Important Historical Figures


Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome by the Pope on Christmas Day in the year 800. His rule briefly united much of modern day France, western Germany and northern Italy. For 200 years after Charlemagne's death, Europe was in conflict, with east and west competing for power and influence in the partly un-christianized expanses of far northern Europe, and power devolving to more localized authorities.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola

1491 – 1556
Saint Ignatius of Loyola was the principal founder and first Superior General of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), a religious order of the Catholic Church professing direct service to the Pope in terms of mission. He is famous as the compiler of the Spiritual Exercises, and he is remembered as a gifted spiritual director. He was very active in fighting the Protestant Reformation and promoting the subsequent Counter-Reformation.

Ignatius was born in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa, Spain. In 1517, he took service in the army, defending the small town of Pamplona against the recently expelled Navarrese monarchy. The Spaniards, being horribly outnumbered, wanted to surrender, but Ignatius with one leg wounded and the other broken by a cannonball, persuaded them to continue to fight for Spain.

During a period of recuperation from his injuries, he read and was inspired by a number of religious texts on the life of Jesus and the saints. He then developed a deep religious faith, and vowed to lead a life of self-denying labor, emulating the heroic deeds of Francis of Assisi and other great monastic leaders. He resolved to devote himself to the conversion of non-Christians in the Holy Land. Upon recovery in 1522, he visited the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, where he hung his military vestments before an image of the Virgin. He then went and spent several months in a cave near the town of Manresa, Catalonia where he practiced the most rigorous asceticism. The months of privation and solitude were said to have brought visions of the Virgin Mary and she then became the object of his chivalrous devotion.

During those months, he drafted his Spiritual Exercises, which describe a series of meditations to be undertaken by various people who came to him for spiritual direction. The Spiritual Exercises was to exert a strong influence in changing the methods of teaching in the Church.

In 1528 he entered the University of Paris, where he remained over seven years, studying theology and interacting with students in an attempt to interest them in the Spiritual Exercises.

By 1534 he had six key companions—Francis Xavier, Alfonso Salmeron, Diego Laynez, Nicholas Bobadilla, Peter Faber, and Simon Rodrigues. On August 15, 1534, he and the other six founded the Society of Jesus in St. Mary's Church, Montmartre, Paris - "to enter upon hospital and missionary work in Jerusalem, or to go without questioning wherever the pope might direct." Ignatius was chosen as the first Superior General of his religious order, invested with the title of Father General by the Jesuits. He sent his companions as missionaries around Europe to create schools, colleges, and seminaries.

In 1548 Spiritual Exercises was finally printed, and he was briefly brought before the Roman Inquisition, but was released.

Ignatius wrote the Jesuit Constitutions, adopted in 1554, which created a monarchical organization and stressed absolute self-abnegation and obedience to Pope and superiors. His main principle became the Jesuit motto: Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam ("for the greater glory of God").

During 1553-1555 Ignatius dictated his life's story to his secretary, and he died in Rome in 1556 after a long struggle with chronic stomach ailments. He was beatified by Paul V in 1609, and canonized by Gregory XV in 1622.

Saint François-Xavier

1506 – 1552
Saint Francis Xavier was a pioneering Christian missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order). The Roman Catholic Church considers him to have converted more people to Christianity than anyone else since St. Paul.

Xavier was born in Navarre, Spain to an aristocratic Basque family. At the age of 19, he went to study at the University of Paris, where he became acquainted with Ignatius Loyola. Xavier, Ignatius, and five others founded the Society of Jesus on August 15, 1534, taking a vow of poverty and chastity.

Francis Xavier devoted much of his life to missions in foreign countries. He served in the Portuguese East Indies, Mozambique, and Goa, the capital of the then Portuguese Indian colonies. In 1542, he left for his first missionary activity among the Paravas, pearl-fishers along the east coast of southern India. He tried to convert the king of Travancore to Christianity, visited Ceylon, and took missionary journeys to Macassar (an island today called Indonesia), Amboyna, and other Molucca Islands.

