(Note: This article was originally published when its subject was “Venerable Father Basil Moreau,” and was named accordingly. On September 15, 2007, Canon Basil Antoine Marie Moreau was beatified. He is now to be called “Blessed Basil Moreau.” We have updated the name of the article since.)
It is an age-old argument: Do the events of history create the great (or evil) men who will change the world, or do great personalities come along at the right time profoundly to change history itself? There are valid arguments for both points of view. Let us then see what our answer will be after we learn the story of a holy French priest, Father Basil Anthony Mary Moreau.
Basil Moreau was born in 1799 in Laigné-en-Belin, a tiny village in the diocese of Le Mans, in northwestern France. He was the ninth of fourteen children — three of whom died in infancy — born of pious peasant-stock parents. His father, a wine merchant, worked hard to feed and clothe his many children. More importantly, his parents saw to it that they passed on to their sons and daughters a love of their holy Catholic Faith at a time when it was very difficult to be a Catholic in their country.
In the decade that ended with the year of Basil’s birth, France had just endured the greatest upheaval in its history. This great Catholic country, the “eldest daughter of the Church,” endured the Reign of Terror following the storming of the Bastille in 1789, basing its new ideas of statehood on the false philosophy of rationalism. The philosophers of the “Enlightenment” were interested in overthrowing the two basic institutions of French culture and government, the monarchy and the Church. Their very names are synonymous with evil: Voltaire, Rousseau, de Sade, Robespierre. Thousands of ordinary French citizens were slaughtered, priests and bishops were exiled or killed, and the monarchy saw its end — at least temporarily — with the murder of the king and queen in 1793 on that infamous instrument that came to symbolize revolution in France, the guillotine. Only those priests who swore loyalty to the state “church” were allowed to function publicly, and they were in the minority. They owed no fealty to Rome and for all practical purposes ceased to be truly Catholic. Hundreds of nonjuring priests — those who would not swear loyalty — remained in the countryside hidden by brave Catholics, all of whom were acting in peril of their lives. These holy and courageous men did their best to carry on the True Faith and bring the Sacraments to the faithful. Only in scattered regions, most famously in the Vendée in the southwest, did Catholic Monarchists erect barricades, draw sabers, and load guns to protect themselves and, in the end, suffer glorious but murderous defeat at the hands of the Revolution.
By the time young Basil reached school age, all Church property had been given over to the Revolutionary government; there were few priests with any kind of grounding in Catholic morals and theology. Catholic Masses and Sacraments were illegal, as was any kind of religious schooling. Indeed, in rural areas children did not learn the basics of reading and writing because most of the schools prior to the Revolution were Catholic and, in the chaos of the upheaval, the new government provided no schools at all. Except for those few whose parents could provide them with some semblance of an education, an entire generation of French children grew up as street urchins.
From his early years young Basil was bright and reverent. He had a zeal about him that impressed everyone — a quality that marked his entire life. After the Concordat of 1801, which brought about a period of peace and openness for the Church, a new pastor, Father Julien Le Provost, was assigned to the parish church of Laigné. This holy man had hidden himself in Le Mans during the Reign of Terror. Now that he could act openly, he recognized the quality of his young student and convinced Basil’s father to allow him to study the academic subjects he would need to enter the seminary. At first, Mr. Moreau required that Basil still tend his duties of watching the cows in the pasture while he studied Latin, but eventually, he was allowed to study full-time. He became so adept at his studies that in 1814, at the age of fifteen, he entered the college of Chateau-Gontier, regarded at the time as a preparatory seminary. It is generally believed that Basil’s tuition was paid, at least in part, by a wealthy friend of the family, Mlle. De Boismont. Two years later he entered the major seminary of the diocese, St. Vincent’s. Here he encountered Father Bouvier, the man who would become his nemesis in later years.
The Church suffered during the entire nineteenth century, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on who was in power and the extent of the anticlericalism during a particular time. Revolutions racked Europe off and on for years, most leading to the suppression of religion. People of Faith, including Basil Moreau, were victims of the times.
The Poison of Gallicanism
During the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the Church in France, especially from the point of view of the monarchy and the nobility, was infected with Gallicanism. The so-called “liberties” of the Gallican Church made the king the head of the Catholic Church in France, superseding the Holy Father. Reasons for this were more political than ecclesiastical and only courted the danger of schism when the monarch took the liberties to the extreme of appointing bishops, not allowing the pope’s missives to be read to the faithful without his approval, and the like. It must be remembered that this French tradition was in vogue before Vatican Council I declared the infallibility of the Vicar of Christ in teaching faith and morals. Opposing the position of the Gallicans were the Ultramontanes (literally, “on the other side of the mountains,” i.e., Rome). These were the French clergy whose religious loyalty lay with Rome while their patriotism lay with their country. Many of the French bishops and lower clergy held Gallican sentiments, including the aforementioned Father Bouvier, who was responsible for much heartache on Father Moreau’s part as we shall see.
Gallicanism was dealt its death blow during the lifetime of Father Moreau by the writings of one Felicité de Lamennais, a brilliant but unevenly educated young man, who somewhat reluctantly took Holy Orders in 1817. He was hailed as the most talented priestly thinker and writer since Bossuet, and his “Essai” on religious indifferentism made him an instant celebrity. It inveighed against the mildly Gallican leanings of most French bishops and supported the position of the Ultramontanes. While Lamennais’ contribution to the Church in France was a major one, sadly, in his later years, he completely lost his Faith, even to the extreme of denying the divinity of Our Lord and refusing any prayers or religious services at his death in 1854.
