Editor’s Note: This article is based on extracts from the biography of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre by Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais. They attempt to capture the effort and mood of the Society of Saint Pius X’s founder in the face of countless difficulties.
As Superior of the Holy Ghost Fathers until 1968, Archbishop Lefebvre was already at work leading seminarians. Hence, he directed the 20 or so who knocked at his door towards his own Alma Mater, the French Seminary of Santa Chiara in Rome. Soon he realized that this option was not conducive to proper training any longer both at Santa Chiara and the adjacent Gregorian University, so he thought of other universities which could give a Thomistic formation.
In anguish, the seminarians became more insistent: “Your Grace, if you do not intervene, the priesthood will be closed off to us.” The Archbishop would later say: “I could not have imagined where that cry of distress would lead. With great sorrow we had to give in and look for other places, other universities.” Two were still sound in what they taught: the Lateran and Fribourg. In 1967, he sent a group to Fr. Theodosius’s society, sponsored by Cardinal Siri, who followed courses at the Lateran University. The following year, he sent some seminarians to Fribourg University, all the while staying at the Holy Ghost Fathers’ priory. That was the situation until June 1968 when he resigned as Superior General.
Archbishop Lefebvre found himself at a crossroads, at the retiring age of 63. However, the growing disintegration of the priesthood led him to form a plan to transmit the precious inheritance he had received at Rome from the hands of Frs. Le Floch, Voegtli, Frey, and Le Rohellec. When still an archbishop in Africa, he had a premonition of this work:
“…The dream was to transmit, before the progressive degradation of the priestly ideal, in all of its doctrinal purity and in all of its missionary charity, the Catholic Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, just as He conferred it on His apostles, just as the Roman Church always transmitted it until the middle of the 20th century.
“How should I carry out that which appeared then to me as the sole solution to revive the Church and Christianity? It was still a dream, but there appeared to me already the need, not only to confer the authentic priesthood, to teach not only the sana doctrina approved by the Church, but also to transmit the profound and unchanging spirit of the Catholic priesthood and of the Christian spirit essentially bound to the great prayer of Our Lord which His Sacrifice on the Cross expresses eternally.”
Ever since his return to Europe, one desire had gripped him more and more: to found an international seminary according to these principles. While supporting his seminarians of Rome and those of Fribourg, several candidates knocked at his door. By that time, end of 1968, he was virtually out of options for them. Fr. Theodosius said he did not want to take more than 10 seminarians, whom he meant to train as religious. In Fribourg, his seminarians were no longer wanted at the Holy Ghost priory. The Archbishop still said: “I had this conviction which nothing could shake, that to save and continue the Church, one had to train priests: holy priests and true priests.” By this overwhelming thought, he looked for houses in Fribourg whose university was certainly attractive and where the seminarians could really get good training.
Fr. Aulagnier witnessed the decisive scene:
“There we were on Grand’rue in the library of our host, Professor Bernard Faÿ, an upstairs room in a grand house overlooking the Sarine. There were Fr. Marie-Dominique, O.P., Dom Bernard Kaul, Abbot of Hauterive, and Jean-François Braillard, who was the father of a young family and headed the Fribourg state education department. We were amazed to see these individuals exchanging reflections on the decline of the priesthood.”
Archbishop Lefebvre recalled:
“They literally took me by the scruff of the neck and said: ‘Something must be done for these seminarians!’ It was useless my saying that I was 65 and retired, or that it was foolish to begin something that I could not continue if I should die within the next few years.… They wouldn’t have it. ‘Okay,’ I said to them, ‘I’ll go and see Bishop Charrière. If he says yes, that will be a sign of Providence.’
“His Excellency Bishop Charrière received me warmly and was enthusiastic about my projects. He willingly gave me permission to open this ‘orphanage’ for seminarians from all countries, especially South America. This happened on June 6, 1969, at 3 p.m. in the bishop’s residence at Fribourg. The seminary was born! Now we had to think about getting down to business.”
