Blessed Père Frédéric Janssoone

BOOKSELLING is a word that has special meaning to the disciples of Father Leonard Feeney. While historically it has been a noble profession, in the twentieth century the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary elevated the art and profession of bookselling to new heights. After the founding of the order in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1949, the thirty-three brothers and twenty-eight sisters, who were the original pioneers of the crusade, had to find a means of being self-sufficient in order to survive. One young brother, Edward Maria (also the first to be called home by God), insisted that he could take Saint Benedict Center’s story, as Sister Catherine recorded it in the book Loyolas and Cabots, and sell it door to door. So, with Father’s permission, he did just that, and the bookselling apostolate was launched.

In leaving their jobs in the world, the sixty-one religious did not leave behind their various talents, which ran the gamut from soldiering and athleticism to teaching, writing, and linguistic expertise, not to mention an impressive reservoir of the artistically inclined. With a pool such as this from which to draw, it did not take long before the religious began writing their own devotional and doctrinal works, with original graphics, the proceeds from one book paying for the publishing of the next, and so on and so forth; there was food on the table and bills were paid. Although many of the more outgoing among the religious could have sold cookbooks and done well, the focus of every publication was to teach the true Catholic Faith with no compromise. Thus bookselling by our Lady’s Slaves was always an evangelical apostolate, blessed by God from the day of its inception until today. From coast to coast, person to person, one on one (even an experimental foray into Toronto was unsuccessfully attempted), the commercial streets of every city and almost every town in the United States of America have been graced by Saint Benedict Center books and magazines for these past fifty-seven years.

This means of spreading the Faith and keeping it alive was by no means new back then. A holy and dedicated Franciscan priest preceded the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart in this practice by more than half a century. He was Père Frédéric Janssoone, O.F.M., a Frenchman, born in the Flemish flatlands of northern France in the year 1838. His beginnings, as a child of a very holy and devout Catholic family, presaged his long and remarkable life as a follower of Il Poverello – the humble “little poor one,” St. Francis of Assisi.

Little Frédéric was the thirteenth and the last child of the family. When he was nine years old, his beloved father died, leaving a saintly widow to carry on and manage the family land and farm. Madame Janssoone taught her brood by word and example to be strong in the Faith, dragging herself, even in her illnesses, to daily Mass where she prayed that God would give her sons a vocation to the priesthood. Her prayers were rewarded handsomely. Two sons were ordained: Pierre, as a foreign missionary in India, and, after her death, Frédéric, as a Franciscan. A third son, Henri, was accidentally drowned during an outing while studying at the Franciscan seminary. One daughter, Annette, became an Augustinian nun.

Perhaps these dedicated Catholic offspring were the result of the stories Mama read to them of the fathers of the desert in early Christian times. More than that, it was surely Madame Janssoone’s own motherly words of wisdom, her pious practices, hard work, and strong character that colored the whole atmosphere of family life at this Catholic hearth. The children could not help but breathe it all in; the good example of loving mothers always leaves its indelible mark. The children would later relate how they spent many a happy hour playing “hermit” amid the haystacks at the farm, with young Frédéric calling for silence in order to “preach” to his older siblings. Many blessings came to the prayerful family living near the sand dunes of northern France, even during the terrible time of the anti-Catholic Revolutionary governments.

Discerning a Priestly Vocation

Early on, Frédéric felt called to the priesthood. Being a naturally gifted child with an acute intellect, he advanced rapidly in his secondary studies and then went on to the Catholic college in Dunkirk. Sadly, this academic progress was interrupted by the sudden reversal of fortune in his family’s finances. The aspiring seminarian was forced to leave school and go to work to support himself and his mother. Although he was only seventeen, he secured a position as a traveling salesman peddling textiles for the Ledieu Company, in whose employ he quickly advanced in the esteem of its owners for his ability, honesty, and intelligence. It was rumored at the time that Monsieur Ledieu even had offered him the hand of his daughter in marriage.

