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The Founder of the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice.

A chronology of principal events of the life of Monsieur Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657),
the founder of the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice.

September 20, 1608

Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657)
Founder of the Society
of the Priests of Saint Sulpice.

He was born in Paris to Jacques Olier and Marie Dolu, the fourth of eight children. He was baptized Jean on the same day. It was later that he was also given the name Jacques, perhaps to perpetuate the memory of his youngest brother who had been baptized Jean-Jacques and died at an early age. His family belonged to the noblesse de robe, a new emerging nobility so named because their power came from their role as magistrates and counselors, rather than from traditional inherited lineage. The elder Olier was successively counselor to the Parliament of Paris, secretary to Henri IV, and Grand Usher of France. The family had risen to some prominence by the time Jean-Jacques was born. Men on both sides of his family held impressive positions in the French government. However, by the time he wrote his Mémoires, he was not impressed by such status. After mentioning his influential relatives, he adds, “Through the mercy of God, I am dead to all this world and the generation of Adam… living only in the second generation which is truly glorious for me… (Mémoires, 2:250). Soon after his birth he was sent to a wet nurse who lived in the parish of Saint Sulpice, a detail seen as significant by M. Olier in relation to his future ministry (Mémoires, 3:202).

Circa 1616
He began his formal studies in Paris.

His father was named representative to the King to the city of Lyons. He took his family with him. Jean-Jacques and two of his brothers were enrolled in the Jesuit school, Sainte Trinité, which enjoyed an excellent reputation.

He became a cleric. According to the practice common in important families, his parents procured for him his first benefice, which was the priory of Bazainville in the diocese of Chartres.

December 1622
Francis de Sales, a friend and frequent visitor of M. Olier’s father, reassured Madame Olier that her son did indeed have an ecclesiastical vocation. The rather impetuous and stormy temperament of the young Jean-Jacques had given her reason to doubt that he was suited for the dignity of the clerical state. In fact, Francis predicted that this child would be a great servant of the Church. M. Olier would have a lifelong devotion to Francis de Sales.

Late 1624
Jacques Olier finished his work in Lyons and was recalled by the King to Paris where he was given the portfolio of counselor of state as a reward for his faithful service to the crown.

Louis XIII’s generosity to the Olier family also touched Jean-Jacques. On May 17, 1625, he was accorded the benefice of the priory of Clisson in the diocese of Nantes. Furthermore on the thirtieth of June, he received, as a benefice, the abbey of Pébrac in the diocese of Saint-Flour and shortly after, the priory of la Madeleine de Pouancé in the diocese of Angers.

M. Olier pursued philosophy at the College Harcourt in Paris. Under the tutelage of Pierre Padet, he studied Aristotle. Because of his master’s predilection, he was introduced also with great enthusiasm to the study of Plato, who had been reinstated in the academic world during the Renaissance. On July 18, 1627, he passed his examination and was awarded the Master of Arts degree. During this two-year period he became proficient in Latin and Greek.

He studied at the Faculty of Theology of the Sorbonne. He was instructed by several eminent theologians of the day, and obtained his Bachelor’s degree in sacred theology. Frederick Monier in his Vie de Jean-Jacques Olier (p. 40) comments on this period in M. Olier’s life:

From these initial three years of theological study which were all he had… the young bachelor received and preserved in his mind a solid basis, which always undergirded the edifice of the mystical theology which his direct communication with Our Lord allowed him to construct.

This was a good period for M. Olier. Though only a cleric, his position as abbot permitted him to preach publicly from time to time. He found this very satisfying. He lived in the grand manner of the day, having two carriages and many servants.

February 1629
Monier (p. 44) recounts one of the more famous legends surrounding the life of the founder of Saint Sulpice. In this story, Marie Rousseau, the widow of a leading wine merchant of Paris, confronted M. Olier and several other worldly young clerics, reproaching them with these words:

Alas! Gentlemen, you cause me great suffering. I have been praying for your conversion for a long time. I hope someday God will answer my prayers.

Whatever the historical accuracy of this account, it is symbolic of the prominent place which M. Olier would later attribute to Marie Rousseau in his Mémoires.

