Born in Saint-Victor (Ardèche), May 27, 1828.
Taking of the habit at Notre-Dame de l’Osier, January 28, 1851.
Perpetual oblation at Notre-Dame de l’Osier February 2, 1852. (no. 322)
Ordination to the priesthood at Marseilles, March 6, 1852
Consecration as bishop at Fréjus, February 25, 1878.
Archbishop of Auch, May 30, 1896.
Died at Auch, May 13, 1905.
Mathieu Victor Balaïn was born at Saint Victor in the diocese of Viviers in Ardèche on May 27, 1828. He was baptized the next day. His father, Jean-Pierre, a wholesaler and his mother, Élisabeth Junique had seven children.
While still a child, Mathieu was entrusted to Mr. Méallier, a teacher, but his mother and grandmother oversaw his religious education. His primary education for three years was under the tutelage of his uncle, Abbé Balaïn, the parish priest of Rochepaule. In 1838, his parents sent him to Étables, the neighbouring parish, to a school conducted by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. It was there that he made his First Holy Communion on April 28, 1839. A few months later, Mathieu entered the college of Sainte-Barbe d’Annonay with was under the direction of the priests of Saint Basil, a congregation founded in 1822 and dedicated to teaching and preaching. On May 13, 1840, he received the sacrament of confirmation at the hands of Bishop A. A. Dupuch, the first bishop of Algiers. In 1846, after his final year of classical studies, the young man entered the major seminary of Viviers which was under the direction of the Sulpicians. He received a first-rate intellectual and spiritual formation and Bishop Hippolyte Guibert, o.m.i., the bishop of the diocese from 1842 to 1857 conferred upon him all the sacred orders up to the diaconate.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate
Mathieu wanted to become a missionary. With the consent of his spiritual director, Mr. Albouys, already ordained to the diaconate, one morning in January of 1851, he left the seminary to go to the Oblate novitiate at Notre-Dame de l’Osier in Isère. He asked the parish priest of Saint-Victor to tell his parents. He took the habit on January 28, 1851 and on February 2, 1852, he made his oblation before Father Melchior Burfin, in the presence of Bishop Alexandre Taché, recently appointed as coadjutor bishop to Bishop Norbert Provencher at Saint Boniface in Canada. In the General Council session of January 18, 1851, he was admitted to vows by a unanimous vote. On that occasion, they wrote in his report: “This brother who has finished his theological studies has outstanding talents, an excellent judgment, much firmness and even a bit of brusqueness of character. He has constantly shown himself to be a model religious.”
He left immediately for Marseilles where, on March 6, Bishop de Mazenod ordained him to the priesthood in the chapel of the bishop’s house in the presence of Bishop Bernard Buissas, bishop of Limoges. He celebrated his first Mass at Notre-Dame de la Garde. From March until September 1852, he lived at the Oblate house of Le Calvaire and it was there that he was initiated to preaching while awaiting his obedience for the foreign missions. That autumn, the Superior General sent him, instead, to the major seminary of Ajaccio where he taught dogma for two years and moral theology from 1854 to1858. Competent as a professor, he earned the esteem of Oblate confreres and his students.
In September of 1858, he was appointed superior of the Oblate house at Vico, a house for mission preachers and especially an institution for secondary education which required a reorganization done with a wise and firm hand. At the General Council session of September 6, 1858, it was stated that he “was lent to Vico to put everything in order.”
