Three French Capuchins
Feast Day : 18 August
Removed from the Book of the Republic and Made to Die Noiselessly
"These men were removed from the book of the Republic, I was told to make them die noiselessly.." These are the chilling words of Captain Laly, the commander of the ‘Two Associates (Deux Associés)’ - a prison boat used for interning and deporting perceived enemies of the France’s Revolutionary Government. In this case the perceived enemies were clergy who refused to swear allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was a legal prescription enacted in 1790 by France’s Revolutionary Government to subdue the Catholic Church in France and ensure the adherence of its clergy to the Revolution’s aims and objectives.
By 1794 the number of priests refusing to take the oath had grown so numerous that it was judged inexpedient to guillotine them. Therefore they were instead sentenced to deportation to French Guiana and Madagascar instead and interned on three unseaworthy prison ships moored at the port of Rochefort. Since British naval vessels, blockading French naval departures, were patrolling the French coastal waters for well over a year the prison ships were turned into veritable death camps on water.
In all, between one and two thousand clergy were imprisoned on the three prison ships of Rochefort and of these some 585 died of a complete lack of sanitation, unhealthy living conditions, contaminated food and maltreatment by captains and crew members who were themselves hardened prison inmates. as well as an outbreak of typhoid fever. Prison conditions were well nigh intolerable, especially for the elderly and the infirm. Over four hundred people were crammed into the boat’s hold and, chained together in groups of ten, they had to eat spoiled food from a single dirty tin dish with wooden spoons. They were forced to eat standing up on deck and crammed together. At night. after the sleeping time was signalled by the ship’s whistle, they slept below deck in crowded atmosphere so foul that the sailors would light tar to purify the air. Of course, the fumes from the burning tar only caused further difficulties in breathing and those who swooned because of this were dragged onto the dank freezing decks to recover their breaths. Such a marked contrast in temperature only led to them becoming even more ill.
In addition to a lack of basic hygiene and sanitation, the prisoners had to endure the jibes of the sailors and were deprived of their breviarWhen they died, their corpses were buried unceremoniously in unmarked graves on the French Atlantic islands of Île Madame or Île-d'Aix.ies or indeed any other kind of religious literature or object of devotion. Among those who perished at Rochefort were five Capuchin Martyrs, - Blessed John-Louis of Besançon, Blessed Protasius of Seez and Blessed Sebastian of Nancy.
Blessed John-Louis of Besançon
John-Baptist Loir, Son of the Director of Lyons’s Mint
Blessed John-Louis of Besançon was born at Besançon in Eastern France on the 11th of March 1720 and baptized John-Baptist Loir. His parents were John-Louis Loir, a Parisian who was director of the Bourgogne mint and his wife Elizabeth Julliot. In 1730, John-Baptist’s family moved to Lyons when his father became director of the mint in that city.
Brother John Louis of Besançon, a Humble, Zealous and Friendly Capuchin Priest
Although John-Baptist Loir attended school in Lyons, little is known of his youth until at the age of twenty he entered the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor. At Lyons’s novitiate friary, he donned the Capuchin habit and received the religious name ‘Brother John-Louis of Besançon’. He made his Perpetual Profession one year later, on the 9th May 1741, and was ordained some years later was ordained a priest. His remaining years as a Capuchin Brother were spent either in Lyons’s large Capuchin Friary of Saint Francis or the city’s smaller Capuchin Friary of Saint Andrew. He was Guardian of Saint Andrew’s Friary from 1761 to 1764 and afterwards was appointed Guardian of Saint Francis’s Friary. He remained in this office until 1767.
Aside from these few facts we know nothing else of his religious life up until the persecution of the Capuchins by the French Revolutionary Authorities began in 1791. However an Abbot who know him personally has left us this description of his personality. “Endowed with all the virtues that could render him suitable, he never sought to receive any office, saying that he did not enter the Order to command but to obey, not to dominate but to submit. He humbly dedicated himself to the salvation of souls and exercised the ministry of the confessional very fruitfully. He seemed tireless. The friars never organised any mission for which he did not offer his zeal. He preferred the simple people and the poor, but even important people of standing who were pious felt attracted by the noble urbanity and affability of his imposing and gracious appearance. It would be difficult to count the number of conversions that he worked, or the number of souls of all social classes whom he brought back to God.”
