, “that it was a beautiful spectacle to see this old man of more than eighty years still going up into the attics visiting the poor. He liked to be accompanied by one by his grandchildren; the gracious child, schooled in charity, sometimes added to it a bouquet gathered in the garden of her grandfather.”

Regardless of how much the Society of St Vincent de Paul meant to him, he did not believe that he needed go to Paris for the anniversary of its founding in 1888. The President General tried in vain to have the last living founder attend the celebration. In his humility Lamache covered up his role as a founder, especially among his fellow Grenoble Council members. The Council General sent him two copies the poster of the founders they had prepared for the occasion. One copy was for him, and one was to be given to the District Council office. He never delivered the one to the Council office, and other District Council members saw it only after he had died. Lamache had written in 1888, “I would be too ashamed to be shown in that group. My fellow members of Grenoble see me in flesh and bone and in spite of their lenient benevolence, I would need to be embellished and my defects brushed up in their eyes. …”

Lamache died four years later on July 28, 1892, in Grenoble.

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