May 2021 Print

Louis Veuillot

Journalist, Polemicist, Letter Writer, Author, and First and Foremost, a Catholic

By G. T. [Toulouse]

One of the many very strong personalities that marked the 19th century, Louis Veuillot made a name for himself with more than just an exceptional intelligence. He was a journalist, a polemicist, a letter writer, an author and first and foremost, a Catholic; the writings he left behind are a record of everything this man of uncompromising conviction did and represented for France, for the Church, and for his century.

In every sense of the word and in every situation, he was a man of honor and despised material gain, preferring to defend higher causes.

He never sought to hide his modest origins. Nobody before him in his paternal or maternal ancestry knew how to read or write, but even in their modest conditions, there were some strong characters; in 1793, his maternal ancestor Marianne Adam threatened loudly, with her husband’s heaviest axe in hand, to strike down the first person who dared touch the great village crucifix; she would have done it, and no one dared to try. On his father’s side, the Revolutionaries confiscated the mill in which Monsieur Veuillot had been living comfortably. Death and misery followed, and Louis’ father, François, one of the many orphans left behind, succeeded with prodigious efforts of intelligence and courage in becoming a cooper. He did not know how to read and had to earn his living every day from his earliest childhood. He would die in Bercy at the age of 50, exhausted by his hard daily labor that never earned him more than the strict minimum. His son arrived just in time to find him in his last agony, and he would later write of him, “He was a simple worker, with no pride and no learning. A thousand obscure and cruel misfortunes had filled his years of hard labor.”

His wife, another Marianne Adam, had inherited her family’s pride and zeal for work, and it served her well in the midst of the needy of the time.

Their married life began in Gâtinais, in Boynes. A son, Louis, was born to them in 1813. After five years of working and saving, the little money they had saved was taken from them by a dishonest dealer. To hide their newfound poverty, the family left for Paris, settling in Bercy, where a second son, Eugène, was born. Louis Veuillot would later write, “The first joy I can remember was seeing that beautiful little brother asleep in his crib. As soon as he was able to walk, I became his protector…”

And the two brothers grew up, often separated, always inseparable. Later on, two sisters were born; they were Louis’ little girls. The first money he earned was for them; he did not want their childhood to be like his. Annette and Elise Veuillot were given an excellent and beautiful education at the Couvent des Oiseaux.

Louis started attending school in Boynes at the age of 4, and he was given an alphabet book. After the first lesson, he ripped out the page he knew, as he had no desire to learn the same thing twice. He was punished. He did it again. To put an end to his compulsive destructions, he was given a primer carved in wood, which he used to learn his lessons but also to hit his classmates on the back. It had to be taken away. After spending a few months in Bercy at the age of five, Louis was sent back to Boynes to live with his grandparents.

There, he was put to work extracting saffron like the rest of the village, and he picked it up quickly, but soon tired of it and declared he had better things to do. Nothing was able to overcome his resistance. The child was untamable. In school, he was first in his class.

The teacher predicted that he would go far. A witch in the area announced he would become an emperor! In the meantime, he broke his arm and caught smallpox, which left deep scars on his face. Thanks to his rustic youth, he would never lose his love of the fields and his hatred for the Parisian boulevards.

He did not see his parents again until he was ten, and his mother scarcely recognized him. In Bercy, with a teacher who was drunk from morning to evening, he learned nothing, except a few lessons in syntax and history and some rudiments of Latin thanks to a teacher’s assistant who had taken a liking to him. He made his First Communion with no preparation or encouragement to persevere, and due to their poverty, he had to start earning a living. Thanks to some friends, he was offered 20 francs a month to work for Master Delavigne, a lawyer in Paris. Here is what he later wrote about this time: “I was going to live outside of my father’s home. I was 13 years old, all alone in the world, with no guide, no advice, no friends, and so to speak, no master, 13 years old and no God! Oh, what a bitter destiny…”

Without even enough to get by, he found himself in a circle of cultivated, wealthy, carefree clerks whom he amused, interested and surprised by his intelligence. They lent him books and he devoured them; they gave him tickets to shows and he never missed a single one. He was given lessons; Master Delavigne’s firm was a university for him. He met Gustave Olivier there, the friend who would guide him and above all show him that he could be loved. What a discovery for a child who was so sensitive under the shell he used to protect himself!