French Catholics of good conscience were pulled in many directions during the upheavals of the nineteenth century. First, and most tragic, was the Revolution itself in its attempt to eliminate the Church and the influence of religion entirely. Then, the subtle but ingrained hold of the Gallican bishops caused dissention in the ranks of what remained of official Catholicism throughout the century. Fortunately for Basil Moreau his large and pious Catholic family was able to remain loyal to Rome while surviving and keeping themselves thoroughly Catholic. In addition to the influence of his family, Basil himself was holy, intelligent, and clear-headed in his approach to his Faith. His loyalty to, and love of, the papacy never wavered, and here is where he butted heads — and wills — with his nemesis.
A Career Path Is Chosen
When his seminary training was completed, the newly ordained young priest felt pulled in many directions. Because the need for priests in France was so pressing as a result of the loss of so many during the Reign of Terror, seminary graduates were sent into the towns and villages of France at a very young age and lacking the proper education. Young Abbé Moreau was under the required age of twenty-four at his ordination. Initially, he wished to be a simple parish priest in his home town or some other small village in the area. Then again, he wanted to attend the Seminary for the Foreign Missions. In his youthful zeal — one could call him impetuous — he felt compelled to fill all the needs of the Church in France and in the world. On the other hand, he had prepared himself well for the deprivations of the priesthood. He ate sparingly under ordinary circumstances and not at all on fast days; he limited his sleeping hours, and for the last twenty-five years of his life slept sitting in an armchair. He scourged himself and wore a metal girdle with sharp points that dug into his skin at each movement. Even when he became superior, he always gave himself the most unpleasant job in a given situation so as to make the burden for his fellow priests and brothers a lighter one.
Our young priest’s future was decided for him by his bishop who felt the need for more good priest-teachers in his seminary. Thus did Father Moreau make his way to the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris for graduate study in preparation to becoming a seminary professor. The atmosphere at St. Sulpice was very stimulating academically. Further, the seminary supplied its students with a strict school of piety, thanks to Father Olier, the founder of the Society of St. Sulpice. This priestly institute, whose sole charism was to run seminaries, cultivated a piety marked by two major characteristics: a negative element of severe mortification, already present in Father Moreau’s life, and a positive element of adherence to Christ and participation in His mysteries. This positive element had the purpose of saturating the candidate with Our Lord’s life and attitude about every aspect of existence; so that when a particular situation arose, he would automatically think as Christ would have thought and take the proper action.
Father Moreau was fortunate to have as his spiritual director at St. Sulpice one Father Gabriel Mollevaut. This good priest was a late vocation, responding to God’s call after a distinguished career as a diplomat to the government of Napoleon in Paris and later as a professor of Greek, Latin, and Italian at the College of Metz. He was ordained in 1816 at the age of forty-two and quickly became superior of the Solitude of Issy, where only highly proficient graduate seminarians were sent. Here indeed was a benevolent confluence of personalities. The good Father Mollevaut instantly recognized the quality of the young Abbé and taught him how to properly channel his natural zeal. His motive in training the young priests at Issy was to develop the “interior life,” something he stressed they could not acquire in the short time they would be with him, but must nurture their entire lives.
What were the qualities needed to cultivate the interior life? Above all, silence is the basic guarantee of the interior life. Add to that early rising, evening examination of conscience, monthly priestly retreats, strict observance of rules, self-denial, and obedience to superiors. Father Mollevaut took a personal interest in each of his students and, after his retirement from Issy, traveled the French countryside visiting the priests he had trained, encouraging them and checking on their progress.
It was at St. Sulpice, too, that Father Moreau came under the influence of Father Lamennais’ defense of the papacy. It naturally fit his own beliefs and placed him foursquare against some important French churchmen of the time. Fortunately for our young priest, Father Mollevaut dissuaded Father Moreau from coming out publicly in support of Lamennais. When the latter was condemned by the Holy See and later apostatized, he was certainly grieved, but it was no personal loss for him.
While Father Moreau had taken a personal vow of absolute obedience to his bishop in accepting any assignment given him, his interests lay in strengthening the French Church from within. As we have seen, during the nineteenth century militant anti-Catholicism and anticlericalism were the characteristics of public life. He knew that he could make very little impact on the political and social picture; he also knew that a French Church strong and united from within was necessary to withstand the active persecution it was undergoing at the hands of an intolerant government. The Revolutionaries did not fear a “Church” that looked and felt Catholic in most respects, but what they dreaded was one purged of its Gallicanism and recognizing Rome as the seat of its loyalty and power.
The focal point of attack by the anticlericals was the hated Society of Jesus. In truth, Father Moreau was a great admirer of Ignatian spirituality and incorporated much of it in his future congregation. Time and again he was denounced as a crypto-Jesuit by the government and accused of trying to re-establish the outlawed Society.
Father Moreau’s career as a seminary professor began with doubts on his part. He worried that he lacked the aptitudes and virtues needed to train seminarians. Characteristically, however, he threw himself into his assigned task with great energy and enthusiasm. As a result, his thirteen years as a professor were marked with brilliant performance and steady advancement. He began at the minor seminary at Tessé teaching philosophy in 1823. Two years later he was advanced to the chair of dogmatic theology at St. Vincent’s under Father Bouvier. His annual retreats were spent at Grand Chartreuse, La Trappe, or the Solitude of Issy, where he cultivated an even deeper interior life. In addition, his practical organizational skills were honed, and he achieved greater knowledge of the workings of the world.
