The Capuchins in France




(1575 – 1638)

edited by




from I Frati Cappuccini, a work of Costanzo Cargnoni, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, 1992, volume IV, pages 25-44.

Translated by Lam Vu OFM Cap

Table of Contents

Remarkable geographical expansion of friaries in France

Vocational growth and social background of the first French Capuchins

Main reasons for the great success of the Capuchins in France

The end of the 16th Century and the first half of the 17th Century are essentially an era of transition. There appears a prodigious richness of interior life, that is of holiness at a time when the last glimmers of the Renaissance with its luxury, sensual life and cult of man are still seen shining. It is therefore a France full of contrasts that witnesses the coming and way of life of the Capuchin friars in a time eager for holiness and mystical experience, but when religious life is fading; an era in turmoil with its political crises that already bear the sign of a true intellectual upheaval.

When the Capuchin friars arrived in France, the Gallican church was going through a very critical situation: wounded by the religious wars that had desolated the country for 40 years, stripped by a king who did not hesitate to alienate many church properties to support it in the war against the Protestants; and, moreover, many places of worship, churches and monasteries had been destroyed, causing the irreparable loss of countless works of art. And, no less important, the Church, at the decline of the 16th Century, was deprived, in practice, of any intellectual and moral prestige that could ensure a prospect of secure renewal.

Thenceforth, the Christians had been divided into two groups, so much so that some, exasperated by the promises of reform, adhered to the principle of free thought and aspired to a renewal of the Church structures and doctrines; others, however, more sensitive to the need for encounter with God and with Christ, intend to remain faithful to the traditional Church, while also aspiring to an interior renewal, a phenomenon which was gradually expanding and giving to France a magnificent spiritual renewal. And it is precisely in this context that the first Capuchin friars made their appearance.[1]

Remarkable geographical expansion of friaries in France

From the beginning they experienced rapid expansion. This geographical dissemination of Capuchin settlements in France required a period of more than 130 years of successive transformations as consequences of political and religious interference. From 1574, when the Capuchins arrived in Paris, until 1715, the French Capuchin friars, thanks to their way of life and their multifaceted apostolate of charity in the popular nuclei of French society, were able to establish as many as 405 friaries spreading over 13 provinces.[2]

Here is a summary breakdown of this development:

From 1574 to 1590:

Province of Paris: 13 Friaries
Province of Lyon: 7 Friaries
Province of Provence: 6 Friaries
Province of Aquitaine: 5 Friaries
31 Friaries in 16 years

From 1580 to 1610, following the addition of the Commissariat of Lorenza to the Province of Lyon (1599), its declaration as an independent province (1606), and the formation of the Province of Touraine at the expense of the Province of Paris (1610), the picture changed as follows:

Province of Paris: 23 Friaries
Province of Lyon: 34 Friaries
Province of Provence: 20 Friaries
Province of Toulouse: 22 Friaries
Province of Lorenza: 13 Friaries
Province of Turenne: 16 Friaries
128 Friaries

An increase of 97 foundations is noted in 21 years.

From 1610 to 1624 other provinces were erected: those of Savoy (1611) and Burgundy (1618), at the expense of the Province of Lyon. In this period the Capuchin settlements multiplied incessantly: Paris gained 35 friaries, Lyon 7, Provence 8, Toulouse 21, Lorenza 21, Turenne 34; so that in 1624 we have this picture:

Province of Paris: 58 Friaries
Province of Lyon: 41 Friaries
Province of Provence: 28 Friaries
Province of Toulouse: 43 Friaries
Province of Lorenza: 23 Friaries
Province of Turenne: 50 Friaries
Province of Savoy: 2 Friaries (but not in France)
Province of Burgundy: 15 Friaries
260 Friaries

In the space of 14 years, 132 friaries!

From 1624 to 1643 three new provinces were founded: Brittany and Normandy (1629), detached from the Provinces of Paris and Turenne. In 1640 the Province of Aquitaine was divided into two territories: the older part took the name of the Province of Toulouse (25 friaries), the other would become the Province of Guyenne with 28 friaries, so that in 1643 the situation was as follows:

Province of Paris: 39 Friaries
Province of Lyon: 53 Friaries
Province of Provence: 36 Friaries
Province of Toulouse: 25 Friaries
Province of Lorenza: 31 Friaries
Province of Turenne: 29 Friaries
Province of Savoy: 3 Friaries
Province of Burgundy: 18 Friaries
Province of Normandy: 27 Friaries
Province of Brittany: 27 Friaries
Province of Aquitaine: 28 Friaries
316 Friaries

In 19 years, 56 new friaries.