At the age of 15, he was third clerk with 30 francs a month and board. His education and instruction continued according to the circumstances. A short article he wrote was published in Le Figaro, and in 1830, he observed and described the fall of Charles X:

“I was 17 years old when I saw the mediocre children of the middle class around me congratulate themselves on demolishing the altar and the throne; I was 18 when I saw the ferocious beast fell the cross; already my former companions were beginning to congratulate themselves a little less. Overwhelmed almost as soon as they had conquered, the alarmed middle class looked to everyone else for help. As they doubtless had neither enough intelligence nor enough heart, they had to accept children as defenders of the strange social order they had just established.”

Thanks to Gustave Olivier, he thus began his career as a journalist for L’Echo de la Seine Inférieure.

In Paris, Bugeaud, who noticed him, sent him to Périgueux as editor-in-chief of the government paper. He was 19 years old and within two or three years he had taken the wind out of all his detractors’ sails. He was a biting polemicist and the society of Périgueux, captivated, welcomed him in its salons and adored him. He was received everywhere; he enjoyed himself, contracted debts but worked and kept a keen eye on everything around him. He flirted around and left a piece of his heart in Périgueux.

In 1834-1835, Gustave Olivier revealed to him that he was Catholic. Louis Veuillot found this troubling.

In Paris, Guizot, who had returned to the government was looking for journalists. At Gustave Olivier’s advice, Veuillot left Périgueux to join the newspaper La Charte de 1830. In 1837, he left it for La Paix.

He led a disordered life, spent more than he earned and was not happy. Once again, Gustave Olivier crossed his path, convincing Louis to accompany him to Rome and Constantinople.

“It was high time,” he would later say. “I was 24, I was growing philosophical; fortune was smiling on me. I had seen a great deal of men; I was beginning to despise a great many things. At a turn in the road, I met God. He reached out to me; I hesitated to follow Him. He took me by the hand, and I was saved.”

These few lines sum up the intense battle that took place in his soul in Rome, immediately changing the course and meaning of his life.

Around the same time, Alphonse de Ratisbonne, also passing through Rome on a visit, received a sudden grace of conversion.

The Jesuits presented the new convert to Pope Gregory XVI, then advised him to pass through Loreto on his way home, hence the title of the book “Rome and Loreto” in which he relates the stages of his conversion.

From then on, by reason of the fight for Catholicism that he would never again abandon, he would be in frequent contact with the successive popes, Pius IX and Leo XIII. Continuing on to Constantinople was obviously out of the question and upon his return to Paris where the political situation was not very clear, he reunited with his friends from before, from his Bohemian lifestyle, from the Ministry and from the press, but all in a very different perspective. He wrote his first article in L’Univers Religieux, founded by Fr. Migne.

In 1841 came the Algerian episode, when he accompanied Bugeaud, who had been nominated governor general of the country, to Algiers, while remaining in close contact with Guizot. While there, observant as he was, he made the same remarks as General Lyautey and Charles de Foucauld several years later:

“So long as the Arabs are not Christian, they will not be French, and so long as they are not French, no governor, no army will be able to guarantee lasting peace. And they will not be Christian so long as we do not know how to be Christian ourselves.”

This vision was prophetic and would soon come true. He added, “France is devoting prodigy after prodigy of her ancient courage to conquer an infidel kingdom, but she only thinks of winning it over to her trading counters and does not wish to win it over to her God.”

He quickly grew tired of the fights in which he participated, and having little interest for material or honorary profit, he asked to return to France, where he showed up “black as a cauldron” and “looking ten years older.”

He remained on perfectly friendly terms with Guizot, who offered to send him back to Algiers so he could have him by his side when he visited there, as a sort of ambassador. But it took time and Veuillot was far more interested in the development of the Catholic press, even though it paid very little, and he had taken his two young sisters under his care and had been progressively paying off his debts ever since his conversion.