When the troubles with Father Lamennais came to a head, however, and Father Moreau’s Roman leanings became known to his superiors, he was — in a sense — demoted to the chair of Holy Scripture. While it was not in fact a demotion, he knew that Father Bouvier shifted him to this position because of his anti-Gallican beliefs. This was his way of silencing him on the matter. Father Moreau knew and loved the subject, of course, but was distressed at the reason for the change. Nevertheless, he plunged into his new assignment with his usual zeal. God would reward him for his obedience, for a new door was about to open with the help and encouragement of another holy priest, Father Jacques Dujarié.
Father Dujarié’s life is a history in miniature of the Church in France during and immediately after the Revolution. Born in 1767 in a tiny hamlet, he exhibited at an early age the piety and dedication which led him in later years to become a saintly priest. After early classical studies, he was in the Grand Seminaire directed by the Sulpicians, already ordained a deacon and about to undergo priestly ordination, when in 1791 the revolutionary government closed the seminary. Because the directors had refused to take the schismatic oath, their seminary was confiscated and the students dispersed. Our young almost-priest was forced to earn a living as a weaver, a shepherd and even an itinerant lemonade-peddler in Paris, never giving up his vocation. In 1795, he made his way to the town of Ruillé-sur-Loir to serve as assistant to the pastor there, Father de la Haye, who was acting at the risk of his life. Under this brave pastor, Jacques Dujarié completed his priestly training and in December, 1795, secretly received ordination from Bishop de Maille. There was no time — nor books — for a firm foundation in philosophy and theology. The crying need was for holy and brave priests who could bring Mass and the Sacraments to the faithful. Father Dujarié served Ruillé and the surrounding towns until his old age.
Although Father Dujarié was a priest dedicated to the entirety of the needs of his congregation, his great love was for the children of the poor. Their need was greatest, both physically and spiritually. These children lived in a state of semi-savagery running the streets like pack animals, a danger to themselves and others. With next to nothing materially, he convinced a small group of sisters — the Sisters of Evron — to open a charity center in Ruillé to care for the sick and to begin a school for the children. He opened another school in a smaller village nearby where he himself taught catechism classes and convinced a few young ladies to teach the urchins other subjects. After a rocky start, because of the shrewlike temper of the young lady in charge and some political trouble with the local governing council, another young woman, ZoEB du RoscoE4t, who became Mother Marie-Madeleine, and several of her companions took over the school and welcomed children in droves. The ladies took the name the Sisters of Providence and by 1826, they numbered fifty, had a new school building and operated under governmental permission as an institution of charity. Religious groups still were not allowed to own property and could not operate as an arm of the Church.
In the meantime, the political situation was once more in upheaval. Napoleon had been deposed and the monarchy was restored in the person of the Bourbon King Louis XVIII. While the restrictions on the Church remained in place, Louis allowed ecclesiastics to assume some teaching positions, particularly in the field of university education, to counterbalance the liberals and anticlericals who, for years, had everything to themselves.
It was at this time that many of the dioceses of western France began to establish associations of teaching brothers modeled after the Brothers of the Christian Schools (Christian Brothers) of St. John Baptist de la Salle. At a retreat of all the religious of the Le Mans diocese, it was agreed that they should do the same. Here all eyes turned to Father Dujarié because of the success he was experiencing with the two groups of sisters in his parish. So, in the year 1820, again after a rocky start, a few candidates for the brothers, under the patronage of St. Joseph, began their direction under Father Dujarié. The most promising candidate, Brother André, was sent to the Christian Brothers novitiate in Paris to learn their teaching methods and acquire their books. Brother André’s efforts in shoring up the infant religious group and in establishing its schools for boys were to prove invaluable in the years to come. In 1823 the order received the designation of “charitable association for the advancement of elementary education.” There were already ten schools served by thirty brothers. In a few more years there would be more than one hundred brothers.
Father Dujarié, however, knew that this seeming success could prove to be very hollow. So many of the candidates were enthusiastic, but practically illiterate. They had to be educated in the absolute basics before they could go on to educate others. Brother André was an excellent novice-master, but could do only so much. Father Dujarié was now fifty-three and a sick man. He knew that if his group of brothers was to succeed it would need a younger, healthier, better educated, more energetic priest than himself. He made two attempts to organize a society of diocesan priests to work with his brothers. Though unsuccessful, he knew that this idea was right. Then to further complicate matters, the monarchy was again toppled in the July Revolution of 1830, leading to rumors of a resurgence of anticlericalism. More than fifty brothers abandoned their posts, and of the sixty-eight still teaching at the end of that year, only eight renewed their one-year vow of obedience.
Never one to give up, Father Dujarié now looked to a young priest of his diocese who had given a retreat at his church in Ruillé and who himself many years before at St. Sulpice had thought of forming a society of diocesan priests.
A Plan Begins to Form
Even from the beginning of his priesthood, Father Moreau had the idea of forming a society of diocesan priests for missionary work. Given his great love for the Holy Trinity, his habit was to think in triads. Consequently, he formed a plan of a religious family — priests, brothers, and laymen — to teach boys and girls and to bring Christ and His Church to the people of France, who had so long been denied the Word of God, and, if possible, to do this same work beyond the shores of Europe. When the ailing Father Dujarié tapped the energetic and resourceful Father Moreau to revitalize the Brothers of St. Joseph, he eagerly accepted, even though this was in addition to his duties as a seminary professor. Of course, all this was predicated on the approval of the bishop of Le Mans, Bishop Carron, but that prelate died before giving his approval and the newly appointed bishop was the aforementioned Father Bouvier.
