St. Eugene de Mazenod, Bishop of Marseilles (1782 – 1861): The Founder of the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI)
by Dr. Claude Perera, OMI
French Nobleman, the President of the Parliament of Aix-en-Provence and to Marie-Rose Joannis of the French bourgeois merchantry had a son on 01.08.1782 at Aix-en-Provence, France. The child was named Charles Joseph Eugne de Mazenod. Three years later the family was blessed by a daughter, Charlotte Eugénie Antoinette de Mazenod. The boy inherited a rosy and cozy childhood and a fitting education which were privileges of the nobility, but not for long. The French Revolution which began in 1789 became the turning point of his life. In 1790, he began a struggle as the family had to flee to Turin in Italy. It was indeed a bad period for his family. It was not only that his father made several unsuccessful attempts in Turin to find a job, but also his mother sought a divorce and returned to France with his little sister to reclaim their lost properties. Italy was his land of exile. From Turin, they were forced to move to Venice, where they were welcomed by the Zinelli family from 1794-1797. The priest-son of the Zinellis, Don Bartolo Zinelli offered to take care of the boy, and became a positive influence on the adolescent. He needed such affectionate care as his late childhood was filled with trauma, unhappiness, and unrest. Furthermore, his relationship with Don Bartolo Zinelli became a tremendous support to the spiritual life of the boy. He initiated him to Jesuit spirituality, taught him to pray and to do mortifications. The priest introduced him also to Marian devotion and made him read about missionary activities abroad. That contact with Don Zinelli was the seedbed or the seminarium of his vocation to priesthood. In the meantime, the French army was hunting for French migrants in Italy and his father and the two uncles had to flee further south to Naples with the boy. In less than a year, they were forced again to flee to Palermo, the furthest southern end of Italy. That was in 1799, and he was an adolescent of 17 years. Being separated from his mother, sister and friends and deprived of a formal education, he was in turmoil that cut to the heart. However, did Palermo bring him some fortune? There Eugne was invited by the Duke and Duchess of Cannizaro to be a companion to their two young sons. This was a stroke of luck to an unhappy boy which offered him an opportunity to discover his tastes of the nobility latent within him. Being addressed as Comte (‘Count’) de Mazenod, he began to lavishly enjoy life, and taste the wild pleasures of an impetuous youth of the nobility with the two peers.
Vocation to Priesthood
In 1802, as a man in the prime of his youth, as he had inherited the fortunes of his wealthy mother, he returned to his mother in France. In doing so, he had several ambitions such as enjoying the delicacies of life, fulfilling his mother’s dream of marrying a wealthy young woman to restore the family fortunes, and receiving the honour and prestige, the prerogative of a noble. Although, he enjoyed some pleasures of the aristocracy at the beginning, his dreams began shattering one by one. Living with the mother was not easy. His attempts to bring his parents together again never materialized. The girl whom his mother wanted him to marry died of tuberculosis. His mother’s family was trying to alienate him from his father, whom he cherished. He tried to rejoin his father in Palermo, but the French government would not give him a passport. As a man of 25, a deep-seated frustration was troubling Eugne. The spiritual foundations laid by Don Zinelli in Venice sustained him during this troubled period. By 1805, he was recovering his childhood zeal for religion. Despite his excessive pleasure life, he did not forget religion. The gift of faith which he inherited from the family came alive in him. He attended church services. He saw the appalling conditions of the lapsed clergy and the spiritual bankruptcy and ignorance of their flocks. The French revolution had morally impoverished France. He felt within him that something needed to be done. But he himself had a broken spirit and found unable to make a move. The turning point of his life was the conversion experience on the Good Friday of 1807. This is what he later wrote about it.