Louis Veuillot refused any government aid for the Catholic press in order to be sure it would remain entirely independent; he also refused any political ties, which immediately made him the target of the enemies of God and of a certain middle class, the liberals, and the fearful; but he did not care.

In the midst of the most venomous and painful attacks from his colleagues and many of the people indebted to him, he always remained on the same path that he had chosen once and for all. And regardless of the attacks, with Veuillot’s pen and signature, L’Univers went from 1,600 to 6,000 subscriptions.

Louis and Eugène Veuillot worked together at L’Univers from 1842 on. They completed each other marvelously. Said Louis Veuillot:

“We are still the two brothers who went to school together, carrying their things in the same basket, with the same adversaries, the same problems, the same worries, the same fortune and the same pleasures.”

His newspaper was forbidden by Napoleon III in 1860 for having published Pius IX’s encyclical against his political actions in Italy. It resurfaced in 1867. In 1871, the Commune suppressed it again. The newspaper was thus eclipsed for political and religious reasons, because of its disagreements with the government of the time.

In 1841, in the midst of all this political disturbance, Veuillot was thinking of getting married, but he was in no hurry, for, as he said, “When I am bothered, I pray, I work, and everything goes away. Once I am married, if my wife bothers me, she will not go away. The poor woman will certainly need a great deal of patience.”

The following year, he wrote to Fr. Morisseau de Tours, “If you know of a good girl who is very pious, very gentle, simple, healthy, who can play me a little music and has enough to feed us, that is all I need.” For with his sisters in boarding school, Eugène in Angiers and their mother remarried to the coalman Antoine, he was lonely. In 1845, “I got married at the age of 32, a bit by coincidence, like everybody. Two priests had arranged it all with the parents of Mathilde Murcier, of the lower middle class of Versailles, very simple Christians. They told me this marriage would suit me. I did as they said…”

He would relate some of the comical and tender episodes that accompanied this very fast and very happy marriage. The first great battle in which Veuillot found himself involved as editor-in-chief of L’Univers was that of freedom in education. It was a fight that the liberal and anticlerical middle class was waging against the Church in order to conquer minds.

The ideas of 1789 had left heavy constraints on the education of children and on universities in this regard. Like all those who participated in the opposition, Louis Veuillot was punished and by reason of his position as editor he was fined 3,000 francs and condemned to a month in prison which earned him immense popularity.

Even today, 150 years later, the wicked law of 1844 that we owe to Monsieur de Falloux, still causes untold harm in education. It took thirty-seven years to overturn it at the time. After 1830 when Charles X was dethroned, 1848 saw the overthrow of the “usurper” Louis Philippe, whose blood had many flaws.

“The machine is cracking everywhere and truly rotting,” wrote Veuillot in 1847. Once again, there was the same disorder in the streets, once again the Republic resurfaced; the legitimists called for the Count of Chambord, but it was Napoleon III who arrived in 1851.

One year later, God sent His faithful servant a crushing blow; in 1852, after the birth of his sixth daughter, his wife died of peritonitis. A few months earlier, Thérèse, his fifth daughter had died; then in 1855, diphtheria took 9-year-old Marie, the eldest, in June, Gertrude, the second, in July, and Madeleine, the youngest, in August, the only one her father saw before she died. In this devastated home, there remained only two frail little girls, Agnès and Luce. His despair was terrible; Elise Veuillot, Louis’ youngest sister, came to replace the deceased mother and never left again.

For Louis Veuillot, his home was the haven of peace and joy where he came to be reinvigorated. His Faith helped him greatly, but he had bouts of despair that his work was not always able to dispel. At the least illness of his two surviving daughters, he was anguished at the thought of the early death that was the fate of so many of his contemporaries (predicted by Our Lady of La Salette in 1846).

Friendship played an important role for Louis Veuillot, who was received amicably in every rank of society. He knew and spent time with all the important men of his time. He loved to stay at Solesmes where he was welcomed with joy. His departure was always regretted, and his next visit eagerly awaited. He also liked to visit the country priests who were in contact with the milieu in which he had grown up. Very sensitive to feminine charm, which corresponded better than men to his need for effusion and affection, Veuillot nonetheless remained prudent and even in his youth he kept his distance from relations that were too sentimental. But to Charlotte de Grammont, he wrote, “I love to tell you that I love you.” To Olga de Pitray, the youngest daughter of the Countess of Ségur, “Last friend of my youth and first friend of my old age,” and “How beautiful your eyes are! I adore you and cannot define you.”