The “Saint Pius X Association for Priestly Training” was formed on July 2. The founder secured 12 rooms in the Foyer Don Bosco for the school year 1969-70, financed by generous benefactors. The only thing missing was someone to act as rector of the seminary, but none came forward whom he could trust. Thus, Providence decided that he, Archbishop Lefebvre, and no other, would be the rector of the seminary he was founding. He would be completely involved in the work.
On October 13, 1969, the “new boys” arrived at 106, Route de Marly, most of them in lay clothes. Apart from Pierre Piqué and Paul Aulagnier—both from Santa Chiara—there was the Swiss M. Doyon, the Argentinean E. Eraso, and J. Antier, R. Fillion, G. Monti, B. Pellaboeuf, and B. Tissier de Mallerais, all of whom were French. Archbishop Lefebvre himself welcomed them. Paul Aulagnier was already there, keeping his thoughts to himself: “I felt disappointed and worried. The nine students assembled for this first academic year did not seem reliable to me. It was far from the ideal that I had dreamed of: a breeding ground for young, Traditional Catholic Levites, spiritually pumped up and having no qualms.”
Then, the founder fell ill at Dijon at the end of the year, and was hospitalized in Fribourg, and unbeknownst to the community, he asked for extreme unction. The priest reassured him: “Now is not your time, your Grace!” At last, test results reassured the patient and his spiritual sons: he was suffering from strongyles contracted in Africa and lodged in his liver. He wrote to a friend: “Providence has put me to the test with this illness for the last two and a half months. Doubtless, it is because suffering is essential to the works of God.”
Having been recently tried by illness, he was now beset by doubts: what was the use of carrying on with troops tried and trimmed, and without a reliable collaborator? However, thanks to the Cité Catholique and The Knights of Our Lady, seven solid recruits were acquired. With his customary simplicity, he stated his worries to the five remaining students: “I won’t conceal from you the anxiety that I feel at the thought of taking the decision to accept new seminarians with all the risks that could pose to their future. Will they be accepted in dioceses? Should we form a priestly society? I am putting my whole confidence in the holy providence of God.” He was encouraged at this time by Fr. Jean-Yves Cottard who was living at the French Seminary in Rome but who wanted to come to Fribourg to whom he replied: “No, wait: things are not going very well.”
The loyal support of the Fribourg committee certainly helped the Archbishop to persevere. Professor Faÿ who came to give talks about Freemasonry to the seminarians, District Judge Albert Volanthen and Fr. Philippe encouraged the project. Thus, the Archbishop set out once again to find an independent property for the four remaining Fribourg seminarians for the start of the school year in 1970. A suitable house on Route de la Vignettaz soon went up for auction, and on June 26 while the Archbishop prayed in the cathedral, the architect Antognini won the bidding for him. However, the Archbishop had found another house for the new students who would arrive that year: Écône!
Archbishop Lefebvre was going to launch a project that was dear to his heart: a year of spiritual formation before beginning studies for the priesthood. Well before Fribourg in fact, Providence and Our Lady were preparing Écône for him on this blessed plot of land in a corner of Valais.
In the autumn of 1967, Fr. Pierre Epiney had just accepted from his bishop the post of Riddes parish priest that had been refused by four other priests. He began by visiting his parish. He rang the doorbell at Écône, owned by the Canons of the Great St. Bernard, but there was no answer. He went into the deserted courtyard: on the left was the barn and on the right the kennels. In a flash, he saw in his mind’s eye the courtyard of a large seminary full of seminarians. Very quickly he chased away the meaningless image and found himself again in the deserted courtyard. Canon Roserens who still maintained the property came down to greet him: “Here, it’s all over, there’s nothing left to do.” Was that certain?
Everything began on Holy Thursday, 1968. Alphonse Pedroni, a daily Mass communicant from Valais, heard during a conversation in a cafe that the house of Écône was to be sold by the Great St. Bernard Canons. He opened his heart to Gratien Rausis: “There are several buyers who have lots of money and one of them is a Communist group who want to blow up the chapel!”