Bishop Bouvier did give approval to Father Moreau, replacing Father Dujarié as the superior of the Brothers of St. Joseph in 1835, at which time the novitiate was moved to Le Mans from Ruillé. The sainted Father Dujarié eventually resigned as pastor of the parish of Ruillé and moved to the house in Le Mans — soon to become the motherhouse of a great religious order — where he spent the remainder of his days.
Troubles with a Saint
At about the same time, a holy young nun, Mother Euphrasia Pelletier, had founded a group of sisters in neighboring Angers. These dedicated sisters took over an orphanage there and provided a refuge for young ladies who might otherwise have fallen into dissolute lives. Father Moreau was asked by some ladies of Le Mans to approach Mother Euphrasia to enlist her assistance in forming a similar house in his diocese. Mother eagerly accepted; it was her plan to form a generalate in Angers of several convents of sisters under her direction. Due to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, quarrels and concealed intentions, primarily on the part of some of the sisters, Father Moreau was, for all practical purposes, left “out of the loop” while ostensibly serving as the superior of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Since the houses were in two different dioceses, the two bishops refused to relinquish their authority. Some of Mother Euphrasia’s sisters refused to be transferred back to Angers after finishing novitiate in Le Mans, thus undermining her control over them. One of the sisters, embittered at not being made superior of the Le Mans convent, resented Father Moreau’s decision and gossiped about him to Mother Euphrasia and the other religious. While there was no evil intent between Mother Euphrasia and Father Moreau, their disagreement came to a head. The upshot of the situation was that the Le Mans convent broke away from Mother’s group to become an independent house.
Mother Euphrasia Pelletier went on to expand her organization into the Good Shepherd Sisters, which at the time of her death in 1868, numbered one hundred houses and 2,760 sisters worldwide. In 1940, Mother Euphrasia was canonized by Pius XII.
Holy Cross Takes Shape
Throughout the difficulties with Mother Euphrasia’s group, Father Moreau achieved great success at fundraising among the emerging middle class of France. He formed an organization where even the poor could pledge a miniscule amount each month. His aim was to have great numbers of people contribute small amounts on a regular basis, thereby spreading loyalty to the Church and aiding the Catholic education of French youth. He insisted that his teachers be prepared to teach all subjects well, not only religion. He wanted the government to become dependent on the importance of his schools because they were of high quality. With this in mind, he sent his teaching brothers to the best secular colleges in France. Sadly, when Father Bouvier became bishop, he recalled the brothers studying at the Sorbonne. As always, Father Moreau took this setback with docility, continuing to form in his mind the vision of a unified religious order — priests, brothers and laymen. The bishop did not give approval to a society of laymen; consequently, the group of sisters at Le Mans eventually became the third branch of the Holy Cross Family.
The New Bishop
By the time Bishop Bouvier assumed his duties, he and Father Moreau already had quite a history. Their paths crossed at St. Sulpice and at St. Vincent’s with Father Moreau always subordinate to Father Bouvier. There were many crosscurrents of philosophies and loyalties intermingling with politics in France at the time. Churchmen had to tread lightly with the secular authorities while still maintaining their allegiance to Rome. These two strong-willed men approached the situation from somewhat different directions, as we have learned. While always respectful of each other, even at times affectionate, their basic attitudes as to how to get things done clashed. For example, Father Moreau, being very single-minded and direct, made no secret of his friendship and intellectual agreement with Dom Guéranger, the leader of the “Roman faction” of French clerics. On another occasion, when Bishop Bouvier demoted one of his professors for winning an appeal to Rome against him, Father Moreau immediately invited that priest to join the budding Holy Cross group as novice master — hardly the diplomatic thing to do. In fairness to the bishop, when he knew that Father Moreau was right about something, he backed him to the hilt. But when they disagreed, it was always Father Moreau who paid the price.
In its own right, Bishop Bouvier’s story is an inspiring one. He, too, like the good Fathers Moullevaut and Dujarié, received his priestly formation in secret during the Terror. He educated himself in philosophy and theology, putting together seminary courses and publishing the entire range of priestly studies which became the standard curriculum in French seminaries, running through fifteen editions from 1834-1858. He was a brilliant man — and not one to trifle with. The bishop and his subject’s disagreement came to a head when Father Moreau wanted approval as a separate congregation of religious. For his part, the bishop refused to relinquish control over the loosely-knit group under his jurisdiction.
Notre Dame de Sainte Croix
When Bishop Bouvier finally had enough of Father Moreau’s “intransigence,” he dismissed him from his position as assistant superior of St. Vincent’s Seminary. Although Father Moreau was happy to have more time and energy to devote to the foundation of his order, he was upset at the bishop’s lack of confidence in him. In addition, this move meant that his few priests and brothers would no longer have free room and board at the seminary, and he would lose his salaried position. They were desperately poor and depended on these benefits for survival.
