Father Emmanuel d'Alzon

Father Emmanuel d'Alzon's life (1810-1880) spanned most of the 19th century. We who live in the late 20th century may find it hard to imagine what it meant for a man to be born twenty years after the French Revolution and to live in the France of 1830 and 1848. Yet now as then, to use one of his favorite expressions, we are witnessing the end of one world and the shaping of another.

The history of 19th-century France was cut in two by 1848, and so was Father d'Alzon's own life. He had to let go of his secure world and press forward without quite knowing where he was going. Amid changes and uncertainties he remained free, fettered neither to nostalgic dreams nor to new trends. In this he is an example for us and has much to teach us.

Judging from the way he spoke about the French Revolution of 1789, we can readily see that, like many others of his milieu, he could have chosen to cling to the past amid regrets and a sense of horror. As a child from the age of 6 to 13, he had lived at Lavagnac, in one of the great chateaux of the Hérault region of Southern France, surrounded by a magnificent park. His family name and motto proclaimed heroic faith: the Daudé d'Alzons declared they were "Deo dati," given to God. Their ancestral coat of arms was blood-red, with a crowned lion holding a lily, symbols of God and the king, exploding energy and a proud bloodline. It was a call to arms.

Emmanuel listened passionately to the chronicles of the wars of religion in the Cévennes Mountains during which one of the Daudés had been killed by the Camisards along with the uncle of the knight of Assas.

Then there were the bloodcurdling accounts of the Revolution, the guillotine, the great fires, the hunted priests, and the imprisonment of his grandparents. He lived in an atmosphere dominated by fear of disorder and yearning for the past.

The spirit of combat! While a student in Paris he confided to his father that he believed it was his vocation to enter Saint Cyr, the French "West Point." Though he later renounced this aspiration, he retained a military dimension in his thinking and writing. He would come to see the Pope as the commander in chief and the bishops as his colonels. He would say that prayer "forms soldiers ready at the first sound of the bugle to take up arms and fight God's battles."

He was soon deeply involved in these spiritual battles. As a student he enrolled in the Association for the defense of the Catholic religion. The word "defense" reveals the tenor of the epoch. Catholics would continue for a long time to think of themselves as "beleaguered." This tells us a great deal about the young Emmanuel.

He also attended the Conférence religieuse where he met the controversial French philosopher and theologian Félicité de Lamennais (1785-1854). D'Alzon was fascinated. This was his first jolting encounter with new ideas, his first vision of a Church which was not turning its back on "modern" society. The thought of defending religion led d'Alzon to a decision that would astonish his friends: "Do I frighten you wearing a priest's cassock? Well, I thought it over very carefully." He returned to Lavagnac where he studied on his own for two years. Then he entered the seminary in Montpellier and completed his theological training in Rome, where he had a second jolting encounter. He would remain an unconditional supporter of the Pope throughout his life.

To Fight And To Create

Ordained at the age of 24, Father d'Alzon offered his services to the bishop of Nimes because that city was the strong hold of the Protestants in southern France. To fight! He threw himself at once into the fray. For a while he even had thoughts of bringing the French Protestants back to Rome, just as Newman whom he greatly admired wanted to do for the Anglicans. D'Alzon put his trust in education. That was his way of fighting. Until the end of his life when the fight would be waged by the Catholic press, Father d'Alzon was to be an educator. For him absolutely all apostolic action must consist in teaching the faith.

Upon his arrival in Nîmes, Father d'Alzon hurled himself furiously into preaching and catechetics: "I am the teacher of nearly all the children of Nîmes from the ages of 12 to 15." During this flurry of activity, he bought a bankrupt school in 1844, Our Lady of the Assumption. There he began another fight: the fight for freedom of education.

Three years earlier Mother Marie Eugénie of Jesus, found ress of the Religious of the Assumption (this name certainly seems to have been a sign), had asked Father d'Alzon to be her spiritual director. Through their relationship he came to know her newly-formed teaching congregation and he liked its spirit. The next step for him was the founding of a similar society for men.

In September, 1845, the Association of the Assumption was launched in a modest way, but even the most humble beginnings never frightened him. This organization carried out one of his cherished ideas, the grouping of priests and laymen. At the start there were nine of them in all. Christmas marked the beginning of the novitiate for the new congregation and the beginning of its third order. Five years later (five long years that tore at his nerves), at Christmas, 1850, the Assumptionists came into being officially. Father d'Alzon and four other religious made their public vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Years of crisis followed. Father d'Alzon wore himself out handling the responsibilities of the diocese of Nimes, whose bishop fell ill and subsequently died. Moreover, all kinds of trials descended upon him: lack of financial resources, a dearth of vocations, criticisms, ill health. In 1857 the dark clouds finally broke. Three great beginnings would now mark Assumption's rapid growth. In 1862, he launched the Mission of the Orient (Bulgaria and Turkey), and founded a women's congregation, the Oblates of the Assumption, composed of hardy, zealous women missionaries to assist in this program.

In 1871, disheartened because his congregation consisted only of a headquarters devoid of troops, Father d'Alzon jumped at an offer to take over a dilapidated, dungeon-like Chateau in Savoy. He planned to use it as a base for seeking vocations among the common people. The building was soon transformed into a minor seminary to be called an "alumnate" or juniorate. Here, under circumstances of unbelievable poverty the sons of workers and peasants were accepted. The "alumnates" or juniorates soon provided many candidates for the novitiates, transforming the Congregation of the Assump tion into an innovative world where sons of peasants and industrial workers were given an opportunity to enter the reli gious life and to have the benefits of higher education under the guidance of the most blue-blooded of aristocrats.

Father d'Alzon's third achievement was the establishment of a team of Assumptionists in Paris. This small but enterprising group carried out one of Father d'Alzon's ideas by launching the Association of Our Lady of Salvation No. 8 rue Francois-Ier. From this organization were to emerge two other projects which would put their mark on the congregation: the great national pilgrimages and the publishing house Bonne Presse. The latter published le Pélerin and la Croix, soon to be followed by a series of periodicals for children.

When Father d'Alzon died in 1880 there were only 63 Assumptionist religious, but in their 14 residences they carried on 92 programs of various sorts! He had given them a spirit of bold creativity dedicated to one idea, expressing one cry love: Thy Kingdom come!

The Church validated the spiritual legacy of Father Emmanuel d’Alzon in December 1991, awarding him the title of Venerable.

André Sève, a.a. (Christ Is My Life, The Spiritual Legacy of Emmanuel d'Alzon)