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Joseph Fesch

Cardinal, b. at Ajaccio, Corsica, January 3, 1763; d. at Rome, May 13, 1839

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Fesch, JOSEPH, cardinal, b. at Ajaccio, Corsica, January 3, 1763; d. at Rome, May 13, 1839. He was the son of a captain of a Swiss regiment in the service of Genoa, studied at the seminary of Aix, was made archdeacon and provost of the chapter of Ajaccio before 1789, but was oblige to leave Corsica when his family sided with France against the English, who came to the island in answer to Paoli’s summons. The young priest was half-brother to Letizia Ramolino, the mother of Napoleon I and upon arriving in France he entered the commissariat department of the army; later, in 1795, became commissary of war under Bonaparte, then in command of the Armee d’Italic. When religious peace was reestablished, Fesch made a month’s retreat under the direction of Emery, the superior of Saint-Sulpice and reentered ecclesiastical life. During the Consulate he became canon of Bastia and helped to negotiate the Concordat of 1801; on August 15, 1802, Caprara consecrated him Archbishop of Lyons, and in 1803 Pius VII created him cardinal.

On April 4, 1803, Napoleon appointed Cardinal Fesch successor to Cacault as ambassador to Rome, giving him Chateaubriand for secretary. The early part of his sojourn in the Eternal City was noted for his differences with Chateaubriand and his efforts to have the Concordat extended to the Italian Republic. He prevailed upon Pius VII to go to Paris in person and crown Napoleon. This was Fesch’s greatest achievement. He accompanied the pope to France and, as grand almoner, blessed the marriage of Napoleon and Josephine before the coronation ceremony took place. By a decree issued in 1805, the missionary institutions of Saint-Lazare and Saint-Sulpice were placed under the direction of Cardinal Fesch, who, laden with this new responsibility, returned to Rome. In 1806, after the occupation of Ancona by French troops, and Napoleon’s letter proclaiming himself Emperor of Rome, Alquier was named to succeed Fesch as ambassador to Rome. Returning to his archiepiscopal See of Lyons, the cardinal remained in close touch with his nephew’s religious policy and strove, occasionally with success, to obviate certain irreparable mistakes. He accepted the coadjutorship to Dalberg, prince-primate, in the See of Ratisbon, but, in 1808, refused the emperor’s offer of the Archbishopric of Paris, for which he could not have obtained canonical institution. Although powerless to prevent either the rupture between Napoleon and the pope in 1809 or the closing of the seminaries of Saint-Lazare, Saint-Esprit, and the Missions Etrangeres, Fesch nevertheless managed to deter Napoleon from signing a decree relative to the independence of the Gallican Church. He consented to bless Napoleon’s marriage with Marie-Louise, but, according to the researches of Geoffroy de Grandmaison, he was not responsible to the same extent as the members of the diocesan officialite for the illegal annulment of the emperor’s first marriage.

In 1809 and 1810 Fesch presided over the two ecclesiastical commissions charged with the question of canonical institution of bishops, but the proceedings were so conducted that neither commission adopted any schismatic resolutions. As its president, he March 27, and as the pope wished him to come with all opened the National Council of 1811, but at the very outset he took and also administered the oath (forma juramenti professions fidei) required by the Bull “Injunctum nobis” Pius IV; it was decided by “use to choose a prelate whose vast and intimate ac-eight votes out of eleven that the method of canonical institution could not be altered independently of the pope. A message containing the assurance of the cardinal’s loyalty, and addressed to the supreme pontiff, then in exile at Fontainebleau, caused Fesch to incur the emperor’s disfavor and to forfeit the subsidy of 150,000 florins which he had received as Dalberg’s coadjutor. Under the Restoration and the Monarchy of July, Fesch lived at Rome, his Archdiocese of Lyons being in charge of an administrator. He died without again returning to France and left a splendid collection of pictures, a part of which was bequeathed to his episcopal city.

As a diplomat, Fesch sometimes employed questionable methods. His relationship to the emperor and his cardinalitial dignity often made his position a difficult one; at least he could never be accused of approving the violent measures resorted to by Napoleon. As archbishop, he was largely instrumental in reestablishing the Brothers of Christian Doctrine and recalling the Jesuits, under the name of Pacanarists. The Archdiocese of Lyons is indebted to him for some eminently useful institutions. It must be admitted, moreover, that in his pastoral capacity Fesch took a genuine interest in the education of priests.


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