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Interview with Éric Hernout sscc, General Archivist (Rome)

“Following the example of the martyrs,
let us cultivate
fraternity, peace and service with our neighbour”

What does the beatification of our brother martyrs Ladislas Radigue, Polycarpe Tuffier, Marcellin Rouchouze and Frézal Tardieu mean to you personally?

Our four brothers, who loved Paris, were ordinary people at the service of the Congregation, of formation and of its mission. They cultivated simplicity and humility, fraternity and availability, redoubled their zeal for Adoration and were deeply inspired by the Founders. Aside from their martyrdom, we have before us four beautiful figures of holiness.

I hope that their beatification will allow us to go beyond divisions and quarrels, not to close ourselves off in our own "memorial space". The history of the Commune is a vast, complex and plural history. May we, following the example of the martyrs, cultivate fraternity, peace and service with our neighbour.

This is a difficult exercise to propose: Could you summarise the historical context surrounding the shooting of our martyr brothers of Picpus?

It is difficult to "synthesise", to reduce history to a few words, to a few facts ... It is important, for the historical context, not to stop only at the day of 26 May 1871. Because of this, I refer you to the four reflection sheets prepared in 2020 by the Commission and to books by Robert Tombs (English), Laure Godineau and Quentin Deluermoz …

Ladislas, Frézal, Marcellin and Polycarpe were killed during what was a "Bloody Week".

The French government wanted to put an end to the social and insurrectionary movement that had begun on 18 March. This movement, called the "Paris Commune", had deep-seated aspirations, with political and social reforms at its heart, a desire for more freedom and equality, and for more citizen participation. It was also tinged with anticlericalism.

There was a desire to establish a secularisation of society and education, a separation of church and state and an end to the 'old governmental and clerical world'. However, anti-clericalism took different forms in different parts of Paris. In the 12th district and in Issy, 118 members of the Congregation were arrested (84 sisters, 21 brothers and 13 fathers).

On 21 May, after two months of fighting outside, the Versailles army entered Paris from the west and advanced district by district. The repression was terrible, it was a purge, the civil war was in full swing, massacres followed one another. On Friday 26 May, the noose tightened, the army was at the gates of the Roquette prison where our fathers were imprisoned. A colonel, Emile Gois, ordered the director of the prison to hand over 50 prisoners, including 10 priests chosen at random. The procession reached one of the last strongholds, situated in Rue Haxo. It was there that Ladislas, Frézal, Marcellin and Polycarpe were killed, along with Fr. Planchat.

On 28 May, the last barricades fell. The human toll was heavy and is still subject to discussion: more than 7,500 died, including more than 1,400 shot after the fighting, 38,000 arrests, more than 10,000 people condemned (including 23 actual death sentences) and more than 3,800 people deported to the penal colony.

What strikes you most about the biographical profile of Fr Ladislas and his companions?

Ladislas and Polycarpe have left us a large number of writings and manuscripts, among which is Ladislas’ commentary on the Rule, outstanding for its size and beauty. It is a veritable treatise on SSCC spirituality that was written in 1864 and is 860 pages long. As for Frézal, we could recall his time in Louvain where he lived for 13 years: it was he who found the reasons not to close the community, developed the work of the Holy Childhood and worked within the university world. As for Marcellin, a great lover of philosophy, he left his mark on the archives: during the siege, he completed a register of the brothers, writing a short biography on each one; then he summarised the letters of the missionaries of Oceania and Latin America going right back to the beginning. Marcellin leaves us an abundant correspondence which reveals him to have a balanced, benevolent, understanding, yet firm personality. His correspondence with the family of Eugène Eyraud, after his death on Easter Island, bears witness to his tenderness and delicacy.

The saints establish relationships of fraternity and friendship among themselves. Please tell us about Saint Damien’s de Veuster's relationship with these martyrs.