Can I forget the bitter tears that the sight of the cross brought streaming from my eyes one Good Friday? Indeed, they welled up from the heart, there was no checking them, they were too abundant for me to be able to hide them from those who like myself were assisting at that moving ceremony. I was in a state of mortal sin [p. 6] and it was precisely this that made me grieve. I could then, and also in some other instance, perceive the difference. Never was my soul more satisfied, never did it feel such happiness; for in the midst of this flood of tears, despite my grief, or rather through my grief, my soul took wings for its last end, towards God its only good whose loss it felt so keenly. Why say more? Could I ever express what I experienced then? Just the memory of it fills my heart with a sweet satisfaction. So, I had looked for happiness outside of God, and outside him I found but affliction and chagrin. Blessed, a thousand times blessed, that he, this good Father, notwithstanding my unworthiness, lavished on me all the richness of his mercy.
After that, he was resolved to make up for the lost time by redoubling his love for the Crucified Christ and to do everything only for God. But things did not change overnight. He felt being called to serve God. But he had hesitations. Prayed a lot and asked his friends to pray for him. Having discerned what God wanted of him, he decided to enter the seminary of Saint-Sulpice on 12.10.1808 to become a priest. Years later, writing to his father on 07.12.1814, he gave the reasons of his choice saying,
I devoted myself to the Church because she was suffering persecution, was abandoned … seeing us heading rapidly towards a schism that I believed was inevitable, I feared it would find but few generous souls with the capacity to sacrifice their comfort and even their lives to preserve the integrity of the faith, and because it seemed to me that God would give me strength enough to dare to brave all these dangers. I was so persuaded that it would not be long before we experienced a cruel persecution, that on leaving for the Paris seminary I packed a complete set of lay clothes with the idea that I would have to use them as a priest.
It was not easy to convince his mother about his decision to enter the seminary. In 1809, he wrote to his mother from the Seminary saying that his true spouse was the Church, the ravaged bride of Christ. He wrote:
So do not grudge, dear mama, do not grudge this poor Church, so terribly abandoned, scorned, trampled underfoot – but which even so was the one who gave birth to us all in Jesus Christ – the dedication that two or three individuals out of the whole of France (a small number I count myself happy to be one of) wish to pay her of their liberty and life. And what reason could you possibly have for wanting me to delay any longer from committing myself, and devoting myself to the Spouse of Jesus Christ?
Priest for the Poor
He was ordained a priest by Bishop Jean Francois Demandolx, in Amiens, on 21.12. 1811. At the end of the following year (1812), having completed his ecclesiastical studies, he returned to serve his Diocese of Aix. Renouncing the privilege of being a parish priest, he wanted to reach out to the real poor, the workers, youth and the sick Eugne began his ministry by rejecting a prestigious diocesan position to reach out to the poor , the workers, the youth, the sick and the imprisoned of Aix. Who were those who flocked to hear him? They were the hungry masses in rags. Although they suffered material poverty, their spiritual poverty was much greater. Five out of every ten of them were away from the sacraments. Their children became adults without even receiving the First Holy Communion. During Lent of 1813, he took a great delight in preaching to the poor and the workers in their own Provencal language. It was a shame for the noble to spoke Provencal. He ignored social sanctions and spoke to them in the language they understood best. That’s how he inculturated himself. His words betray how deeply he loved them:
It is a matter of learning what the Lord asks for you in order to give you eternal happiness. ….. Come now and learn from us what you are in the eyes of faith. You, the poor of Jesus Christ ….. my brethren, my dear brethren, my dear respectable brethren, listen to me. You are the children of God, the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, the co-heirs of his eternal Kingdom ….. There is within you an immortal soul ….. a soul redeemed at the cost of the blood of Jesus Christ ….. O Christians, recognize your dignity …..”
Founder of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate
His special love and care for the youth led him to found an association of Christian young people in Aix. It caught up the youth very well that in a few years the membership shot up to 400. Fr. De Mazenod loved to visit prisoners in the local jail. When typhoid fever devastated the prison in 1814, and himself contracted the disease and he almost died of it but escaped. He extended his ministry to the spiritual needs of the seminarians in the local seminary. When Napolon abdicated in 1814, there effected some political changes together with a religious renewal. He felt that people’s needs for salvation were so urgent, that he could not handle this gigantic mission alone. So, he was thinking of a group of priests working together as a team. However, the kind of collaborators he needed had to be real men of quality. On 09.10.1815, writing a letter to his priest friend Fr. Franois-Henry Tempier, he confided:
My dear friend, read this letter at the foot of the cross ….. I tell you that you are necessary for this work which the Lord has inspired us to undertake.