When his mother died at the age of sixty-four, Frédéric was free to pursue his dream of the priesthood once more. Being inclined towards the hidden life, and upon receiving confirming counsel from his parish priest, he decided first to confer with the abbot of a Trappist monastery. The only problem was that he should have gotten a little counsel on how to dress when one is going to present oneself before a Trappist abbot for consideration as a candidate in such an order. While he was a working man, Frédéric dressed to the height of fashion. Needless to say, the young dandy in the fancy threads, sporting a small mustache and – if you can picture this – a cane, did not make a great impression on the seasoned abbot.

Some time later a chance meeting brought him into contact with a holy woman dressed in her Franciscan third order habit. Admiring her modesty and piety, he decided to question this woman about the order.

At the rather advanced age of twenty-six, Frédéric left his home to begin his studies in preparation for his life as a Franciscan friar. While his studies went well, there were times that Frédéric thought that he could not live such a hard life: the small cells were extremely uncomfortable; the poorly heated convent was freezing in the bitter Mediterranean winters; and the stifling summers were too humid to be any relief for the less hearty friars who had to work outdoors in coarse woolen habits under the grueling sun. In addition to these difficulties, the daily fare was often too sparse to maintain a healthy equilibrium, and, after trying to endure it all patiently, he began to suffer anxieties and uncertainties about his vocation. His novice master, Father De Clary, on the other hand, knew that Frédéric would obtain the graces to persevere. With his encouragement, and the young friar’s cooperation with those graces, the clouds of doubt dissipated, and Frédéric advanced more swiftly in knowledge and holiness on account of those very purgative trials.

Due to the breakout of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and the need for army chaplains, Friar Frédéric was ordained earlier than planned and sent to the front where he performed his duties bravely and heroically.

After the end of the war, Père Frédéric co-founded a new friary in Bordeaux, where he became master of novices and learned the art of preaching missions, so important for his future life. One of his teachers was Father Bernard, who had spent many years as a missionary in the Holy Land. No doubt it was due to his influence that our little friar developed an intense yearning to visit and work in the land that his Holy Master had trod.

Franciscans in the Holy Land

It is the earnest desire of many Christians to visit this special land where the Lord’s sacred feet walked, where our Lady cared for the God-man as a Child, and where our Holy Faith was born. St. Francis of Assisi himself spent several months in the Holy Land in 1219 and 1220. In fact, as early as 1217, the right and responsibility to act as custodians of the holy places in Palestine were given to his friars. The Franciscans have ever since – for almost eight hundred years – considered this the pearl of all their worldwide missions. They have had to deal delicate politics not only with conquering Turks, Arabic Moslems (and now, since 1948, the Jews), but also with the schismatic Christians. Ever since the fall of the Latin empire in 1291, the eastern orthodox have occupied the ancient churches jointly with the Roman Catholic Church. For example, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher alone (in Jerusalem), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Catholics, and Abyssinian all have individual areas of the building and specific duties that they perform there. None dare usurp the rights and duties of the others. Père Frédéric piously saw in this situation a symbol of the divided garments of Christ and eventually drew up a series of rules and regulations referred to as the status quo, which regulated services in the Holy Sepulcher and in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. These rules are still in use today and have had the great benefit of curbing in-fighting among Christians.

The mission of the Custody of the Holy Land and Holy Places, as it is called, is in the administration of the Custos, or Guardian, and the Assistant Custos. In addition to being the keepers of the holy places, the friars of this province also are responsible for preaching missions to pilgrims, spreading the Faith among non-believers, and, in general, looking out for the well-being of resident Christians and those visiting the area. Our Père Frédéric worked as the Assistant Custos of the Holy Land for ten years. He preached countless missions there in his inimitable “folksy” style, which appealed warmly to the hearts of his listeners. Besides his responsibilities as the second-in-command of this important mission, he kept a brutal schedule of visitations to important politicians in the area, smoothing out relations among the schismatic, and bringing pilgrims into the Franciscan Third Order. One of the more lasting legacies of our holy friar was the reinstitution of the practice of making the stations on the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, in the footsteps of Jesus – on the very same path He trod as He carried His Cross through the streets of Jerusalem on the way to Calvary. Père Frédéric had a great love for this beautiful devotion, which he later carried with him to Canada, instituting it there in spectacular manner.