From 1643 to 1715, two other new provinces arose: that of Champagne (1662) and Lille (1671), detached from the Belgian Province. To these we must add the two friaries of Bar-sur-Aube and Wassy which would form the Custody of Ireland.

Province of Paris: 42 Friaries
Province of Lyon: 56 Friaries
Province of Provence: 38 Friaries
Province of Toulouse: 31 Friaries
Province of Lorenza: 48 Friaries
Province of Turenne: 31 Friaries
Province of Savoy: 3 Friaries
Province of Burgundy: 22 Friaries
Province of Normandy: 27 Friaries
Province of Brittany: 30 Friaries
Province of Aquitaine: 42 Friaries
Province of Champagne: 15 Friaries
Province of Lille: 18 Friaries
Province of Lille: 2 Friaries
405 Friaries

In 72 years, another 89 friaries, to which we should add 6 friaries in Roussillon, united to the kingdom of France by the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1660).

It should be noted, then, that the Province of Paris, taken here as an example, from 1643 counted 42 friaries until the French Revolution, a number that remained unchanged until the end of the Ancien Régime. In 1790 France would include as many as 15 provinces with a total of 379 friaries.

Looking at this allocation of Capuchin friaries in France, one can sense how certain regions lack them, while they abound in other parts of the country. Inland Brittany, for example, is completely devoid of friaries, except for Rennes, an administrative city. It is noticeable that all Breton friaries are scattered along the coasts, so it is clear that an economic factor of some importance played there. The Capuchins, a mendicant Order, whose members lived by begging, could not settle in poor regions or those already occupied by houses of other mendicant Orders, while on the coasts the population lived mainly by fishing and these religious could beg without prejudice to anyone.

On the other hand, the allocation of friaries acquired a notable density in regions such as Poitou, a mission country, where Protestants were particularly numerous. For this reason, the missions organised by Richelieu and Father Joseph of Paris naturally led to the foundation of many houses. The same phenomenon will be repeated later in the Cévennes and for the same reason.

Numerous Capuchin houses were also found on the Mediterranean coasts for the same reasons seen in Brittany, and especially in the South-West, probably due to the small and very dispersed clergy, but also due to the presence of many Protestants in those areas. The kingdom of Navarre had, effectively, passed through the reform and the South-West did not shine with a particularly fervent Christian life. Furthermore, in Languedoc, a rather religiously cold region, the memory of the old Cathar heresy and the Inquisition which had imbued the mentality of the inhabitants still survived; hence the numerous friaries as if to counterbalance that religious indifference.

Other causes were added, sociological and religious: the Christian life in the process of renewal required preachers and therefore friaries to house them. There was also the friendship of the princes and in the first approaches, the influence and protection of the queen mother Caterina de Medici who, being Italian, could only welcome a religious Order of Italian origin (cf. docs. 3, 12, 14, 17/2, 19). Moreover, it was also the era in which large Italian families were about to settle in France, such as the Gondi who gave three bishops to Paris, or the Duke of Nevers, founder of the friary of Reims, who belonged to the Ducal family of Mantua.[3]

The friendship of certain bishops and municipalities also had its importance (e.g. docs. 2 and 15). They saw in the Capuchins both preachers for their dioceses, nurses, and benevolent chaplains, always available in the event of an epidemic, since until around 1645-1650 epidemics in France dominated in an endemic state. There was also the gratitude shown by some cities which were struck by a plague and having received the charitable service from the Capuchins, wanted to find a friary for them.[4]

Thus, two periods can be established in the chronology of the foundations of the friaries. The first corresponds to the end of the 16th century and has as determining factors: 1. The rise of the Capuchin Reform with rapid and sudden development; 2. The intense religious need that Catholics felt for an energetic and new pastoral care during the wars of religion and immediately afterwards, as well as the need to support and organise the spontaneous and strong religious renewal at the beginning of the ‘Grand era.’

The second period (following the chronological scope that we have established) concerns, at least in the outskirts of Paris, the case of many friaries corresponding to particular needs, especially the pastoral care of the court of Versailles and of the King’s soldiers barracks around the Castle and up to Courbevoie, the chaplaincy of the servants of the large and small stables, etc.

