A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Life of
Jean-Claude Colin

“On whatever distant shore”

Part 1 of 2

As his Cause for Beatification is unfolding, the story of Jean-Claude Colin is now being told to the whole world.

From the Revolution’s stormy beginnings, this shy youngster from rural France was to become Founder and Father of a religious family bearing the name of the Most Blessed Virgin -- the Society of Mary. The Marists.

This is his story…

St Bonnet-le-Troncy

The quiet boy from Beaujolais

The tiny hamlet of Barbery sits by a forest near the Beaujolais region of central France. Here, on 7 August 1790, Jean-Claude Colin was born, happily unaware of the fierce Revolution raging about him. He was soon to be orphaned, not by violence, but through the illness and early death of his mother, then his father. Jean-Claude was not yet five years old.

The young Jean-Claude now enjoyed the care of a kindly uncle -- and a not-so-kindly housekeeper. Before long they moved to the nearby village of St Bonnet-le-Troncy to live close to the church and amidst a community of devout Catholic people, many of whom had suffered and lost much through the Revolution. Perhaps the lad would become a priest for them.

Life was simple at St Bonnet for the young Colin… serving Mass in the parish church, minding cows in the fields and never far from the quiet forest of Barbery.

Seminary years

At age fourteen, the shy Jean-Claude entered the minor seminary of St Jodard, hoping to spend a life of quiet prayer in a gentle ministry. The disciplined lifestyle, obedience and piety came easily to him.  In 1809, Jean-Claude continued his secondary studies at Alix and finally at Verrières.

Despite being beset with serious illness and questions raised about his suitability for an active life, Jean-Claude handled his studies without difficulty and, indeed, was among the top students.

St Jodard Minor Seminary

St Irenaeus Seminary, Lyons

Vision and promise

At the end of the summer of 1813, Jean-Claude set off for the major seminary of St Irenaeus at Lyons. He was twenty-three years old. Here he met with Jean-Claude Courveille, a fellow seminarian, who spoke of an amazing encounter with the Blessed Virgin. Mary had spoken at the cathedral shrine of Le Puy. She wished to have a missionary society bearing her name: Marist.

“Ah, this suits me well”, thought Colin, and the stirrings of a missionary spirit began to emerge.

The idea spread amongst a dozen of the young men. They would form Our Lady’s Society. It would be a tree with several branches: priests, sisters, brothers and laity.

On 22 July 1816, several deacons of St Irenaeus were ordained to the priesthood. They included Colin, Courveille and a youthful Marcellin Champagnat.

Next day, 23 July, twelve Marist aspirants climbed the hill of Fourvière overlooking Lyons, to the ancient chapel of the Blessed Virgin. Here, for centuries, Catholics had sought the intercession of Mary for their future dreams. The youthful group solemnly pledged to establish the Society of Mary as soon as they could.

Fourvière Chapel at the start of the 19th century

The interior in 2016

The town of Cerdon

Cerdon Presbytery


Tasting God

Soon after their ordination the newly-ordained Frs Courveille and Champagnat were at once dispatched to parishes in the Lyons archdiocese, while the still retiring Jean-Claude Colin was sent to the parish of his older brother, Fr Pierre Colin, in the village of Cerdon, nestling high in the Bugey mountains in the newly-restored diocese of Belley.

Who would lead the adventurous Marist project? The outgoing and flamboyant Courveille? Industrious and down-to-earth Champagnat? Or the shy Colin?

As the months went by, Jean-Claude Colin began to ponder the Marist project more and more. The winemaking families of Cerdon became his first flock amongst whom he could work in the spirit of Mary.

Colin set about drawing up a rule of life for the Marists-to-be and was soon acknowledged by the other aspirants as their leader and the one to gain Church approval for their precious project.

The Colin brothers then invited two young women to come to Cerdon to begin the Sisters’ branch of the Marist project. One was to become its foundress: Jeanne-Marie Chavoin.

Meanwhile, Fr Champagnat was establishing the Brothers’ branch in his first parish of La Valla. Always, he saw Jean-Claude Colin as the leader of the Marist project. And indeed, Fr Colin’s Cerdon years had seen him grow into a resolute fighter for the Marist cause.

Source: www.jeanclaudecolin.org

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