In 1547 in Malacca, Francis Xavier met a Japanese nobleman from Kagoshima named Anjiro who had traveled there with the purpose of meeting him. Anjiro was a samurai and provided Xavier with a skilled mediator and translator for the mission to Japan he wanted to make. Xavier baptized Anjiro—and traveled from the South into East Asia, stopped at Malacca, and visited Canton, and reached Japan in 1549. He was accompanied by Anjiro and two other Japanese men. With the passage of time, his sojourn in Japan can be considered fruitful as attested by congregations established in Hirado, Yamaguchi and Bungo. Xavier worked for more than two years in Japan and saw his successor-Jesuits established.

He died on the island on December 2, 1552, at age 46.

St. Francis Xavier accomplished a great deal of missionary work, both as organizer and as pioneer. By his compromises in India with the Christians of St. Thomas, he developed the Jesuit missionary methods along lines that subsequently became a successful blueprint for his order to follow. His efforts left a significant impression upon the missionary history of India and by being one of the first Jesuit missionary to East India, his work is of fundamental significance with regard to the propagation of Christianity in China and Japan and the systematic and aggressive incorporation of great masses of non-European peoples on broad lines of policy by the Church.

Francis Xavier was beatified in 1619, and was canonized in 1622, at the same time as Ignatius Loyola. He is the patron saint of Navarre, Australia, Borneo, China, East Indies, Goa, Japan, New Zealand and of missionaries.

Saint Francis de Sales

Saint Francis de Sales, seventeenth-century bishop of Geneva and Roman Catholic saint, was born at Thorens into a Savoyard noble family. He was the first of 12 children, and as such enjoyed an education in La Roche and Annecy; His father only wanting him to attend the best schools. In 1578 at the age of 12 he went to the Collège de Clermont in Paris. A year later Francis was engulfed in a personal crisis when after attending a theological discussion about predestination became convinced that he was damned to hell. In December 1586 his despair was so great that he was physically ill and even bed ridden. In January 1587 he visited the Church Saint-Etienne des Gres with great difficulty. There his crisis ended, and he decided to dedicate his life to God. Francis came to the conclusion that whatever God had in store for him was good, because God is love. This faithful devotion to the God of love not only expelled his doubts, but also influenced the rest of his life and his teachings. In 1588 Francis transferred from Paris to the University or Padua where he studied both law and Theology. At the University he made up his mind about becoming a priest. In 1592 he ended his studies with the promotion to doctor certified in both law and theology. Then he made the pilgrimage to Loreto before going home.

At home his father had already secured a variety of positions for his son, one of which was a position on the Senate of Chambéry. It was difficult for Francis' father to accept that his son had already chosen another career. After studying the humanities, rhetoric, theology, and law at La Roche, Annecy, Paris, and Padua, he famously refused to marry the wealthy heiress his father had chosen as his bride, preferring a clerical career. The intervention of Claude de Granier, then bishop of Geneva, won him ordination and appointment as provost of the cathedral chapter of Geneva in 1593.

Saint Jane Frances de Chantal

1572 - 1641
Jane Frances de Chantal, baronne de Chantal was born in Dijon, France. The mother of four children, she was widowed at the age of 28. She met Saint Francis de Sales when he preached at the Sainte Chapelle in Dijon and was inspired to start a Catholic religious order for women, the Congregation of the Visitation. She died at the Visitation Convent, one of the convents she founded, in Moulins and was buried in Annecy. She was beatified in 1751 by Pope Benedict XIV, and canonized in 1767.

Saint Vincent de Paul

Born at Pouy, Gascony, France of a peasant family, he made his humanities studies at Dax and his theological studies at Toulouse where he graduated in theology and was ordained in 1600. He remained in the Toulouse vicinity acting as tutor while continuing his own studies. Brought to Marseilles for an inheritance, he was returning by sea in 1605 when Turkish pirates captured him and took him to Tunis. He was sold as a slave, but escaped in 1607 with his master, a renegade whom he converted.

He went to Avignon and then Rome to continue his studies. He was sent back to France in 1609 on a secret mission to Henry IV; he became alminer to the Queen Marguerite of Valois, and was provided with the little Abbey of Saint-Léonard-de-Chaume.