We want the chosen men who have the will and the courage to walk on the footsteps of the apostles. It was not easy to find men who are dedicated and desire only the glory of God and salvation of souls, without any further recompense in the world than hard work and fatigue and all that the saviour has promised to his true disciples.
On January 25, 1816, he initiated the diocesan society of the Missionaries of Provence with three diocesan priests. They moved into a poorly furnished building. He invited them to live together as a community, binding themselves with the vows of religion and imitating the virtues and example the Crucified Saviour, preaching of the Word of God to the poor. They were set ablaze with the zeal to evangelize the whole world. In 1816, seizing the opportunity, together with his community, Fr. de Mazenod began preaching parish missions in the countryside of Provence, where people were ignorant of their Christian faith. By 1818, there were five priests and five seminarians as members of the community. The same year, he adopted a rule for the community. In 1823, his uncle Fr. Fortune de Mazenod was nominated bishop of Marseilles who wished that Fr. Eugne be his Vicar General. Despite the mixed feelings of the community, he accepted the new post for the sake of his little religious congregation.
His sense of material poverty was overwhelming. He embraced countless privations. During his stay in Rome awaiting the approbation of the congregation, his poverty became a misery. He wrote:
I did not dare approach Tarlonia for so small a sum as one hundred Roman crowns, so I drew it from M. Curani. I shall ask my uncle to settle this. I used this money to pay my debts; I owed two months board and lodgings to the people with whom I stay. Clothes are my real worry. You should see how I try to make them last. I take advantage of the dry weather to wear out my old breeches; there are holes in them, here, there, and everywhere, but my soutane covers all. But, if it rained, I would have to gather up my soutane, and then my raggedness would be only too visible. If I hadn’t to appear so frequently before Cardinals, I would wear my old soutane all the time, for its wrinkles would be hidden by my coat.
It was the same kind of life his community experienced. Preaching at Rognac during a harsh winter the mission Fathers Tempier and Mye experienced tremendous hardships. Sometimes, their hosts were not very hospitable. Their bed was only a pile of straw to sleep upon and had to be frugal in every way. Like their leader, they submitted themselves to these privations joyfully for the love of the Crucified Saviour who was the centre of their lives.
From 1818 to 1825, the Congregation bore the name, ‘Missionaries of Provence.’ As the numbers had shot up to 18 life members and 8 novices, the community founded a house in Nîmes in March 1825. While preparing himself to leave for Rome in view of petitioning the Holy See to change their status from being a congregation of diocesan right to that of a genuine religious order, the community agreed to change its name as, ‘Missionary Oblates of Saint Charles’ for several reasons. The title ‘Missionaries of Provence’ was too restrictive and local. A universal mission needed a better title. Saint Charles was, on the one hand, a model for the clergy, while on the other, Fr. Mazenod’s patron saint. Besides, traditionally, Saint Charles had been the protector of the de Mazenod family. Accordingly, all eldest sons had been named Charles. So, the community had all the reasons to change the name. But this new name did not last long. Why? Fr. De Mazenod arrived in Rome on 26.11.1825. It was not easy to get a date for the papal audience. So, for him it became a time of intense prayer and pilgrimages to many churches in Rome. At the same time, he was brewing on the idea of changing the name of the congregation from ‘the Missionary Oblates of St. Charles,’ although they had changed the name only a few months ago. The new name was going to be ‘the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.’ So, in the draft of his petition to the Vatican, he changed the name. In the end, he had a very affectionate meeting with Pope Leo XII. Fr. Mazenod spoke to him about the change of name, but the pope was silent about it. However, on February 17, 1826, his religious congregation received the papal approbation, with its name officially being changed to Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Its motto was: “He has sent me to evangelize the poor” (Lk 4:18), giving expression to both its charism and way of life.
