Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus
First Bishop of Boston; Bishop of Montauban; Archbishop of Bordeaux, France, and Cardinal (1768-1836)
Cheverus, JEAN-LOUIS LEFEBVRE, DE, first Bishop of Boston, U.S.A., Bishop of Montauban; Archbishop of Bordeaux, France, and Cardinal, b. at Mayenne, France, January 28, 1768; d. at Bordeaux, July 19, 1836. Ordained priest by dispensation when not yet twenty-three, he was appointed assistant to an uncle, whom he shortly succeeded as pastor of Mayenne, receiving faculties, also, to act as vicar-general. Refusal to take the oath imposed by the Revolution cost him his parish, and very nearly his life. He escaped from Paris to London, in disguise. Proferred aid on his arrival, he replied: “The little I have will suffice until I learn something of the language. Once acquainted with that, I can earn my living by manual labor, if necessary”. In three months he knew English enough to teach, and within a year gathered a congregation. A letter from a former professor, the Rev. Francis A. Matignon, then pastor at Boston, told him of the hard conditions and crying needs of Catholic work there, urging, also, his peculiar fitness for bringing it to success, if he would only come there. The call was heeded. Arriving in Boston, October 3, 1796, he wrote Bishop Carroll: “Send me where you think I am most needed, without making yourself anxious about the means of my support. I am willing to work with my hands, if need be”.
His work in New England, covering twenty-seven years, included every form of missionary activity. He lived among the Indians, mastering their dialect; trudged on foot long distances, attending scattered Catholics; nursed the sick and buried the dead during two yellow-fever epidemics; collected funds and built a church in Boston; was businessman, adviser, peacemaker, servant, doctor for his flock, failing them in no form of helpfulness. This disinterested devotion to humble duties joined with extraordinary tact gradually won the respect of the prejudiced Puritans. Closer acquaintance, revealing Cheverus’s brilliant talents, wide learning, innate refinement, transparent holiness, and Christ-like charity, deepened respect into confidence, veneration, and love. Ministers invited him to their pulpits. The legislature sought and acted on his counsels. At a state banquet to President John Adams (whose name had headed a list of Protestant contributors to the Catholic Church building fund), he was placed next the guest of honor. Named first Bishop of Boston, April 8, 1808, he was not consecrated owing to the non-arrival of the Bulls until November 1, 1810.
Philadelphia sought him as pastor, France as a bishop, Baltimore as coadjutor; “I pray, I supplicate, I entreat with heartfelt earnestness”, he besought the pope, “that I may never be transferred; that I may be permitted to consecrate all my cares to my small but beloved flock”. He had conquered prejudice, but his delicate constitution could not withstand a harsh climate. Impending loss of health was made the valid excuse of his recall to France, and he was transferred to the See of Montauban, January 15, 1823. His departure struck Catholics with consternation. Non-Catholics formally protested. “What will become of the American church?” cried Archbishop Marechal. “You were, next to God, my greatest dependence”. Montauban was a Huguenot stronghold, but shortly after his arrival there a resident wrote: “There are no longer Protestants at Montauban; we are all bishop’s people” On July 30, 1826, he was elevated to the Archbishopric of Bordeaux; Charles X made him a peer; and on February 1, 1835, he was created cardinal. In Massachusetts his career became an apologia for Catholicity. Dr. Channing, the eminent Unitarian divine, asked: “Who among our religious teachers would solicit a comparison between himself and the devoted Cheverus?…How can we shut our hearts against this proof of the Catholic religion to form good and great men?…It is time that greater justice were done to this ancient and widespread community”. (See Archdiocese of Boston.)
JOSEPH V. TRACY