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Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement

Catholic secret society

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Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, a Catholic secret society which included among its members many Catholic celebrities of the seventeenth century. It was founded in March, 1630, at the Convent of the Capuchins in the Faubourg Saint-Honor-6 by Henri de Levis, Due de Ventadour, who had just escorted his wife to the Convent of Mont-Carmel; Henri de Pichery, officer of Louis XIII’s household; Jacques Adhemar de Monteil de Grignan, a future bishop, and Philippe d’Angoumois, the Capuchin. Amongst those who soon joined it, should be mentioned Pere Suffren, a Jesuit, confessor to Louis XIII and Marie de’ Medici; the son and grandson of Coligny, the Protestant admiral, and Charles de Condren, General of the Oratorians. In 1631 this association was called the Company of the Most Blessed Sacrament. It was organized under the authority of a board composed of nine members, changed every three months, and which included a superior, usually a layman, and a spiritual director who was a priest. The associates met weekly and their organization was simultaneously a pious confraternity, a charitable society, and a militant association for the defense of the Church.

The company was an absolutely secret one. Louis XIII covertly encouraged it but it never wished to have the letters patent that would have rendered it legal. Archbishop Gondi of Paris refused his blessing to the company although, in 1631, Louis XIII wrote him a personal letter requesting him to confer it. The Brief obtained from the pope in 1633 by the Count de Brassan, one of the members, was of no importance and the company, eager to secure a new one, was granted only a few indulgences which it would not accept, as it did not wish to be treated as a simple confraternity. Guido Bagni, nuncio from 1645 to 1656, often attended the sessions of the company but its existence was never regularly acknowledged by an official document from Rome. The rule of secrecy obliged members “not to speak of the company to those who do not belong to it and never to make known the names of the individuals composing it”. New members were elected by the board and it was soon decided that no congreganiste, i. e. member of a lay congregation directed by ecclesiastics, could be eligible. Matters of an especially delicate nature were not discussed at the weekly meetings, these being frequently attended by a hundred members, but were reserved for the investigation of the board. The company printed nothing and the keeping of written minutes was conducted with the utmost caution. There were fifty important branches outside of Paris, about thirty being unknown even to the bishops. Among other members were the Prince de Conti, the Marechal de Schomberg, the Baron de Renty, Magistrates Lamoignon, de Mesnes, and Le Fevre d’Ormesson; Alain de Solminihac, Bishop of (‘ahors, now declared Venerable; St. Vincent de Paul, Olier, and Bossuet.

The association labored zealously to correct abuses among the clergy and in monasteries, to insure good behavior in the churches, to procure missions for country parishes, and it had the honor of urging the establishment of a Seminary of Foreign Missions for the evangelizing of infidels. It also endeavored to reform the morals of the laity by encouraging the effective crusade of the Marquis de Salignac-Fenelon against dueling. Moreover, it was interested in the care of the poor, the improvement of hospitals, and the administration of galleys and prisons; and that the poor might have legal advice, it created what are today known as the secretariats du peuple. It protected the fraternities of shoemakers and tailors organized by the Baron de Renty and assisted St. Vincent de Paul in most of his undertakings. In 1652 when Louis XIV, conqueror of the Fronde, reentered Paris and the city was flooded with peasants, fugitive religious, and hungry priests, the members of the company multiplied their generous deeds, demanded alms from their fellow-members outside of Paris, sent priests to hear the confessions of the sick in districts that had been decimated by war, founded parish societies for the relief of the poor, and established at Paris a general storehouse stocked with provisions, clothing, and agricultural implements to be distributed among the impoverished peasants. At that time the company spent 300,000 livres (equal to 300,000 dollars) in charity each year. Finally, it was instrumental in bringing about the ordinance establishing the General Hospital where Christophe du Plessis, the magistrate, and St. Vincent de Paul organized the hospitals for mendicants.

Even those historians to whom the secret character of this association is obnoxious, give due credit to its admirable charities, but they attack its action in regard to Protestants. The company labored diligently to increase conversions and organized the preaching of missions for Protestants in Lorraine, Dauphine, and Limousin and founded establishments in Paris, Sedan, Metz, and Puy for young converts from Protestantism. Moreover, it strove to suppress the outrages perpetrated by Protestants against the Catholic religion and opposed the oppression of Catholics by Protestants in a Protestant city like La Rochelle. Finally, without seeking the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Company nevertheless remained constantly on the alert, lest any concession be made to Protestants beyond what the formal text of the edict demanded and its members sent documents to Jean Filleau, a Poitiers lawyer, who for twenty-five years issued “Catholic decisions” from a juridical point of view, on the interpretation of the Edict of Nantes. The protestation of the general assembly of the clergy in 1656 against the infringement of the edict by Protestants, was the outgrowth of a long documental work prepared by the members. In 1660, Lechassier who was Maitre des Comptes and also one of the company, forwarded to all the country branches a questionnaire, i. e. a series of questions asked with a view to helping the inquiry, of thirty-one articles on the infringement of the Edict of Nantes by Protestants. The answers were collected by Forbin-Janson, Bishop of Digne, who took active part in the assembly of clergy, the result being that commissaries were sent into the provinces for the purpose of setting right these abuses. But, in its own turn, the company violated the Edict of Nantes (of which Art. 27 declared Huguenots wholly eligible to public office), and, by secret maneuvering, one day prevented twenty-five young Protestants from being received as attorneys at the Parlement of Paris. “The members thought they were doing right”, explained Pere de la Briere, “nevertheless, if we consider not their intention, but the very nature of their act and of their procedure, it is impossible to doubt that they were guilty of an iniquity”. According to the testimony of Pere Rapin and the Count d’Argenson, these proceedings of the Company were the starting-point of the policy that was to culminate in 1685 in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

The year 1660 witnessed the decline of the company. In consequence of incidents that had occurred at Caen, it was vigorously attacked in a libel by Charles du Four, Abbot of Aulnay, and denounced to Cardinal Mazarin by Francois Harlay de Champvallon, Archbishop of Rouen. On December 13, 1660, the members held a last general meeting at which, amid expressions of regret and deep emotion, it was decided to suspend their Thursday sessions and to add “ten or twelve elders” to the members of the board so that the company might continue to act provisionally; then these elders and the board selected eight individuals who were to correspond with the country branches, one of the eight being Bossuet. On December 13, 1660, Parliament issued a decree prohibiting all illicit assemblies, confraternities, congregations, and communities but Lamoignon, a member of the company and the first president, succeeded in preventing it from being designated by name. It seems that the meetings of the board and the elders, held regularly enough in 1664 to be instrumental in obtaining the interdiction of “Tartuffe”, ceased almost altogether in 1665. The General Hospital and the Seminary of Foreign Missions continued to exist as magnificent legacies of this association which Mazarin and many hostile historians who came after him, scornfully called the “Cabal of Devotees”.


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