On a sad note, the situation in the Holy Land today is abysmal. Christians, particularly Catholics, are caught in the squeeze between the warring Moslems and Jews. The Palestinian Authority, ostensibly co-operative with the Franciscan custodians, is putting heavy obstacles in their way through their covert chicanery. On the other side, the new Israeli “security wall,” supposedly erected to keep Jews safe from extremist Palestinians, encroaches on some Church-owned lands in the care of the Franciscans, thus leaving them practically impounded. Christians are caught on the horns of the dilemma of the political and religious situation in the Holy Land. The number of Christian residents keeps dwindling, while pilgrims to the area worship in fear on account of the oppressive atmosphere quickened by these tense relations. The Franciscans remain there steadfastly doing their best to be faithful to their eight-hundred-year-old pledge to guard the holy places.

The Call of a New Land

As the Assistant Custos, Père Frédéric was responsible for raising funds from Catholics world-wide to help support the sacred sites in the Holy Land. Most pilgrims in his day were poor, having made the journey to Palestine by foot or, for those who could afford it, by horse-drawn carriage; tourism, as we know it, did not exist in the 1870s. Therefore, in order to upkeep the ancient ruins, sacred churches, shrines, hospices, and priceless reliquaries (not to mention the basic needs of the religious custodians themselves), it was necessary to engage in some active fund-raising by preaching missions in Catholic countries and in Catholic churches around the world.

During Father Frédéric’s tenure, Pope Leo XIII gave permission for a special collection to be taken up every Good Friday in all Catholic churches around the globe for the benefit of the Holy Land. Since this duty mainly had been incumbent upon the Friars Minor to fulfill, this poorest of orders readily employed its energies in preaching missions during Holy Week, at the end of which the friars would call the attention of the Catholic faithful to the needs of the Holy Land sites. France, the home country de notre bon Père, was at the time very hostile to religion, so his superiors assigned him to preach a series of missions in French Canada. He made the long voyage from Europe to Canada, arriving in Québec in August of 1881. Father Janssoone’s first visit to this faraway land was providential indeed, for he became greatly loved by the hard working settlers in this vast, wild country, named (kanata) after the native Indian word for “land.” And, despite official opposition by the Protestant Anglos, his mission was a grand success.

By another “chance” meeting in Paris, Père Frédéric made the acquaintance of Father Leon Provancher, an influential and brilliant retired pastor of Cap-Rouge near Québec. The two priests became instant friends, and Father Provancher paved the way for his guest to visit with Archbishop Msgr. Taschereau of Québec. The Archbishop immediately allowed Père Frédéric to conduct missions in all the churches of Québec. In addition, he was receptive to the Good Friday collection for the Holy Places in his diocese. French Canada was thoroughly Catholic then, and even the secular newspapers carried advertisements for the missions. The reviews of our friar’s preaching were so glowing and enthusiastic that when he invited the faithful to venerate relics of the Holy Land, more than thirty thousand people filed before him for five hours! The same results occurred over and over again wherever he preached in the diocese of Québec. Amazingly, from our modern perspective, his beautiful sermons were a continuing topic in the Québecois press, thus encouraging more and more crowds to hear him at subsequent missions.

From Québec, Father Janssoone traveled to nearby Trois-Rivières, where he was warmly received by the bishop, Msgr. Lafleche. Here, too, he attracted gigantic crowds of faithful Catholics, who for a long time had been deprived of missioners. During his brief time in the diocese of Trois-Rivières, the Franciscan ambassador met and befriended the Desilets brothers, one of whom, Luc, was the parish priest of the chapel at Cap-de-la-Madeleine. This family would always remain close to our apostle and his mission Canadien. Sadly, Father Frédéric’s visit was cut short in May of 1882 because of the threat of another war in the Holy Land. His superior there called him back to help protect the Catholic population and Catholic property in this troubled area. Upon his return to Jerusalem, his already delicate physical state, exacerbated by the harsh Canadian cold and his brutal schedule, forced him to be admitted to the infirmary of Holy Savior Monastery in Jerusalem.