At the request of the founder of the Oratory, he took charge of the parish of Clichy near Paris in 1612, but several months later he entered the services of the Gondi, an illustrious French family, to educate the children. He became the spiritual director of Mme de Gondi, and with her assistance he began giving peasant missions on her estates. Several learned Paris priests, won by his example, joined him. Nearly everywhere after each of these missions, a conference of charity was founded for the relief of the poor, notably at Joigny, Châlons, Mâcon, Trévoux, where they lasted until the Revolution.

After the poor of the country, Vincent's solicitude was directed towards the convicts in the galleys, who were physically, morally, and spiritually miserable. Vincent wished to ameliorate this. Assisted by a priest, he began visiting the galley convicts of Paris, speaking kind words to them, doing them every manner of service. He thus won their hearts, and converted many of them. He established a hospital for them, and went on to do the same in the galleys of Marseilles and Bordeaux.

Experience had quickly revealed to St. Vincent that the good done by the missions in country places could not last unless there were priests to maintain it and these were lacking at that time in France. He decided to found his religious institute of priests vowed to the evangelization of country people—the Congregation of Priests of the Mission.

As early as 1635 he had established a seminary at the Collége des Bons-Enfants. Assisted by Richelieu, who gave him 1000 crowns, he educated ecclesiastics studying theology there and also founded the lesser Seminary of St. Charles in 1642 for young clerics studying the humanities. Prior to the Revolution, his congregation was directing a third of all the seminaries in France.

St. Vincent also instituted open retreats for laymen as well as priests. It is estimated that in the last 25 years of his life, more than 800 persons came yearly, or more than 20,000 in all. These retreats contributed powerfully to infuse a Christian spirit among the masses.

Vincent de Paul had established the Daughters of Charity almost at the same time intended to assist the conferences of charity established at Paris in 1629. Vincent conceived the idea of enlisting good young women for this service of the poor. They were first distributed singly in the various parishes where the conferences were established and they visited the poor.

Besides the Daughters of Charity he secured the services of the Ladies of Charity in 1634, many of whom were society women who were determined to nurse the thousands of sick poor entering the Hotel-Dieu and to visit the prisons. St. Vincent upheld and stimulated their charitable zeal, and it was due to them that he was able to collect the enormous sums which he distributed in aid of all the unfortunates, especially foundlings. The Ladies of Charity began by purchasing 12 children who were installed in a special house run by the Daughters of Charity. Years later the number of children reached 4,000 and that increased by hundreds.

Vincent then founded the Hospice of the Name of Jesus, where 40 old people found a shelter and work. The same beneficence was extended to all the poor of Paris, but the his work in the creation of a general hospital sheltering 40,000 poor in an asylum where they would be given useful work. It has been called one of the greatest works of charity of the 17th century.

Vincent made urgent appeals to the Ladies of Charity; in answer, gifts poured in. When contributions began to fail, Vincent decided to print and sell the accounts sent him from those desolated districts and this met with great success.

He encouraged the foundation of societies undertaking to bury the dead and to clean away the dirt which was a permanent cause of plague, which were often headed by the missionaries and the Sisters of Charity. He also redoubled his efforts to lessen the evils of the war in Paris, and started soup kitchens that fed 15,000 or 16,000 refugees a day; arranged shelter for 800 to 900 young women

Not only did he long act as director to the Sisters of the Visitation founded by Francis de Sales, but he supported the existence of the Daughters of the Cross (whose object was to teach girls in the country), and encouraged the reform of the Benedictines, Cistercians, Antonines, Augustinians, Premonstratensians, and the Congregation of Grandmont; Cardinal de Rochefoucault, who was entrusted with the reform of the religious orders in France, called Vincent his right hand.

Vincent's zeal and charity went beyond the boundaries of France. As early as 1638 he commissioned his priests to preach to the shepherds of the Roman Campagna; he sent others to Ireland, Scotland, the Hebrides, Poland, and Madagascar (1648-60). Of all the works carried on abroad, none perhaps interested him so much as the poor slaves of Barbary, whose lot he had once shared.