It is also worth underlining the importance of the geographical points of settlement. Here the condition of the communication routes certainly appears, and we have evidence of this in the religious houses located on the banks of the rivers at the time used as a waterway, and on the roads that reach Paris and other important cities. This is proven by a small travel notebook of a questing brother of the friary of Montfort-L’Amaury, Brother Joseph of Pernes, chosen as a companion of Father Charles of Bapaume, custodian for the General Chapter of 1782.[5] Now this questing friar, having narrated the main facts of the journey, gives a list of the friaries he passed through with an indication of the distances between them, which a traveller could cover in a day’s journey, and they varied from 12 to 30 km. Therefore, the friaries had been spread out in such a way as to facilitate the journeys of the friars, always made on foot.

Another reason for the proximity of the various friaries was the division of the territory of the Parisian periphery, at the time divided into five dioceses (Beauvais, Chartres, Paris, Rouen and Sens), which consequently required a sustained movement of religious applied to the preaching ministry. Being preachers, they needed friaries from which to start their apostolate, since each friary, if it was a centre of spiritual life – and it should be noted here the important role played by the fraternities of the Third Order in an era when clusters were religious and not political – was also a centre of irradiation at the service of parishes and chaplaincies. In Poissy, for example, whose market was one of the most important in the Paris region, the Scabins wanted to have the Capuchins as chaplains to the butchers. As a result, the religious had very frequent contact with the merchants who came to the city. In Étampes, then in the Diocese of Sens, they were very active among the people and helped the local clergy while safeguarding their friary life.[6]

We can then conclude that their contribution to the formation and preservation of a living Christianity in the dioceses where they were welcomed was notable. From that moment on, these religious houses carried out a very intense spiritual life which animated their apostolate until the end of the Ancien Régime.

Vocational growth and social background of the first French Capuchins[7]

But what social background were the inhabitants of these friaries? Having overcome the difficulties of the beginning due to the novelty of their way of life and the opposition of the Gallican Parliament, especially after the plague of 1580, which was their testimony of selfless loyalty, there was a continuous growth in their recruitment. Among them there were humanists, nobles, beneficiaries, professors of the Sorbonne, etc.

Even if we only take a quick look at the number of novices (there were many novitiates operating at the same time in the province of Paris) and to the extent that these lists have come down to us, we can see that the numbers of professed that we can know are nonetheless impressive and grew continuously until the beginning of the 18th Century, as this diagram shows:

Province of Paris Friaries Religious
1602 11 205
1605 12 364
1608 13 469
1613 20 390
1618 30 618
1625 35 819
1633 36 706
1643 40 830
1650 58 748
1656 42 708
1662 42 824
1667 42 919
1678 42 905
1685 42 970
1698 42 891

A black and white drawing of a person Description automatically generated

Fig. 1. The first Capuchin provinces in France in 1632

“Figure and site of the whole of France, which contains 10 provinces.” This is how Silvestro Pepi of Panicale († 1641) titled the geographical map of France, drawn in pen and coloured with watercolour, in his Capuchin Atlas. The provinces marked here are: Paris, Normandy, Brittany, Turenne, Toulouse, Lyon, Provence, Savoy, Burgundy and Lorenza and outline the expansion of the Order on French territory in just over fifty years of history.

(Cf. Atlante Cappuccini. Opera inedita di Silvestro da Panicale. 1632, edited by S. Gieben. Roma, Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini, 1990, 20 – 22x29cm.)

In relation to the Order as a whole, a continuous progression can also be seen here until the beginning of the 18th Century, both in terms of the number of provinces and friaries as well as of religious, as seen in this other table.

