Saints for Our Times: St. André Fournet was reluctant to enter priesthood
By Mary Lou Gibson
Andrew (André) Fournet (1752-1834) was determined that he was not going to be a priest. His mother, however, was just as determined that he would. The two battled each other for years over what would be Andrew’s career choice. He even inscribed a declaration in one of his school books that read: “This book belongs to André Hubert Fournet, a good boy, though he is not going to become a priest or a monk.”
Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that this was Andrew’s reaction against his pious and overbearing mother. The more she pressed him to consider becoming a priest, the more Andrew declared he was bored by religion. He refused to pray and instead spent his time in idleness and amusements.
He rebelled in many ways including running away from school and refusing to study law and philosophy at Poitiers. At one time he even joined the Army, but his mother bought out his service. Burns writes that she tried to find him a post as a secretary, but his handwriting was too bad.
His mother was now frantic about Andrew and decided to try one more thing to help him settle down. She talked him into going to stay with his uncle, a priest in a remote rural area of France. For some unknown reason, Andrew agreed. This proved to be a turning point in Andrew’s life. (www.holyspiritinteractive.net/dailysaint/may/0513.asp)
Andrew’s uncle was a holy man and far more tactful than his mother. He recognized his nephew’s good qualities and eventually steered him to the study of theology. A couple of years later in 1776, Andrew was ordained a priest and served first as his uncle’s curate and then in a nearby town.
In 1781 Andrew was transferred to his home parish in Maillé. His mother was jubilant and she and Andrew reconciled. Richard McBrien writes in “Lives of the Saints” that Andrew became a loving and caring priest and adopted a life of simplicity and was generous to the poor.
This simple life ended with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1788. In July 1790, the Civil Constitution on the Clergy attempted to make the clergy into civil servants. Burns explains that they were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the State and its laws. Things got even worse in 1791 when the new “Liberty – Equality” oath was required. Priests, bishops and religious who refused to take the oath were removed from their posts and hunted and massacred.
Andrew refused to take the oath and continued to minister to his flock in secret. Donald Attwater writes in “Penguin Dictionary of Saints” that Andrew was arrested on Good Friday 1792 for his activities. He declined being taken to jail in a carriage, saying that because Jesus carried his cross, his followers should also travel on foot. He was able to escape at one point taking the place of a dead body on a bier. He continued to try to minister to his flock but because his life was in danger, his bishop sent him to Spain. He spent five years there before secretly returning to France even though the danger was still great for priests.
He was protected by his flock as he celebrated the Eucharist, heard confessions and administered the Last Rites. He narrowly escaped being caught by the authorities many times.
When Napoleon came to power in 1799 and made peace with the church, Andrew was restored to his parish. His parish church had been destroyed and he used a barn as a church. It was during this time that Andrew met Elizabeth Bichier des Ages, one of the good ladies in the area. He became her spiritual director. She gathered a group of women around her and started a prayer group.
Burns writes that Andrew discouraged Elizabeth from becoming a Trappistine nun and instead collaborated with her to form a new religious community. He devised a Rule of life for her and her group and suggested that they should dedicate themselves to good works in the area.
For the next six months, Elizabeth learned more about religious life. She gathered a larger group around her to teach the children and to shelter the sick, aged and poor. By 1811, the community had 25 members and in 1816 they received diocesan approval and became the Daughters of the Holy Cross of St. Andrew. Burns notes that Elizabeth preferred to call her community the Sisters of St. Andrew.
Andrew is said to have miraculously multiplied food for the members of the new congregation and the children in their care. Finally, illness and fatigue forced Andrew to resign his parish ministry at the age of 68. He lived another 14 years in semi-retirement at the new Congregation house at La Puye. He died on May 13, 1834. He was proclaimed a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1933.