M. Olier left for Rome to undertake the study of Hebrew, but he began to experience a severe deterioration of his eyesight which made reading impossible. Finding no relief from medicine, he undertook on foot the long journey to the shrine of Loretto (200 km) to seek the help of the Blessed Virgin. His prayers were answered, but more importantly his inner sight was healed. He saw this event as his first conversion, i.e., his turning away from grave sin and the beginning of a serious search for holiness. This included a commitment to a life of prayer which flowed from what he experienced as un grand désir de la prière. More than 10 years later in his Mémoires, he attributes this grace to the prayers of Mme Rousseau.

March 1631
His father died. He returned to Paris uncertain of how to implement his new life in Christ. For nine months he made no external changes in his behavior. M. Olier tells us in his Mémoires that during this period of spiritual gestation, the Blessed Virgin appeared to Mother Agnes of Langeac, instructing her to pray for M. Olier’s ongoing conversion.

Christmas 1631 – Summer 1632
M. Olier made a general confession on Christmas day and declared to the world that he belonged totally to God in Christ Jesus. His life-style began to change. Instead of associating with the important and influential persons of the realm, he spent his time serving the poor. Much to the chagrin of his family, he spent time catechizing them and preparing them for the sacraments. During a pilgrimage to Notre Dame of Chartres, M. Olier was freed from a painful period of scrupulosity.

November 2, 1632
God revealed to M. Olier in a dream that he was called to be a parish priest. As a result, he chose Vincent de Paul to be his confessor and spiritual guide. M. Vincent sent him and several others into the provinces to catechize and convert the neglected people of those areas.

Lent 1633
Having labored successfully, he returned to Paris. With Vincent de Paul’s blessing, he made a pre-ordination retreat. On March 12, 1633, he was ordained a subdeacon. At the occasion of his diaconate ordination, March 26, 1633, he made a private vow of servitude to Mary.

May 21, 1633
On the eve of the feast of the Holy Trinity, Jean-Jacques Olier was ordained to the priesthood. After a month of prayerful preparation, he celebrated his first Mass in the chapel of the Carmelite monastery on June 24, the feast of John the Baptist, one of his patron saints. On July 19th, Vincent de Paul inaugurated the first of the clergy days of recollection, known as the conférences des Mardis. M. Olier attended them faithfully. It was efforts such as these to meet the needs of the priests of the period which were the initial steps of the movement which eventually led M. Vincent, M. Olier and others to establish their seminaries in France.

After making a retreat with Vincent de Paul, M. Olier left to labor in the missions of the Auvergne with his own abbey of Pébrac as headquarters. During this period, he met Mother Agnes (see March 1631), whom he had seen in a vision while on retreat previous to his missionary journey. She revealed to him his call to establish seminaries in France. Mother Agnes died on October 19th of that year.  

Fall 1634
M. Olier returned to Paris. It was at that time that he came under the direct influence of Charles de Condren, superior general of the Oratory. During this period the Bishop of Langres, Sebastian Zamet, sought to have M. Olier replace him. M. Vincent favored the move. Condren opposed it.

March 1636
During the whole Zamet affair, M. Olier was reduced to vigilant inactivity, a very painful situation for him and the occasion for a severe inner crisis. Finally he refused the see of Langres. His alliance with Condren and the decision not to become a bishop were critical steps toward his future vocation as parish priest and founder of seminaries.

Late Winter 1636 – end 1637
With enthusiasm, he returned to the missions of the Auvergne. This was a very successful period in his apostolic endeavors. At one point, however, he became ill and almost died. He was cured through the intercession of Saint Francis de Sales.

Summer 1638
After a needed rest and recuperation, M. Olier left on a new missionary voyage which began at one of his benefices, Clisson in the diocese of Nantes. Weakened by a new illness, he went on retreat to prepare for this work. During the retreat he asked God to change his external physical trials into interior ones which he felt would purify him more completely. Monier (p. 182) comments on this moment:

The fact is that, if the servant of God had foreseen the fearsome trials which were soon to visit him, this prayer possibly would have died on his lips.