Despite initial success, the period from 1827 to 1836 was a challenging period of his life when adversity abounded. Conflicts were his daily bread. Holy See eyed him with suspicion. He lost his French citizenship temporarily. Some of his fellow-religious left the congregation. King Charles X of France was promoting Catholicism and he offered the new congregation the mission of Algeria. Fr. De Mazenod declined saying that the time had not yet arrived for it, as they were only a small group still. In 1830, King Charles X was overthrown by King Louis-Philip who stopped parish missions which was the major work of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The new king had concerns about the Algerian mission. Sickness, depression, and disappointment surrounded him. That was how the Master, with whom he was passionately in love with, moulded him.
Bishop of Marseille
In 1837, Fr. Eugne was nominated Bishop of Marseilles. He was a true shepherd who attended on the needs of the flock. In view of the maximum service to the flock, he increased the number of parishes in his diocese and promoted religious life. In the rapidly developing port city of Marseilles, pastoral work abounded with youth, workers, immigrants, and the poor in their many faces. Simultaneously, he played a prominent role in the in the major political and religious questions of the day, such as religious education and the rights of the papacy. As the bishop of Marseilles, he reached his fullest spiritual maturity. As an assiduous and zealous pastor, solidly anchored in the love of Christ and of the Church, forgetting himself, he focused all his energies on the task of evangelization entrusted to him, both in Marseilles and beyond. During this time of intense ministry, he remained a man of prayer. On the foundation of his Sulpician spirituality which he received at the seminary, he also nurtured the spirituality of St. Alphonsus Ligori, the Marian Doctor of the Church. Eucharist was the centre of his life and it sealed his unity with all those who were under his care, and maintained it with great rigour, while insisting his priest-sons to do the same.
The First Superior General of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate
In 1934, he accepted to send missionaries to Corsica. But the real missionary expansion began in 1841 when the first band of Oblates arrived in Canada. He was getting invitations from many mission lands. Even if he did not have sufficient personnel, trusting in the Lord, he ventured out taking a leap in the dark. The first Oblate missionaries who arrived in Canada pioneered into its vast prairies of the West and then in a short while ventured into the Arctic Circle to work among the natives. Then, a series of foreign missions began; England in 1842; the United States and Ceylon (now, Sri Lanka) in 1847, South Africa in 1851 and Ireland in 1855. His was an apostolic heart and took a keen personal interest in his flock. He never crossed the confines of Europe, except once a short visit to Algeria. But his spiritual sons had traversed the all other continents except Australia during his lifetime. But he kept live and extensive communications with his missionaries, as the bulk of his written correspondence testify. Once, a visiting bishop who met Saint Eugne remarked: “I have met the apostle Paul.” Seeing their challenging involvements with the most abandoned in peripheral mission-lands, Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) referred to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate as ‘specialists in the most difficult missions of the Church.’ Numbers were high up until the 1960’s and then dwindled. Today, there are 3631 Oblates are in 61 countries in all five continents. Europe still has the highest number of Oblates (900 + 38 in the General Administration), but they are mostly seniors age-wise. Africa (877) and Asia-Oceania (832) come next and that with the difference of getting many young vocations. Canada-USA have 593, but most of them are seniors. Hats off to those OMI pioneers from Europe and North America who planted and nurtured the faith in mission-lands and where the Church is well established now blessed with many new vocations. It is with sadness one notes that those first-world countries which evangelized the mission-lands once are experiencing a frightful dearth of vocations to priesthood and religious life.
Love for the Blessed Virgin Mary
In 1822, six years after founding the Missionaries of Provence, he was hemmed in from every side. Some of those who joined the Missionaries of Provence had left him. Some other priests were against him. Even those who remained with him were being called back to their dioceses of origin by the respective bishops. This was very distressing. He wanted to know what God was telling him through this chaotic situation. He was in dire straits. On the feast of the Assumption in 1822, as he blessed the statue of Mary which we now call the ‘Oblate Madonna’ or the ‘Virgin of the Smile’ he is said to have had a very powerful spiritual experience. A lost letter of St. Eugne to Fr. Tempier found posthumously said that at that moment he had received a special grace. In 1889, Fr. Monnet added the first detail to it: “the Virgin smiled at the Founder.” In 1904, Father Lamblin completed the story saying that the statue opened its eyes and nodded its head in a sign of assent… At that moment, his fears fled, he recuperated and was resolved to recommence his Oblate mission.