“Alphonse,” Gratien replied, “if it’s only a question of money, we have to do something. But we cannot do that alone.” He suggested that his brother Marcel join them, while Rausis put forward the names of Roger Lovey and Guy Genoud. On April 18, Roger Lovey wrote to the Provost: “Because of Écône’s past, it means a lot to us. We could say that it has a religious vocation which we refuse to see abandoned without greater scrutiny.”
On May 31, 1968, the feast of the Queenship of Mary, contracts were exchanged by the five friends and Canon Bernard Rausis. The Provost of St. Bernard, Monsignor Angelin Lovey, had said: “We will do you no favors.” How were they to pay? They would borrow from the bank. The manager sought information: “But have you assets?”
“No,” replied Pedroni, “we don’t have any. You only need give us the loan: it’s for a religious work. You only have to lend us everything!”
Amazed, the bank manager gave them a loan for the entire sum.
Almost a year passed from May 1968 to Holy Week 1969 when Archbishop Lefebvre made his first visit to Écône. “I didn’t really think it was a good spot for a seminary since it was so far away from any major town, but it was very suitable for a novitiate.” On May 24, 1970 with Paul Aulagnier he returned to Écône for another visit and was welcomed with open arms by the five friends and Fr. Epiney. At the end of the meal, Alphonse Pedroni, who until then had remained mysteriously silent, opened his mouth to speak these words which proved to be prophetic: “Well, Monseigneur, I tell you: they’ll talk about this seminary of Écône throughout the world.”
The final decision to begin the renovations needed before the house could lodge seminarians was taken on June 24. The Archbishop promised to pay them a substantial sum by way of rent. By that time, he had secured the Bishop of Sion’s approval for a preparatory year at Écône.
How could priests, who were trained to fight for Christ the King, subsequently maintain the doctrinal purity and missionary charity of their calling if not by some rule of life? How could they be protected against the growing liberal corruption of the clergy if they returned to the diocese? Implicitly, if not explicitly, the “dream of Dakar” was in fact a plan for that society. He shared his idea in October 1969 with his seminarians:
“Let me offer you some considerations for the future: [we could] form a society, not of religious like Fr. Theodosius, but a society of seculars. Should we be scattered throughout dioceses or existing congregations? Or should we remain together, at least living in small groups?”
The seminarians were quite uncomfortable with this proposal. Those who had been sent by their bishops or even already incardinated in their home dioceses considered that they were destined for those dioceses. The new students had no clear ideas on a topic that went beyond their present concern of becoming good priests. The Archbishop expected more of a response, if not more enthusiasm. After a few days of doubt—as we have related—he took heart again. On July 1, he went to Bishop Charrière’s residence in Fribourg and gave him a draft of the statutes of the Priestly Society: “I have been asked by some young priests and seminarians to found a society for secular priests. I have written these draft statutes in accordance with Canon Law.”
“I see nothing to object to in such a useful and timely initiative,” replied François Charrière.
“If you agree to the foundation, the year of spirituality will take place in Écône; Bishop Adam has already given his permission. During this year, candidates can prepare to join the Society—it is a novitiate by another name—although the seminarians will not be obliged to join. The Society will have its headquarters at Fribourg on Rue de la Vignettaz.”
