Saint André-Hubert Fournet
Join me today as we encounter a heroic - but reluctant - priest.
Name: André-Hubert Fournet
Feast: May 14
At the beginning of the 19th century, when André-Hubert Fournet was an old man, a priest, and the spiritual advisor to the nuns called the Sisters of the Cross, an order he had helped to found, one of the sisters came across a book he had owned when he was a boy. He had signed it this way:
“This book belongs to André-Hubert, a good boy who doesn’t want to be a monk or a priest.”
The nun asked him about it. Fournet’s answer was a little vague. These words had been written in another time, almost in another world, before the blood and madness of the Age of Reason.
Back in that simpler world, André-Hubert was a little boy, born in 1752 in North West France in an area where his family had deep connections. His mother had decided early on that her son would be a priest like four of his uncles. She spoke about it all the time. “One day, little André,” she liked to tell him, “you will be a priest, you’ll approach the holy altar, and you’ll pray to the good Lord for your mother.”
Young André-Hubert hated the idea.
Many men will understand why. There are currents in Christianity which are very feminine. In The Church Impotent Leon Podles traces these currents back to the middle ages. In many churches one hears a lot about emotions, a personal relationship with God, the importance of being nice, the metaphor of the Church as the bride of Christ and so on. These things resonate with women, but men find them unsettling and unmanly. Men want a clear hierarchy where Christ is king and saints are heroic figures - which of course brings us to the very point of my Manly Saints Project. The more his mother talked these sorts of things up, the less young André-Hubert wanted to have to do with the church.
He might have succeeded in not becoming a priest if he hadn’t rebelled quite as hard. He rebelled against school, running away and shirking his lessons. He was intelligent and liked to read, but he blew off things like penmanship, which it later turned out made him unable to find work in the bureaucracy or become a clerk. He tried unsuccessfully to join the army. Finally he settled for getting into trouble around home.
As a young man, André-Hubert Fournet would have read about France’s leading role in the movement that named itself ‘The Enlightenment’. Enlightenment thinkers thought that they were bringing the light of Reason to the shadows of the so-called Dark Ages. In that darkness, they found an incomprehensible patchwork of aristocratic privilege, weird local customs, stifling Catholic faith and silly traditions. Reason suggested tossing out this cultural junk and starting fresh. And then, finally, things would work properly.
At some point the family just didn’t know what to do with young André-Hubert Fournet. So they sent him off to live with an uncle, who was the priest in a small, poor village, at the Church of Saint Peter. This turned out to be exactly what Fournet needed.
André-Hubert’s uncle was gruff and busy. He wasn’t interested in talking up the priesthood to his nephew. He had work to do. Gradually, André-Hubert began to see the priesthood in different terms. Long before the Enlightenment, even before Plato, there was the idea that there is a deep hierarchy among men. Some men are workers, some creative artisans, some fighters and rulers, and some are priests. The priest’s role is the highest. We can see why if we consider that a man’s life contains all four stages. When we’re children, we need to learn to follow the rules. As adolescents, we need to begin to think for ourselves, and then as fathers and husbands we need to take charge of families of our own. The last stage is that of grandfather, when a man guides his family through wisdom rather than directly. If the priest is like a grandfather, then being a priest is not an unmanly thing, it is the culmination of manliness. André-Hubert Fournet began to feel himself called in this direction, and at the age of 22 he entered a seminary.
By 1776 André-Hubert Fournet was a priest, just as his mother had wanted. Gradually he replaced his uncle, the one whom he so admired, at the little church of Saint Peter. Over the first few years, Fournet tried to find his voice as a priest. His homilies drew on the literature of the Enlightenment, full of literary allusions and clever wordplay. But as he grew older, his homilies got simpler, more focused on Christ. Where the thinkers of the Enlightenment elevated the mind, Fournet saw an image of its Creator, “spiritual, immortal, free like Him”.
Far away in Paris, things were breaking down. On one side was the king, and the aristocracy and the church. The other side thought that the crown and the cross were all part of that old fashioned, musty darkness which would vanish under the light of Reason. On the 14th of July, 1789, a mob stormed the Bastille, a prison fortress, and this unleashed a decade of chaos.
1790 the new revolutionary government was making demands on the Church. Churches were to give up much of their lands and treasures, and priests were to swear an oath of allegiance to the French state. Some priests did so. Father Fournet, along with many others, refused. The penalty was exile or death. “If they take our golden crosses,” said one bishop, facing the inevitable, ”we’ll have to take up wooden ones - after all it was a wooden one which saved the world.”
Because he would not swear the oath, Father Fournet’s church was assigned a priest who would. Father Fournet began acting in secret, staying at the houses of those who remained faithful. In truth, he was not a very good fugitive. On one occasion he was hiding while a group of soldiers came in search of a noble. They were swearing up a storm, but when they began to use blasphemy Fournet had had enough. He popped out of hiding to tell them not to blaspheme. The soldiers were so shocked by the sudden appearance of a priest that they didn’t think to arrest him. They apologized and went away.
But this sort of thing couldn’t last. Some people had always hated the Church. There is a saying often attributed to the philosophe Denis Diderot, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” In fact the saying started on the streets, among peasants who hated the church for good or bad reasons - and now the priest haters could become priest hunters.