The Final Ordeal of this Venerable Old Capuchin Who had Become 'the Joy of All'
In 1791, the Revolutionary Authorities an inventory of all the goods in the large Friary of Saint Francis where Brother John-Louis was living. He was 74 years old at the time and, when asked about his future dispositions, he made clear that he wanted to remain a Capuchin. However, in October 1791, he had to flee Lyons for Bourbonnais where, together with two nieces who were Dominican nuns, he took refuge in a castle where his sister Nicola-Elizabeth lived with her son Gilbert de Grassin.
On the 3rd of February 1793, as a result of suspicious rumours and a tip-off by a malevolent informer, the inhabitants of the castle were interrogated by the local revolutionary officials and transported to Moulins where, together with some sixty priests who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy they were imprisoned in an old Poor Clare Monastery. Brother John Louis, who was described as an 'erstwhile Capuchin' is listed as one of those who refused to take the oath. His advanced age should have been reason enough for him to be spared legal punishment but provisions were made for elderly clergy also to be transported to Rochefort and deported from there to France’s overseas colonies as convicts. Brother Jean-Louis left Moulins on the 2nd of April 1794 in the third consignment with twenty six canons, curates, Trappists, Capuchins, other Franciscans and Brothers of the Christian Schools. For almost a month they were escorted in carts by members of the Gendarmerie and National Guard. Along the way, people took pity on them and tried to help them. On reaching Rochefort they were stripped of all their possessions and packed into two prison ships moored off the coast of Charente-Maritime in Western France.
The ship where Brother John Louis of Besançon was imprisoned was called the 'Two Associates (Deux Associés)'. Despite the desperate conditions that prevailed on ‘The Two Associates’ and despite being deprived of any religious literature or any other object of devotion, one of the clergy had managed to secret a breviary on his person, while another had secretly brought along a Gospel Book. Yet another clergyman had managed to secret some holy oils, and even the Blessed Sacrament was kept hidden by some priests in the ship’s hull. In this way, the imprisoned priests were able to comfort one another secretly, pray quietly in the silence of their hearts, and celebrate the sacraments discretely in the midst of unspeakable horrors. Fortified by his own deep faith, Brother John-Louis’s lively and spirited personality provided encouragement to his fellow inmates - so much so, that one of the survivors said that the Capuchin, "although venerable in age, had become the joy of all" on board. In fact he seemed to have the energy of a young person half his age since he tried to lighten the ordeal for others, while down playing his own severe sufferings. Right up until the point of his death, very few would suspect that he was chronically ill.
A Capuchin Martyr’s Prayerful Saintly Death
In fact on the day he died, he woke up and knelt down to pray as usual. It was in this prayer posture, kneeling upright next to his hammock pole, that fellow inmates found Brother John-Louis of Besançon‘s corpse on the morning of the of the 19th of May 1794. Even this holy Capuchin martyr’s dead body bore silent witness to a life of faithfulness to that spirit of prayer and devotion which has been a hallmark of Capuchin religious life since the very beginnings of the Order. Dying thus he became, like Saint Francis before him, not so much a man who prayed as a man who had himself become a prayer.
Blessed Protasius of Seez
The Cartwright’s Son, John Bourdon
Blessed Protasius of Seez was born on the 3rd of April 1747 at Seez (presently spelt Sees according to civil law) in North-Western France. His parents were Simon Bourdon, a well-off cartwright, and his wife, Mary Louise le Fou. They gave their son the name ‘John’ at his baptism. Little is known of John’s childhood or adolescence but at the age of twenty he entered the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor at Bayeux in Normandy.
The Norman Capuchin Provincial Minister’s Secretary - Brother Protasius of Seez
When he professed Perpetual Vows on the 27th of November 1768, John Bourdon received the religious name 'Brother Protasius of Seez'. He was ordained a priest in 1775 and stationed for a while at Honfleur Friary where he was director of the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace. He was later transferred to the Friary of Caen in 1783 and, in 1789, he was appointed Secretary to Normandy’s Capuchin Provincial Minister. At around the same time, he was appointed Guardian of the Capuchin Friary of Sotteville near Rouen.