Damien had been to France twice and lived with some of them. The first time was during his formation as a novice. At that time, it was customary to send the novices from Louvain to Issy to do the last three months of the novitiate and prepare for profession. Damien, with two other companions, left Brussels on 6 June and arrived in Paris at the crowing of the cock the next day. He went to the Mother House before arriving in Issy where there was a Novice Master, appointed by the Good Father, Alexandre Sorieul, and two directors: Ladislas (since 1848) and Frézal (since 1858).

After Issy, Damien went to Picpus to make his profession in the hands of Euthyme Rouchouze on 7 October 1860. Frézal, who had just been appointed Professor of Dogma at Picpus, was present and signed the act. For his Greek-Latin studies, Damien remained at Picpus until September 1861, after which he returned to Louvain to study philosophy and theology.

Two years later, Damien left his native land and returned to Picpus, between 24 and 29 October 1863, before leaving for Honolulu, for a three-day retreat. There he met up with Frézal and Polycarpe, the procurator, and it was the latter who accompanied him to the port of Bremen.

We know that Damien, a martyr of Charity, was strongly marked by his period of formation in Louvain and Paris, by the fact of having passed under the mortuary cloth, but also, no doubt, by the very testimony of the martyrs of Picpus, for he kept a devotional image of them and read Benoit Perdereau's book on the Martyrs a few months before offering himself for Molokaï.

What do our SSCC brothers and martyrs of the Commune have to teach us today?

I don't know if we should use the expression "Martyrs of the Commune", better Martyrs “during” the Commune” though the expression "Martyrs of Picpus" seems more accurate ...

To take up your question, our brothers knew that anything could happen and knew that they were fragile and vulnerable.

At the end of August 1870, Marcellin wrote in a letter to a father of our Congregation: "I have only the time necessary to wish you an affectionate good evening [...] and finally to recommend to your prayers the poor inhabitants of Picpus threatened both by the Prussians and by the revolutionaries of the Capital. Farewell then, and perhaps forever! All of them, as Friedhelm Geller sscc wrote, had prepared themselves since religious profession "to become" victims.

Ladislas and his companions were thrown into prison, threatened and killed, because they loved and followed Jesus and were priests. Jesus himself had warned his disciples: "You will be hated by all for my name's sake, but he who endures to the end will be saved" (Mt 10:22). (Mt 10:22). They did not seek to be victims, but in their death they leave us a testimony of faith and witness to Christ to the point of giving their lives for love.

Can you show us a text of our martyrs that you consider particularly relevant to nourish our spirituality.

A few years earlier, Ladislas Radigue had given a conference on the "Spirit of Sacrifice", directed to brothers who were preparing to pronounce their vows. He based this sacrifice on the example of the Good Father's exit from the attic of the Motte d'Usseau: "In his heart he had a burning desire for martyrdom. As soon as he came out of his retreat, he prostrated himself at the foot of an oak tree and made the sacrifice of his life to God with a kind of interior joy [...]" Then Ladislas continues: "[...] Like our venerated Father, my dear brothers, you are coming to the foot of the altar, in the presence of his children, to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience [...] ... In what spirit should you make these first commitments to the religious life? In a spirit of sacrifice for the glory of God and the salvation of your neighbour. Yes, if you want to be worthy sons of a Father so ablaze with love for God; as a worthy member of a society consecrated to the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary, you must be animated by the spirit of sacrifice.

Finally, Ladislas ends the conference with these words and a beatitude recalling the words of the Apostle Paul: "[...] You will then experience that the minister of the Gospel, the missionary, must be a man of dedication if he wants to fulfil his work, like the Apostle and all those who followed in his footsteps, you will have to experience dangers without number. Blessed are you, then, if you are animated by the same spirit of sacrifice and if you can say that neither life nor death... can separate you from the charity of Jesus Christ”.


Éric with the brothers in Charleroi (January 2022)


  • 1. Bachmann ha scritto il 03/07/2022 alle 10:06:

    Merci Éric pour cet éclaircissement sur une période critique qu'a été la commune de Paris.