After another meeting on August 18, trying again—as only he knew how—Marcel Lefebvre wrote to his colleague again on October 13, 1970, reminding him of their meetings and the statutes under consideration. Finally, on November 7, still awaiting a reply, Archbishop Lefebvre telephoned the bishop’s residence; he was worried since he knew that the auxiliary bishop, Pierre Mamie, was opposed to the foundation. Nevertheless, Bishop Charrière said eagerly: “Yes, Your Grace, come over straightaway.” After a brief conversation at the bishop’s residence, he said: “There’s no point in waiting any longer.” There was just time to go and say a prayer in the chapel while the document was being prepared. Then Bishop Charrière signed it. He was at the end of his episcopal career. Three months later he resigned. Archbishop Lefebvre had certainly put a little pressure on the bishop. However, he declared: “I’m absolutely delighted to see my wish so quickly fulfilled!” The document ruled that:
“The International Priestly Society of Saint Pius X is erected in our diocese as a ‘Pia Unio’ (pious union).…We approve and confirm the Statutes, here joined, of the Society for a period of six years ad experimentum, which will be able to be renewed for a similar period by tacit approval; after which, the Society can be erected definitely in our diocese by the competent Roman Congregation.…Done at Fribourg, in our palace, November 1, 1970, on the Feast of All Saints, François Charrière.”
The decree was deliberately predated by six days. Returning to Rue de la Vignettaz, Archbishop Lefebvre, who was obviously delighted, showed the letter to the seminarians, who passed it from one to another: they could not resist re-reading it, looking at the signature and checking the seal. Everything was in order. The Archbishop later said: “Was it not providential? That date of November 1, 1970, is to my mind an event of great importance in our history: it was the day that saw the official birth of the Society. It was the Church which brought it into the world that day. The Society is a work of the Church. For me, I would have been horrified at the thought of founding anything without the bishop’s approval. It had to be of the Church.”
As for the seminary whose legal existence was suggested by the statutes, in light of its preparatory year in Valais, its house in Fribourg, and the studies at the University, it could be considered as an appropriate training center needed by the institute even at its embryonic stage of clerical pious union.
Archbishop Lefebvre commented:
“From November 1970 I had to think about the new school year in October 1971 and work out where we would lodge those who had finished the year of spirituality, which was to be at Fribourg in principle. Meanwhile, the university courses were no longer satisfactory; the students were becoming agitated, and Fr. Philippe said: ‘One day soon you will have to give the courses yourself.’
“Now, when I went to Écône, it was good to see how the young men benefited from a true and simple curriculum and from being in an atmosphere of peace rather than dissent. They were also out in the Valais countryside where the people were still deeply religious. So, I thought to myself: why not put the seminary here?
“Then I consulted with His Eminence Cardinal Journet. He was categorical: ‘The university does not suit the majority of seminarians and does not encourage seminary discipline; if you have the choice, you must not hesitate. Send only a few students to the university to get degrees.’ Bishop Mamie understood what good could come from an independent seminary but thought that it would be difficult to set up.…Lastly, my colleagues were unanimous: if it was going to provide training that was sound and solid in all respects, the seminary should be in Écône.”
The Diary of Écône notes on November 16 that at the end of a novena to St. Joseph, and “after a visit to the chapel,” the Archbishop decided to build the seminary at Écône. Bishop Adam’s permission was still needed… On December 26, 1970, Maître Lovey drove the Archbishop to the bishop’s residence in Sion, and stayed in the car while they went in. “Getting permission was a little more difficult” than for the year of spirituality,” said the Archbishop. At last, the Bishop of Sion gave in: “The last time, you asked me if you could use Écône for your pre-seminary, I accepted; but when you asked permission for a seminary, I objected that we already had three in the diocese. Now, this year, my seminary is at Fribourg and the Capuchins have closed theirs. So, I no longer have any objection.”
Archbishop Lefebvre was satisfied with his answer and got on with the work. Henceforth, things went very quickly. On February 3, the architect Ami Delaloye was commissioned. On February 15, 1971, he came to present his plans for the future St. Pius X wing, a first building providing accommodation, and his quotation: 1,500,000 Swiss francs. The Archbishop listened, saying nothing but thinking: “I need at least a third of that to begin without getting into debt; I don’t have it; I can’t go ahead.” Now, at that very moment, a telephone call from Fribourg informed him that a benefactor—Bishop Adrien Bressolles had just credited his account with a large amount of money. Providentially, it was just enough to get the project started!