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Diocese of Poitiers

Includes the Departments of Vienne and Deux-Sevres, and is suffragan of Bordeaux

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Poitiers, Diocese of (PICTAVENSIS), includes the Departments of Vienne and Deux-Sevres, and is suffragan of Bordeaux. The Concordat of 1802 added to the see besides the ancient Diocese of Poitiers a part of the Dioceses of La Rochelle and Saintes (see Diocese of La Rochelle). Msgr. Duchesne holds that its earliest episcopal catalogue represents the ecclesiastical tradition of Poitiers in the twelfth century. The catalogue reckons twelve predecessors of St. Hilary, among them Nectarius, Liberius, and Agon, and among his successors Sts. Quintianus and Maxentius. Msgr. Duchesne does not doubt the existence of these saints but questions whether they were bishops of Poitiers. According to him, St. Hilary (350-67 or 8) is the first bishop of whom we have historical evidence.

Among his successors were St. Pientius (c. 544-60); St. Fortunatus (c. 599); St. Peter (1087-1115), exiled by William IX, Count of Poitiers, whose divorce he refused to sanction; Gilbert de la Porree (1142-54); Blessed William Tempier (1184-97), who, as Msgr. Barbier de Montault has shown, was irregularly venerated as a saint in certain parts of the diocese since he died subsequent to the declaration of Alexander III which reserved canonizations to the Holy See; Blessed Gauthier de Bruges (1278-1306); Arnauld d’Aux (1306-12), made cardinal in 1312; Guy de Malsec (1371-5), who became cardinal in 1375; Simon de Cramaud (1385-91), indefatigable opponent of the anti-pope, Benedict XIII, and who again administered the diocese (1413-23) and became cardinal in 1413; Louis de Bar (1394-5), cardinal in 1397; Jean de la Tremouille (1505-7), cardinal in 1507; Gabriel de Gramont (1532-4), cardinal in 1507; Claude de Longwy, Cardinal de Givry (1538-52), became cardinal in 1533; Antonio Barberini (1652-7), cardinal in 1627; Abbe de Pradt (1805-9), afterwards Archbishop of Mechlin, Pie (1849-80), cardinal in 1879. Saint Emmeram (q.v.) was a native of Poitiers, but according to the Bollandists and Msgr. Duchesne the documents which make him Bishop of Poitiers (c. 650) are not trustworthy; on the other hand Bernard Sepp (Ana-lee. Boll., VIII) and Dom Chamard claim that he did hold the see, and succeeded Didon, bishop about 666 or 668 according to Dom Chamard.

As early as 312 the Bishop of Poitiers established a school near his cathedral; among its scholars were St. Hilary, St. Maxentius, Bishop Maximus of Trier, and his two brothers St. Maximinus of Chinon and St. Jouin of Marne, St. Paulinus, Bishop of Trier, and the poet Ausonius. In the sixth century Fortunatus taught there, and in the twelfth century intellectual Europe flocked to Poitiers to sit at the feet of Gilbert de la Porree. Charles VII erected a university at Poitiers, in opposition to Paris, where the majority of the faculty had hailed Henry VI of England, and by Bull of May 28, 1431, Eugene IV approved the new university. In the reign of Louis XII there were in Poitiers no less than four thousand students—French, Italians, Flemings, Scots, and Germans. There were ten colleges attached to the university. In 1540, at the College Ste. Marthe, the famous Marc Antoine Muret, whom Gregory XIII called in later years the torch and the pillar of the Roman School, had a chair. The famous Jesuit Maldonatus and five of his confreres went in 1570 to Poitiers to establish a Jesuit college at the request of some of the inhabitants. After twounsuccessful attempts, they were given the College Ste. Marthe in 1605. Pere Garasse, well known for his violent polemics and who died of the plague at Poitiers in 1637, was professor there (1607-8), and had as a pupil the great French prose writer, Guez de Balzac. Among other students at Poitiers were Achille de Harlay, President de Thou, the poet Joachim du Bellay, the chronicler, Brantome Descartes, Viete the mathematician, and Bacon, afterwards Chancellor of England. In the seventeenth century the Jesuits sought affiliation with the university and in spite of the lively opposition of the faculties of theology and arts their request was granted. Jesuit ascendancy grew; they united to Ste. Marthe the College du Puygareau. Friction between them and the university was continuous, and in 1762 the general laws against them throughout France led to the Society leaving Poitiers. Moreover, from 1674 the Jesuits had conducted at Poitiers a college for clerical students from Ireland. In 1806 the State reopened the school of law at Poitiers and later the faculties of literature and science. These faculties were raised to the rank of a university in 1896. From 1872 to 1875 Cardinal Pie was engaged in reestablishing the faculty of theology. As a provisional effort he called to teach in his Grand Seminaire three professors from the Collegio Romano, among them Pere Schrader, the commentator of the Syllabus, who died at Poitiers in 1875. At Liguge in the diocese, St. Martin founded the first monastery in Gaul, to which were attached a catechetical school and a baptistery. This monastery, afterwards eclipsed by that of Marmoutiers founded by St. Martin near Tours, was destroyed by the Normans in 865, and was later a simple priory depending on the Abbey of Maillezais, and still later belonged to the Jesuits. In 1853 the Benedictines settled in Liguge and in 1856 it became an abbey. The Benedictines of Liguge, driven out in 1880, took refuge at Silos in Spain; the abbey in after years became once more a religious center, but the Associations Law of 1901 again forced the monks into exile at Chevetogne in Belgium. Another important monastery was that of Ansion, or St. Jouin of Marne, founded before 500, and subsequently placed under the Rule of St. Benedict. St. Generosus, St. Paternus (Pair), afterwards Bishop of Avranches, his friend St. Scubilio, and St. Aichard, afterwards Abbot of Jumieges, were all monks of Ansion. A Benedictine abbey founded in 785 by Roger, Count of Limoges, and his wife Euphrasia, was the origin of the town of Charroux, and was enriched with many gifts by Charlemagne. The Abbey of St. Savin-sur-Gartempe was founded by Charlemagne. Its church and crypt, studied in 1836 by Prosper Merimee, dates from the eleventh century, and possesses a series of frescoes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries representing the history of the world from the creation until Moses, and the martyrdom of SS. Savinus and Cyprian, which are unique in the history of French mural painting. The church of St. Peter of Chauvigny (eleventh and twelfth centuries) has some admirable sculpture work; and the town of Poitiers is a veritable museum of religious art. Parts of the baptistery of St. John, recently studied with care by the Jesuit archaeologist, P. de la Croix, date from the fourth century; and there is evidence that in the time of Constantine baptism by immersion was practiced in Poitiers.