Another Franciscan First

Just as we spoke earlier about the Franciscan genesis in the Holy Land, the order also was the first to arrive in the New World. Columbus brought friars with him on his first voyage, and he was himself a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. In Canada, the Franciscans also were the first to arrive, coming along with the French explorer Champlain in the dawning years of the seventeenth century. These friars, who had left the Old World behind – and “all things” – to follow Christ, came bravely to a completely unknown and wild land to spread the gospel of Christ. They were known as Franciscan Récollects, but they were not really another branch of the order, just a more contemplative segment of the same Friars Minor to which Father Janssoone belonged; and they existed only in France and her western colonies. Their history in France was of short duration, having been completely crushed by the Revolution, and they went out with a flare in Canada after giving the Church some martyrs there. The last Canadian Récollect, Brother Louis, died in 1848, at Québec City, the order having been forbidden to recruit new members sometime earlier (1770) by the British conquerors. One of the earliest accomplishments of this wave of missionaries to New France was the compilation of a phrase book of the Huron language by one Friar Sagard, enabling those who followed him to converse with the native peoples. One of Père Frédéric’s personal missions was to see that his order was restored to missionary work in Canada, another task accomplished during his second trip there.

When he departed Canada for the Holy Land in 1882, Father Janssoone’s intention was to return there as soon as peace was restored in Palestine. Because of the complications of his illness, and his manifold duties in Jerusalem, the time between his first and second voyages to Canada stretched to more than six years. It was in June of 1888 that he finally returned to America. His goals were twofold: the re-establishment of the Franciscan Order in Canada and the activation of a mandate from the Holy Father to begin a Commissariat of the Holy Land. On one acre of donated land he and some confreres constructed a simple wood hermitage with a sheet iron roof to ward off the chill of the northern winters. In this modest setting the Canadian mission was launched.

Our Lady’s Miracles

The holiness of our humble friar, and others of his stamp, was attested to by numerous miracles, including cures both corporal and spiritual. Here we will relate three, one before his arrival and two that involved him directly. In 1879, the priest who was to become his close friend, Father Luke Desilets of the parish of Cap-de-la-Madeleine in the diocese of Trois-Rivières, had magnanimous plans to build a larger parish church that would replace the tiny chapel that had served his faithful for many years. His intention was to demolish the original chapel, dating from 1714, so that its stones could be used in the construction of the new church. Since the new building was to be constructed on the other side of the St. Lawrence River, the workmen had to wait for the river to freeze so that the remnants of the chapel could be transported across it. That year, the winter was unusually mild. It was almost time for the spring thaw, and still there was no ice bridge. Père Luc began to despair of beginning the work that year, when he realized that perhaps our Lady was trying to tell him something. And what was that? Her little chapel must not be dismantled. After promising the Blessed Mother that the chapel would remain standing, and that he would ask the bishop to consecrate it under the title of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, the ice upstream broke loose and formed a perfect bridge at the Cape’s cove so that the building materials for the larger church, including stones weighing three thousand pounds each, could be transported safely across the river. Instinctively, the faithful called the bridge, whenever it formed from that day forward, “the Rosary bridge.” With the spreading of the news of this miracle, our Lady’s Chapel of the Rosary at Cap-de-la-Madeleine humbly began its holy legacy of drawing thousands of Marian pilgrims.

