Rule of Life – Community in the School Setting
After recalling some elements of André Coindre’s life, I will dwell especially on the strong points of his personality. This should allow you to better understand what I believe to be his fundamental intuitions with regard to our Institute.
A. Biographical Sketch
André Coindre was born in Lyons in 1787; two years, that is, before the beginning of the French Revolution whose consequences played such a large part in his vocation.
It is thought that he did not only his elementary schooling, but also what we would call today his secondary studies, with a nonjuring priest. (Many priests taught like this in secret, and some even organized clandestine schools where “classes” were held now here, now there, in some apartment or other.)
In 1804, at the age of 17, he entered the Minor Seminary of Notre-Dame de l’Argentière, at Oullins, where he remained five years. He passed to the major seminary in 1809, in preparation for his ordination by Cardinal Fesch, uncle of Napoleon, in 1812. But he stayed at the seminary another year to study public speaking: this is an important point.
In fact, the very same year, he was already being asked to give sermons and talks. The most glorious of these (probably the least important for us) seems to have been the one he gave on the anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation and of the victory at Austerlitz, in the presence of the emperor himself, it is said, on December 2, 1813.
This is the reason why, after eighteen months of ministry at Bourg-en-Bresse, he was asked by the Vicar General to join with other priests in forming a team of diocesan missioners. They occupied the former Carthusian monastery, referred to as Les Chartreux, which name they themselves adopted. The “missions” are certainly one of the most original and most effective creations of the Church in France after the Revolution. Daniel-Rops describes the situation clearly. The Church in France is then in complete disarray. The Revolution has suppressed parishes and dioceses. There are three groups of priests who don’t always get along, namely:
a) the constitutionals (those who took the oath to uphold the Civil Constitution of the Clergy), whose popular name of “jurors” shows the contempt in which they were held. There were but a few of them left. At the invitation of the Convention, many had abjured the priesthood (déprêtriser is the actual word they used) and even married. The few who remained in charge of parishes had no following, despite various invitations from the Pope and the other Church authorities to forgive them and reinstate them. Yet many of them had been conscientious, and Daniel-Rops even speaks of some of them as saints;
b) the nonjurors or refractory element, the “hardliners” who have the support of the people, but have nothing good to say about the first group or the next one;
c) the émigrés priests, who returned to France with the thought of finding and doing everything “as before”; it’s easy to understand why they were sometimes considered cowards.
Such is the clergy, then, in the days of the Empire. It must also be said that a good number of priests died from natural or violent deaths during the Revolution, without being replaced by younger ordinands.
Moreover, religious men and women had been dispersed (if not suppressed altogether); many of them, especially among the regular clergy, had abandoned the religious life.
In short, France needed to be re-evangelized.
The “missions” were an answer to this need. For effective evangelization, each diocese was divided into sectors, and each sector was entrusted to a team of itinerant priests; the local clergy, or what was left of it, stayed put. The initiative for this venture was due to Cardinal Fesch. Napoleon suppressed all the “missioners” in 1809. So, while waiting for better days, the Archbishop held them in reserve at Les Chartreux and confided the parish of Saint Bruno to their care.
It is during this period, then, that Father Coindre joined the group which was not yet a religious community in the strict sense of the word: their first vows were only those of stability and obedience to the Archbishop, and were first made in 1820. He remained an associate member, that is, without vows, until 1822, at which time he left the group. For what reasons? Because of his activities, no doubt.
A few days after arriving at Les Chartreux, he found two young girls, cold, hungry, and in rags, huddled together in front of the church of Saint Nizier. On the advice of the pastor of that parish, he called on Claudine Thévenet to take care of them. This marked the beginning of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary.
Starting in 1816, the missioners could go about giving missions again. And, in seven years, we find André Coindre in twenty-one different sectors. When one considers that each missionary team, with five to ten priests, worked out of each center for a month and sometimes even two, it is easy to imagine that Father Coindre had little free time; all the more since, between rounds, he gave retreats at the minor seminaries, in religious communities, in prisons, and in parishes, at Saint Bruno in particular. And yet...
1816 – Pieuse Union: an association for married women and young ladies, to help rescue and educate girls.
