In Ecuador in 1953, the foot of Carlos Luis Penaherra was crushed under a tractor wheel. Doctors said that Carlos could die and, at the very minimum, he’d never walk without a limp. Through prayers to Father Louis Brisson, a French parish priest, co-founder of the Oblate Sisters, and founder of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, Carlos’ foot was completely healed. There was no limp and he went on to serve in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. Medical science had no explanation.
On December 19, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI decreed that Carlos’ healing was a miracle that occurred through the intercession of Fr. Brisson. With this decree, Fr. Brisson would be beatified and named “Blessed” – the last step toward sainthood.
In February 2012 at DeSales University, plans had begun for a group of Oblates and lay administrators to attend the Beatification Mass on September 22, 2012, in Troyes, France, where Fr. Brisson served. Eighteen people were able to attend, and then months of preparations occurred. Fr. Thomas Dailey, OSFS ’81, director of the Salesian Center for Faith and Culture, set the itinerary and made the arrangements.
This is an account of our journey.
Days 1 and 2
Our group gathered in the Billera Hall parking lot on Wednesday, September 19 in the late afternoon. A bus took us to Newark Airport for an overnight flight to Charles de Gaulle Airport outside of Paris. We arrived in Paris late morning (7 ½ hour flight plus a 6 hour jump ahead on the clock for the time difference) and boarded a shuttle bus to our first city. Despite the views out the bus window, some of us were dozing off because only snatches of sleep were caught on the plane.
Troyes (pronounced ‘twa’) is located on the Seine River about 93 miles southeast of Paris in the Champagne-Ardenne region. During Fr. Brisson’s life, it was a textile center, and many young girls flocked to the city with the promise of work in these mills.
Concerned about the welfare of these girls and the poor of Troyes, Fr. Brisson established shelters and clubs for the workers. At the behest of Venerable Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis, superior of a Visitation convent for which he was spiritual director, he co-founded (with St. Leonine Aviat) the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales who began schools in the city.
Our group checked into two hotels in the center of the city that today has a population of more than 61,000. Tourism is now part of the local economy that would be bustling with the Beatification in the coming days. A welcome dinner offered the opportunity for fellowship.
Friday, September 21, began with a Mass at the Basilica of St. Urbain. The church was built from 1262 to 1286 under the commission of Pope Urban IV, who was a native of Troyes. The site was originally Pope Urban’s family’s cobbler shop. The building is considered one of the most perfect Gothic buildings in the world. It is lit by stained glass windows, and original carvings of stone artwork still exist and line the walls of the church. Despite us gathering in such a large church, Mass, celebrated by Fr. John O’Neil, OSFS, and attended by only our group, was by contrast very personal and intimate.
The pilgrims then dispersed to explore the city of Troyes with its museums, churches, and shops. Two of us bravely went into an open building out of curiosity. After trying to determine if there was an entrance fee, the bewildered attendant simply pointed to an English language card. Turns out we had wandered into a (free) museum that had a months-long exhibition of the Knights Templar, who were among the most famous of the Western Christian military orders who fought in the Crusades
That evening, the eve of the Beatification Mass, the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales held a vigil service to honor Fr. Brisson at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. Students reenacted Fr. Brisson’s life, and hymns helped narrate the story.
The Beatification Mass was scheduled for 3:00 p.m. at the Cathedral. Construction of the cathedral began in about 1208. Work continued until the 17th century. The cathedral only has one tower (St. Peter's) because St. Paul's tower to the south was never built.
More than 4,000 people attended the Mass—both inside and outside the cathedral, which was equipped with a large screen for the outdoor attendees. Oblate priests from DeSales, the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province, and from all over the world concelebrated the mass. Angel Cardinal Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, presided. As part of the Beatification ceremony, Fr. Brisson’s official portrait was unveiled.
A reception was held at the conclusion of the Mass on the grounds of the former residence of the Bishop of Troyes, which is now the Musee d’Art Moderne (Museum of Modern Art).
On Sunday, September 23, the pilgrims boarded a bus to the village of Fr. Brisson’s birth, Plancy, for a Mass of Thanksgiving.
A stage was erected in the village’s soccer field where approximately 1,000 people attended Mass. Because the local weather called for a high of 27 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit), our group was not prepared for the cold in the morning on that soccer field. Later in the day, the temperature did climb to its promised mark.
Once again, Oblates from all around the world concelebrated the Mass that was said by the Bishop of Troyes, the Most Rev. Marc Stenger. The crowd was welcomed by the mayor of Plancy, and local children provided music. Attending that day was Carlos Penaherra, the beneficiary of Fr. Brisson’s miracle.
Following the Mass and a rustic lunch that was provided by the townspeople, tours were given of the church where Fr. Brisson was baptized, celebrated his first Mass, and where his funeral Mass was. His family home was also open, and the room where he died projected a faithful and stately reverence. It was impossible not to feel moved upon seeing Fr. Brisson’s death bed.
In the morning, the pilgrims attended Mass at the Visitation Monastery, where the Venerable Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis was superior. Mother Mary de Sales is celebrated chiefly for her zeal in spreading a certain kind of spirituality which she called "The Way" (La Voie). Fr. Brisson wrote that Mother Mary "understood a state of soul which consisted in depending upon the actual will of God, relishing whatever was His good pleasure, and imitating the life of the Saviour externally" (Vie de la Vénérée Mère, Marie-de-Sales Chappuis, Paris, 1886, p. 591).
