Marie-Charles-Emmanuel Verbert (1752-1819)
The vicariate of the kind and patient Marie-Charles-Emmanuel Verbert lasted only two and a half years. During his time, the Congregation of the Mission at last received its new mother house, and gradually took shape in the reception of candidates, the return of a number of its former members, and the opening of new works. Carlo Domenico Sicardi continued as vicar general outside of France, to be succeeded by Francesco Antonio Baccari.
Verbert was born 15 November 1752 in Pont-de-Beauvoisin, a small town in the hill country east of Lyons. He entered the novitiate in Lyons and took his vows in 1771. After his ordination, he began his ministry as a professor of theology in the seminary of Marseilles.
With the outbreak of the Revolution, he fled in 1791 or 1792 to Nice, which was not then French territory. He took refuge in Italy for several years, along with his superior, Father Jean-Baptiste Moissonnier (1736-1813). Verbert had hoped to go to the Vincentian missions in the Middle East, but this did not happen.
He must have kept alive his connection with Marseilles, since we find him returning there even before 1800. He received permission from the archbishop of Aix (since Marseilles had been suppressed as a diocese) to form a local Vincentian community to serve in a parish to be dedicated to Saint Vincent de Paul. He had been named pastor on 5 May 1802, of the parish of Saint François, known as the Réformés, located in a growing neighborhood. Since the existing church building was small, he developed the plan of constructing a new one. In 1803, Verbert purchased the previous church building personally, using funds that he had raised as well as his own money. The new establishment was planned as an annex to the mother house in Paris, to be used for missionaries going to the Middle East and Asia. This brought him into contact with Joseph Cardinal Fesch, as the director general of the missions in the Middle East and the “two Indies.”
As Verbert understood the foreign mission work of the newly reestablished Congregation, the missionaries would “occupy themselves completely in furnishing spiritual help to the French in those countries where they [the missioners] give missions. They would provide them a thousand advantages for commerce, extend their relationships, and be always ready to offer service to them on the frequent occasions that arise.” While the cardinal supported him in this work, the Congregation itself, in the time of Fathers François-Florentin Brunet and Claude-Joseph Placiard, either could not or would not support the parish, and so Verbert did the work alone, but with Placiard’s permission. Fesch wrote also to the mayor of Marseilles, and funding was granted. Verbert continued as pastor of Saint Vincent de Paul parish until October 1810. At this point, since he was requested by the parents, he began to work for a lycée in Marseille, where he was its chief administrator for three years. Fesch was so impressed with his abilities that he considered naming Verbert a bishop.
He then had the occasion to return to his earlier seminary work, since the archbishop of Aix appointed him professor of moral theology at the newly reorganized theology faculty of Aix. All this would come to an end with the death of Father Hanon, 24 April 1816.
As required, Hanon had proposed a successor, Jean-Mathurin Legal (1746-1831), the superior of the seminary in Vannes. Legal refused absolutely, not surprising given that he was seventy, and this made the first assistant, Pierre Claude, interim superior for more than three months. Because he was not free to leave his work, he had to postpone the elections. On 23 July, Claude summoned his confreres to choose a candidate to present to the pope. He acknowledged that travel was difficult and expensive, and so asked others to help defray the expenses of those who could come. For those who could not come, he invited them to send a sealed letter with the names of three candidates for vicar general. Twenty-one Vincentians arrived for meeting of 12 August 1816, held at the parish of Sainte Marguerite, whose pastor was the hospitable Jean-Jacques Dubois (1750-1817). A solemn mass preceded the meeting celebrated in the parish church. Verbert and Jean Compans (1748-1835), another seminary professor, were tied in the voting. Verbert, who was not present, won on the second ballot. He responded in a letter dated 6 October, accepting the office, but explained that he would have to remain for some time at Aix to handle his affairs. When he did arrive in Paris by the end of October, he stayed at Sainte Marguerite for a few days with Dubois, then moved to Hanon’s old room at the Incurables and, finding that unsuitable, rented a small apartment for himself nearby, rue du petit Vaugirard, 5, now rue du Cherche Midi. He would remain there until he moved to the new mother house in November 1817.
He wrote his first circular to inform the Congregation of his election. He reflected on the various vicars general, suggesting possibly the community was unworthy of them, since two of them had died young. Amid the trials his confreres were experiencing, he related that he had become depressed and even remarked to one of his predecessors: “We no longer deserve the attention of Saint Vincent. God does not want us any more!” When informed of his election, he tried desperately to refuse it but could not when he saw the unanimity of the votes. Others urged him to accept and not impose new obstacles to the prompt reestablishment of the Congregation. He concluded this sad letter by calling his confreres to leave their captivity behind and rebuild the temple sanctified by the presence of their predecessors. He added a sentence that summarizes well the relationship of the Vincentians with the state. “Let us reassemble; the king loves us, he prefers to call Saint Vincent de Paul the saint of the Bourbons and us the missionaries of the Bourbons.”
