It was into this bankrupt France of Louis XV that Louis Joseph Francois was born at the town of Busigpy, in the neighbourhood of Cambrai in the north of France, on the 3rd Februaxy, 1751. His parents were Farmers of modest means, good and generous people, who were blessed with three vocations to the priesthood and one to the Daughters of Charity for their children.
Louis Joseph went for his schooling to the Jesuit College at Chateau-Cambrensis, a few miles from his home. At the age of sixteen, he entered the Congregation of the Mission at the Mother House of Saint Lazare in Paris, accompanied by a fellow student from Cambrai.
At this time the Congregation of the Mission was in a very flourishing condition. It maintained over forty different houses of missionaries for its chief work, besides fifty three Major Seminaries and nine Minor Seminaries more than half the training colleges for the priests of France. Besides, it had care of a dozen parishes, and the royal chapels and parishes of the Invalides in Paris, Versailles, and Fontainebleau. Outside France, it had its works in Poland, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Its foreign missions were soon, in 1783, largely increased by a direction of the Holy See giving it charge of the Jesuit Missions in the Levant and in China, following the suppression of the Society in 1772. The French Jesuits and the French Government had requested this arrangement, and the Fathers expressed their satisfaction in living with the Vincentians and finding, as they said, “a second mother to console them for the loss of their first.” One of them, Father Bourgeois, wrote from China: “These priests are really good men, full of zeal and piety and talents. Their customs, their methods and their rule are completely like ours. We live in comm. in the greatest friendship; you would say that they have become ex-Jesuits, and we have be-come Vincentians.”
It was to the Mother House of the Congregation and to the Internal or Private Seminary for its own subjects that Louis Joseph came in 1766 for his spiritual training as a novice. During two years he practised its exercises, acquiring the means and habits of a life given to God in the cultivation of virtue.
After consolidating his character by this apprenticeship and having taken his vows, he was piloted through the usual course of studies in Philosophy and Theology during the following five years. His talents made the study interesting and fruitful for him, and after his ordination to the priesthood, he was placed in one of the Seminaries as a junior professor.
Here, he showed marked skill in his teaching, and a very good capacity for the handling of young men. After only eight years experience he was placed in charge of the Major Seminary of Troyes. It was a difficult and responsible post for a man of thirty years of age, but, during his five years as Rector, he gave full’ satisfaction to the Bishop of Troyes, and devoted himself fully to the formation of the clergy of the diocese.
At the end of 1786, he was transferred to Paris, to become the Secretary General of the Congregation of the Mission, and thus to have a close association in its government, with its Superior General, Father Jacquier, and to be in contact with the ecclesiastical world of Paris. Clerical Conferences were held every Tuesday at Saint Lazare, after the manner of a day’s retreat, and whenever Father Francois was to be the speaker, the roll-call was noticeably greater. He gave the Clergy Retreat in some of the neighbouring dioceses and was invited to come again by their Bishops a tribute to his power of preaching and to his right guidance of souls.
On the death of Father Jacquier, a new Superior General, Father Cayla de la Garde, was elected in 1788, who appointed Father Francois to the superiorship of the Seminary of Saint Firmin in Paris. This was the old College des Bons Enfants where Saint Vincent de Paul had first established his Congregation in 1625.
It was in this house that Saint Vincent began a Minor Seminary in 1625, in accord with the ideas of the Council of Trent. This failed because of the mixture
of junior and senior students, so the juniors were transferred to the Seminary of Saint Charles which he opened in the grounds of Saint Lazare, and the seniors continued in the Bons Enfants. In the vacated portion of this house, he established a sort of a Seminary for priests, to receive those who came to Paris for studies or vacation, providing them with decent and respectable accommodation as well as spiritual advantages. Later, the name was changed to Saint Firmin’s Seminary. Extensive renovations and alterations were made, and the house was full of students when Father Francois took control in September, 1788.
Six months later, in May, 1789, King Louis XVI, in need of finances, convoked the States General of the three bodies of representatives. Within six weeks the Estates General was transformed into the National Assembly, with the bourgeoisie in control and the King dependant upon it, being asked only to sanction its decrees.
Clergy and nobility were in very bad favour and the capture of the Bastille on the 14th July, showed the temper of the Parisian people. On the 13th, at 2.30 a.m., a band of criminals broke into the property of Saint Lazar to sack and pillage it. An eye-witness account from the Bishop of Metz, Monsignor Jauffret, tells of a band of two hundred men with swords, axes, rifles and clubs breaking down the doors, and rushing to the refectory asking for food, drink and. money. Meantime, a crowd had come in by the open doors, and there was noise of general destruction on all sides. Windows, doors, tables, cupboards, chairs, beds all were smashed. Looters of every age and sex came and went, carrying off whatever they could lay hands on – linen, cutlery, clothes, cooking utensils. They broke up and threw out the beds, mattresses, blinds, chairs and tables; over a thousand doors and fifteen hundred windows were wrecked in their fury. The tables, seats, and crockery in the refectory were crashed in pieces and strewn about, whilst the hundred and sixty portraits of Popes and Bishops in the Retreat Room were slashed and cast among the broken furniture and trodden upon.
The main Library of fifty thousand books, and four other libraries, were ruined, book-cases and all, by axes and swords and by being torn and thrown out of the windows to the courtyard and the roadways below. The Physics Hall was annihilated, and every useful article broken or stolen. Deeds and Titles to property were cast to the winds, and all the money in the house was seized. The room in which Saint Vincent had died, and where some of his goods and personal articles were preserved, was ransacked, and the arms of his statue were broken off, whilst the head was put upon a pike to be paraded in the streets.
After ravaging the house, the mob out don the fruit trees in the garden, cut the throats of the sheep they could catch, and set alight to the barns. Some of the looters got to the cellars and, having knocked the bungs out of the vats of wine., drank their fill, many of them being dreamed in the flood of the fermenting wine. Others swallowed indiscriminately the chemicals they found in the Apothecary’s office and were poisoned.
It was a scene of fury and desolation. The at-tack had been made, as usual in such circumstances, on the weakest and defenceless, and there was no one to restrain the destruction. The priests, clerics and brothers had to flee before the irresistible assault.
The Superior General, Father Cayla, retired to Saint Firmin’s. As one of the deputies of the Metropolitan Clergy in the National Assembly, he attended its meetings and vigorously defended the rights Qf the Church in the current debate for the confiscation of Church property, which might aid the financial state of the kingdom, He published his views in a pamphlet for the people. The decree of confiscation was passed in November, however, and this gave Father Francois the occasion to write his first of a series of similar treatises.