1817 – Providence du Sacré-Coeur: an orphanage in a cell at Les Chartreux, with seven children confided to the care of the ladies of the Pieuse Union (to which belonged Claudine Thévenet).
The same year and in another cell at Les Chartreux, André Coindre grouped five or six boys under the direction of a master weaver: this is the Providence de Saint Bruno.
1818 – With several ladies of the Pieuse Union, foundation of the Congregation of the Ladies of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
Father Coindre bought the property at La Croix-Rousse to relocate the Providence de Saint-Bruno, cramped for space at Les Chartreux. In 1820, he moved in there and it became the Pieux-Secours.
1821 – He got the idea of forming a religious community to take care of his institution. For this purpose; he gathered together in Lyons two former teachers at the Pieux-Secours, a young man he met during a retreat at Belleville, and a group of seven laymen living a kind of community life in Valbenoîte, near Saint-Etienne.
At the end of an eight-day retreat, these ten men made private vows at Fourvière (so it is not yet a religious congregation), took religious names, and received appointments to two institutions:
Pieux-Secours: five Brothers,
Valbenoîte: five Brothers.
1822 - The Bishop of Saint-Flour, who had jurisdiction over Le Puy (this diocese had not been reinstated by the Concordat of 1801; it will be reestablished only in 1823 with Monsignor de Bonald, future Archbishop of Lyons, as bishop), asked him to found a society of missioners for Haute-Loire. It became the Society of Missionary Priests of the Sacred Heart of Monistrol. This is also the year when he broke with the missioners of Les Chartreux.
1823 - Opening of a school and a novitiate for the Brothers at Monistrol. New foundations multiplied after this.
1824 - Le Monastier and Pradelles: communal schools; Saint-Symphorien: parochial school.
(It is that same year, at Monistrol, that the Brothers became an official congregation, when they made their first public vows with the approval of the Bishop of Le Puy, on October 14; so it is in Haute-Loire that we were born!)
1825 - Montfaucon, Neulisse (Loire): communal schools; Fontaines-Cailloux (Loire), Murat (Cantal): parochial schools.
1826 - Plans for foundations at Bresle and Vals (Haute-Loire) and Marvejols (Lozère).
In the meantime, in 1824, because of the hostility of his vicars-general, Monsignor de Pins, successor of Monsignor Fesch, dissolved the society of Les Chartreux. Yet he wanted to have a new missionary society. So he called on Father Coindre who, enthused by the idea, not only agreed to help but even sent a rough draft of statutes. But the project went no further because the Archbishop approved the Marist Fathers the same year. In 1833, he also reestablished the priests of Les Chartreux as the Society of Saint-Irenée, which is still in existence.
In the diocese of Le Puy where his missioners and his Brothers were working, Father Coindre was the object of hostility from a good number of jealous members of the clergy. A mission preached at Blois in 1824 brought him in contact with that diocese and its bishop, Monsignor de Sauzin, who appreciated him very much. And this was the beginning of another “adventure” for our Founder.
In 1825, the Bishop of Le Puy, who had not allowed Father Montagnac, Father Coindre’s assistant in Monistrol, to be sent to help at the major seminary in Blois, started to “steal” men from among the missioners of Monistrol to place them in his run-down parishes. This meant the end of the society. In 1825, Father Coindre resigned as superior general. He was now free for another project.
Monsignor de Sauzin not only had a talented, zealous, and organizing priest for his major seminary at Blois, but he also appointed André Coindre superior of the major seminarians. But this did not prevent the good Father from also preaching during Lent that year, and from sending sketches for Rules to the missioners of Monistrol, who were still dear to him, and to the Ladies of Jesus and Mary.
But all this was too much for his physical and mental strength. André Coindre fell into a deep depression which affected his intelligence and his speech (some believe that he may have had galloping typhoid fever): incoherence when he spoke in public, withdrawal in isolation, and finally, complete insanity. He died suddenly on May 30, 1826, at the age of 39. Yet, on May 3, he had written to Brother Borgia a long letter (some six pages in print) which is perfectly coherent and contains no indications of such a sudden demise.
His most fragile foundation, the Brothers, who still did not have Rules, had to undergo many more trials (especially the catastrophic administration of Father Vincent Coindre, a holy man in other respects) before finding a certain stability under Brother Polycarp.