Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Marseille plague: lesser clerical heroes

Clerical heroism was not of course the sole preserve of Monseigneur Belsunce. The following, taken from the 1911 history by Paul Gaffarel and Mis.de Duranty, tells the story of some unsung clerical heroes of 1720. We are pleased, the authors write, to preserve the name of these victims of religious duty, for they too have the right to public recognition.

Marseilles and its many church towers (1696)

Parish clergy 

The plague began in the parish of Saint-Martin, where the priests struggled on with their duties until the middle of August; the curé Martin, his two vicaires and two auxillaries, continued to distribute the sacraments until the beginning of September when dead bodies finally made the roads impassable. The same zeal was shown in other parishes.  In La Major only two abbés remained and both died.  In Les Accoules, the curés Barens and Reibas continued with the help of three others; all five priests perished.  In Saint-Ferréol, the curé Pourrière survived but five of his vicaires succumbed. At Saint-Laurent the plague killed the curé Carrière and all three of his priests, he divine offices being  carried on only thanks to a canon from Les Accoules, Guérin.  The canons of the Cathedral almost all deserted their posts, leaving the bishop only Surle, Tayer and Guérin, together with  Estay and Bourgerel, both of whom died.  Despite claims to the contrary some services continued throughout the plague months; the Cathedral itself was only closed on the 21st August and the church of the Sainte-Croix on the 15th September.  The Jesuit chapel in Saint-Jaumes remained open throughout.

Detail from Michel Serre, Vue de la Cours de Marseille, 1721


The religious orders

Marseille was a city of many monastries and convents and, say our authors, the regular clergy - "Observantins, Capucins, Minimes, Grands Carmes, Carmes déchaussés, Récollets, Servites. Antonins, Augustins reformes, Trinitaires et Jésuites" - all rose to the occasion with credit.  They could have shut themselves away and avoided contagion but they did not think to do so, gaving freely not only of their lives, but also of the wealth of their houses.  A letter of 20th September notes that all the Frères de la Merci were dead, with only a crippled servant left to safeguard their property.  The Capuchins and Récollets fared little better.  In one moving story, Belsunce appeared at  a community meal among the Récollets to ask for replacements for his dead confessors; they stood to volunteer to a man. Forty-three out of fifty-five Capuchins succumbed to plague and twenty Récollets.  Also among the dead were the  Observantine friars Fathers Chamecaud, Perron, Roger and Reignier,  and the Carmelites Olive and Grimaud.

The Oratorians, under episcopal interdiction as Jansenists, could not hear confessions or administer the sacraments, but  nothing could prevent them going out into the streets to visit and console the sick. Their superior, P. Gautier, was carried off by the plague and "almost all his colleagues died at his side".


The enemies of the Oratorians, the Jesuits, who had founded their celebrated observatory on the Butte aux Moulins in 1702, were equally zealous.  Eleven out of 29 Jesuits died of plague including, Father.Thioly, professor of hydrology, and the renowned confessor Claude François  Milley.  Another Jesuit, Father Levert, already in his eighties and a veteran of missions in Egypt, Persia and Syria, was unstinting in his care for the sick. When the Pope sent a ship laden with provisions to the city, where famine was raging as well as pestilence, he assisted the Bishop in the distribution of  food.  Levert was spared to live on another five years.

As the plague abated, there were still to be seen Capuchins and Jesuits who had recovered and, although still sick and with weeping buboes, dragged themselves about the streets using a stick, to offer confession to the dying.


Summarised from: 


Paul Gaffarel and Mis.de Duranty, La peste de 1720 à Marseille et en France, d'après des documents inédits  (Paris 1911), p.152ff.

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