He liked to speak of the past with the pious Madame Volnys, whom he had admired as a young man. Around the age of fifty, in Rome, Louis Veuillot suddenly fell in love with a 36-year-old Belgian countess, Juliette de Robertsart, but nothing came of it. The marvelous and inexhaustible letter writer reserved the best of his heart for those closest to him, but he knew how to speak to each person as if he were his only friend in the world.

He traveled much and made several pilgrimages to Rome where he was affectionately received by the pope as a defender of the Church. Nadar photographed all the important men of his time, and thanks to him we have a portrait of Veuillot around the age of fifty.

Albert de Mun who saw him around this time said that even more than his extraordinary intelligence, what emanated the most from him was his goodness. And indeed, his generosity was as vast as everything he possessed; he helped and gave without counting, never holding a grudge for a bad turn. In 1874, his two daughters left him: Agnès married the Commandant Pierron and Luce, the youngest, entered the Visitation. Here is what he wrote to her:

“Nothing has given me greater sorrow or greater joy than your resolution. The joy is in my soul and cannot enter into my heart; the sorrow is in my heart and cannot trouble my soul. In truth, my child, I did not realize how dear you were to me. When you were little and you gave me a pin or a straw, you used to say, ‘I give it to you, but not for good.’ I would like to say to God, ‘Not for good!’ But God knows that it is for good.”

And he signed, “Your former father.”

In the fall of that same year, 1874, Louis Veuillot had a stroke that was worse than the previous ones. He wrote less, and his speech became a little confused. In 1875, he had the joy of seeing Catholic education finally obtain freedom. In 1878, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre was erected, and his effigy and name can be seen in a side chapel. He had reached the age when his friends and enemies were beginning to die. He wrote eulogies that sometimes raised outcries when the right words were dealt out a little too clearly.

In 1879, he dictated or wrote, but very little, and he was no longer able to write any letters. On May 20, 1880, forty lines in honor of the memory of Cardinal Pie would be his last. Louis Veuillot accepted the slow disintegration of his last five years. He started complaining about his legs and his eyes in 1872.

“There is no sea or forest that can fix old tools. But we can see Heaven with no eyes and climb to it with no legs, and that is my consolation,” he wrote. “Eternity is an excellent invention, for in spite of so many good reasons, we are not made to die.”

At the end, he had a rosary in hand and no longer a sword. Louis Veuillot died on April 7, 1883.

He is the one and only example of a son of an illiterate family who became a very great journalist.

With his exceptional ability to assimilate and work, in spite of his eyes that tired easily and were often ill, he was able to touch on everything without getting lost in details or book learning, always going straight to the essential.

How did he learn Latin? A little at school, a little at Master Delavigne’s firm, a little in Périgueux, a little in Rome, eight days in Freiburg, a little with Henri Hignard (a Normalian), all widely spaced episodes that were enough for him to perfectly master this language, quote the Fathers of the Church and Cicero, and give a proper critique of a speech in Latin by Auguste Nisard.

It was the same with theology for his religious works. His general culture was prodigious. He lucidly analyzed the harmful effects of Modernism and of progress in its various forms. He recognized and helped promote people who would later become famous, as in the case of the Countess de Ségur and Léon Bloy, and he was able to appreciate authors whose ideas he did not share, such as George Sand.

He was an excellent critic, objective and incisive, without any of the malice that was often used against him.

And above all, he had an astonishing faith that was more than just fine words, that he truly lived and put into practice in every situation. The papacy of the time saw this; Pius IX received him often and his name was enough to open the doors of the Vatican, and Leo XIII said that he spoke like a Father of the Church. Silence has now fallen upon Louis Veuillot who so disturbed those against whom he spent his entire life fighting, faithful to the course laid out for him by his Roman Catholic baptism.