Although it had taken him nearly two months to inform the Congregation of his election, it took even longer for the papal approval to arrive. It is unclear why this happened but, since Verbert had requested his confirmation as superior general and not as vicar general, it would take time for the Holy See to review the ramifications of his proposal. He complained about the delay, which he deemed incomprehensible and threatening to inflict terrible and incurable evils on the Double Family of Saint Vincent.
Cardinal Consalvi answered Verbert, 14 July 1817. He announced that Pius VII had chosen him as superior of the Priests of the Mission for France alone, with the title of vicar general. As regards the Daughters of Charity, he would be their superior in France as well as elsewhere. Both positions, in addition, would continue at the “good pleasure of the Holy See,” meaning that they could be withdrawn at any time, but had no term. Two principal reasons kept the pope from naming Verbert superior general, the cardinal explained. The first was that the election was not canonical, since it did not take place during a general assembly. The second was that, since Verbert was not living in an established house of the Congregation of the Mission, the rest of the members would be dependent on a priest living outside a house (“degit extra Claustra”) and possibly would not even be wearing the habit of the Congregation. Consalvi added that the pope was confident that Louis XVIII would restore the Congregation in the kingdom, and that, when a general assembly could be held, the Holy See would decide on which course to take. The papal brief Habita ratione was dated 16 July 1817.
Sicardi and Baccari
Given all this, it was no surprise that the pope wished Domenico Sicardi to continue as vicar general, as he had been “since 1805 by means of pontifical decision.” This last statement was perhaps prompted by Sicardi himself, but it was erroneous. His office began in 1804, but it was not continuous. In addition, when Hanon was imprisoned, Sicardi simply assumed the reins of power as vicar general, as foreseen by the constitutions, but never gave them up when Hanon was released. Sicardi, in fact, wrote to Verbert that he had specified the contents of Habita ratione, collaborating in this with Consalvi.
Following his usual procedure, Sicardi issued a New Year’s circular to the Congregation for 1817. The tone of this letter was in keeping with his conviction that the Congregation of the Mission barely existed in France. He concentrated instead on the successes in Italy, although it too had suffered vexations and ill treatment. Montecitorio, his house, was the object of divine predilection, in his perspective. Other provinces, too, were beginning to thrive with the support of bishops. He claimed to have little information about France, apart from two letters from Verbert.
Sicardi had written to Hanon just before the latter’s death, saying that he had wanted to resign from his office as soon as possible, since, at age eighty-six, he was in failing health. He got his wish with the appointment of Francesco Antonio Baccari as pro-vicar, 4 October 1817. The meaning of the title of pro-vicar was unclear. It apparently meant that Baccari was to assist Sicardi in his office and not substitute for him, or even less for Verbert. Baccari perhaps lost sight of this distinction, since, in his circular to the Congregation of 2 February 1819, he claimed to have replaced Sicardi.
Verbert felt it necessary to respond to Consalvi concerning his request. He wrote that he did not ask to be superior general through any motive of pride but to avoid division. After all, the king had already reestablished the Congregation in France, it had recruits and returnees, and bishops were requesting its members for seminaries. Besides, contrary to the concern raised in Consalvi’s letter concerning the habit, “we wear the collar and habit of our Congregation.”
Mother House, New Saint Lazare
Even though the Congregation of the Mission had some works in France, it still did not have a recognized mother house, as Consalvi had noted. Verbert took up the matter and proposed several possibilities in Paris, from small (“anywhere with eight or ten rooms”) to large, such as the enormous monastery of Val de Grace. If such a property were not forthcoming, Verbert proposed that the king withdraw his decree of restoration, and “we will all go home.” Louis XVIII had affection for the Vincentians, since he had grown up under their tutelage in the parish of Versailles, and one of them had accompanied the king’s wife into exile in England. In light of this, he had wanted Saint Lazare restored to them. Since that was impossible, he ordered a search for a substitute.
As the discussion was continuing, someone, possibly Boullangier, the procurator, wrote an important memorandum directed to the king and various ministers. He took pains to point out the usefulness of the Congregation of the Mission to France. “The government knows how much the Lazarists of China have been and can be useful to France.” They had given great service in the Chinese court as mathematicians and artists, astronomers and clock makers. To continue this work and prepare future missionaries, as well as to stave off the interests of the English in China, the Congregation would need a large property in Paris, something even on the scale of the former Saint Lazare. His conclusion is a rhetorical marvel: “Religion, the glory of the king, the honor and the interest of France seem to demand this favor from the government!”
