Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – Montfort, A Missioner to the Country Districts

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultCalvaries, churches, lanes, heights, copse, field and forest, all speak of him. And wherever he went he brought a message and worked miracles. And the country folk asked each other: “Is he an Apostle or an angel?”

At La Garnache he restored Saint Leonard’s chapel, and placed the statue of Our Lady of Victory in it. At Sallertaine, whose inhabitants had received him with sneers, cat-calls and stones, the church doors opened of themselves before him. At Saint Christopher he blessed a chest belonging to the sacristan Cantin, and his flour became so plentiful that the housewife made several batches.

“Give and it shall be given unto you, Master Cantin,” the servant of God said to the farmer who brought him the miraculous bread. “Since Providence is so generous to you, you must do likewise by the poor.” At Roussay, the great cross which he was going to set up fell with all its weight upon the crowd without causing any injuries but a slight bruise.

The eloquence and holiness of the preacher produced extraordinary effects upon the conscience. He was face to face with folk who were rough, passionate, violent and liable to sudden changes of mind. And the priests themselves were often like their flocks, as the priest of Saint Hilaire de Loulay bore witness. After asking Montfort to give a mission in his parish, he shut the door in his face, turning him away at night and in the rain, because of a rumor he had heard about him. The little town of Sallertaine was a nest of quarrelling and revenge; it was by infinite patience and a sense of justice that Saint Louis calmed resentments, reconciled enemies, discovered peaceable solutions to the most awkward lawsuits. As regarded pardoning injuries, he led the way; Montfort had publicly reprimanded a lady of rank who had been lacking in reverence at church. Her mother was in a fury and she waited for the missioner on the public square, and as soon as she saw him gave him a shower of blows with a cane. “Madame,” said her victim calmly, “I did my duty. Your daughter should have done hers.”

As he was passing one day through Challans, the priest would not allow him to preach, so the saint collected an audience in the market-place. He was holding everyone’s attention when some outsiders raised the cry of: “It is that mad Montfort!”

His answer at once was: “Brothers, let us sing the hymn about indifference to insults.”

At Courcon, to the south of the Sevre district, the priest and his parishioners were at daggers drawn. The priest, in despair, had said: “I curse the day that brought me to such a hell.” Malice had spread this unpleasing speech, and as time went on the feeling grew more and more bitter. On both sides, they avoided each other as much’ as possible. “What can the parish be like in such circumstances?” Such was Montfort’s anxious question. He prayed and used the discipline, and then announced that he was going to speak upon a subject which concerned the whole parish. The church was crowded; and the missioner told them that his theme was Christian charity. He had not finished his sermon before the priest arose and, giving him a signal, turned towards the congregation and begged them humbly to forgive his offensive speech, and his conduct, so little worthy of a parish priest.

“Why,” cried Montfort, “your pastor wants to be reconciled to you. And you who have often cursed him, are you not going to forgive him?”

All hearts were touched, tears were shed and Christ had won the day.

Later on at Saint Pompain, the other side of the same river, there was a similar scene. Here the priest had only one enemy – a burly farmer-general. But this man’s hatred was equal to many; he breathed it; and it worried and alarmed all his neighbors. All the same, in 1715, he came diligently to the mission, and Father De Montfort expressed his approval. And at the same time he exhorted him to overcome his ill-feeling. The farmer-general bowed. A few days later he gave a great dinner in honor of his reconciliation with the parish priest.

The peasant of the West is a hard drinker, whether it be cider or wine. And his drunkenness makes him heavy, hard, brutal. Montfort bravely attacked this vice and took the bull by the horns, for he saw in this brutishness perhaps the main obstacle to the conversion and civilisation of a province where there are plenty of kind and honest hearts. In 1714, at Roussay, near Cholet, he at once opened his campaign against drink. The tavern, of course, was near the church, and there was such a hubbub there that the preacher’s sermon was accompanied by the clatter of bottles and the sound of drunken voices. As soon as he had left the pulpit, Montfort hastened to the drinkers. He kicked over the table; and then he used his fists. With bent heads and uncertain legs, all got out somehow, and only two were obstinate enough to show fight. The tall Breton gently but firmly took them by the hand and obliged them to quit. “Don’t come back! It will be the worse for you if you do.”

Then there was the superstition of these primitive folk, especially at Saint Amand sur Sevre. There they believed in the evil eye. If a child was ill, or a cow had no milk, or the butter would not come, some malicious neighbor had “overlooked” it. Everyone was under suspicion, and fisticuffs were often the result. Or they would look for proofs; a cunning air, malicious eyes, and there was your sorcerer! Such a one would be hated and feared, his malice would be counteracted as far as possible, he would be sent to Coventry, and, perhaps, potted at some dark night. At Saint Amand, whole families suspected of sorcery were put upon the Index. It would be no light task to clear the peasant’s mind upon this point, to distinguish between religious belief and ancestral superstition, to safeguard a trust in the supernatural, while destroying prejudice and checking vain fears. This only a good psychologist and theologian could accomplish, and Father De Montfort was both.

He taught the ancestors of the people of La Vendee a pure faith, which was made up of trust in God and the Blessed Virgin, of charity towards one’s neighbor and obedience to the laws of the Church. He put the rosary in their hands and the cross before their eyes. After he came to Mauges, you could hear the Hail Mary by the wayside and on the farms. He interested the people in setting up the Calvaries which so mark his work; and he would take much pains to find where it would be best to place them, less concerned for a romantic beauty which these simple and rustic Poitevins would not have understood, than for something that should appeal to their sense of the touching and pathetic. And so his Christs bleed, and his Magdalens weep, and his thieves are twisted with pain. If the spot lent itself to such a purpose, he would have steps cut in the rock and would make a sepulchre with its flowers. This he did at Sallertaine, but, by order of the military authorities, his work was levelled. They never understood Louis-Marie Grignion.

He made the people ashamed of their neglected churches. In some places the churches were threshing- floors, but the mission put an end to that. Montfort collected for repairs and reconstruction. He commandeered labor and organised local effort. He himself helped carry stones, replace flags, whitewash walls. The farmers did the carting for love, and each gave his time and his work, and if nothing very wonderful was the result, henceforth at least each church was something that the parish felt belonged to them. The people of a later Vendee were to inherit from their fathers an attachment to their church and to love to see its tall white steeple rising from the midst of the village.