In the month of August of 1859, Bishop de Mazenod named him superior of the major seminary of Fréjus where Father Jean, Joseph Magnan had been superior for three years and had fallen out of favor with the bishop, Bishop A. J. H. Jordany. In a September 25, 1859 letter presenting him to the bishop, Father Casimir Aubert, secretary of the Superior General wrote: “He is a serious man and totally dedicated to his duty, a good religious and model church man. He is intelligent and cultured. From his first years as a priest he has always been teaching theology… His only defect, if it is a defect, is that of his age; he is a little young for the post the he must occupy. [31 years old]…”
For eighteen years, Father Balaïn did well as director of the seminary, showing himself to be a tactful formator and good administrator. The two bishops under whom he worked, Bishop Jordany until 1876 and Bishop J. S. Terris held him in high esteem. His Oblate confreres appreciated him as well. He was sent to the General Chapters of 1861, 1867 and 1873 as delegate. As superior, he went through a difficult period in 1870-1871 during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. The seminary building was requisitioned in September of 1870, first to serve as a barracks for the soldiers (800 soldiers) and then as a provisional hospital for almost a year. The professors and the seminarians left the seminary, but the superior stayed at his post and endured some difficult months: “Often, without marks of rank or title, I had to play the part of corporal, sergeant and captain… Certain cells became real gambling dens during the night…”
Bishop of Nice
On November 22, 1877, a decree issued by field-marshal Mac-Mahon, president of the Republic, announced the nomination of Abbé Balaïn as bishop of Nice, a see that had been vacant for several months following the resignation of Bishop Sola.
The county of Nice had been annexed to France in 1860. The diocese was then removed from the jurisdiction of the metropolitan of Genoa in 1863 to become a suffrangant of Aix-en-Provence. Bishop Balaïn became its first French bishop. The minister of Public Worship had asked Cardinal Guibert, the archbishop of Paris from 1871 to 1886 to fill this see as soon as possible by a priest who knew Italian. The Cardinal participated in the General Council session of November 19, 1877. He put forward Father Balaïn as a candidate, but the council did not want any Oblate bishops outside of the foreign missions. The Cardinal, then, spoke to the nuncio, who telegraphed the Pope who appointed Father Balaïn. On November 25, 1877, Father Joseph Fabre wrote a circular letter to the Congregation to communicate and explain this appointment. It was Cardinal Guibert himself, who, on February 25, 1878 consecrated the new bishop in the cathedral of Fréjus.
In 1876, inhabitants of the diocese numbered 130,000 with 154 parishes distributed throughout the departmental subdivisions of Nice and Puget-Théniers. In 1886, the departmental subdivision of Grasse which was part of the diocese of Fréjus, was attached to the diocese of Nice. In 1896, the inhabitants of the diocese numbered 265,000 with about 225 parishes and mission chapels.
Born himself in the Vivarais and used to a simple austere lifestyle, Bishop Balaïn felt especially close to the village people of the mountainous region of the Maritime Alps. He regularly made pastoral visits and administered confirmation. He loved to celebrate Mass and participate in processions on the occasions of parish celebrations. In Nice, especially, he paid regular visits to the Catholic workers’ groups, to boarding schools and to religious institutions. As his episcopal motto he chose Pro animabus vestris. His primary mission was to guide and instruct the faithful. He never refused to preach and each year for Lent, he published a pastoral letter on a specific topic: charity, the priesthood, the Creed, death, prayer, the cross, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, “those who do not attend church,” prayer, the main duties of the Christian, blasphemy, the Mass, Holy Communion, keeping Sunday a holy day, etc.
He took particular interest in formation of the clergy and to vocation recruitment. What he aspired to was to have the clergy serve as examples for the Christian community. To achieve this, he lavished advice through pastoral and circular letters. He participated in the annual retreats of the clergy, encouraged parish works and parish missions, urged the parish priests to teach catechism and to preach, reminding them that preaching was to be prepared by study and prayer, lacking which “the spoken word would be cold, lifeless and without unction.” Young priests were to round out their theological knowledge by being subjected for five years to annual exams on the Sacred Scriptures, dogma and moral theology, the liturgy and the administration of temporal affairs of parishes.
