St. John Vianney’s Favorite Work, Part II, The Anchor, February 5, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
February 5, 2010

Last week, as the Church in the United States was preparing for Catholic Schools Week, we focused on all the sacrifices St. John Vianney made and work he did in Ars to found a school to educate girls. He dedicated to it his entire family inheritance. Once it began to take in orphans and girls from destitute families, the need to fund even greater provisions grew. But confident in the Lord’s help, he named the school “La Providence,” entrusted him to the Lord’s providential care, and went hat-in-hand on begging tours to those who might help. It was a struggle, but God’s providence never let him and the school down.

St. John Vianney visited the school every day, taught the catechism to the students, led them in prayer, instructed them in human virtues and decorum and so much more. The people of Ars readily called La Providence their pastor’s “favorite work,” and this is quite a statement considering the case to be made for the sacrament of penance, where Fr. Vianney spent more than half his day for three decades.

Because he loved the school he had founded so much, one of the most difficult and heroic experiences of his life came when he needed to let it go.

When the school was in its 20th year in 1843, Fr. Vianney caught pleuro-pneumonia and the four doctors and seven priests at his bedside considered his condition hopeless. The doctors gave him at most a half-hour to live, he received last rites, and the whole town was assembled at the door of the rectory. Right before he fell into a coma, he re-consecrated himself to the Blessed Virgin and to St. Philomena, an early martyr who was his chief pastoral collaborator. After he had lasted for 3 hours, Fr. Dubouis went to celebrate Mass for him at the altar of St. Philomena in the Church. Once Mass had ended, Fr. Vianney miraculously opened his eyes, exclaimed, “A great change has taken place in me. I am cured!,” and regained his strength.

The experience of being on a deathbed, however, helped him to recall the obvious: he was not going to live forever. He knew that he couldn’t presume that his successor would sacrifice all his personal funds and so much time and effort in fundraising in order to keep the school going. He also recognized that the three lay women who ran the school were not going to live forever either. It would not be easy for him or a successor to find women who not only would work for free but have the skills to run a multi-tiered educational facility for more than 60 girls, many of whom were orphans. It was clear to him, therefore, that he needed to put La Providence on a secure foundation for the future.

Fr. Antoine Raymond, his parochial vicar, suggested that he think about entrusting the school and its orphanage to the care of religious women. Several of the mothers of girls at the school also had been lobbying for this end, believing that if a group of sisters ran the school, there would be more discipline, organization and cleanliness than the overworked laywomen could do on their own. The bishop also sent Canon Perrodin, the rector of the seminary and someone Fr. Vianney respected, to visit Ars, to try to persuade him to consider turning the direction of La Providence over to the Sisters of St. Joseph.

After six months of negotiations with the superior of that community, prodded and assisted by Canon Perrodin, Fr. Vianney reached an agreement to turn over the school to the sisters. In order to keep the school tuition free, he needed to endow it with the enormous sum of 53,000 francs, which he did, thanks to many generous benefactions on the part of pilgrims and friends. The sisters would have total control over the institution, though the pastor would continue to teach the catechism.

It was excruciating for him to break the news to the women who had given their lives to the school — laying good, hardworking people off is among the hardest things any priest needs to do — but as sad as it was for them to prepare to leave after a year’s transition, they responded by imitating their pastor’s heroic detachment, conscious that this was for the long-term good of La Providence. The women would find a house together and continue to serve the people of Ars as assistant sacristans and visiting the sick.

One of the tensions in the negotiations had been the fate of the orphanage. The sisters were interested in running the school, but not particularly enthused about operating an orphanage, which they saw as a different type of work. That gave Fr. Vianney pause and he thought of withdrawing from the whole deal lest their lack of enthusiasm doom the orphanage. He prayed and told others that didn’t see the will of God in accepting an agreement if the orphanage would not be a priority, but, because he knew through Canon Perrodin that Bishop Devie saw God’s will in the transfer, he went through with it. He was ultimately an obedient priest and trusted the will of God being expressed by his bishop more than he trusted in his own prayer.

The orphanage didn’t survive past the first year of the new administration.

As tough as it was to detach himself from his “favorite work,” and to see the demise of his beloved orphanage, Fr. Vianney not only soldiered on but continued to do all he can to advance Catholic education. Once free of the burden of responsibility for the day-to-day survival of his girls’ school, Fr. Vianney dedicated his time to a project he had long put-off: the foundation of a Catholic boys’ school in Ars.

Back when he had founded La Providence, he had recognized the pedagogical superiority of one-sex instruction and had prioritized a girls’ school, believing that parents would more easily send their girls to school full-time than their boys, whose developing muscles were more needed in the fields. He had nevertheless tried over time to influence the boys’ education, by lobbying the mayor to appoint as teacher in the public boys school Jean Pertinand, an exemplary Catholic who could certainly be trusted not to try to indoctrinate the young boys’ in poisonous ideas hostile to the faith. As a civic figure, the Curé would visit the class often and even pay for the tuition of the boys whose parents were too poor to afford it. Public schools at the time in France, like public universities in the States today, were not free.

Fr. Vianney wanted to found a free Catholic school to educate the children not just in secular subjects but in their faith. Because he was aware of his finitude, he knew it would have to be run by religious. He turned to the Brothers of the Holy Family of Belley, and they came to Ars to open a school in 1849 buildings Fr. Vianney had purchased. Originally the endowed institution was just for the boys of Ars, but soon the reputation for excellent education had spread so much that they attached a boarding school for children coming from other villages. So many boys came that they needed to expand the school with new buildings after just 7 years.

That massive ingress of boys and girls to Ars to receive a free Catholic education demonstrated how much Catholic schools were needed in the whole region. So Fr. Vianney began to dedicate most of the money that pilgrims to Ars jammed into his deep cassock pockets to found and endow single-sex schools for boys and girls in several of the surrounding villages.

It goes almost without saying that inexpensive — or permit me to dream, free! — Catholic schools are just as needed today in our area as they were in southeastern France 150 years ago.

As we conclude Catholic Schools Week today, let us ask St. John Vianney to help all of us in the Diocese of Fall River to learn from his example and commit ourselves to work to help to make and keep Catholic schools strong and available.