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,
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,
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
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.
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
comments on this period in M. Olier’s life:
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.
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:
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
years later in his Mémoires
grace to the prayers of Mme Rousseau.
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.
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
. 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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
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.