General Chapters Provinces Friaries Religious
1602 30 713 8803
1605 34 757 9595
1608 35 808 10708
1613 39 918 12461
1618 40 1030 14846
1619 42 1192 16966
1633 46 1313 18948
1637 46 1345 19835
1643 47 1397 21171
1650 47 1471 20203
1662 48 1489 22789
1667 46 1509 24764
1671 49 1533 26695
1678 50 1547 26112
1691 54 1561 26408
1698 55 1605 27156
1702 55 1625 27336

Who do we find among these novices? Certainly, people belonging to the class of nobles whose vocation can be considered as a reaction to the luxury and corruption of the Valois Court and at the same time a protest against the libertinism and immorality of the time. The austere life of the Capuchins generally attracted upright and sincere hearts. We mention Duke Henry de Joyeuse, who became Father Angelo de Joyeuse, who had to temporarily leave the Order following political events, to become Governor of Languedoc for the League and Marshal of France, before taking up the rough Capuchin habit again in 1599. Or Father Heliodorus of Anvers who came from a noble Flemish family; Father Henry de La Grange Palaiseau, who descended from the Lords of Arville, Marquis of Palaiseau; Bernardine of Paris, spiritual writer and natural son of Henry IV and Gabriella of Estrées; the famous Joseph of Paris, friend of Richelieu, descendant of the Mothier-La Fayette family; Athanasius of Mesgrigny, Baron of Lorme and Chamesson and Lawyer in Parliament; Angelo of Lhéry and Louis of Juilly of a noble family of Champagne and many other nobles of the sword.

But even among the “noblesse de robe,” that is, among magistrates and courtiers such as parliamentarians and those in the chambers of accounts, the Capuchins were widely represented, and this from the earliest years of their arrival in France. And so it came to pass that during the heroic period of the Poor Hermits of Picpus, one saw a Lawyer in the Parliament of Paris, a Doctor of Canon and Civil Law and holder of a Chair at the Sorbonne, solicit admission into the Order, becoming Father Joseph of Donchery, and this was no exception.

Theologians were also noticed, such as Father Antoninus of Chartres who was a member of the Cathedral Chapter. A preacher, he was admired and in demand just about everywhere. The Spirit of God gave such a powerful and penetrating anointing to his words that he converted the most hardened hearts. Father Eusebius of Merlon also held two canonries in Saint-Quintin and Boulogne. In contrast, Father Sempliciano of Chaumont had been a doctor of the theological faculty of Paris.

Most of the vocations, however, came from the middle and working class. This contribution undoubtedly reflects the advance of the bourgeois class at the time which, of mercantile origins, experienced continuous enrichment to the point of surpassing and crushing the noble class itself with its glamour. It was the era in which the luxurious hotels of Marais were being built in Paris.

These families of wealthy merchant drapers, goldsmiths and others were deeply religious. They knew how to defend themselves behind a certain shield of austerity and formed themselves to an intense Christian life. Their members belonged to the famous Company of the Holy Sacrament; the Port-Royal movement exerted a profound influence on them. It is noticeable in these families that they not only dedicated Sundays and feast days, but loved to participate in parish services, while their parents delighted in reciting a devotional office. They founded chapels, became patrons of works of art by ordering those magnificent stained-glass windows from glass masters where they were represented as donors. We therefore moved in an atmosphere full of religious fervour.

Now it was from these families that Capuchins in particular were recruited. We can cite, as an emblematic example among many, Father Honoré of Paris, whose cousin would become Saint Louise de Marillac. He will also have a brother who will become a Carthusian monk, while his father, widowed, will enter the Carthusian monastery in Paris; or again Father Gabriel of Paris who belonged to the Cramoisy family of booksellers and publishers, whose father, Sebastian Cramoisy, was the publisher of the famous Arnauld and the Lords of Port-Royal.

There were also vocations among the soldiers of the time, both officers and simple soldiers. Thus Fr. Victor of Evreux, former Captain of the League and later Lieutenant General of the imperial armies. Others had become friars as a result of a vow taken on the battlefield, where they were wounded, such as Br. Onofrio of Paris and many others. There was also a knight from Malta, Fr. John Mary of Treslon.

There was no shortage of vocations from Protestant converts, although they were almost always foreigners, particularly English, such as George Leslie, Archangel of Pembrock, Angel of London and, most famously, Benedict of Canfield.

