Pope Pius X and Marcel
René Lefebvre and Gabrielle Watine were married on April 16, 1902, in St. Martin’s Church in Roubaix by the Dean, Father Berteaux. The young couple went on honeymoon to visit the Virgin of the Grotto in Lourdes since René had been a helper for the sick since 1897. They then went to Rome, where they received the blessing of Pope Leo XIII. On their return to Tourcoing, the young couple moved into a small house on Rue Leverrier, a quiet street of sober red brick façades and impeccably aligned windows. It was a model of the ordered urban life of the region.
The first child was born on January 22, 1903, and was given his father’s Christian name, René. He was followed by Jeanne in 1904. Marcel arrived on Wednesday, November 29, 1905, too late to be baptized that day. The following day on the feast of the crucified apostle, St. Andrew, lover of our Lord’s Cross, the child’s uncle Louis Watine-Duthoit and his aunt Marguerite Lemaire-Lefebvre took the boy to the baptistery in the Church of Our Lady and named him Marcel François Marie Joseph: Marie and Joseph were included by every northern Catholic family among their children’s names; they chose François because of the family association with the Franciscan Tertiaries, and Marcel in reparation for the disgraceful incarceration of Pope St. Marcel, whose stable cell in Rome had so touched Mrs. Lefebvre. The Archbishop’s mother never waited to be back on her feet before having the children baptized; the family went to the church without her, and it was only after the ceremony that she was happy to hold the baby, born again to the divine life and resplendent with sanctifying grace. When Louise, the maid, gave her Marcel to kiss, Mrs. Lefebvre received one of those intuitions which she often had: “He will have an important role in the Church close to the Pope.”
Convinced that the future of a Catholic homeland depends on fruitful Christian marriages, the Lefebvre-Watines wanted to surround themselves with many children, and so in 1907 Bernadette was born. Her mother said of her that she would be “a sign of contradiction,” which is what the future Sister Marie-Gabriel would in fact become when she, together with her brother, founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Society of Saint Pius X. In 1908 came Christiane, the last of the five older children. Mrs. Lefebvre predicted that she would become a Carmelite, which was indeed the case; moreover she re-established the traditional Carmelites. The last additions to the family were Joseph, born in 1914, Michel in 1920, and Marie-Thérèse in 1925.
As a mother Mrs. Lefebvre was profoundly spiritual and extremely apostolic; we must bear in mind these characteristics of her moral physiognomy since Marcel was to inherit them. She was a qualified Red Cross nurse and devoted one and a half days a week to the care of the sick in a clinic, seeking out the tasks which others preferred to avoid. She and her husband were also members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, but her most important apostolate was with the Franciscan Tertiaries. Under the guidance of Mrs. Lefebvre, who became president of the chapter in Tourcoing, the number of Third Order “sisters” reached eight hundred. The novice mistresses were chosen by her, and they had their own retreats.
Her spiritual director, Fr. Huré, was a Montfortian priest. Her soul attained a state of constant union with Jesus Christ, and she meditated and did spiritual reading. She was courageous and magnanimous, and practiced mortification and self-sacrifice. In 1917, she took a vow always to do the more perfect thing (which she renewed at each confession). She lived by faith, referring everything to God and His holy will, and the most abiding characteristic of her soul was gratitude to Divine Providence. Moreover, she was an excellent educator. Her husband set high standards for his children, but tended to be excessively severe in his demands. She, on the other hand, was more balanced; she preferred to guide the family by establishing an atmosphere of trust that never crushed the children’s spontaneity, but stimulated their generosity by good example.
The Lefebvres’ home was a sanctuary with its own liturgy. Whilst Father went to Mass with Louise at 6:15 A.M. and served for the Dean, Mother woke the children, made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and made sure they made their morning offering. Then she went to Mass at 7:00 A.M. with the children who were old enough to walk. When they were older, they went to Mass at boarding school. Every evening, family prayers gave them the opportunity to put right any disagreements that might have occurred throughout the day, and to unite their hearts in God’s love. The children never went to bed without receiving their parents’ blessing. Christiane later said: “In May we would make a pilgrimage to La Marlière on the outskirts of Tourcoing near the Belgian border. We tried to make a novena of pilgrimages during the month. We had to get up at 5:00 A.M. and walk for three quarters of an hour (fasting), hear Mass at 6:00, then come back in time for classes.”
In January 1908, the family moved to a larger house, 131 (later 151) Rue Nationale. The two elder children went to school; René at the Sacred Heart School and Jeanne at Convent of the Immaculate Conception. The convent stood at 7, Place Notre Dame and had been built by the Sainte-Union Sisters. The secularized Ursulines took over from them in 1905. The school accepted boys in the lower primary classes and Marcel was among them. A postcard from 1911 shows some of the children sitting on the grass at the garden entrance in front of the statue of our Lady; Marcel can be recognized from the long fringe that hangs just above his solemn and attentive eyes.
After a preparatory retreat and having been to confession–one of the first, if not the first, times he received the sacrament of penance–Marcel made his first Holy Communion on December 25, 1911, at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception. Since he was already six, there was no special permission needed to receive communion; the kindly Fr. Varasse willingly applied the decree of St. Pius X which had been issued the previous year. The Pope’s decision met some resistance here and there, and St. Pius X once complained to Bishop Chesnelong of Valence: “In France my decree allowing small children to receive Communion is bitterly criticized. Well, We say that there will be saints from among those children, you’ll see!” As indeed we have! During the Midnight Mass, celebrated at 7:00 A.M. by Father Varrasse, Marcel had his first intimate conversation with the Eucharistic Lord. He was the youngest of the fifteen communicants; later, at home he took his finest pen and wrote to the Pope to thank him for the decree which enabled him to receive Holy Communion at the age of six. From now on he was able to receive Communion every day. His enlightened soul went straight to God with the greatest simplicity, as his sister Christiane observed: “Without realizing it,” she said, “he radiated God, peace, and a sense of duty.” But the child was not cut off from the events which affected his family: his father’s business and very soon the war.