Hermann Cohen (1820-1871) was a child prodigy who, at the age of 13, was dazzling Parisian audiences with his stunning virtuosity. A star pupil of virtuoso and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886), he lamentably learned more from him than piano playing. Though Liszt was Catholic in name, he was part of Paris’ debauched salon culture, parading his swinish morals by running off to Switzerland with Countess Marie d’Agoult, who abandoned her husband and children to live in sin with Liszt. The young Hermann, in youthful admiration at his master’s liberty of spirit, followed him to Switzerland.
Upon his return to Paris, Cohen picked up the bad habit of gambling and ended up in serious debt. The money he made from teaching lessons, rather than paying his creditors, only fueled his debauched lifestyle.
But at the age of 26, this worldly Jewish prodigy found himself in the uncomfortable position of conducting an amateur choir for the May devotions in the Sainte-Valère Church in Paris. “I accepted, solely inspired by my love of music and the pleasure of offering assistance. When the moment of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament arrived, I felt an indescribable agitation. I was, in spite of my own will, led to bend towards the ground. Coming back the following Friday, I was overawed in the same manner, and I suddenly had the idea to become Catholic.”
After he met the zealous Parisian priest, Father Legrand, Hermann’s entry into the Church happened very quickly. On August 28, 1847 — the feast of Saint Augustine — he was baptized in the chapel of Our Lady of Zion (the apostolate begun by the Jewish convert Father Theodore Ratisbonne). He took the name Augustine. On September 8 of the same year, he made his First Holy Communion, thereafter communicating daily. For the next two years, he worked at paying off his tremendous gambling debt and founded a men’s association for nocturnal adoration of the Blessed Eucharist.
On October 6, 1849, Hermann received a grace he had desired ever since his conversion: the habit of a religious. Under the name of Brother Augustin-Marie of the Most Blessed Sacrament, he became a novice for the Discalced Carmelite Friars. He professed his vows on October 7, 1850, and on Holy Saturday, 1851, he was ordained a priest.
Soon after his ordination, Father Augustin-Marie preached a sermon in Paris, in which he uttered these moving words: “My brothers, my first act when appearing in this Christian pulpit must be the making of amends for the scandals that I previously made the mistake of committing in this city. What right, you could tell me, do you have to preach, you whom we have seen dragging yourself around in the mud of an immodest immorality, and openly professing every kind of error? Yes, my brothers, I confess that I have sinned against Heaven and against you… Also, I have come to you covered in a penitential habit… The Mother of Jesus revealed the Eucharist to me, I met Jesus, I met my God and soon I became Christian. I requested holy Baptism, and the holy water flowed on me. Instantly, all my sins, these horrible sins of twenty-five years of crime, were wiped away. And my soul immediately became pure and innocent. God, my brothers, has forgiven me…. Do you not forgive me as well?” The sermon converted many, including some of his former companions in sin.
This is but a sampling of what the 20 years of his zealous priestly work produced. (Among other accomplishments, he reintroduced the Carmelite Order into England where it had not existed for 300 years. His apostolate there brought many conversions.)
In 1871, Father Augustin-Marie administered the last rites to some soldiers dying of smallpox, even though he had a scratch on his finger and knew the danger of contagion. As could be expected, he contracted the disease. A few days later, this Cohen (Hebrew for “priest”) died, a victim of his own priesthood. His last words were: “Now, O my God, I place my soul into Your hands.”