The church founded in the fourth century by St. Hilary in honor of SS. John and Paul, martyrs and where St. Hilary was buried, was afterwards dedicated to St. Hilary, and reconstructed in the eleventh century by Emma, Queen of England and mother of Edward the Confessor, and by her architect Gautier Coorland. The vaulting of the seven naves of this building, known today as St. Hilary the Great, reminds one of Byzantine cupolas, and is an imposing sight. The church of St. Radegunde, which has a Roman apse (eleventh century) and a Gothic nave (twelfth century), rises on the site of a church founded in the sixth century in honor of the virgin queen St. Radegunde, who retired to the monastery of Ste. Croix. In the crypt is her tomb, and facing it a statue of the saint, an “ex voto” of Anne of Austria in 1658, for the cure of her son Louis XIV. The church of Notre Dame la Grande has a twelfth-century facade, which, to a height of fifty-six and a breadth of forty-eight feet, is completely covered with Romanesque carvings at one time polychrome. The cathedral, St. Peter’s, is a beautiful Gothic building begun in the second half of the twelfth century under the reign of Henry II Plantagenet of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine and consecrated October 18, 1379. The Hotel de Ville of Poitiers contains some frescoes, masterpieces of Puvis de Chavannes; they represent the victorious arrival of Charles Martel at Poitiers, and Fortunatus reading his poems to St. Radegunde. Among councils held at Poitiers are those of: 590, in which the Frankish princess and nun, Chrodielda, was excommunicated for revolt against her abbess; 1074, which dealt with the matrimonial affairs of William, Count of Poitiers, and to which the Bishop of Poitiers, Isambert, came with a troop of soldiers and dispersed the members; 1075, which dealt with the heresy of Berengarius, and at which Giraud was papal legate; 1078, in which the papal legate Hugues passed laws against simony; 1100, in which Bishop Norgaud of Autun was deposed for simony, Philip I of France and his concubine Bertrade were excommunicated, and the bishops narrowly escaped being stoned by the order of the Count of Poitiers, who was displeased with their decision; 1106, at which a crusade was proclaimed. The Synod of 1868, assembled to celebrate the fifteenth centenary of St. Hilary’s death, was attended by representatives from every part of the ecclesiastical province of Bordeaux. Five councils were held at Charroux in the diocese; that of 1027 legislated against the spread of Manichaeism, and was concerned with the “Pax Dei”, or Truce of God.