Some years earlier, during his days at St. Sulpice, Father Moreau had befriended an old priest named de Lisle who had such terrible scruples that he was unable to say Mass for fifteen years; nor could he get through his Divine Office. Father de Lisle had escaped the Terror years by fleeing to England and Germany and, when he returned to France, he took up residence in Le Mans. When Father Moreau became seminary professor, he visited Father de Lisle daily and prayed the Office with him, gradually bringing him around to completing it. He served as his assistant during Mass, and was able to get him back to saying Holy Mass once more. In gratitude, Father de Lisle willed the younger priest some property he owned, seven acres with a house and a few other buildings. When, in 1835, the need arose for the priests and brothers to find new quarters, Father Moreau’s friend gladly allowed him to take possession of the property. It was in a rural area near Le Mans, and had originally been the site of a church and hostelry founded by St. Bertrand in the sixth century. Father Moreau moved the brothers to the farmhouse and rented a house nearby for the growing number of priests. Because the property was in the borough of Sainte Croix and identified on old maps as Notre Dame, Father Moreau called his establishment Notre Dame de Sainte Croix, a fitting name for the future Congregation.
As soon as they were installed in their new property, Father Moreau and his priests began giving missions to the surrounding parishes of Le Mans. Apparently, he was a mighty orator, as his talks began and ended each parish mission. By this means, the Holy Cross Fathers were bringing Catholicism back to the people of France. Father Moreau received permission from the pope to institute the practice of the Way of the Cross, a devotion which became hugely popular in France at this time. These missions, many of which were given outdoors, were attended by thousands. Hundreds were converted by the zeal, love, and holiness of these priests. Frenchmen were hungry to be Catholic again.
Another project that Father Moreau tackled immediately was the boarding school, which he set some of the priests and brothers to operating. All the while he continued to petition Bishop Bouvier for permission to take the vows of religious life so that, one day, they could be a true congregation. The bishop again was reluctant, for this would strip him of total control of Holy Cross. However, with Father Mollevaut’s backing, the Auxiliary Priests (as the priests in Holy Cross were then known) were allowed to take the vows of religious life in 1840.
Another point of disagreement was the practical matter of who would do the cooking and cleaning for the priests and brothers. Naturally, they could hire only girls of upstanding moral character. As the numbers of religious grew, so did the group of young ladies who worked for Holy Cross. Father Moreau had the idea of forming a society of sisters who would lead dedicated lives in service to the priests and brothers. Again, the bishop disapproved of this idea. However, as was his habit, Father Moreau was convinced that this was a workable idea and asked the superior of the Le Mans Good Shepherd convent to train postulants for an experimental program. In 1841, these ladies were joined by one Léocadie Gascoin, a doctor’s daughter, who eventually became the superioress of a new order as Mother Mary of the Seven Dolors. Now his triad was complete, but it was not until Bishop Bouvier’s death that the sisters’ constitutions were approved in 1867. From these humble beginnings spring the Marianites of the Holy Cross.
His Educational Goals
Ever one to have a grand vision for the future, Father Moreau’s intention for his educational institutions was to achieve college status. Instead of being the enemy of the state educational system, he wanted to show that a comprehensive education at all levels could both prepare the student to live in the world as a productive citizen and, at the same time imbue him at all levels with Catholic values and a Catholic worldview. He believed that the “mind must not be cultivated at the expense of the heart,” and that while he was “preparing useful citizens for society, he must likewise do his utmost to prepare citizens for eternal life.” This was true philosophy in his view, not the hollow and empty secular philosophy that the state schools were pushing. As a first step, he sought out top-level teachers and encouraged them to improve their education and write textbooks. He wrote textbooks himself and compiled a teaching manual that remained in use for many years. His philosophy of school discipline was vastly different from the prevailing one. Instead of a military attitude of severe punishment, he chose a softer approach.
After the 1848 Revolution, an upheaval which encompassed most of Europe, anticlericalism was again on the rise. Barricades in the streets and rampaging mobs became the symbols of liberty. Several of the brothers abandoned their posts to join the new freedom. The Le Mans students caught the fever and formed leadership committees, demanding more “democratic” leadership at their school. Father Moreau allowed them to form a band and march in civic parades in support of the new Second Republic, but he drew the line when they challenged the school administration. When he cracked down, there was open rebellion on the part of the students. They declared their own “Barricade Day” and seized part of the complex. Father Moreau, understanding the difficult times and his equally difficult charges, simply persuaded the rebels to assemble in the study hall one by one. When they were all there, he gave them a verbal blistering, rejected all of their demands, and promised expulsion for the least infraction. He imposed no punishment, even on the ringleaders. There was no more “revolution” inside Sainte Croix!
Yet there were still enemies. The anticlericals continued to accuse the Holy Cross institutions of being “crypto-Jesuits,” and the more reactionary of the churchmen suspected Father Moreau of being in league with the government. He always had to walk that fine line. However, he did it well, for in January, 1849, Holy Cross was given full teaching privileges and state approval. The Le Mans school was the most important high school in the west of France, and their scattered elementary schools numbered about fifty at this point. All three branches of Holy Cross continued to prosper and grow.
It was about this time that Father Moreau announced that he was planning to build a new conventual church which would serve as the focal point of Holy Cross and a visible sign of the success of Our Lady in assisting them to get off the ground. Ground was broken in late 1840 and by 1842 there was a belfry with three huge bells, representing the three branches of Holy Cross under their patrons, The Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Holy Heart of Mary and St. Joseph. The first Mass was said for the community on the feast of the Assumption, 1846, in the gigantic, neo-gothic style structure, a visible image of the spiritual edifice of Holy Cross.