At the end of 1825, when he was in Rome seeking the papal approbation of his congregation, he changed its name from ‘the Missionary Oblates of St. Charles’ to ‘the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.’ He did it all alone without consulting the community. Of course, it was practically impossible to consult the community for this major change of name as the distances were enormous. There may have been several reasons for this change, but we cannot exactly say what they were. However, it could be that this idea would have reached its florescence during the celebration of the octave of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in Rome. He inserted the new name into his petition. The change of name brought him great joy and filled his heart with filial affection to the Virgin Mother. On 22.12.1825, he wrote to Fr. Tempier from Rome:
Oblate of Mary Immaculate: why is it a passport to heaven? How come that we did not think of it before? Don’t you think that it would not be illustrious but would be a great encouragement for us to be consecrated in a special way and to bear her name? Oblates of Mary Immaculate! This name pleases the heart as well as the ear.
In 1852, he began the construction of the new Basilica of Our Lady of the Guard, the city’s best-known symbol. Devotion to Mother Mary was in his veins. In 1854, he journeyed to Rome to participate enthusiastically in the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. That brought him tremendous joy and contentment. Saint Eugne died as Salve Regina was being recited. It must have been his final salute on earth to the Queen of Oblates.
The Death of a Saint
He never had vain dreams of rising in his ecclesiastical career, although he was in for being appointed a cardinal. But political influences prevented it. The unambitious man had no regrets about it said, “After all, it is all the same whether one is buried in a red cassock or a purple one; the main thing is that the bishop gets to heaven.” By now, he had his eyes gazed heavenward. As he was gravely ill, he told those around his bed on 21.051861, “Should I happen to doze off, or if I appear to be getting worse, please wake me up! I want to die knowing that I am dying.” Such was his piety and preparedness for death. His last testament to his much-treasured religious family at the moment of his death was: “Practice well among yourselves charity, charity, charity, and outside, zeal for the salvation of souls.” Then, he breathed his last.
Pope John Paul II canonized Saint Eugne de Mazenod on December 3, 1995 in Rome. In his homily during the Mass of canonization he said:
We are living in the second Advent of the world’s history. Eugene de Mazenod was a man of Advent, a man of the Coming. He not only looked forward to that Coming, he dedicated his whole life to preparing for it, one of those apostles who prepared the modern age, our age. … Eugene de Mazenod knew that Christ wanted to unite the whole human race to himself. This is why throughout his life he devoted particular attention to the evangelization of the poor, wherever they were found. ….. By patiently working on himself, he learned to discipline a difficult character and to govern with enlightened wisdom and steadfast goodness. His every action was inspired by a conviction he expressed in these words: “To love Church is to love Jesus Christ, and vice versa.” His influence is not limited to the age in which he lived. But continues its effect on our time. …. His apostolate consisted in the transformation of the world by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What Saint Eugene wanted to achieve was that, in Christ, each individual could become a fully complete person, an authentic Christian, a credible saint. … The Church gives us this great Bishop and Founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate as an example of heroic faith, hope and charity.