Poitiers is rich in historical souvenirs. The neighborhood of Poitiers was the scene of two famous battles, that of October, 732, in which Charles Martel defeated Abd-el-Raman and definitively saved France from Saracen invasion, and that of September, 1356, in which the King of France, John II, the Good, was made prisoner by the English. In the convent of the Cordeliers at Poitiers dwelt for sixteen months (June, 1307-8) Pope Clement V, while Philip IV, the Fair, of France dwelt with the Jacobins. Jacques Molay and seventy-two Templars were questioned by Clement V at Poitiers. In 1428 when the English held the country north of the Loire, Poitiers was more or less the headquarters of Charles VII, and thither in March, 1429, went Blessed Jeanne d’Arc to see Charles VII and be questioned concerning her mission. The convent of the Calvarians was founded in 1617 by Antoinette d’Orleans, under the inspiration of the Capuchin Francis Le Clerc du Tremblay. “Poitiers, a town full of priests and monks”, wrote La Fontaine in 1633, during a journey through Poitou. The portion of the diocese which lies in the Department of Deux-Sevres was greatly disturbed during the sixteenth century by the Wars of Religion and under the French Revolution by the Wars of La Vendee. Among natives of the diocese are: Cardinal Jean Balue; the Sainte-Marthes (see Gallia Christiana); Filleau de la Bouchetterie (1600-82), who, in 1654, accused Saint-Cyran, Jansenius, and four other Jansenists, with having at a meeting in 1621, discussed the means of substituting Deism for Catholicism; Mme de Maintenon; the Protestant theologian, Isaac Beausobre (1659-1738), the historian of Manichaeism. Urbain Grandier was cure of Loudun in the diocese and after a famous trial was burned to death there (August 18, 1634) on the charge of having bewitched the Ursulines of Loudun. Besides St. Radegunde, the great saint of the diocese, and the saints already named the diocese especially venerates: St. Abra, daughter of St. Hilary; St. Leonius (Lien), friend of St. Hilary; St. Justus, priest, who was designated as his successor by St. Hilary, but who refused the honor (fourth century); SS. Savinus and Cyprian, apostles of Poitou, martyred by the Huns in 438; St. Maxentius (d. 515), founder of a monastery between Niort and Poitiers, whence arose the town of St. Maixent; St. Fridolinus, an Irishman, abbot of St. Hilary’s of Poitiers (d. c. 540); St. Lubin, Bishop of Chartres, native of Poitou (d. 556); St. Junlanus, director of St. Radegunde, founder and first abbot of the monastery of Maire-l’Evescault (d. 587); St. Agnes (d. 588); St. Disciola (d. 583), abbess and nun of Ste. Croix; St. Leger, Abbot of St. Maxentius and afterwards Bishop of Autun (616-678); St. Adelelmus (Alleaume), Abbot of La Chaise-Dieu, Prior of Burgos (d. 1097), a native of Loudun; St. William of Aquitaine, Count of Poitiers (1099-1137), excommunicated as a partisan of the Schism of Anacletus, and converted by St. Bernard; and Blessed Francis d’Amboise (d. 1485), whose father was Viscount de Thouars; Blessed Theophane Venard, missionary, martyred in Tonkin in 1861, born at St. Loup-sur-Thouet in the Diocese of Poitiers; Ven. Charles Cornay, missionary in China, martyred in 1839, a native of Loudun.

The chief shrines of the diocese are: Notre-Dame la Grande, or Notre-Dame des Clefs at Poitiers, a place of pilgrimage since the thirteenth century; Notre-Dame de l’Agenouillee at Azay-sur-Thouet, a place of pilgrimage since the middle of the sixteenth century; Notre-Dame de Pitie, near the Chapelle St. Laurent, a celebrated place of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages; Notre-Dame de Beauchene, at Cerizay, a place of pilgrimage since the twelfth century. Many pilgrims are also drawn by the chapel built at Liguge on the site of the cell of a catechumen whom St. Martin brought to life in order to baptize him, by the crypt of St. Radegunde at Poitiers, and by the church at Marcay, built in 1884, the first church to be dedicated to St. Benedict Labre. Before the application of the Associations Law of 1901 there were in the Diocese of Poitiers, Augustinians of the Assumption, Jesuits, Dominicans, Canons Regular of St. Augustine and many congregations of teaching brothers, a house of Picpus Fathers, who were founded at Poitiers early in the nineteenth century by the Venerable Pere Coudrin, and who afterwards changed their parent-house to Paris. Many important congregations of women originated in the diocese: The Daughters of the Cross known as Sisters of St. Andrew (mother-house at La Puye), a nursing and teaching order, established in 1807 by Ven. Andre-Hubert Fournet, pastor of St. Pierre-de-Maille, and his penitent, Elisabeth Bichier des Ages; this congregation has houses in Spain and Italy; the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, a teaching order founded in 1854 by Pere Pecot with mother-house at Niort; the Sisters of St. Philomena, a teaching order founded in the middle of the nineteenth century by Abbe Gaillard with mother-house at Salvert. At the beginning of the twentieth century the religious congregations in the diocese had charge of 44 nurseries, 1 school for the blind, 2 schools for deaf and dumb, 1 orphanage for boys, 7 orphanages for girls, 13 hospitals, 1 home for incurables, 1 lunatic asylum, 2 houses of retreat, and 6 district nursing homes. In 1905, at the breach of the Concordat, the Diocese of Poitiers had 684,808 inhabitants, 69 parishes, 574 auxiliary parishes, and 97 curacies maintained by the State.


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