Founder of the seminary and Society of St-Sulpice, b. at Paris, Sept. 20, 1608; d. there, April 2, 1657
Olier, JEAN-JACQUES, founder of the seminary and Society of St-Sulpice, b. at Paris, September 20, 1608; d. there, April 2, 1657. At Lyons, where his father had become administrator of justice, he made a thorough classical course under the Jesuits (1617-25); he was encouraged to become a priest by St. Francis de Sales, who predicted his sanctity and great services to the Church. He studied philosophy at the college of Harcourt, scholastic theology and patristics at the Sorbonne. He preached during this period, in virtue of a benefice with which his father had provided him, adopting the ambitious style of the day; he also frequented fashionable society, causing anxiety to those interested in his spiritual welfare. His success in defending theses in Latin and Greek led him to go to Rome for the purpose of learning Hebrew so as to gain eclat by defending theses in that language at the Sorbonne. His eyesight failing, he made a pilgrimage to Loreto, where he not only obtained a cure, but also a complete conversion to God. For a time he meditated the Carthusian life, visiting monasteries in Southern Italy; the news of his father’s death (1631) recalled him to Paris. Refusing a court chaplaincy, with the prospect of high honors, he began to gather the beggars and the poor and catechize them in his home; at Paris he collected the poor and the outcast on the streets for instruction, a practice at first derided but soon widely imitated and productive of much good. Under St. Vincent de Paul’s guidance, he assisted his missionaries in Paris and the provinces, prepared for the priesthood, and was ordained May 21, 1633. He became a leader in the revival of religion in France, associating himself with the followers first of St. Vincent and then of Pere de Condren, Superior of the Oratory, under whose direction he passed, though he continued to retain St. Vincent as his friend and advisor. To de Condren, more even, it appears, than to St. Vincent, Olier owed the deepest spiritual influence and many of his leading ideas. The work de Condren had most at heart was the foundation of seminaries after the model laid down at the Council of Trent. The hope of religion lay in the formation of a new clergy through the seminaries. The attempts in France to carry out the designs of the council having failed, de Condren, unable to succeed through the medium of the Oratory, gathered a few young ecclesiastics around him for that purpose, Olier among them. The missions in which he employed them were meant to impress on their minds the religious needs of the country; his ulterior purpose was not disclosed till shortly before his death in 1640.
A first attempt to found a seminary at Chartres failed. On December 29, 1641, Olier and two others, de Foix and du Ferrier, entered upon a community life at Vaugirard, a suburb of Paris. Others soon joined them, and before long there were eight seminarians, who followed with the priests the same rule of life and were instructed in ecclesiastical sciences, M. Olier teaching Holy Scripture. The pastor of Vaugirard profited by the presence of the priests to take an extended vacation, during which time they reformed his parish. Impressed by the fame of this reform, the cure of St-Sulpice, disheartened by the deplorable state of his parish, offered it in exchange for some of M. Olier’s benefices. In August, 1641, M. Olier took charge of St-Sulpice. His aims were to reform the parish, establish a seminary, and Christianize the Sorbonne, then very worldly, through the piety and holiness of the seminarians who should attend its courses. The parish embraced the whole Faubourg-St-Germain, with a population as numerous and varied as a large city. It was commonly reputed the largest and most vicious parish, not only in the French capital, but in all Christendom. The enormity of the evils had killed all hope of reformation. Father Olier organized his priests in community life. Those who found the life too strict separated from the work. The parish was divided into eight districts, each under the charge of a head priest and associates, whose duty it was to know individually all the souls under their care, with their spiritual and corporal needs, especially the poor, the uninstructed, the vicious, and those bound in irregular unions. Thirteen catechetical centers were established, for the instruction not only of children but of many adults who were almost equally ignorant of religion. Special instructions were provided for every class of persons, for the beggars, the poor, domestic servants, lackeys, midwives, workingmen, the aged etc. Instructions and debates on Catholic doctrine were organized for the benefit of Calvinists, hundreds of whom were converted. A vigorous campaign was waged against immoral and heretical literature and obscene pictures; leaflets, holy pictures, and prayer books were distributed to those who could not or would not come to church, and a bookstore was opened at the church to supply good literature. The poor were cared for according to methods of relief inspired by the practical genius of St. Vincent de Paul. During the five or six years of the Fronde, the terrible civil war that reduced Paris to widespread misery, and often to the verge of famine, M. Olier supported hundreds of families and provided many with clothing and shelter. None were refused. His rules of relief, adopted in other parishes, became the accepted methods and are still followed at St-Sulpice. Orphans, very numerous during the war, were placed in good parishes, and a house of refuge established for orphan girls. A home was open to shelter and reform the many women rescued from evil lives, and another for young girls exposed to danger. Many free schools for poor girls were founded by Father Olier, and he labored also at the reform of the teachers in boys’ schools, not however, with great success. He perceived that the reform of boys’ schools could be accomplished only through a new congregation; which in fact came about after his death through Saint John Baptist de la Salle, a pupil of St-Sulpice, who founded his first school in Father Olier’s parish. Free legal aid was provided for the poor. He gathered under one roof the sisters of many communities, who had been driven out of their convents in the country and fled to Paris for refuge, and cared for them till the close of the war. In fine, there was no misery among the people, spiritual or corporal, for which the pastor did not seek a remedy.