Holy Cross Becomes
As early as 1839, Father Moreau had received requests from Bishop Dupuch of Algiers for at least three brothers to assist him in his diocese. At the prompting of Father Mollevaut, Bishop-elect de la HailandiE8re of Vincennes, Indiana, and Bishop Bourget of Montreal also requested the services of brothers and priests. Father Moreau knew that to achieve ecclesiastical approval for his congregation from Rome, any growth outside of Le Mans, especially on an international scale, would be greatly helpful. Consequently, he decided that, although their resources, both human and financial, would be stretched very thin, a good beginning in the foreign missions would be Algeria, partly because French would be the language in the schools, and the still anticlerical French government welcomed any help they could get in subduing and educating the Algerians. Lack of funds and the difficulties of desert life, coupled with the colonial government’s desire not to irritate their Moslem subjects, forced a recall in 1842. In 1843, six brothers returned to the desert, but no priests were allowed to go. There they toiled until 1873 when, their labors proving futile, the mission was abandoned.
In the meantime, the seeds of Holy Cross fell on more fertile ground in America. French influence was, of course, important in the settling of the New World, particularly in Canada, the Midwest, and Louisiana. Many of the priests and bishops at this time in America were French. Bishop de la HailandiE8re of Indiana had a very difficult diocese: 36,000 square miles and a population of 700,000, most of whom were non-Catholics, although more were moving in all the time to settle the wilderness. As the Catholic population increased, so did the anti-papist bigotry, making his job all the more difficult. The bishop’s finances were paltry and his offer to Father Moreau was somewhat vague. As it turned out, he could not even afford to pay the passage for the six brothers and one priest whom Father Moreau sent. Three of the brothers were teachers and the others were a carpenter, a farmer and a tailor. Father Moreau had rightly anticipated the needs of a wilderness community.
Some years later, in 1847, two priests, eight brothers, and four sisters arrived in Montreal. In some ways, it was easier there, as French was the spoken language of Canadian Catholics. Progress in Canada was slow, but steady. They were always poor, but Father Moreau could always rely on his Canadian mission to help financially when it could and to be submissive to the superior. Of course, the great work of Holy Cross in Canada reached a high watermark years later with the sanctity of a humble college porter: Blessed Brother André Bessette.
Also in the 1840s, the bishop of Detroit consented to give religious status to the sisters whom Bishop Bouvier wanted to remain “pious girls.” From this grew the Marianites of the Holy Cross in America, serving in many apostolates: schools, colleges, hospitals, and orphanages. Naturally, this achievement meant further tension between the two Frenchmen. Bishop Bouvier proved more intransigent than ever in refusing to recommend Holy Cross to the Holy See for canonical status. Father Moreau could see that he was the stumbling block to this recommendation. Therefore at the General Chapter in 1849, he offered his resignation, hoping that his absence as superior of Holy Cross would prompt the bishop’s approval. This was not to be. The Chapter refused to even consider his resignation.
In 1850, Father Moreau visited Rome and had several audiences with Pope Pius IX. This pope had suffered greatly at the hand of Garibaldi and his brigands and had only just been reinstalled in Rome with the help of a French expedition. They got along famously, and Pius asked Father Moreau to take over an orphanage in Rome which was languishing for want of proper administration. Father Moreau sent for four of his brothers and quickly got the place in shape, to the delight of the pope. During the time that he spent in Rome, Father Moreau visited St. Peter’s on a number of occasions. He was present at the ceremony celebrating the dedication of the Basilica when he “perceived the angelic figure of Pius IX.” To the scandal and dismay of those present, he shoved aside the Swiss Guards, priests, bishops, and cardinals present, threw himself on his knees and kissed the feet of His Holiness — an impulsive action uncharacteristic of our dear priest. The pope seemed pleased, and some time later invited Father Moreau to lunch. When he genuflected before the Holy Father, the pope grasped his rabat — a large collar symbolic of the French clergy — removed it and tossed it on a table. From now on, he was told, all members of Holy Cross would wear the Roman collar, symbol of their loyalty to Rome. Needless to say, Father Moreau was delighted; Bishop Bouvier was not.
In 1851, the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation of Propaganda requested of Father Moreau that he send missionaries to East Bengal, implying that a positive reply would carry great influence in achieving canonical status. He could not refuse. Therefore, again despite the vehement disapproval of Bishop Bouvier, several English-speaking brothers from the United States, some sisters and a priest were sent to this primitive place. Natural catastrophies, tropical illnesses, unbearable heat, difficult languages, all took their toll, but the dedicated missionaries persevered, and the mission was a success. When the bishop of East Bengal was transferred to West Bengal, Holy Cross administered the entire country. Father Moreau sent Father Pierre Dufal and, with the approval of the Holy See, Father Dufal became the first Holy Cross priest to become a bishop.
In the 1850s Poland saw the first Holy Cross institutions within its borders with the founding of an agricultural orphanage and two other orphanages in the cities of Lwow and Posen. Holy Cross was now truly international.
All these achievements still did not soften the bishop’s refusal to recommend canonical status. Further to complicate an already bad situation, someone accused the bishop of heresy in his theological writings. A formal accusation was made to the Congregation of the Index, and naturally Bishop Bouvier suspected Father Moreau and Dom Guéranger of being behind the proceedings. The bishop traveled to Rome to defend himself and agreed to purge his books of their Gallican leanings in forthcoming editions. Finally, Father Moreau, knowing that Holy Cross would never be given the stamp of approval by the bishop and also knowing that Rome would not accede without the bishop’s recommendation, applied for exeat — a formal request to depart his diocese and settle in a diocese whose bishop would be more favorable to him. This would have been an extreme step, which only the death of Bishop Bouvier in 1854 prevented. His successor immediately recommended to Rome the approval of the Constitutions.