Finally, In 1792, priest hunters caught Fournet and some fellow priests. A group of soldiers marched them into a fort at bayonet point. But even in that group, opinions were divided on the church. One soldier took a dislike to Fournet and decided to gut him with a bayonet thrust, but when he did one of his fellows courageously stepped in front of the priest and took the wound. The soldier attacked again, and someone else knocked him to the side so that his bayonet hit the wall. Before someone else could defend him, Fournet jumped up and said he was willing to die for Christ. But by then the commotion had drawn a crowd, and public sympathy was with the priests. The soldiers let them go.
Fournet was less and less sure that there was a place for him in France, and in 1793 Fournet and others traveled to Catholic Spain. They hoped things would get better in their homeland. They didn’t. The revolutionaries killed the king, nobles and priests but the promises of an Age of Reason did not seem to be coming true. Churches were converted into Temples of Reason. Perhaps the problem lay in the ranks of the revolutionaries themselves. So the revolution went on eating its own, killing and killing to make the world reasonable and sane at last.
Safe in Spain, Fournet came to think that he was in the wrong place. There was no end in sight, but he felt his place was in his parish. For some time, his authorities in the church would not allow him to return to France. By 1797, they relented, and he went back. He was 45 years old, facing the most dangerous moments of his life. If he was caught, he would be killed, or - if he was lucky - deported to French Guyana. Even those sympathetic to him thought it was a suicide mission. One correspondent wrote to him and said:
“What madness. The guillotine is very much still here, you risk certain death.”
Fournet replied, “The one who brought me this far can keep me safe.”
When Father Fournet arrived, he slowly established contact with his parishioners. He found that many of them were desperate for a real priest who had not taken the loyalty oath. He’d stay with them or out in the forest, moving from village to village, often conducting mass at midnight in a barn or even in the forest. There were always people in need of a priest.
Fournet kept moving to avoid the priest hunters. Somehow he always seemed one step ahead, finishing mass and slipping out the backdoor just as the hunters were arriving. One Christmas he celebrated masses in three villages, mostly at night, trekking through the snowy forest to make it there in time.
Long after his death, an old woman remembered meeting him when she was a girl. He was on the move as always. The two were walking on a road up a hill, and she carrying something heavy. He asked her what she was thinking about.
The load was heavy and she thought it was a stupid question, so she snapped back, “I’m thinking that I’m exhausted.”
“That’s not the way,” he said. “Think that this is the road to Calvary, and that Jesus is walking ahead of you carrying his cross.”
Fournet added: “And what you’re carrying won’t seem so heavy then.”
On one night, Father Fournet was in a barn offering confessions, when the door opened and to everyone’s surprise an aristocratic young lady came in. Her name was Elizabeth Bichier des Âges. Her family had had trouble with the revolution as well, and she had not felt able to confess to the priests who had sworn the oath of loyalty to the regime. She had travelled through the night to find Fournet.
The local peasants still showed deference and Elizabeth was pushed to the front of the line for confession, but Father Fournet told her that he had no intention of letting her go ahead of the poor. It turned out that Elizabeth was not one of those proud aristocrats who insisted on their rights. She humbly said that she would wait as long as necessary. By the time it was her turn, the sun was rising. Father Fournet sensed that there was something extraordinary about this young lady, and filed the information away for better times.
Very slowly, Father Fournet’s flock moved from fear to hope. They weren’t going to overthrow the revolution, but they quietly closed ranks around their priest. When one Catholic official heard that Fournet was in his town, he knew he was supposed to arrest him. So he made a big show of personally riding to the next village to bring a force of soldiers to capture the priest. On the way over, he stopped and had a chat with Father Fournet, so he would have plenty of time to leave before the might of France arrived.
On another occasion, Fournet was sitting by a fire with a friendly group of farmers. He was dressed in ordinary clothes and talking to the lady of the house. Suddenly, priest hunters walked up out of the night, looking for him. He wasn’t sure what to do, but the farmer’s wife thought fast and hit him in the back of the head.
“Get up you lazy bum,” she shouted, “Let these gentlemen take a seat and go do your job and feed the horses.”
To the soldiers, she groused about how hard it was to get find decent servants. They went through the house looking for the priest, but came back empty handed, never suspecting the lazy stable hand.
Afterwards, Fournet liked to tell the story, adding that the farmer’s wife knew how to throw a punch.
“I saw stars,” he admitted.
And then one day, things began to get better. The revolution began to burn itself out. Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, first in coalition and then as sole emperor. The world wasn’t finished with the Enlightenment - in many ways, we still aren’t - but Napoleon and the Pope would reach an uneasy compromise agreement about the role of the church, and some of the pressure eased off in France. Father Fournet was no longer in danger.
Fournet was now entering his 50s. It was time to put his little corner of France back together. He knew he couldn’t do it alone. It needed a group dedicated to teaching and healing, and he realized he knew just the young lady to help him. He approached the young noble he had first met on the run. Together with the future Saint Elizabeth Bichier des Âges, he would found the Sisters of the Cross. For the next forty years he would be their spiritual director. He guided the order with gentle advice and, on occasion, with miraculous assistance. The order grew and grew, spilling out of Father Fournet’s parish and then out of France into Argentina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, France, Italy, the Ivory Coast, Spain and Uruguay.
In his 80s, Father Fournet slowed down. The man who had spent years on the run still woke up in the dark, but now it was to come down early and spend the morning in prayer. By the time he died at 82, Father Fournet, the reluctant priest, had become an institution. But he hadn’t lost his sense of humour. Shortly before his death, one of the nuns said she’d pray for his health.
“Oh I wouldn’t do that,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ll be of much more use to you up there than down here.”
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