His work for the rich and high-placed was no less thorough and remarkable. He led the movement against duelling, formed a society for its suppression, and enlisted the active aid of military men of renown, including the marshals of France and some famous duellists. He converted many of noble and royal blood, both men and women. He combated the idea that Christian perfection was only for priests and religious, and inspired many to the practices of a devout life, including daily meditation, spiritual reading and other exercises of piety, and to a more exact fulfillment of their duties at court and at home. His influence was powerful with the Queen Regent, Anne of Austria, to whom he spoke with great plainness, yet with great respect, denouncing her prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, as responsible for simoniacal and sacrilegious nominations to the episcopate. He persuaded the rich—royalty, nobles, and others—to a great generosity, without which his unbounded charities would have been impossible. The foundation of the present church of St-Sulpice was laid by him. At times as many as sixty or even eighty priests were ministering together in the parish, of whom the most illustrious, a little after Olier’s time, was Fenelon, later Archbishop of Cambrai. This was one of the best effects of Olier’s work, for it sent trained, enlightened zealous priests into all parts of France. From being the most vicious in France, the parish became one of the most devout, and it has remained such to this day. Olier was always the missionary. His outlook was world-wide; his zeal led to the foundation of the Sulpician missions at Montreal and enabled him to effect the conversion of the English King, Charles II, to the Catholic faith, though not to perseverance in a Christian life.
The second great work of Olier was the establishment of the seminary of St-Sulpice. By his parish, which he intended to serve as a model to the parochial clergy, as well as by his seminary, he hoped to help give France a worthy secular priesthood, through which alone, he felt, the revival of religion could come.
The seminary was at first installed in the presbytery, but very soon (October 1, 1642) removed to a little house in the vicinity, M. de Foix being placed in charge by Father Olier. The beginnings were in great poverty, which lasted many years, for Olier would never allow any revenues from the parish to be expended except on parish needs. From the start he designed to make it a national seminary and regarded as providential the fact that the parish of St-Sulpice and its seminary depended directly on the Holy See. In the course of two years students came to it from about twenty dioceses of France. Some attended the courses at the Sorbonne, others followed those given in the seminary. His seminarians were initiated into parochial work, being employed very fruitfully in teaching catechism. At the Sorbonne their piety, it appears, had a very marked influence. The seminary, fulfilling the hopes of Father Olier, not only sent apostolic priests into all parts of France, but became the model according to which seminaries were founded throughout the kingdom. Its rules, approved by the General Assembly of the Clergy in 1651, were adopted in many new establishments. Within a few years, Father Olier, at the earnest solicitation of the bishops, sent priests to found seminaries in a few dioceses, the first at Nantes in 1648. It was not his intention to establish a congregation to conduct a number of seminaries in France, but merely to lend priests for the foundation of a seminary to any bishop and to recall them after their work was well established. The repeated requests of bishops, considered by him as indications of God‘s will, caused him to modify his plan, and to accept a few seminaries permanently. The society which formed around him at St-Sulpice was not erected into a religious congregation; it continued as a community of secular priests, following a common life but bound by no special vows, whose aim it should be to live perfectly the life of secular priests. He wished it to remain a small company, decreeing that it should never consist of more than seventy-two members, besides the superior and his twelve assistants. This regulation remained in force till circumstances induced Father Emery to abolish the limitation.
Father Olier’s arduous labors brought on a stroke of apoplexy in February, 1652. He resigned his cure into the hands of M. de Bretonvilliers and on regaining sufficient strength visited watering-places in search of health, by command of his physicians, and made many pilgrimages. On his return to Paris, his old energy and enthusiasm reasserted themselves, especially in his warfare against Jansenism. A second stroke, at Peray in September, 1653, rendered him thenceforth a paralytic. His last years were full of intense suffering, both bodily and mental, which he bore with the utmost sweetness and resignation. They were years of prayer, but indeed the whole life of this servant of God, despite his immense external activity, was a prayer; and his principal devotion was to the inner life of Christ. His visions and his mysticism caused the Jansenists to ridicule him as a visionary; but they, as well as all others, acknowledged his sanctity and the singular purity of his intentions. His numerous ascetical writings show him a profound master of spiritual doctrine, and well deserve a close study. His great friend, St. Vincent de Paul, who was with him at his death, considered him a saint; and Father Faber, in his “Growth in Holiness” (Baltimore ed., p. 376) says of him: “Of all the uncanonized servants of God whose lives I have read, he most resembles a canonized Saint.” (See Society of Saint-Sulpice.)
JOHN F. FENLON