The first and most important effort of Holy Cross in the United States was in Indiana. When the brothers and priest, Father Edward Sorin, settled in the diocesan seat, they had absolutely nothing. Their passage to Indiana was most difficult, for this was before the days of the continental railroad. Nevertheless, Father Sorin was the ultimate tourist and became enamored of America immediately. He and one of his brothers made their way to Niagara Falls on the trip to Indiana. His reaction to seeing such immense beauty and power was to fall on his knees and praise God. Then he formed a cross of two sticks and planted it in the ground after the fashion of a fifteenth-century conquistador. The bishop of Indiana gave them an Indian mission 250 miles north, in the small settlement of South Bend, and told him he could have jurisdiction over everything he could visit. This was right up Father Sorin’s alley, for now he could be independent of the motherhouse in France and of Bishop de la HailandiE8re. His instructions from the bishop were to open a boarding school and, to facilitate this venture, he begged Father Moreau for more priests and some sisters, of which three and four respectively were sent.
Father Sorin’s personality was enigmatic, one day wanting to learn the Indian languages to minister to the savages and the next planning the beginnings of a university carved out of the wilderness. He was fiercely independent, although he had taken a vow of obedience to his superior, and was unwilling to wait for approval from France by return mail — which could take three months or more — to begin the many projects he had in mind. He concluded that things were done fast in America, and the future of Holy Cross lay there, not in the stifling atmosphere of Europe. Here was the crux of the terrible disagreements between himself and Father Moreau. Father Sorin rushed into building projects without approval and had the bills sent to the motherhouse, knowing that Father Moreau would somehow find a way to pay the creditors. Poor Father Moreau’s patience was sorely tried, but he usually found a way to make excuses for Father Sorin’s impulsiveness. Time and again, Father Sorin was recalled to France to make an accounting of himself to the superior and the general council of Holy Cross. He would always promise to be more responsible in his spending, but when he returned to Indiana, his same old habits surfaced. In the long run, as the establishment at South Bend grew into the great University of Notre Dame du Lac, Father Sorin’s vision proved correct, but when the situation was ongoing with the motherhouse, Father Moreau was driven to distraction.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, the position of vicar-apostolic in East Bengal became available, with the promise of a bishopric. Father Moreau saw his way out of the dilemma of what to do about Father Sorin’s spending habits by offering the opportunity to become the first Holy Cross bishop. Father Sorin would have none of it, saying he did not deserve the title of bishop. He simply refused to leave Notre Dame. To complicate matters further, Father Sorin believed that he should be appointed superior of all the Holy Cross institutions in America. Here was another tremendous source of friction between himself and Father Moreau, as well as with the Montreal and New Orleans communities.
Here mention must be made of the mission in New Orleans. The French archbishop of New Orleans invited Father Moreau to send religious to take over St. Mary’s orphanage in a slum area of the city. The first brothers were sent in 1849 under Brother Vincent Pieau. He described the atmosphere of the city as “unhealthy, especially for strangers.” New Orleans suffered a series of epidemics during those years (of cholera, yellow fever, and malaria) because of its heat and proximity to swamplands which bred mosquitoes. Although life was difficult, and the brothers nearly withdrew a number of times, they persevered and, in 1871, moved the older orphans to St. Isidore’s Farm, a Mississippi River-front plantation on the outskirts of the city. As the need for an orphanage diminished, the institution was converted into St. Isidore’s College in 1879. Presently, the school is the second-oldest continuing Holy Cross institution in the United States, Notre Dame being the oldest. Its name was changed in 1895 to Holy Cross School, and it serves as a middle and high school for boys.
Despite all the disagreements and squabbles, Holy Cross continued to grow worldwide. While there were certainly elements of pettiness, meanness, and self-seeking on the part of some who tried Father Moreau greatly, the mere facts that their missions were far-flung, communications were slow, and they were simply trying to bring the word of God to the people they served, made some of the difficulties understandable. Father Moreau looked upon these problems as caused by the devil trying to play havoc with his work.
Desparation, Not Despair
In spite of his trying to view the problems of Holy Cross by this attitude, there were so many ongoing difficulties that, in August of 1855, he suffered a terrible dryness — all the anguish of despair without actually despairing. The devil taunted him that he and all his religious were going to Hell. He prayed, but felt abandoned by God. In retrospect, experts in mystical theology agree that he was undergoing a “dark night of the soul” — a mystical experience intended by God to purify a chosen soul and purge it from attachments to anything that is not God. Finally, in May of 1856, after much politicking in Rome and with the approval of the new bishop of Le Mans, the Sacred Congregation approved the Constitutions of Holy Cross, but only for the brothers and priests. The Holy Father decided that the sisters would act under a separate constitution with Father Moreau as superior. A further piece of glad news was the consecration of the church in Le Mans the next year. Bishop Bouvier was dead, but the pettiness of some of his underlings remained, and they insisted that Father Moreau not be a part of the ceremonies dedicating the new church. God was truly testing him by this public humiliation. In addition, a lawsuit was brought against him, charging forgery and undue influence, contesting the will of a benefactor who had left him a large estate. The case dragged on for four years and was eventually decided in favor of the benefactor’s niece who had brought the charges.