Finally there were vocations coming from the working classes, from manual workers and they were numerous, but since the registers of the vestments and professions of the novitiate convent of the Parisian suburb of Saint-Jacques were destroyed in the fire of the Hotel de Ville, set by the Commune in 1871, it remained practically impossible to even briefly indicate the number or the work carried out by the relatives. I have tried to fill this gap by researching and examining the wills or donations among the living made by the novices on the eve of their profession, texts full of information, the minutes of which are preserved in the notarial registers of Chatelet and Paris. Thus, one finds, among these young men, sons of popular magistrates, saddle makers, drapers, pharmacists, merchants, humble day laborers, vegetable gardeners and old soldiers, who lived the same life, animated by the ideal of being conformed to Christ in the school of Saint Francis.[9]

Main reasons for the great success of the Capuchins in France

The reason for this growing vocational success must be sought in the witness of their lives and the strictness of their observance, for it is clear that until 1610 their apostolate was above all that of example. This represented the only means of propaganda and apostolate. Their penitent life, austerity of habit, poverty, and preaching attracted ever more numerous souls to them, eager for perfection and yearning for an authentic spiritual life. Now, in those early years, the Capuchins did not yet exercise an active ministry and many among them led a life of a contemplative nature. But for this reason, above all those Christians found an answer to their aspirations for a perfect life. Purely hermitic at the time of their stay at Picpus, the life of the Capuchin friars, except for a small number of preachers, was truly immersed in an atmosphere of contemplation (docs. 1 and 9).

Those who came to follow their lives belonged not only to the middle and working classes, but also to the nobility and the Parisian or Lyonnais upper bourgeoisie. Indeed, it could be asserted that most of them came from the bourgeoisie class of the first half of the “Great Century”. If the nobility was represented by the Joyeuse, the Crèvecoeur, the judiciary, in turn, was represented by the Bochard de Champigny, the Brulart de Sillery. And there was no shortage of intellectuals among them at the beginning. Later Yves de Paris would appear, but also Benoît de Canfield, Laurent de Paris and others, all of noble or bourgeois origin. So too, old officials, gentlemen, jurists, professors of the Sorbonne found themselves together in their ranks and fraternised with humbler members, as we mentioned above.

What were the causes of this exceptional development of the Capuchins? They were essentially the witness of their life, their zeal, their humble and prompt availability for every service (cf. doc. 21, 23-24). Like other new Orders of the time, they originated a movement of reform of friaries, a renewal of religious life. But the aspect that made the Capuchins true initiators was above all their conventual life, punctuated by the divine office recited in common. For the rest, the preachers were busy with their ministry, the lecturers and students in their studies, and the priests were busy themselves with various services and jobs. It should be noted that the ‘licensed’ preachers even in France were a small number, but well-chosen. Most priests were content to give themselves to the contemplative life, manual labour, or pastoral ministry in the city. Thus, a large part of choral life and silent prayer tempered the more apostolic and active elements.

But it is of great interest to try to grasp the spirit that oriented and enlivened this life, that is, union with God, which is echoed in a booklet that appeared rather late, in times subsequent to the period we are studying. Its author was able to collect with great suggestion the main themes of Capuchin spirituality and summarise the broad lines of their spiritual life, which is life in God, interiority, and searching, following and conforming to Christ and the will of the Father. This small book was the Conduite intérieure of Father Giuseppe of Dreux and represented the most characteristic synthesis of the spiritual life of the Capuchins in France.[10]

An important element is also the observance as much as possible to the letter of the Rule considered as the synthesis of the Gospel, with this clarification that what is most striking in the legislation of the Capuchins is not so much their fidelity to the letter of the Gospel, but their desire to animate this observance with the Spirit of Christ discovered and perceived in the Gospel. Hence the importance given to the life of prayer, and this is probably the aspect that must have struck contemporaries above all.

Another peculiarity that recalls their eremitic origins is that the Capuchins of this era, faithful to their ideal of solitude, had always carefully tried to remember in their Constitutions the need to keep one or two cells in their friaries for those who wanted to live a few days or a few weeks and even longer in an eremitic experience of life. Thus, in the great Parisian friary of Saint-Honoré even in the middle of the 18th Century, as attested by a plan from 1741, which includes some cells intended for ‘solitary people.’ We can clearly see the eminently eremitic imprint of Francis and his first companions, which the Capuchin friars were keen to preserve, even in the Century of Enlightenment. In this anxiety for the eremitic, contemplative and and pauperistic-penitential aspect must be placed the attempt at reform carried out, but apparently unsuccessfully, by Father Nathanael of Pontoise in the last years of the Sixteenth Century in France, not even twenty years after the arrival of the Capuchins (doc. 30).

