A Catholic Monthly Magazine

A Convict Saint?

Trish O'Donnell

by Trish O'Donnell

In the early hours of the morning of the 1st October 1957, Jacques Fesch prepared for his execution in a Paris prison. After kissing the crucifix held by the chaplain he went to his death. He was 27 years old. However, the person who died that day was a far cry from the one who had been sentenced some three years before for the murder of a policeman. He entered prison a committed atheist, but came, “with absolute certainty” into a “possession of faith.”

Jacques’s turbulent life began on the 6th April 1930 in suburban Paris. Although he was brought up a Catholic, his wealthy banker father was a staunch atheist and influenced his son’s thinking throughout his childhood. The result was a headstrong, idle boy who in turn became an angry and aggressive young man who had abandoned his Faith by the time he reached his mid teens. After a spell in the services Jacques worked at his father’s bank but this was short-lived as he left, keen to live the playboy lifestyle of fast cars, sailing and night clubbing.

Even marriage to his pregnant girlfriend Pierrette in 1951 failed to stop his carousing and a son, Gerard – who ended up in public care - was the result of an affair. Their daughter Veronique was barely two years old when the marriage ended, though Jacques and Pierette remained friends and he dearly loved his daughter. The break-up affected him badly and his life continued its downward spiral.

By this time his parents had also separated so he moved in with his mother, who deciding he needed a fresh start, loaned him money to start a business. Instead, Jacques bought a new car. Soon boredom and restlessness set in again and he decided sailing was the answer; perhaps he would buy a boat and set off to new horizons and begin over. This time, neither of his parents were prepared to fund him so he’d have to get the money another way – he would commit a robbery.

On the 25th of February 1954, Jacques went to the shop of Alexandre Silberstein, a Parisian moneylender, armed with a loaded gun he’d taken from his father’s house. He’d visited earlier in the day and ordered cash so the unsuspecting man was unprepared when Jacques hit him over the head with the butt of the gun. However, things didn’t go to plan as Mr Silberstein, although stunned and bleeding, remained conscious and managed to call for help. In the scuffle the gun went off injuring Jacques on the hand, forcing him to abandon the robbery.

Jaques Fesch

Jacques Fesch on the day of his capture

Covered in blood, he ran out into the street, his only thought to get as far away as possible. But it wasn’t to be. He became more desperate as police officer George Vergnes began pursuing him, shouting to him to stop or he would be shot. Waving the gun wildly, Jacques fired, shooting the policeman and killing him instantly. Once again he ran still firing randomly at anyone who attempted to stop him, injuring one man, until he was finally cornered by an off duty policeman. This time it ended with his arrest and he was sent to the Prison de la Sante, Paris for three years.

Even behind bars, Jacques Fesch remained an angry young man. His lawyer Paul Baudet, a devout Catholic was labelled ‘Pope Paul’ for attempting to save his soul as well as his life. Although the prison chaplain Fr Devoyod was told not to bother with him as “I’m not a believer,” he refused to be put off and on one occasion left a book on Our Lady of Fatima which was the beginning of the chain of events which led to his eventual conversion.

A year after his imprisonment, on the 28th February 1955, Jacques had his first powerful spiritual experience. He recounted it in his journal shortly before his death:
“I was in bed, eyes open, really suffering for the first time in my life. It was then that a cry burst from my breast, an appeal for help – “my God” – and instantly, like a violent wind which passes over without anyone knowing where it comes from, the Spirit of the Lord seized me by the throat. I had an impression of infinite power and kindness and, from that moment onward, I believed with an unshakeable conviction that has never left me.”
On the 2nd December that year he had another conversion which left him happy, “because I am saved in spite of myself,” he wrote, “I am being taken out of the world because I was lost in it.” His fear now was not of death but of dying as a bad man.  From then on, Jacques lived a truly monastic life, in prayer and contemplation; he retired early, gave up cigarettes and chocolate and exercised briefly each day.

He relentlessly wrote letters to those he loved urging them to make their peace with God and wrote copiously in a journal which was intended for his daughter Veronique, so she would know his journey and also be drawn to Christ.
“If by the end of these pages,” he wrote, “I have succeeded in making you understand what life can be, real life, that begins in this world in order to bloom where everything is light, if you have been able to sense the greatness and the worth of the soul, and of the little importance worldly success is, these lines will not have been written in vain, and maybe one day, faced with God knows what ordeal, you yourself will draw from this example so close to you, the strength and the courage to distinguish which direction the light comes from.” Jacques’s lawyer never gave up trying to save his client’s life and appeals were made over the next two years.

However, Jacques appeared to have accepted his fate, offering his life for those whom “the Lord wants to save.” When the death sentence was announced on Holy Thursday, 6th April 1957, an appeal was immediately made, which failed, as did the final reprieve five months later on 30th September. As Jacques Fesch prepared to die he wrote in his journal: “Only five hours to live! In five hours I shall see Jesus.” Early the following morning as he knelt at the guillotine, his final words before the blade fell were: “Holy Virgin, have pity on me.”

In 1993 the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger began the cause for beatification and eventual sainthood, stating: “Nobody is ever lost in God’s eyes, even when society has condemned him.” He hoped that canonising Jacques Fesch would, “give great hope to those who despise themselves as irredeemably lost.” Needless to say, not everyone agreed with him and his decision remains controversial.
Jacques’s prison letters have since been published under the title Light Over the Scaffold and Cell 18, compiled by Augustin-Michel Lemonier.

An excerpt of a letter written to his mother before his execution which took place by guillotine in France on 1st October 1957

“This execution which frightens you, Mamma, is nothing compared to what awaits sinners in the next world. It is not for me you should weep but for sinners who offend God. As for me I am happy Jesus is calling me to himself and great graces have been given me. If you could only taste for a single instant the sweetness of the transports of divine love and could realize the absolute gravity of the slightest offence. God must come first, do not forget it. He calls you and believes in you; you are rich in his love. Many souls are linked with yours and you will have an account to render. You must go to Christ without whom you can do nothing. If you seek him you will find him. But you must seek him with all your heart. Above all do not seek your own will but his.”

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