By now, many of his own priests were turning against him, including Father Sorin. They criticized him for being power hungry and controlling finances too tightly. Then, with the prompting of the house in Paris and other priests in high positions, Brother Marie Julien was put in charge of finances for the congregation as Father Moreau’s assistant. The other priests took advantage of not having to go through the superior and tapped Brother Marie Julien, who soon began to think of himself as the congregation’s banker. Sadly, for him, Father Moreau and the entire Congregation of Holy Cross, this brother, fancying himself a financier, and acting in bad faith, was conned into investing huge sums of their money in a bogus stock deal hoping finally to put Holy Cross on a firm financial footing. Of course, the swindler made off with the money and the creditors came after Father Moreau, who eventually dismissed Brother Marie Julien from his vows and had him made legally responsible for the debts he had incurred. Put in a nutshell, the elder children of the Holy Cross Family were disobedient to the Father and expected him to bail them out. Additionally, all properties in France had to be in his name personally because of the anticlerical laws prohibiting religious congregations from owning property. Father Moreau was being squeezed from both sides. He took this with detachment all the while working furiously to settle the debts.
In 1861, several of the priests in important positions, notably Father Sorin in Indiana, Father Drouelle in Rome and Father Champeau in Paris wrote the Le Mans bishop requesting that Father Moreau be demoted as superior. The bishop prudently decided to conduct an investigation into their charges of financial mismanagement. Father Moreau was vindicated by the investigation, the only criticism of him being that his duties were too heavy and recommending that he delegate some of them to others. The American Civil War caused further division between France and Notre Dame. Father Sorin, naturally, was sympathetic to the Northern cause, and Father Moreau, because of his country’s historic ties with Louisiana, was sympathetic to the Southern cause — just another crack in their very shaky relationship.
The situation continued to worsen with the passing years. Father Moreau’s primary concern was that all the creditors, including members of his own family, who had advanced him money on his good name alone, be repaid their loans. He looked at it as simply a matter of justice. Finally, in 1866, he offered to step down as superior general provided the debts he had incurred were honored. The scheming continued, however, and word got around that the only way to save Holy Cross was to sell the complex of the motherhouse at Sainte-Croix and default on unsecured loans, which, of course, were the very debts that the holy founder insisted be paid. The congregation attempted to solve the situation by appointing Bishop Dufal of East Bengal the new superior general. Half a world away, he was not privy to all the shenanigans of the previous years, and when he arrived in France to survey the records, knew that he had been duped. Bishop Dufal promptly tendered his resignation, not wanting to be a party to the denigration of the founder, whom he knew to be a holy and scrupulously honest priest.
At the General Chapter meeting in 1868, bitter recriminations against Father Moreau were advanced, accusing him of being responsible for all Holy Cross’ troubles. Accordingly, the decision was made to sell the motherhouse and all its furnishings. Father Moreau had continued to reside here after his resignation. With characteristic ingratitude, the new administration made no provision for their founder’s care. Records show that he even had to buy back the armchair in which he had slept for so many years for the sum of 52.50 francs! He moved his pitiful belongings to the home of his (blood) sisters near the motherhouse. His priests and brothers in Holy Cross had totally abandoned him. He was still superior of the sisters, however, who also had their quarters sold out from under them. It was the Marianites who saw to it that he and his sisters had food to eat and attended him in his last days.
A Holy Death
Father Moreau was not idle in his last years. Always able to see the “big picture,” he looked at his maltreatment by the congregation as a means of purging him and preparing him to enter Heaven. He maintained an active life giving missions, which he had never completely stopped even in his busiest days. He was in great demand as a confessor, preacher, and substitute priest for the surrounding parishes. Never idle, even when in his tiny room at his sisters’ home, he read spiritual books, prayed and revised a book of meditations he had published in 1848. His duties with the Marianites also kept him busy, saying daily Mass for them, reading aloud the lives of the saints, and reciting the Rosary in their chapel.
On New Year’s Eve in 1872, the pastor of a local church fell ill. Always ready to help a friend, Father Moreau agreed to say Mass and preach on New Year’s Day. During the night, he experienced severe abdominal pains, but managed to drag himself out of bed and into the church for Mass. He even preached a short sermon. He had celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the last time. He was taken back to Le Mans, and, after four days, he allowed his sisters to call the doctor. It was only at the insistence of the doctor that he agreed to get in bed and have a fire, two luxuries he had not allowed himself for many years. He prayed constantly, knowing that his end was near, and on January 18 he received the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. His own words in his meditation on death are most fitting for his departure from this vale of tears: “Thus dies the just man in the arms of his God, and his last sigh is the beginning of his glory and his new life.” Father Moreau was nothing if not just. The mark of his life was holiness and he would not be compromised for the sake of worldly accomplishment. With Abbot Guéranger, Venerable Emmanuel D’Alzon, Venerable Francis Libermann, and the rest, he is another jewel in the crown of France’s diadem of counter-revolutionary sanctity. The enemy they all fought, the Revolution, is still with us. May Venerable Basil Moreau’s fortitude give us a holy example to combat it, and may his prayers bring upon us the grace we need to follow his example.
So, how do we answer the question of the first paragraph? We don’t know if we can. Ultimately, in God’s Providential dispensation for our salvation, men, grace, and circumstances tumble around each other, producing polished specimens of sanctity such as our present subject. His story may only suffice to prove the elusiveness of the answer. But, answer or no, we can thank God, our always-loving Father, for sending us the chosen souls He has throughout the ages. Father Moreau was truly a man against his times, raised up by God to fight the evils of his day. The great work he took up in the worst of times continues still, among those few apostolic men who are crucified to the world and the world to them. May their number increase!