Some Notable Oblates
– Blessed Joseph Grard (1831–1914), French Oblate, called the ‘Apostle of the Basuthos,’ beatified in 1988 Blessed Jozef Cebula (1902–1941), Polish Oblate killed by the Nazis at Mauthausen Concentration Camp, beatified in 1999
– Blessed Francisco Esteban, and Companion Oblate Martyrs of Spain, beatified in 2011
– Blessed Oblate Martyrs of Spain (one Italian and five French), beatified in 2016
– Venerable Vital Grandin (1829-1902), Bishop of St. Albert, Alberta, Canada
– Venerable Charles Dominique Albini (1790-1839), Italy
– Venerable Bro. Anthony Kowalczyk (1866-1947), Polish Missionary in Canada
Oblate Servants of God
– Servant of God Ovid Charlebois (1862-1933), Vicar Apostolic of Keewatin, Manitoba, Canada – Servant of God Victor Lelivre (1876-1956), French missionary in Canada
– Servant of God Fr. B. A. Thomas (1886-1964), Founder of Rosarian Congregation in Sri Lanka
– Servant of God Cardinal Thomas Cooray, (1901–1988), Archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka
– Cardinal Joseph- Hyppolyte Guibert, omi (1802–1886), Archbishop of Paris, France
– Cardinal Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Villeneuve, omi (1883–1947), Archbishop of Quebec, Canada – Servant of God Cardinal Thomas Cooray, omi (1901-1988), Archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka
– Cardinal Francis George, omi (1937–2015), Archbishop of Chicago, USA
– Cardinal Sebastian Koto Khoarai, omi (Born 1929), Bishop of Mohale’s Hoek, Lesotho
– Cardinal Orlando Beltrn Quevedo, omi (Born 1939), Archbishop Emeritus of Cotabato, Philippines
– Alexandre-Antonin Taché, omi (1823–1894) Archdiocese of Saint Boniface, Canada
Some International Figures
– Albert Lacombe, omi (1827–1916), French-Canadian Missionary who Brokered Peace between the Cree and Blackfoot Tribes at the Formation of Canada
– Adrien Gabriel Morice, omi (1859–1938), French-Canadian Linguist, Cartographer, and Ethnologist
– Emile Petitot, omi (1838–1916), French Cartographer and Ethnologist
– Constantine Scollen, omi (1841–1902), Irish-Born Missionary among the Blackfoot, Cree and Métis peoples of Canada and US
– Second World War Heroes (1939-1944) – Poland (23), France (8), USA (3), Germany (1)
– Congo War Heroes (1964) – Three Belgian Missionaries Were Killed
– Edmund Peiris, omi (1897–1989), Bishop of Chilaw, Sri Lanka, Historian and Archbishop,
– Marceline Jayakody, omi, (1902-1998), Sri Lankan Musician and Pioneer in Interfaith Dialogue
– Almanzar Ménard, omi (1906-1966) Canadian Born Missionary in South Africa, Ritually Murdered
– Denis Hurley, omi (1915–2004), Archbishop of Durban, SA, Pioneer Anti-Apartheid Activist
– Robrecht Boudens, omi (1920-2003) Dutch Church Hisorian
– Tissa Balasuriya, omi (1924-2013) Sri Lankan Peace Activist
– Michael Rodrigo, omi (1927-1987) Assassinated Sri Lankan Pioneer in Interfaith Dialogue
– Peter Buthelezi, omi (1930-) Archbishop of Bloem-Fontein, SA, First South African Black Bishop
– Marcello Zago, omi (1932-2001), Archbishop, Leading Missiologist
– Larry Rosebaugh, omi (1935–2009), American Peace ActivistAssassinated
– Carl Kabat, omi (Born 1933) American Peace Activist
– Benjamin de Jesus, omi (1940-1997) – Bishop of Jolo, Philippines, Killed by Muslim Rebels
– Nelson Javellana,omi (1941-1971) – Assassinated Peace Activist in Philippines
– Ronald Rolheiser, omi (Born 1947), Canadian Author of Spiritual Books
– Reynado Jesus Roda, omi (1954-2008) Philippino Priest Gunned Down by Muslim Extremists
– Benjamín Inocencio, omi (1958-2000) Philippino Priest Assassinated by Muslim Extremists
– Allard Msheyene Mako, omi (1965-2007) Lesotho Priest Highjacked and Killed
Some Renowned Oblate Works and Institutions
– St. Paul University of, Ottawa (Founded by Oblates in 1848)
– Ottawa’s francophone daily newspaper Le Droit (Founded by Oblates)
– The Oblate College of Theology, San Antonio, Texas, USA
– The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, Belleville, IL, USA
– The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Cape, Trois-Rivieres, Canada
Notre Dame University, Cotabato City, Philippines
Université De Mazenod, Kinshasa, Congo
St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara, SA