During his missionary activity in the region, he also undertook the much needed reform of the sisters of the Convent of la Regrippière, whose foundation dated from the 12th century.

Fall 1639
M. Olier entered the period of his great ordeal. This remarkable experience began toward the end of his missionary phase and ended with the beginning of his seminary efforts. During these trials M. Olier experienced his own nothingness and sinfulness as well as an increasing sense of communion with God in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. From his descriptions in the Mémoires, it is clear that this was a most harrowing time for him as well as a period of great grace. He was delivered progressively from his suffering in the spring and summer of 1641.

January 7, 1641
Charles de Condren died. This was a great blow to M. Olier.

Spring and Summer 1641
After a period of missionary work in the Diocese of Chartres, a small group of priests (including M. Olier) attempted to establish a seminary there in the see city without success.

End of 1641 – beginning 1642
M. Olier, M. du Ferrier, and M. de Foix gathered at Vaugirard to attempt once more the foundation of a seminary. This time their effort bore fruit and they inaugurated the project on December 29, 1641.

January 11, 1642
M. Olier made the vow of servitude to Jesus Christ which Our Lord requested of him on January 9, 1641, after the death of de Condren. His confessor, Charles Picoté, had advised him to postpone the vow for a year. At about this same time, M. Olier met Dom Gregory Tarisse, superior general of the Benedictine reform of St. Maur, who became the spiritual guide for the new seminary community. Père Hugues Bataille, the Benedictine bursar general, became his own personal director. It was at Père Bataille’s request that M. Olier wrote his Mémoires.

February 2, 1642
Beginning of the Societé de Ville Marie (Montreal) with Jerome le Royer de la Dauversière and other friends. This missionary project was very close to M. Olier’s heart.

June 25, 1642
An exchange of benefices was negotiated at the request of the pastor of the parish of Saint Sulpice. M. Olier became the curé of that parish and his predecessor, Julien de Fiesque, became the new beneficiary of the priory of Clisson. Dom Gregory, Père Bataille, and Marie Rousseau enthusiastically supported this move as a way of furthering two of their common concerns; the reform of the Faubourg of Saint Germain (where both the parish of Saint Sulpice and Benedictine abbey of Saint Germain were located), and the continued growth and expansion of the new seminary. However, his mother was outraged at her son becoming a simple pastor. This function was considered totally unfit for clerics of noble birth. This event marks the beginning of a deeper alienation from his family.

August 11, 1642
M. Olier is installed temporarily as pastor of Saint Sulpice while waiting for the official nomination to arrive from Rome. On the feast of the Assumption, the fifteenth of August, he preached his first sermon as pastor.

November 4, 1642
After having experienced a severe illness and a long recuperation, he was solemnly installed on the feast day of Charles Borromeo, the sixteenth-century reformer of the clergy.

January 11, 1643
As pastor of the parish of Saint Sulpice, M. Olier makes a vow of servitude to the souls entrusted to him.

March 31, 1644
During Mass in the Chapel of Our Lady of Virtues in Aubervilliers, near Paris, M. Olier pronounced the vow of host-victim (vœu d’hostie) to God the Father.

July 15, 1644
After being prepared by M. Olier, four of his co-workers made the vow of host-victim at Montmartre in Paris.

June 8, 1645
During the first three years of his pastorate, M. Olier experienced little success from his creative and untiring efforts. In fact, there was growing opposition from many sides against his reforms. It came to a climax on this Thursday after Pentecost when an angry mob attacked and pillaged the rectory. M. Olier was dragged through the streets and beaten. He was saved by some friends, including Vincent de Paul. Peace was established by Parliament which sent armed guards to protect the lives and ministry of the parish and seminary community. For M. Olier, this persecution was a blessing from God because it was the turning point in his reform.

Despite many hardships, the seminary flourished during these early years, outgrowing successive buildings and experiencing several near financial collapses. It was also about this time that M. Olier entered into a long and often painful debate with the promoters of a new doctrine called Jansenism.