At the end it was Baron Gilbert-Joseph-Gaspard Chabrol de Volvic, Prefect of the Seine, who came up with the solution. After considering all the possibilities, he proposed moving the Congregation of the Mission near the new mother house of the Daughters of Charity. On the basis of this principle, the state was able to acquire the former Hotel de Lorges, 95, rue de Sevres.
This house, constructed in 1685-1686, became the city residence of the dukes of Lorges, but it had been uninhabited for some time, with consequent disrepair. It included a three-story main house, with courtyard and garden; a two-story section looking out on rue de Sèvres, joined to the main house by two side buildings, one story each, used as stables, storehouse and hay barn; and a one-story wing in the back, where the refectory was later built. The quarters were cramped, and Etienne, who arrived in 1820, called it “the stable of Bethlehem.”
Since the property after the Revolution belonged to the hospital of the Incurables, it was easy enough for the government to negotiate its eventual purchase for 100,000 francs. The Congregation of the Mission was able to move in on 9 November 1817, but not as owners, only as the permitted users of the building and land, according to the decree issued some time later. Because the government owned everything, it paid for extensive repairs, while the furnishing of the building fell to the Congregation. Individual members helped with funds, furniture, vestments, books and the like. The Daughters of Charity gave significant help, particularly Sister Victoire Meyrand, superior at the Incurables. She agreed, in addition, to lodge two Vincentians at the hospital, Fathers Wuillerme and Delgorgues, both in their fifties, for whom the transfer would have been too onerous. Her hospitality, however, cost her some rejection by certain Sisters at the mother house, probably as a result of lingering conflicts over the schism. Jean Baptiste Etienne recorded that the superior’s helper, Sister Ursule Hinglaise, was even sent away to Dijon, where she finished her life as visitatrix.
Organization and Finances
The rhythm of community life was hard to restore, but Verbert took several steps to ensure that it would be, such as inviting personnel and providing for the formation of candidates. He had already invited Joseph-Mansuet Boullangier (1758-1843) to move from Amiens and be the procurator general, an office he fulfilled until 1827, when he was elected as one of the assistants general. It was the same Boullangier who had been the procurator at Saint Firmin at the time of the massacre, an event he never wished to discuss. His character was described as pleasant and agreeable. He was careful to serve the many poor who came to the new mother house in search of aid. After meals, the community would distribute soup and leftovers, and a student would read or give a short religious instruction.
The first annual retreat was held at the “New Saint Lazare,” as it was commonly called, in September 1818. Between twelve and fifteen Vincentians attended, with six or seven clerical students, the nucleus of a future novitiate. When it opened after the retreat, the first to enroll was a Mr. Mussi, a student of Verbert’s in Marseilles. Four others who had been studying in Amiens joined him. Because of the improvisational nature of community life, the novices were allowed to study while making their novitiate, a practice that continued from 1818 to 1835, when Father Nozo returned to a stricter observance of the rules. In addition to the clerical students, three or four diocesan priests also joined the Congregation in Amiens, where they made a somewhat informal novitiate, beginning in late 1817. Perhaps because of their haphazard training, all were later expelled from the Congregation. The most notorious case was that of Ferdinand Bailly, whose antagonism against Nozo was one of the causes of the superior general’s resignation. Bailly was the first of the new group to take vows, which he did 16 September 1819.
Although the Congregation continued to have foreign missions, it was not in much of a position to support them other than with good wishes. The result was that they languished. The missions in the Middle East had fallen into a pitiful state, according to a report received from the secretary of the Congregation Propaganda Fide in Rome. There was little that could be done, given the lack of members and of financial support from the royal government. This would not be the last time that such complaints would arise. During this time, some conversations continued between the Congregation and the Foreign Mission Society of Paris about a possible merger. This had begun in Napoleon’s time as a way to rationalize French missions, but both parties finally had nothing to gain.
Some help came from permission from the king to receive legacies on its own, although the conditions of their use were carefully drawn. One special grant was the legacy from Dubois, who left a house, church vestments and a library to the Congregation, which was expected to celebrate mass for his intention every year.
Other help came directly from members, two vicars general in particular. Father Verbert gave 50,000 francs, and his successor, Father Boujard, 60,000, with which the mother house was able to purchase, in 1824, the farm property at Gentilly in the suburbs of Paris.