Another testimony that also attracted the attention of Christians in the late 1500s and early 1600s was the poverty manifested in their habit, which, from being an object of ridicule in the early days, became an object of true veneration; a poverty that their contemporaries observed in Capuchin friaries, and which contrasted with other religious houses (doc. 25). This poverty was put by the Capuchin friars at the service of all, because, detached from everything, they found themselves available to serve the poor, the destitute and especially the sick. Indeed, it was this detachment and selflessness of theirs that was the cause of their popularity among city and country people (cf. doc. 20). As itinerant hermits, they were in close contact with the people who came to them with trust, nor could they fail to notice the needs of the people.

It must also be emphasised that the questors, by reason of their work and their relations with the people, carried out a true voluntary apostolate towards the sick and the people with their advice and the eloquent witness of their example. The Chroniclers have left the vivid portraits of some of these friars, and although they have added ornamental brushstrokes, it remains no less true that we are dealing with friars of great spiritual stature.

Thus, one Father Epiphanius, though he was a Guardian, went out to quest: “Being a Guardian in Meudon, he would set out from his friary, walk two leagues on an empty stomach, then return, having finished questing, without drinking or eating and without having asked from door to door for a piece of bread. Finally, at the friary, he would be content with a bit of bread and fresh water. His companions, lay brothers, could not imitate him, although they were stronger than him.”

The testimony of their lives was also manifested in their liturgical prayer. Even in this field, the Capuchin friars were innovators and initiators for their contemporaries who were struck by certain customs, hitherto unknown: the presence of a fixed tabernacle, the custom of placing flowers on the altars. Thus, their monotonous and solemn chanting of psalms, which was strangely surprising, but then ended up becoming pleasant; or the performance of very simple ceremonies in the austere setting of their little churches which encouraged them to do the same.

These liturgical innovations then had their own reason for being because they took away the opportunity for Protestants to lash out at the luxury of churches. The same applies to singing. The ‘simple and mournful’ way of chanting the psalms seduced not only priests and religious, but was also an opportunity to curb polyphonic excesses, the abuses of which had been rejected.

Finally, and above all, the Capuchins were surprising with their method of doing mental prayer in common in the choir. They came to Saint-Honoré to spy on them, to observe them secretly, and they themselves spread the practice of prayer among their disciples.[11] Everyone wanted to learn this new way of praying, and it was an aspiration that corresponded well with the thirst for interiority that characterised spiritual renewal in that era.

We must also note the influence of the Capuchins in animating Sacramental life, their efforts to spread among the faithful the practice of Sacramental Communion and the devotion of the Forty Hours, of Italian origin, which was to be widely used by the Capuchins at the beginning of their missions; the worship of the Passion particularly of the Sacred Heart that was to blossom, of which the Capuchins became propagators already in the first years of their arrival in France. Their influence was therefore enormous, so much so that the author of the Chronicle of the friary of Marais was able to write: “We became aware of the good that our religious worked by their spiritual services rendered after settling in the city, by their good examples, the holiness of their lives, their frequent exhortations to the libertines, their care for the sick and dying, their visits to convicts, prisoners and hospitals, their catechism in their churches for children and maidens and in the cloister for the pages, their sermons by which they shook consciences and their passionate manner of speaking… which caused wonderful conversions every day, and, finally, the introduction of Confession and the use of frequent Communion. Even greater, all this caused a complete change in the way of life.”

It was also through their preaching ministry and missions that they had a great influence on their times. The first real missions among rural populations did not begin until 1630. Previously there were isolated preaching or anti-Protestant missions, especially in Poitou. Once the turbulent period of the late Sixteenth Century and the reactions to the Edict of Nantes were over, the Capuchins appeared as preachers in the main churches of the big cities, and their preaching can be considered in those circumstances as a Catechesis or refreshing of the great Christian truths.

The apostolate in the countryside that began in the early Seventeenth Century appeared even more necessary as Christian education was commonly neglected (doc. 27). Despite the requirements of the Council of Trent, Sunday preaching was conducted very irregularly, and so rural people wanted to hear preachers and sought them out. That was why these early missionaries were so successful. Here, for example, Father Eusebius of Merlon who took care of adults, but also of children: “He preached sometimes in five different villages and there were days when he preached up to eight times…. As soon as he came across a villager or a commoner, he would question them about the mysteries of the faith, about their faith, to prompt them to make a good confession.” In nine or ten years of itinerant preaching he did, at least as his superiors estimated, five thousand sermons. “Arriving in the evening in some village, he would ring the bell to preach, and the people of the village, having returned from their work in the fields, would rush to the church to hear him, and the next morning he would do the same before the people went back to work. And he was content with the hospitality he received, even if it was in a barn. He also went to shepherds’ huts, caves, rustic houses, farms, and woods. And when he met the shepherds, he would gather them together and give them a little exhortation.”[12]

In the large cities the friars organised catechism lessons for the people several times a week; further catechesis was given to the lackeys, pages, and servants of the court and of noble families, and “this increased devotion so much – writes a Chronicler – that the people, assiduous at our church, out of gratitude did not let the friary lack anything.”