These 30,000 unfortunates divided chiefly between Tunis, Algiers, and Bizaerta. Christians for the most part, they had been carried off from their families by the Turkish corsairs. They were treated as veritable beasts of burden, condemned to frightful labour. Vincent sent them aid as early as 1645, along with a priest and a brother, who were followed by others. Up to the time of St. Vincent's death these missionaries had ransomed 1,200 slaves

His zeal for souls knew no limit; all occasions were to him opportunities to exercise it. When he died, the poor of Paris lost their best friend, and humanity a benefactor unsurpassed in modern times.

In 1729, Vincent was declared Blessed by Benedict XIII, and was canonized by Clement XII in 1737. In 1885, Leo XIII gave him as patron to the sisters of Charity.

Bishop de Maupas

Father Medaille found a ready ally in Bishop de Maupas, born of a rich and noble family, but perfectly cognizant of the social ills and the bitter lot of the poor of his day. He was well fitted to inject the spirit of Francis de Sales, Vincent de Paul, and lgnatius of Loyola into the new venture, having been a student of the Jesuits, and ardent admirer and biographer of Francis de Sales, and an intimate friend of Vincent de Paul.7 In his position as bishop of historic Le Puy of old Auvergne he was empowered to give the necessary episcopal approbation to the proposed diocesan work thus insuring it against suppression.

Bishop de Maupas was so pleased with the success of the new institute and so positive was he that it was what was needed to heal the social evils of 17th century France that on March 10, 1651, he gave it his episcopal approbation. At the same time, not wishing to confine its good effects merely to the diocese of Le Puy, he recommended it to the bishops of neighboring dioceses. His prophecy came true: that this institute would grow and spread over the world diffusing the sweetness of Christ's charity among His poor and afflicted ones.

Père Jean-Pierre Médaille

The Founder of the Congregation of the SSJs Jean-Pierre Medaille was a Jesuit missionary whose journeys took him through the towns and villages of Auvergne in central France. In the course of his missionary travels he met a number of widows and young women who desired to give their lives wholly to God but who were not called to the cloister or did not have the means to enter it.

In LePuy in the mid-1600s, Father Medaille was confronted with poverty, sickness, and orphans, but at the same time he found that there were women thirsting for a commitment to God and service to the neighbor. While praying before the Blessed Sacrament the model was revealed to him: he felt a call from God to begin something new that would enable these women to commit their lives to God and serve the neighbor without a being cloistered.

In 17th century France this was a radical idea. Before him both Saint Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, and Saint Vincent de Paul had organized congregations of women to lead lives combining religion and service to society, but in keeping with a ruling made more than 60 years earlier during the Council of Trent (1545-1543) the Church prevailed and these women were again cloistered.

Conscious of this, he advised the women they would have to choose between official recognition and apostolic openness. To assist them in this difficult undertaking he wrote out their mission steeped in a contemplative way of life. As the years have borne out, Father Medaille was a man of great wisdom with a visionary approach to life.

He founded the congregation in 1650.He envisioned the Daughters of Saint Joseph as a very simple grouping of women, totally selfless in community, where love was the rule. He stressed that each of these women must search for God's will and respond to the prompting of grace found deep within. He encouraged them to treasure their baptismal calling and challenged them to go further and to take the next step driven by the very energy of God.

He gathered together six women to form a community to respond to the needs of the poor and to serve their neighbor with the same faithful care that St. Joseph had given to Jesus and Mary.

Mother Jeanne Fontbonne

Jeanne Fontbonne entered a house of the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1778, which had just been established at Monistrol by Bishop de Gallard of Le Puy. The following year she received the habit, and soon gave evidence of unusual administrative powers. On her election six years later as superior of the community, Mother St. John, as she was now called, aided in the establishment of a hospital, and accomplished much good among the young girls of the town.

At the outbreak of the Revolution, she and her community followed Bishop de Gallard in refusing to sign the Oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, resulting in the persecution of the sisters. Forced to disperse her community, the superior remained at her post till she was dragged forth by the mob and the convent taken possession of in the name of the Commune. She returned to her father's home, but not long afterwards she was torn from this refuge, to be thrown into the prison of Saint-Didier, and scheduled to be beheaded at the guillotine. One day before that scheduled execution, she was freed after the fall of Robespierre.