A Faithful Capuchin Priest, Hunted Down, Imprisoned and Cruelly Martyred
Municipal officials came to this Friary in 1791, intending to requisition it. They demanded that the Brothers of the Fraternity take the oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy but all the Brothers present including Brother Protasius refused to do so. On two separate occasions, Brother Protasius repeated a declaration of his determination to remain in religious life. In the 26th of August 1791 the authorities took a final inventory of the contents of the Friary and one year later the Brothers were expelled from the house altogether. Determined, nevertheless, to at least remain in Rouen, Brother Protasius found lodging in the house of a local gentleman and he was able to pay the meager rent by means of a small pension, some Mass stipends and the proceeds of his begging. His ministry to the faithful of Rouen did not escape the notice of the city’s Revolutionary Authorities. He was arrested on the 10th of August 1793 and interrogated in a Revolutionary Tribunal. He was sentenced to deportation to French Guiana for having in his possession texts, considered inimical to the principles of the French Revolution, for celebrating Mass without permission and for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. In March 1794 he was taken in chains to the port of Rochefort, making the journey on foot. Arriving at the port, on the 12th of April 1794, he was immediately interned aboard the “Two Associates’ prison ship. He died on board that ship on the 23rd of August 1794, typhus being the most likely cause of death.
A Charitable and Committed Capuchin Right to the Very End
One witness of Brother Protasius’s last days in this life described the kind of man he was in these terms. "He was a Religious of great merit and commendable as much for his initiatives in favour of his deported confreres, as for the physical and moral capabilities with which he was endowed, and, above all, for the firmness of his faith, his prudence, equilibrium, regularity and other Christian and Religious virtues."
Blessed Sebastian of Nancy
Francis François – Like Jesus, Carpenter’s Son
The future Blessed Sebastian of Nancy had a rather unusual secular name in that his given name and surname were both spelt François, meaning Francis in French. He was born on the 17th of January 1749 at Nancy, the capital of the former province of Lorraine in Eastern France. His parents were Dominic François, a skilled carpenter, and Margaret Verneson, his wife. Their newborn baby was baptised the same day as he was born at the Church of Saint Nicholas and given the name Francis. Both is god parents were distinguished gentry and Francis’s own family belonged wealthy middle class. Given the coincidence of his name and surname both meaning Francis, the fact that he came into contact with Saint Francis’s followers at an early age should not be that surprising. This was due mainly to the presence of the Capuchin Friars in his native city since 1593. The Capuchin Friary’s church was actually used by the parish of Saint Nicholas since 1730 and the Friars prayed in the choir behind the altar where they also animated the local fraternity of Secular Third Order of Saint Francis – that is to say today’s Secular Franciscan Order.
Brother Sebastian of Nancy’s Zealous Priestly Ministry
Young Francis François himself joined the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor on the 24th of January 1768. His Novice Master, Brother Michael of Saint-Dié clothed him with the Novice’s habit and gave him the religious name ‘Brother Sebastian of Nancy’. His Perpetual Profession one year later is the first recorded in the parish register of the Parish of Saint Nicholas. After profession he was sent to the Capuchin Student House in the town of Pont-à-Mousson where he pursued studies for the priesthood at the local Jesuit Seminary. The precise date of his priestly ordination, however, can not be found. On the 5th of June 1777 he received faculties for preaching and hearing confessions and was sent to the Sarreguemines Capuchin Friary. There he had to learn German, which was the everyday language used by many of the local inhabitants. He does not, however, seem to have been stationed there for long as documents attest to his being resident as a confessor at the Sarrebourg Friary in 1778. As well as leading an exemplary Capuchin life in that Fraternity noted for its religious observance, he was also engaged in pastoral activities such as administering Baptism and celebrating marriages in the local parish of Saint-Quirin, an area which was, at the time, suffering from a severe shortage of diocesan clergy. On the 26th of August 1784 he was transferred to the Commercy Friary where he was engaged in similar pastoral ministries. He remained at Commercy until 1787 or 1789 when he was transferred, after a short stay at the Dieuze Friary, to the Capuchin Friary in Epinal. He was stationed there when the French Revolution broke out in July 1789.
A Capuchin Who Voluntary Gave Himself Up to Imprisonment and Certain Death
Nine months after the outbreak of the Revolution, on the 30th of April 1790, the municipal commissioners came to the Epinal Friary to take an inventory of its contents and one year later its furniture and other effects were sold off. Brother Sebastian, who had refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, received a meager pension and, together with the rest of the Friars in the house, was expelled and set out on foot to the somewhat larger Châtel-sur-Moselle Friary, which the City Council had assigned to Lorraine Capuchins as their common living quarters. But they were expelled from that house also because they had refused to take part in a church procession led by a priest who had sworn allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Thrown out in the side of the road, the Brothers had to find shelter with the local population. The local inhabitants readily showed them hospitality because of the support the Friars had given them in the past.