The life of the missionaries was, therefore, effective preaching. They went everywhere, even to the poorest homes. It would be enough to remember, for example, the paintings depicting the interiors of farms and villages painted by Le Nain, to get an idea of what the standard of living and manner of dress of those people who loved to hear the Word of God explained by the Capuchins was then. Father Angelo de Joyeuse, for example, mingled with the poor of the capital and catechised them outdoors, on the streets where a large bonfire was lit during the cold month of December in 1599: “He mingled among the beggars of the city, warmed himself at the fire with them, and evangelised them” (doc. 26).

Father Joseph de Morlaix, an old Provincial from Brittany, will imitate him. Preaching in Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, Paris, he would gather all the servants, pages, grooms, and little servants, entertaining them on the Gospel, the frequency of the sacraments, and how to go to confession.[13]

Another aspect that transformed their era and for which they revealed themselves as witnesses of the Gospel is the testimony of their charity which was manifested especially during the epidemics caused by the Thirty Years’ War. It is difficult to imagine today the reality of that dramatic phenomenon, with all its demographic and social consequences. When the contagion appeared, the inhabitants of the cities fled, leaving the sick, dying and nurses to their sad fate. The only ones who remained, stoically, were the judges who continued to administer the cities and organise relief efforts. But who took care of the sick? They were the Religious Orders and, at the forefront, the Capuchin friars (cf. doc. 23).

This was clearly seen in Troyes, when the entire townspeople came to the friary to ask for their help. The judges expected, if not a refusal, then at least an exception of inadmissibility because they had made a world of trouble to receive them in the city and, up to that point, it was not as if the clergy and the inhabitants had recommended the friars for their generosity. The Father Guardian gathered the community in the refectory, and the mayor explained the purpose of that visit. Now it was a surprise for the visitors when all the Capuchins offered themselves, as one united person, after their superior had asked for a few volunteers. He assured the city authorities that, after them, others would offer just as generously to take their place, if necessary.

In 1622 in Rouen, 19 Capuchins succumbed, as also happened in other cities of Normandy. Equally in Nantes, and especially in Amiens, Lyon, Paris, where they performed the functions not only of chaplains but also of nurses, aware of facing death many times.

To the apostolate of charity in times of plague, one must add the ministry of visiting the sick in the city, which was provided by all the friaries. Even more, in places of some importance many people came to be anointed by the friars and to receive medicines, although, let it be said in passing, this was not a specialty of the Capuchins alone: religious men and women actually made ointments and syrups. But it is to say the great influence that these nursing friars had among their clients, and the same goes for those who visited the sick. Some, like Father Simon of Soissons, not only specialised in caring for the marginalised, but also in visiting the sick, the rich, water sellers, court servants and pages. As for Father Elzeario, he would rush to anyone who requested him or whom he knew to be ill. He even woke up in the middle of the night for cases of the dying and he “gave himself immediately, without wasting time and never refusing with excuses, even if he had legitimate reasons.”

We still come across Capuchins as military Chaplains, especially during the Thirty Years’ War, requested by Louis XIII and Richelieu. The King was concerned about the spiritual welfare for soldiers and appealed particularly to religious: Recollects, Observants, Capuchins, and Jesuits because bishops hesitated to respond to petitions from Army Captains, and also because this ministry had often been poorly carried out; hence religious were preferred.

The Rules of life remained the same for these naval chaplains, who therefore accepted deprivation in food, the inconvenience of housing, sicknesses, and the pain of war for the spiritual wellbeing of the soldiers. In particular, thanks to them and their encouragement, the French soldiers who were defending the Isle de Ré, were able to resist and ensure that the English did not approach the fortress. This is the case of Father Louis de Champagny who “always gave the soldiers hope, preventing them from surrendering to the enemy day after day.”