Although a cloistered order, the nuns opened their doors to visitors, and after Mass we visited the parlor where the Lord appeared to Fr. Brisson to convince him to found the Oblates.
The Oblates, from not only our group but also others, attended a symposium on Fr. Brisson. Dr. Wendy Wright, professor of theology at Creighton University and expert in Salesian Spirituality, gave the keynote address. Dr. Wright has spoken at DeSales University (as the Kraft Lecturer in 1997 and as a visiting scholar in the Salesian Center in 2004).
Day two of the symposium on Fr. Brisson began with a presentation by Fr. Joseph Chorpenning, OSFS, director of the St. Joseph University Press and former faculty member at DeSales. An address by Rev. Aldino Kiesel, OSFS, superior general of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, concluded the symposium. Mass that day was celebrated in the crypt chapel of the Oblate Sisters mother house where St. Leonie Aviat and Fr. Brisson are buried.
There are many sites to be seen in Troyes and the pilgrims were able to see most, if not all, of them.
According to the Aube region’s tourism site, the Musee d’Art Moderne was created in the former Bishop’s Palace. It brings together a remarkable collection of almost 2,000 works, given to the State for the benefit of the City of Troyes in 1976 by Pierre and Denise Lévy, rich industrialists from the Troyes hosiery trade.
The remarkably restored buildings of the former bishop’s palace have become the setting for this collection that is unique in France. In room after room, masterpieces reflect the great moments of French painting for almost a century, from Courbet (1850) to De Staël (1950) with an emphasis on the fauvist and expressionist movements.
Works present include pieces by Vlaminck, Derain, Matisse, Dufy, Modigliani, Rouault, Van Dongen, Delacroix, Daumier, Maillol, Picasso, Cézanne, and Seurat.
Early in the morning our group departed Troyes to begin the journey to Paris.
Our first stop was St. Parres-aux-Tertres, a small village close to Troyes where in 1887 Fr. Brisson purchased an old roof tile factory with the idea of turning it into a retreat house. In 1892, while walking through a building on this property, Fr. Brisson fell through the floor and landed at the bottom of an old brick oven. He promised to build a chapel on the site if he succeeded in getting out. He did get out using his umbrella to pull himself up. Our group celebrated Mass in the chapel he built, and we were able to climb down into the place Fr. Brisson fell. There is a life-size statue of the body of Christ being guarded by an angel.
Next the group visited the city of Epernay, the heart of the Champagne district. The Moet and Chandon company has its headquarters there, and there are a number of shops and restaurants the group visited, although the rain washed away some of the charm of the city. After lunch we re-boarded the bus for Paris.
We arrived in Paris in the late afternoon. Our hotel was ideally located with the Sorbonne, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower all within walking distance. That first night the rain limited our exploring, though we did visit Notre Dame because of its proximity to our hotel.
The day began with Mass and a tour of Saint-Sulpice, the second largest church in Paris, second only to Notre Dame. The current building is the second church on the site and it took more than 140 years to build. A plaque lets visitors know that St. Francis de Sales preached there during one of his visits to the capital city (1618-1619).
Traffic in the city of Paris was an eye opener. Lanes are not defined and every bit of available road space is used while navigating. Motorcycles and mopeds weave in and out, and at the circle that surrounds the Arc de Triumph, pedestrians cross the road underground, below the street level.
Our group visited many sites including the Eiffel Tower and the the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, or Sacré-Cœur Basilica. This is a Roman Catholic church and minor basilica, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is a popular landmark and it is located at the summit of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city.
The Sacré-Cœur Basilica was designed by Paul Abadie. Construction began in 1875 and was finished in 1914. It was consecrated in 1919 after the end of World War I.
Our last full day began with a bus excursion (don’t look out the window—yes, the cars are that close) to Neuilly-Sur-Seine to visit the convent chapel the Sisters of St. Thomas de Villeneuve where the statue of Our Lady of Deliverance (Notre-Dame de la Bonne Délivrance) is located.
As a student, St. Francis de Sales was overcome with spiritual anxiety. He felt that no matter what he did, he would end up being condemned to hell. Every day that he traveled home from university, he would stop and pray before the statue of Our Lady of Deliverance, which at that time was located in a local church in Paris. Eventually his fears were calmed and his anxiety dissipated.
In 2003, DeSales University commissioned sculptor Ben Marcune to replicate the statue of Our Lady of Deliverance. The statue sits near the University Heights looking down on the campus, calming the anxieties of students, faculty, and staff.
Our time in France has come to a close. A bus ride to the airport, a four-hour delay in the terminal, and an 8 ½ hour return flight to America—and we were home. After a long journey exacerbated by the exhaustion we felt from the whirlwind of the last 10 days, it was nice to see the campus.
Fr. Dailey celebrated our final Mass at the St. Thomas de Villeneuve chapel. During his homily he said the most important souvenir we should bring home was the indomitable gift of hope founded on God’s love for each of us, for this is what our university’s patron, Francis de Sales, learned through his encounter with Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance, and what Blessed Louis Brisson held to throughout his ordeals in Troyes.
It was something we all will keep with us.
See More Latest News >>