Fall 1645 – early 1646
On September 6, M. Olier and several of his co-workers signed an act of association for the seminary, formally establishing the nascent Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice. The abbot of Saint Germain authorized this ecclesiastical association on October 23, and Faillon places the lettres patentes of the king (which are without date, according to the custom of the time) toward the end of the year 1645. The lettres were not officially registered until late November 1650. 

egl_saintsulpice_ancien.jpgFebruary 20, 1646
As the parish reform progressed, the Church was no longer large enough to accommodate the people who came to worship. After long negotiations, dating from the beginning of his pastorate, the cornerstone of the new church was set in place by the queen mother, Anne of Austria. However, the project advanced slowly and the new building, which is the present Church of Saint Sulpice, was completed only about a century later.

Fall 1647
During this period M. Olier travelled for three months. It was a time of pilgrimage and prayer. He preached at least one retreat and met with some of the women religious with whom he maintained a spiritual friendship.

July 28, 1648
At the heart of M. Olier’s ministry was a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. On the above date, a dozen thieves committed a sacrilege involving the consecrated hosts in the church. This event was the beginning of a new level of Eucharistic devotion among the shocked parishioners, who until then had been mostly indifferent.

During the period after the uprising of 1645, M. Olier continued his parish and seminary work. He was harassed by the insatiable and increasingly unreasonable financial demands made by the former pastor as a settlement for the exchange of benefits.

Fall 1648-52
M. Olier’s final years as pastor occurred during the chaos of la Fronde, the Parisian civil war between the court (Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin during the minority of Louis XIV) and the nobles of Parliament. It was a bitter period for all. M. Olier sought to bring the needed financial and spiritual aid to the rich and poor alike.

Between September 9-15, 1649
After many delays, M. Olier placed the cornerstone for a long-needed seminary building. It was completed and solemnly blessed on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1651.

March 13, 1651
M. Olier presented the historically significant Project for the Establishment of a Seminary in a Diocese to the general assembly of the clergy of France.

September 15, 1651
Act of total surrender to the Holy Trinity through the hands of Mary.

June 20, 1652
Worn out by his many labors and near death, M. Olier resigned his pastorate.

The last stage of his life was characterized both by chronic sickness and growth in union with the Lord. During this period, the Lord graced him with a deepening love of the Cross and the hope of Resurrection. To the extent that his condition permitted, he continued to direct the seminary at Saint Sulpice and work for the foundation of other seminaries.

During these last years he also edited and published four texts for the use of his parishioners. They are La journée chrétienne (The Christian Day) 1655; Le catéchisme chrétien pour la vie intérieure (Christian Catechism for the Interior Life) 1656; l’Explication des cérémonies de la Grande Messe (Explanation of the Ceremonies of the High Mass) 1657; Introduction à la vie et aux vertus chrétiennes (Introduction to the Christian Life and Virtues) 1657.

For many years M. Olier had been filled with a great zeal for the missions and often dreamed of going himself to distant lands. In particular, he desired to go to Ville-Marie (Montreal, Canada), the city named for his beloved patroness. As early as 1642, M. Olier had already been involved with the members of the Society of Notre Dame of Montreal. Now shortly before his death, through unable to go himself, he designated some of his priests to assist in the ongoing foundation of that settlement. Some years later on March 9, 1663, the Company of Montreal, being in financial difficulty, handed over the island to the Society of Saint Sulpice.

April 2, 1657
At 5:45 p.m. on Easter Monday, M. Olier died, assisted by his long-time friend and confidant Vincent de Paul. He was only forty-eight and a half years old.

Late eighteenth century
At the time of the French revolution, M. Olier tomb and remains, located in the chapel of the seminary, were desecrated and are now lost. His heart had been removed according to the pious necrosurgery of the time and is preserved to this day at the Sulpician Seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux.

Source: Lowell M. Glendon, PSS, An annotated and Descriptive Chronology of the Important Events in the Life of Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657), Baltimore, Society of St. Sulpice, Province of the United States of America, April 2, 1987.

Published with the authorization of Fr. Thomas R. Ulshafer, PSS, Superior of the Province of the United States of America, of January 21, 2010. 

ed @ Peter Krasuski Source http://www.sulpc.org/ed/sulpc_fondateur_en.html

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