In the course of his trip to Paris in June-July 1856 to attend the baptism of the Imperial prince, Bishop de Mazenod made the acquaintance of Bishop Nicolas Marie Sergent, bishop of Quimper. Bishop Sergent, out of concern to give better formation to his priests, was looking for a congregation to which he could entrust his major seminary. He spoke of his plans to the Founder, and, knowing that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate took on the direction of seminaries, asked him to provide a few directors on a trial basis. Bishop de Mazenod was careful not to refuse to accept the direction of an institution which housed one hundred and fifty young men, who, in addition that, would enable the Congregation to establish a foothold in Brittany, “at the heart of the priestly throng.”
Upon his return to Marseilles, he consulted his council and wrote that he was reserving for the “great work” of Quimper “two men of God filled with their grace of state and devoted to the Church,” eminently capable of forming good priests. The superior would be Father Jean Joseph Lagier, some fifty years of age, former director of the major seminaries of Marseilles and Ajaccio and, as of 1851, superior of the seminary at Fréjus. The General Council, in its August 12 session, gave him as companion Father Antoine Mouchette, moderator of scholastics at Montolivet. Then, on August 17, they approved the decision of the Superior General who “having full knowledge of the importance of this foundation and desiring to ensure its success” had preferred to appoint Father Charles Bellon, up until that time superior of the seminary at Romans, as being more advanced in age and more apt to represent the Congregation well.
These two priests were sent to Quimper a little before the 1856-1857 academic year and found themselves entrusted with the intellectual and spiritual formation of the seminarians, while the diocesan clergy continued to see to the teaching and the administration. Among these priests, the two Oblates were happy to find, as professor of moral theology, viscount de la Houssaye, a devoted friend of the missions, who had steered to Marseilles several enthusiastic seminarians, among whom was scholastic brother Francis Camper who died in an odour of sanctity at Montolivet on July 19, 1856.
The correspondence of this period yields little information on the conduct of the two Oblates and on their relations with the personnel and the students. Apparently, there was mutual satisfaction on both parts. On his return trip from England toward the end of August 1857, it was agreed that Bishop de Mazenod would go to Brittany to visit the Marian shrine that the bishop wanted to entrust to the Oblates near the village of Saint-Pol-de-Léon and to travel with the other Oblate directors already appointed: Fathers Prosper Boisramé, Toussaint Rambert, Joseph Vivier or Charles Jolivet.
Great was Bishop de Mazenod’s disappointment when, in the course of the month of August while still in England, he received a letter from Bishop Sergent which declared that he had decided not to sign the contract and to hand the direction of the seminary back to his diocesan clergy. He gave as reason the difficulty of reaching an agreement with Father Lagier on the nature of the contract that would govern the position of the Oblates. In point of fact, the bishop, who had recently arrived in Quimper in 1856, had under estimated opposition to his plans from a certain faction in his diocesan clergy.
In addition to that, during the year, he had consulted the bishop of Ajaccio and, indirectly, the bishop of Valence, who for various reasons rendered an unfavourable judgment on the Oblates and advised Bishop Sergent to disengage himself from this commitment while there was still time.
Bishop de Mazenod suffered a great deal from this about-face on the part of the bishop. He considered it “the greatest humiliation” and “the gravest harm that the Congregation had ever experienced.” After several letters of explanations and protestations, he was forced to accept this decision as definitive and recall Fathers Bellon and Lagier. In an August 17, 1857 letter to Father Lagier, he wrote: “Let us help each other to bear the humiliations and mishaps of this miserable life. God will give us the grace to earn this as merit in his eyes.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 12, no. 1356, p. 64)
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.