A Catholic Monthly Magazine

St John Vianney and the First Marists

Part 1 of 2

Texts and Photos by the Editor

St John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, received many visits from members of the different Marist branches. He was a good friend to Fr Colin and the Society of Mary. He became a member of the Marist Third Order on 8 December 1846, received by Fr Julien Eymard. Fr Donal Kerr notes that “his support for Jean-Claude Colin and his project brought many good vocations to the Marists”.  Vianney once said of Colin, “Oh, what a holy priest! How he loves the Blessed Virgin”! 

Jean-Claude Colin, Marcellin Champagnat, Étienne Déclas and Jean-Marie Vianney had known one another since 1812, when they were students at the minor seminary at Verrières. They were together again at St Irenaeus Seminary in Lyons, although Vianney was there only for a short time. They were ordained to the diaconate together, along with another of the early Marists, Étienne Terraillon.

In the course of the presentation of John Vianney’s Cause, a nephew of Fr Déclas, the Abbé Étienne Dubouis, gave evidence. He recalled information that Fr Déclas had told him: “My uncle and many other students were very sorry to see him (Vianney) leave the major seminary, and very happy to see him return …” for diaconate.  The ordination happened to be five days after the Battle of Waterloo, on 23 June 1815.

St John Vianney intended to retire to La Neylière. In 1853, Fr Colin was in the process of setting up La Neylière as a retreat house. The Curé tried to escape from his parish to live there, in the words of Fr Jean Coste, “in the shadow of the Society of Mary”. His parishioners, along with “the insistence of the Bishop of Belley” … “obliged him to return to his presbytery”. 

Fr Étienne Déclas, the ‘Apostle of the Bugey’, visited the Curé and was his friend. Since they were together studying philosophy in the ‘second division’ at Verrières, Fr Jean Coste says that “it is probable that they sympathised with each other from the start”, since neither of them was good at their studies. 

St John Vianney's kitchen

St John Vianney's kitchen

There is also a statement made by Fr Déclas to a scholastic, M. Grenot, who recalled it some fifty years later: “Reverend Father Déclas, a Marist, his friend and fellow student at Verrières, his rival in the spirit of penance, told us himself (in 1860, in Belley) about his friendly visits with the holy Curé. These were gala occasions! Between the two of them, they succeeded in making an omelette and reheating the potatoes which the parish priest left in his kettle. The rest of the meal was in keeping with this: soup after the manner of the Trappists, and fruit from the garden – this was the complete menu. Meals of this kind were rare in the presbytery, when the holy Curé returned to his ordinary fare. The conversation centred on Fr Déclas’ missions, and on their peaceful conquests of sinners”. 

Jeanne-Marie Chavoin, the foundress of the Marist Sisters certainly visited him, and it seems that he knew her well. He spoke of her to Pauline Perrin, a niece of Marie-Pauline Jaricot, who was visiting Ars to make a retreat. As written down by Pauline, the Curé said, “Love the good God with all your heart, like the Superior of the Marist Sisters of Belley; she is a saint; she has great simplicity; she acts with all naturalness …” 

Jeanne-Marie Chavoin

Jeanne-Marie Chavoin

Fr Jean Coste lists the names of ten women who were sent in the direction of the Marist Sisters by St John Vianney. The first was Catherine Payre, who came from St Étienne, about 100 km from Ars.

Catherine was engaged to be married. A member of her family suggested that she should go to Ars to ask the Curé’s blessing for her marriage. She was not eager to go but went, she said, to preserve the peace and to please her parents.

She had no sooner opened the grille of the confessional when the Curé said, “Unfortunate creature, what are you doing? Do you know that in marrying this young man you will be unhappy in this life and the next? Do you know him well”? “Father, I have excellent recommendations”.

“Yes! Because those who gave them are looking after their own interests in arranging this match. The fact is you are about to marry a man quite unworthy of you. Moreover, God is calling you to the religious life”. “To the religious life? I have never given it a thought”.

“Say rather you have always fought against the promptings of grace. The hour of God has arrived. Go at once to the Marist Sisters”. “But I do not know them, Father. I have never heard of them”. “I will give you their address, but go without delay”.

St John Vianney's deathbed

St John Vianney's deathbed

Catherine followed the Curé’s advice. Known as Mother St Anselm in the Marist Sisters’ congregation, she was an outstanding Mistress of Novices. She became the principal of a successful boarding school, and a Counsellor General of the congregation.

Mother St Anselm went a number of times to seek advice from the Curé. As she left the presbytery on one occasion with her companion, Mother Elizabeth, the Curé spoke to his housekeeper, Catherine Lasagne, who recorded what he said: “You see those two nuns – look at them. They are two saints”.   

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