Nine years after the Rosary miracle, at the time when Père Frédéric returned to Canada, in June of 1888, there was a beautiful statue of our Lady adorning a side altar in the large new church at the Cap. This statue was transferred that same month to the main altar during a solemn Mass and procession. On this momentous occasion the blessed friar preached passionately that our Lady would give some kind of a sign of her satisfaction with her new shrine. After the departure of the hundreds of faithful who attended the ceremony, at about seven o’clock in the evening of the 22nd, Père Frédéric and Father Luc entered the church with a sick old man to beg our Lady for a cure. Suddenly, the statue came to life, her lowered eyes now gazing upward and over the heads of the three men with a look of profound sadness on her face. All three questioned each other. All indeed had seen the statue come to life for several minutes. For Père Janssoone, this was the expected response signaling the Virgin’s pleasure at her new shrine. If the luster of the miracle of the ice bridge had begun to fade in most people’s minds (and there is no evidence that it had), news of this fresh and far greater manifestation of Mary’s favor rekindled the childlike fervor of the Canadian faithful magnanimously. By the end of that year, more than ten thousand pilgrims had come to Cap-de-la-Madeleine to venerate her.

Another incident related by Father Duguay, who replaced Father Luc at the Cap, was Père Frédéric’s miraculous crossing of the dangerous thinly iced river. On this particular winter trip home to his mission church, a warm spell had made the river ice’s thickness so questionable that he would not let his coach driver and horses take him over. He made the crossing alone. “I don’t know how I got here,” he related to Père Duguay, “I entrusted myself to Our Lady, and here I am!” And, it might be added, much faster than if the horse and carriage had brought him home!

Fourteen Remarkable Years

While their simple friary was being erected on the donated acre of land, Father Frédéric and his Franciscan assistant lived at the Cap. Their stay was to be for one month. Little did he know at the time that his association with the shrine of our Lady at the Cap would last fourteen years! He divided his time between his work as Commissary[1] of the Holy Land (in the city of Trois-Rivières) and ministering to the pilgrims at our Lady’s shrine. In actuality, there was no true division between the two because much of the preaching that he did at the shrine centered on his life in the Holy Land, the veneration of its relics, and the importance of the Catholics of the area to return to the Faith. And return they did. Shiploads of pilgrims came to venerate the miraculous statue of our Lady at the Cap. In the year 1895, eight thousand members of the Franciscan Third Order in French Canada gathered there. The soaring membership of the third order in Canada was entirely due to the travels and preaching of our holy missioner.

Besides his own beloved mission shrine, Père Frédéric led pilgrims to other holy places in his adopted land. One of these was the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montréal, where his good friend in religion, the humble Brother André Bessette, was gaining fame as a miracle worker. These two men of God had a great reverence for each other’s holiness. At their first meeting at the Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré, Brother André served the Mass offered by his beloved guest. The story is told of a later meeting between the two, at the Oratory in Montreal, and of Père Frédéric falling upon his knees there in front of Brother André to ask for his blessing. Whereupon Brother André, being greatly embarrassed, fell on his knees too and asked for the priestly blessing of the pious friar. There they were in this holy “standoff”: Père Frédéric unable to bless so sainted a man whom he believed to be so spiritually superior to himself and Frère André unable to hide his own embarrassment except by asking for that which had been, perhaps imprudently, asked of him. After a few minutes, the friends simply stood up, embraced and exchanged a kiss of peace. When the intrepid Franciscan lay dying, Brother André visited him and promised to pray for a prompt recovery. Thanking him, the holy priest said simply, “Let the good Lord do as he wishes.” After the friar’s death, good Brother André [since his own death, now a beatfied himself] testified at the Informative Process for the Beatification of Friar Frédéric Janssoone. Coming from such a miracle worker as the “porter” of Saint Joseph, the word was taken as scripture: “I was convinced,” he testified, “that he [Père Frédéric] was a saint.”

Writing, Publishing, Selling

Besides our subject’s duties at the Cap Shrine and as the Franciscan Commissary of the Holy Land in Canada, both of which could be looked upon as full-time positions, Père Frédéric was the official “Visitor” of his order to the secular (or Third Order) Franciscans. The term “Visitor” here could be compared to chaplain. Since he was personally responsible for the phenomenal growth of this group since his arrival in Canada – by 1890 there were twelve thousand members – he took it upon himself to compose a Manual for the Third Order, of which he had five thousand copies published. He later updated the manual under the title The Third Order, Its Rule and Its Excellence. Ten thousand copies of the second publication were printed and quickly sold.