Unable to regain possession of her convent at Monistrol, she returned to her father's house. Twelve years later (1807), Mother St. John was called to Saint-Etienne as head of a small community of young girls and members of dispersed congregations, who at the suggestion of Cardinal Fesch, Archbishop of Lyons, were now established as a house of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She restored the asylum at Monistrol, repurchased and reopened the former convent, and in 1812, the congregation was reborn.

In 1816 Mother St. John was appointed superior general of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and summoned to Lyons to found a general mother-house and novitiate, which she accomplished after many difficult years of labor. During the remainder of her life she was busied in perfecting the affiliation of the scattered houses of the congregation, and established over 200 new communities. An object of her special attention was the little band which she sent to the United States in 1836, and with which she kept in constant correspondence, making every sacrifice to provide them with the necessities.

Cardinal Joseph Fesch

Cardinal Fesch was born at Ajaccio, Corsica, the son of a captain of a Swiss regiment in the service of Genoa. He studied at the seminary of Aix, was made archdeacon and provost of the chapter of Ajaccio before 1789, but was obliged to leave Corsica when his family sided with France against the English.

The young priest was half-brother to the mother of Napoleon, and upon arriving in France he entered the commissariat department of the army, and later became commissary of war under Bonaparte, in command of the Armée d'Italie. When religious peace was reestablished, Fesch made a month's retreat under the direction of the superior of Saint-Sulpice, and re-entered ecclesiastical life. During the Consulate he became canon of Bastia and helped to negotiate the Concordat of 1801; in 1802, he was consecrated Archbishop of Lyons, and in 1803 as cardinal.

That year, Napoleon appointed Cardinal Fesch ambassador to Rome, giving him Chateaubriand for secretary. 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 returned to Rome. In 1806, after Napoleon's letter proclaiming himself Emperor of Rome, Fesch was replaced 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 with some success to obviate certain irreparable mistakes.

Cardinal Fesch, spiritual leader of the great archdiocese of Lyons in the post-Revolution days, inaugurated a program which he hoped would result in a flourishing Catholic life in his archdiocese. One of his principal moves in this reconstruction plan was an effort to bring back the religious institutes dispersed and banished by the evil forces of the Revolution.

The rapid spread and the successful work of the Congregation of St. Joseph in the years preceding, it had not escaped his notice. Likewise was he aware of the character of Mother St. John Fontbonne, a type of the "valiant woman", who had not yielded to compromise nor feared martyrdom. She, he felt, was especially endowed by God with those qualities so essential for the role he was about to assign her.

Consequently, in 1807, he summoned her to Lyons from her father's home in Bas where for 12 years she had been carrying on the work of the Apostolate among the children of the neighboring sections. With great fear and distrust of herself but with entire confidence in God she assumed the office of restorer of the Congregation of St. Joseph. Hers would be the task of imparting to the religious under her the primitive spirit of humility and charity so essential to the true Sister of St. Joseph and so very evident in her own life.

As a diplomat, Fesch sometimes employed questionable methods. His relationship to the emperor and his cardinalitical 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 re-establishing the Brothers of Christian Doctrine and recalling the Jesuits, under the name of Pacanarists.

St. Catherine Laboure

1806 - 1876
Save for the events of 1830, the life of this peasant woman, who became a Sister of Charity at the age of twenty-four, contains little or no biographical incident worthy of chronicling. She was born in 1806, the daughter of a small-holder, and entered the Sisters of Charity in 1830 at Chatillon-sur-Seine; after a few months she was sent to the motherhouse in the rue du Bac in Paris. It was there that she underwent the great experience of her life-a series of visions in which our Lady is said to have shown her the form of a medal which should be struck in honor of the Immaculate Conception. Catherine told no one save her confessor and, convinced of her sincerity, he obtained the arch bishop's sanction for the striking of the medal. This has come to be called the 'Miraculous Medal'. For upwards of forty years Catherine spoke to no one save her confessor of her experience: she enjoined silence on him, and, when the medal was world famous, her part in the whole affair remained unknown until shortly before her death. She was sent from the rue du Bac after a year there to the convent at Enghien-Reuilly on the outskirts of Paris where she looked after the poultry and acted as doorkeeper. There she died in 1876. She was canonized in 1947.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License.