More help came from certain confreres who offered their services, now that the Congregation had been reestablished and had a mother house. One such was Pierre Le Go (1767-1847). He entered the Congregation in 1787, with the intention of going to China. Since he could not take vows in 1789, he did so in 1791. He had to go to Turin for his ordination and remained in Italy several years. When he returned to his native country, he served in two parishes in the archdiocese of Lyons. He had great success in a small parish in the diocese of Le Mans, and kept up his interest and support of his parishioners even though he had been assigned to Paris. Verbert accepted his offer, which came with the pledge even to pay his upkeep, should that be necessary. In Paris, he was soon made the novice director. He would later be assistant general.
The aged Father Sicardi, vicar general in Rome, continued his work, although with great difficulty. He announced the appointment of Father Baccari as pro-vicar in his New Year’s circular of 1818. He closed this, his last circular, with characteristic bombast: “Farewell, forever farewell! I embrace you all with both arms in the Lord….”
Baccari followed up with a circular of his own, 17 April 1818, directed apparently to superiors only. His style differed from that of his predecessor, in that he wrote at great length, including tiresome listings of dangers and abuses, while exhorting his readers to complete obedience and observance of rules. Such correspondence as exists between Baccari and Verbert is cordial and correct, without the defensive or hostile tone that sometimes characterized Sicardi’s letters.
In his New Year’s circular for 1819, Baccari shared news of the Congregation, demonstrating, if he had to, that he was in charge of the entire Congregation apart from France. He knew of the major events in Italy, Spain, Poland and Lithuania, the near east, and the Italian mission in the United States. He also exhorted his confreres to the observance of rules, and took the occasion to remind everyone that the use of coffee and chocolate were forbidden, except when a doctor ordered, following the century-old decree of Father Bonnet. He likewise forbade meals taken out of the house, and leaving the house without a companion, particularly a lay brother. He told the brothers, in turn, to respect the priests, reminding them that they were not their masters, administrators, or directors, but only the helpers of the priests. The writer was clearly taking his responsibilities seriously.
Verbert, too, had been taking his responsibilities seriously. Since he felt that he should make contact with his confreres, many of whom were still undecided about returning to community life, he began a series of visits in 1817. He faced some opposition in Toulouse, but this principally had to do with the Daughters of Charity, most of whom had favored the Napoleonic statutes. Some Vincentians supported them and, as a result, Verbert received a cool reception. It was in Toulouse where the papal brief appointing him vicar general finally reached him.
Many bishops and clergy, by contrast, gave him a warm welcome, with institutions being offered (such as Saint Flour and Bordeaux), and seminarians asking to join. In Montauban, where Jacques Perboyre, uncle of John Gabriel Perboyre, was running a small formation program, Verbert received four clerics into the Congregation. It was a kind of novitiate (internal seminary). He returned to Paris in mid-October of that year, and then went to visit the houses in the north during November. Although many of the former Vincentians had already died, left the country or the priesthood, about 100 remained. He is said to have used “a delicate discretion” in welcoming the returnees, each one of whom had a particular story to tell.
His age, his travels and his worries brought sickness in the winter of 1818-1819. His health quickly became grave and, since the pope had not granted him permission to name a successor, as had been done for his predecessors, Boullangier petitioned it from Rome. The pope responded positively, 21 March 1819, but Verbert had died on 4 March. His funeral was celebrated at the chapel of the Daughters’ mother house, rue du Bac. Like his predecessors, he was buried in the Vaugirard cemetery.
The papal decree at least provided the mechanism by which the Congregation could choose a successor. They were instructed to propose someone as superior of the Congregation of the Mission, with the title of vicar general alone (not superior general, as Verbert had tried to do), with his authority restricted to France and to all the Daughters of Charity even outside the country. Sicardi, still the vicar general (and not Baccari), was to be maintained as vicar general “for the entire Congregation of the Mission, except France alone.” It was recognized that this temporary decree ran contrary to the “apostolic constitutions” of the Congregation, that is, those approved by Pope Clement X in 1670. It was likewise contrary to the oath that electors were to take in a general assembly, to past apostolic (papal) confirmation, and to other decrees, statues and constitutions. Nonetheless, it was needed for the moment.
When his confreres reflected on Father Verbert’s character, they recognized his living faith and sincere piety, especially in his practice of leaving all in the hands of divine providence. They also pointed to his kindliness and affability. As he was dying, he endeavored to have Father Boujard agree to be named his successor. His words to Boujard show his great love for the Congregation: “A missioner who is unable to die for the Congregation is unworthy of it.”