This added position brought our dear friar into the writing, publishing, and bookselling business. Because of the long drought in Canada of Catholic religious orders, there was a scarcity of good Catholic literature. Père Frédéric sought to remedy this situation by supplying it himself! He wrote for long hours into the night, spending many of these hours on his knees. A book on St. Joseph, one on our Lady, another on his own adventures in the Holy Land, and a Life of Jesus Christ were all written, published, and sold during the twilight years of his life. This last title was the “best seller” of its time, undergoing eight printings and selling a phenomenal total of forty-two thousand copies in a period of thirteen years.

And how did the scattered population of Catholic Canada learn of these devotional books? Why, our undaunted missionary literally pedaled them door-to-door! From one diocese to another, one city, town, village, and farm house to another, he walked carrying his wares just like the traveling salesman that he was in his youth. It was all mission territory. If the family did not practice the Faith, he brought them back; if they did, he taught them more. And to a hungry Catholic population he brought food – spiritual food for their souls’ nourishment. The proceeds from the sales of the books and pamphlets were divided between what he forwarded to the Holy Land for the upkeep of the holy shrines and what he gave to the religious houses of sisters, brothers, priests, and their schools and churches in Canada.

As Franciscans, Père Frédéric and his “lesser brethren” in St. Francis required very little for their own upkeep. Their food and drink were enough to live on, nothing more; their lodging was poor and simple: and their heating was non-existent. Their very existence, everything they did, was for God and His Church. Not only were they not a burden on the scarce funds of the diocese which harbored them, they were actually amazing contributors to the treasuries of the same, and to the upkeep of other religious houses that often fell into grave necessity.

“A Retiro in Your Deepest Heart”

In 1902, as his health, never exuberant in the first place, began to fail, our veteran friar of le mission Canadién requested of his provincial in Europe permission to go to his retiro, the place of solitude and retirement from the world and its temptations that St. Francis expected his men to live in. Good Friar Frédéric Janssoone wanted to return to his beloved Holy Land and live in prayer in the hermitage at Mount Tabor for the rest of his life. The provincial’s answer: “Make yourself a retiro in your deepest heart.” This apostle’s work was simply too important to abandon. So he resigned himself to achieving a balance between prayer and preaching, contemplation and action.

So loved was he for his preaching and writing, and so famous had he become because of the many miracles attributed to him, that our missioner became known in this part of Canada as the “holy Father.” As a true Franciscan, Père Frédéric’s humility permitted him to understand that he was only an instrument of God’s Holy Will, and, like Blessed Brother André, he never took personal credit for any of the many cures and miraculous occurrences surrounding him.

So, from the young dandy we met in France selling Monsieur Ledieu’s textiles, to the humble, energetic, indispensable priest, preacher, fund-raiser, writer, publisher, and soul-catcher, Frédéric Janssoone merely changed employers. He chose the best Employer of all! And, we may add, the One with the only retirement plan that matters.

For years, Père Frédéric had suffered from stomach problems. Eventually, his ulcerated stomach turned cancerous, and his doctors said that he was too old and weak for the extensive surgery the condition required. The year was 1916. As he lay dying, the devil took a parting shot at grabbing his soul. More than once, he appeared to him as a fierce black dog, threatening to tear him, and placing scruples in his mind and doubt in his heart. His longtime friend and fellow Franciscan, Father Augustin, helped him through this last agony, and, as he lay gazing ecstatically at the Crucifix on the wall of his little cell, this gentle son of St. Francis yielded his pure soul up to the One he loved so much.

Frédéric Janssoone, of the Order of Friars Minor, was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Let us keep the Canadian compatriots, the Blesseds Brother André Bessette and Père Frédéric Janssoone in prayer, that their canonizations will happen soon. Ad majorem Dei Gloriam!

[1] One who holds an office or acts as a delegate to perform a function on behalf of a superior. Father Janssoone’s mission in Canada as Commissary was to raise funds for the upkeep of the churches and shrines in the Holy Land and for the Franciscan religious who were their custodians.