He particularly kept an eye on vocation recruiting. A vocation crisis emerged everywhere in France in the last decades of the 19th century. At the beginning of his tenure as bishop in 1877, the diocese of Nice had 300 priests, 415 in 1887 after the departmental subdivision of Grasse was annexed to the diocese of Nice in 1877 and only 344 in 1896. The bishop exhorted the clergy and parents to raise up vocations. He closed down the church school of Sospel in 1885, but enlarged the minor seminary under the direction of the priests of the Mission whose school population went from 100 to 300. In 1886, the expanded and renovated minor seminary of Grasse became part of the diocese of Nice with its 150 students, but also with an enormous debt of some 400,000 francs. The major seminary directed by the priests of the Mission was a heavy, sombre building in the Old-Nice. At the end of his stay in the diocese, at a cost of 450,000 francs, Bishop Balaïn had constructed a new building in the Carabacel-Cimiez quarter. His seminary housed 40 seminarians in 1896 as against 30 in 1877.
Bishop Balaïn was bishop during a period of anti-religious governmental measures: decrees of March 29, 1880 aimed at the Jesuits and the non-authorized congregations; in 1881, government seizure of control of the hospitals, funeral parlours and cemeteries; March 28, 1882, government take over of primary education; in 1885, suppression of study grants for the seminaries; in 1889, obligatory military service for seminarians, etc. There were violent reactions from the Catholic press. The Semaine religieuse du diocèse de Nice was no exception. Bishop Balaïn, like Pope Leo XIII distinguished himself by his concern for restraint and dialogue. He avoided all forms of confrontation with the public authorities. He protested attacks against the rights of the Church, but was still able to maintain the trust the Prefect had in him. Bishop Chapon, his successor, wrote of him: “To tell the truth, he was not one of those who, in time of crisis, spontaneously rush to the front lines, but was rather of those who one of our classical authors has described by the word: cunctator (temporizer). He was one of those people the fierce accuse of being timid and the timid accuse of being fierce. Eminently practical in spirit, he was leery about all demonstrations that were noisy and sterile as being counter-productive; more the prudent man than the man without fear, but conscientious and devoid of self-interest, if, in the opinion of certain impatient people he too long remained silent from a concern of not having exhausted all possible means of conciliation, when the moment had obviously arrived, he well knew how to speak, write and say as well the non possumus, a statement all the more impressive and immutable since it was pronounced at the opportune time with more deliberation and restraint and that no one could allege even the semblance of a reason to accuse him of being adversarial.” (May 19, 1905 letter of Bishop Chapon upon the death of Bishop Balaïn) The main difficulties he had to face came from a conservative minority, several members of whom belonged to the Chapter, who were opposed to France. These people found a invaluable ally in the Italian language periodical, Il Pensiero di Nizza.
Archbishop of Auch and Final Years
A May 30, 1896 decree issued by the President of the Republic announced the appointment of Bishop Balaïn to the archdiocese of Auch (department of Gers in the south-west of France). Canonically appointed by Leo XIII in the consistory of June 25, he made is entry into Auch on September 3. Little is know of his activities during the nine years he spent at Auch. We do know that he made his regular pastoral visits and expanded the major seminary. In 1902, they celebrated in solemn fashion his triple jubilee: 25 years as bishop and 50 years of oblation and of ordination to the priesthood.
He died at the age of 77 on May 13, 1905, a few months after having publicly taken a stand backing the letter of the French cardinals opposing the project of separating Church and State. The Semaine religieuse d’Auch wrote: “For a long time now, the physical weakness whose slow but unchecked progress we noticed had been hindering his movements and compelled his Highness to a relative immobility. But two things in his robust nature remained intact, his head and his heart.” On May 18, his funeral rites were solemnly celebrated. he was interred in the Beaulieu chapel at the country house of the major seminary.
As bishop, Bishop Balaïn was ever an Oblate. He was elected delegate for the General Chapters of 1879 and 1893 and we notice his presence at the crowning of Our Lady of Bon Secours in 1880, at the celebrations of 25 years in office of Father Fabre in 1886, at the episcopal consecration of Bishop Pascal in Viviers in 1891, at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the existence of the novitiate of Notre-Dame de l’Osier in 1892, at the ceremony of the transferal of the remains of Bishop de Mazenod to the new cathedral in Marseilles in 1897, etc.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.