On the 9th of November 1793, Brother Sebastian was sent to a house in Nancy which had belonged to some Third Order Sisters and which now served as a prison for recusant priests, who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. In a way Brother Sebastian’s plight was of his own making. This was because he had handed himself in to the local Surveillance Committee as a priest who refused to take the statutory oath and who should therefore be subject to due punishment for breaking the law of the land.
On January the 26th, 1794 Nancy’s district administrator came to check the status of all detainees, the cause of their arrest, their ages, the presence of any possible infirmities and so forth. Of Brother Sebastian it was noted that he was a healthy ‘refractory’ priest and so he was included with another 47 healthy rebel priests and religious who were dispatched to Rochefort for eventual deportation to the French overseas colonies on the 1st of April of that same year. After a painful monthlong journey, they arrived at the port and were stripped of all their belongings before being put aboard the ‘Two Associates’ prison ship which was moored at Rochefort on the 28th of April 1794. There were already over 373 priests on board and these were shipped daily back and forth between the Atlantic coastal islands of Île-d'Aix and Île d'Oleron. Brother Sebastian’s prison conditions on board were absolutely horrible. The inmates were by now dirty and dishevelled without any possibility of bathing, never mind an opportunity to shave and get a haircut. Their clothing had become ragged and threadbare, and the harshness of the treatment the had to endure had reduced many to illness and the threat of imminent death. In fact death was the only therapy that relieved the infirm prisoners’ suffering since the sick were transferred to a schooner which served as a hospital ship without doctors, medicine or any form of medical treatment. Every day between 10 o’clock in the morning and noon dead prisoners’corpses were stripped naked and carried to the nearby sandy islands or river banks for a quick burial in graves dug for them by healthier prisoners. No overt prayer for the soul or sung requiem chant was allowed to accompany their unceremonious interment. In the words of one survivor, their “ship flooded with priests and religious was like an holocaust altar raised up by Providence amidst the waves of the sea for the perfect consummation of the sacrifice.”
The Holy Death of this Capuchin Martyr Provided a True Moment of Evangelization
Another survivor left an account of Brother Sebastian of Nancy’s holy death aboard the ‘Two-Associates’. "The Lord manifested the sanctity of another of His servants,” Brother “Sebastian, a Capuchin of the Nancy house, come to die on this same galley. For his eminent piety and virtue and touching devotion, this saintly religious was held in singular honour among us. He prayed ceaselessly, especially in his last illness. One morning he was seen on kneeling with his arms open in the form of a cross, his eyes raised to heaven, and his mouth open. Not much notice was taken of this because people were used to seeing him pray thus during his illness. A half an hour passed and we were stunned to see him persevere in this posture, as it is so uncomfortable and difficult to stay like this because at the time the sea was rather rough and the boat was rocking and swaying a lot. Probably he was in ecstasy. Then we approached him to observe him closer. Touching his face and hands, we realized that he had, maintaining this posture, already given over his soul to God many hours before. We could never manage to explain how his body had thus kept that praying posture for so long, despite the small boat’s continuous rolling about. The sailors were called. These men could not restrain from crying out in admiration and shedding tears on seeing that spectacle. In that moment, the faith within their hearts was revealed and some of them, uncovering their arms, showed everybody the image of the cross tattooed thereon with a hot stone, and decided to return to the religion they had abandoned.”
Brother Sebastian of Nancy embraced Sister Death on the 9th of August 1794. Like the holy manner of his living. his holy manner of dying also was a moment of evangelization, more fruitful perhaps than all his apostolic labours put together.
A Cross of Pebbles is All that Marks Their Final Earthly Resting Place
Together with 61 other priests martyred at Rochefort for their loyalty to the Church and adherence to the True Faith, these three Capuchin Martyrs also were beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul II on the 1st of October 1995. The remains of Blessed John-Louis of Besançon, Blessed Protasius of Seez and Blessed Sebastian of Nancy lie in unmarked sandy graves at the mouth of the River Charente, where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Only a cross of pebbles on the Île-Madam points to the pains and glory of their martyrdom.
"My name is John Bourdon, in religion Brother Protasius. I was born at Seez. in the Parish of Saint-Pierre in the department of Orne. I am forty-eight years old. I am a Catholic priest, Provincial Secretary, Conference-giver and Guardian of the Capuchins’ house of Sotteville-lez-Rouen. I have not taken any oath, because I did not believe I should do so. No law prevents me from saying mass wherever I want and I have nothing further to say in response to your question." - Blessed Protasius of Seez