It would be monotonous to cite facts. It is sufficient to look at Father Claudio de Paris, Chaplain of the King’s armies in Alsace, and confidant of all. “Having arrived at the military barracks, they were divided amongst the soldiers; by order of the King, he stayed in the army hospital where there were many wounded and sick soldiers. Here with his companions, he exercised his zeal, his charity, keeping vigil day and night, going from bed to bed and giving the Sacraments after Confession, to others with words of encouragement.” The missionary, with this rhythm of life, soon fell victim to his zeal and was buried “in the house of the Jesuit fathers who profited from his written sermons and made good use of them.” Father Umberto of Thouars was also notable, as he “went to confess soldiers as far as the trenches, paying attention to those who were still breathing in order to impart absolution to them, not taking into account the continuous shooting on both sides, and he was never hit, despite the fact that many around and behind him fell, wounded and others died on the spot.”

One last ministry was carried out by the Capuchins and that was to visit prisoners in the large cities of France and particularly in Paris at the great and small Chatelet, at the Palace prisons or among the galley slaves waiting for the departure of the galley. Other friars collected alms to ransom prisoners imprisoned for debts.

Thus, they bore the witness of charity and apostolate in their time, leaving an example and message for future generations. They were eminent people, initiators, pioneers in an essentially vital, turbulent era, in an era-certainly one that was already hinting at a new period. They created a perspective of spiritual and apostolic life. These early Capuchins give us the gift of a message: a life of prayer and apostolate. They knew how to insert the Christians of that time into the life of the Church in an age of renewal and developed a truly creative activity with an unrivalled fidelity to the Church of their time.[14]

  1. Cf. Jean Maizaize, Etat de l’Eglise en France au debut du XVIIe siècle, in id., Le role et l’action des capucins de la Province de Paris dans la France religieuse du XVII siècle [thesis at the Sorbonne in Paris], 1-34.
  2. For these numbers and subsequent tables of the provinces and convents of France cf. Tabulae capitulorum generalium, in AGO, AG 1-6; For other special sources cf. Le role et l’action cit., 60-95 (= Les implantations de convents et leurs causes sociologiques, ora anche in Laurent. 33 [1992] 57-87).
  3. Ibid., 80.
  4. Ibid., 80-89.
  5. Cf. Pas-de-Calais, Arch. départ., J, coll. Barbier, 43.
  6. Le rôle et l’action cit., 94s.
  7. On this theme see chapter II of the major research cited above of J. Mauzai ze, Le rôle et l’action, 242-271, intitled: Modalités de recrutement et classes sociales.
  8. Figures for this General Chapter are missing.
  9. Cf. Minutier Central des notaires de Paris. See J. Mauzaize, Les testaments «ante professionem» des capucins parisiens aux XVIe et XVII*siècles, in L’’histoire des croyants, mémoîre vivante des hommes. Mélanges Charles Molette, Abbeville 1989, 599-609.
  10. About this booklet cf. Ubald d’A lencon, Nos maîtres de spiritualité: le p. Joseph de Dreux, in EF 38 (1926) 312-320; 39 (1927) 464s. See later, nn. 9393-9415.
  11. About the foundation, presence and spiritual and cultural influence of the Capuchins in St.-Honoré cf. Jean Mauzaize’s great and still unpublished study [p. Raoul de Sceaux], Etude topographique, institutionel le et historique sur le couvent des frères mineurs capucins de la rue Saint-Honoré à Paris. 1574-1792, Paris 1972 (thesis of 1057 pp. for the doctorate of the 3rd cycle at the Sorbonne).
  12. Cf. Paris, Bibl. nat. f. fr. 25.044, p. 239; £. fr. 25.046, p. 129; Marcellin de Pi se, Annales III, 272: da J. Mauzaize, Le rôle et l’action des capucins cit., 970.
  13. Cf. ibid., 954s.
  14. This introduction is a very quick summary of the large dissertation defended at the Sorbonne by J. Mauzaize, Le rôle et l’action, cit. above in footnote 1; l’a. gathered some key points in the conference (basically followed here) La vie des premziers capucins en France, in La réforme capucine (1525-1625), [Paris 1983], 51-63. — In the set of collected documents, the editorial staff added docs. 8, 10, 11, 18, 21 e 30.