Born: Colla, Italy, February 7, 1813.
Took the habit: Saint-Just, May 1, 1829.
Vows: Saint-Just, May 1, 1830 (N. 39).
Priestly ordination: N.-D. du Laus, September 19, 1835.
Episcopal ordination: Marseilles, August 17, 1856.
Died: Marseilles, January 23, 1868.
Étienne Semeria was born in Cola, diocese of Ventimiglia, Italy, on February 7, 1813. Piety in the family was hereditary. Two of his uncles were priests and his aunt was a Capuchin Sister. From childhood he was distinguished by his extreme sweetness of character and his dedication to study. At the age of sixteen he had completed his classical studies and he began his novitiate in Saint Just on May 1, 1829. It was there he took vows on May 1, 1830.
The July Revolution of 1830 was very anticlerical. Father de Mazenod, having a much-needed rest in Switzerland, bought a property in Billens and he brought the scholastics and novices there for safety. Étienne began the study of theology there and he continued later in Marseilles from 1833 to 1835. The scholastics followed courses in the major seminary of Marseilles but they lodged in the house near the church of the Calvaire under the direction of Father Casimir Aubert, who wrote in his report on the Oblates for April 20, 1834: “Magnan and Semeria rank highly for their regularity and the quality of their character,” Étienne Semeria earned from his comrades the nickname “Gavanti” because of the deep study he made of ceremonies and rubrics. Gavanti was an Italian Barnabite who authored the book Thesaurus sacrorum rituum.
He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop de Mazenod at Notre-Dame du Laus on September 19, 1835 and was immediately given responsibility for the ministry among the Italians in the church of Le Calvaire. In this assignment he succeeded Father Albini who had recently left for Corsica. In the summer of 1837, Bishop de Mazenod allowed Father Semeria to visit his family on the occasion of his father’s death. On July 1, he wrote in his diary: “This edifying religious, since he had not received a reply to his letter requesting an extension of a few days to the permission I had given him to remain until the feast of Saint John with his family which was afflicted by the death of his father, has returned to Marseilles since he did not wish to make the slightest reinterpretation of his permission. The reason for his request was that he wished to await the return of his brother, a doctor, who must now take the part of father to this numerous family and he wished to discuss with him the question of caring for these orphans. That is what we may call virtue! That is what may be presented to be imitated by others! But of course nothing will ever be astonishing when it comes to observance by this blessed child. It want it known that since his most tender years he has never given me the slightest reason to complain, not even a moment of concern or regret. May he be blessed and may he continue to grow in virtue day by day.”
In 1838, Father Telmon, whom Father Guibert did not want any longer in Corsica, received his obedience for the church of the Calvaire. The Founder appointed him first councillor. In his diary for August 1 he wrote: “What a pleasure it is to deal with men like Father Semeria. It was he who had this position. Kindness, humility, simplicity, sincere joy, effortless approval. These are the virtues which this angel practices on all occasions.”
In Vico, Corsica (1840-1847)
The death of Father Albini in Vico on May 20, 1839 caused much sorrow to Bishop de Mazenod. For a while he thought that was the end of the parish missions in Corsica, which had been so successful. At the beginning of 1840 he appointed Father Semeria superior in Corsica. The members of the community were Father Semeria, superior, Fathers Gibelli, J.J. de Veronico, D. Luigi and a few Brothers. There are about thirty letters which Bishop de Mazenod wrote to Father Semeria and in which two themes recur frequently and cause him joy: the success of the missions and the unity of fraternal charity in the community. On the subject of the missions, he wrote, for example, on October 16, 1841: “Every time, my dear Semeria, that I receive your letters I must address the most fervent thanks to God for what he has brought about through you. This time I must double my thanks for the wonders of this beautiful mission in Zicavo, even to the extent of shedding tears of joy. I can see you, even at this distance, surrounded by all these men of blood who have become like lambs at the sound of your voice. The daggers drop from their hands, they pardon one another, they embrace. Oh! How beautiful it is! And this touching response: ‘let their arms which were loaded to kill their enemies be now unloaded since they do not have such enemies any more and it was right that they be unloaded in your honour’. How sublime! The same reflections recur on August 4, 1842: “Whatever may happen, you must admit my little Father that the good God is spoiling you. He is making use of you to spread abroad his power and his greatest mercy and your holy ministry is everywhere accompanied by the greatest blessings. I congratulate you and I do not need to remind you that you must thank God unceasingly.”
But it is the good behaviour and the mutual understanding of the Fathers and Brothers in the community that he finds particularly pleasing. He often says so and in different ways, for example: “May you be blessed, good Father Semeria, and you my dear Father Gibelli! Never has either of you saddened the heart of your father” (November 19, 1840). Live happily then, my children, in your precious community. You would never believe the joy in my heart when I learn about the unity and the cordiality that is prevalent among you. How my heart is present in this portion of our dear family! You are my consolation and my joy; may the Lord shower you with his blessings! I press you to my heart” (December 27, 1841). In 1843 the Founder hesitated to send Father Carles to Vico “where peace reigns under the sweet and paternal rule of our angelic Father Semeria.”
Once only, Bishop de Mazenod mentions a fault in the superior in Vico. In 1843 he had to send Father Carles as professor of philosophy to the major seminary in Ajaccio and he knew that the bishop would raise objections. He delegated Father Semeria to go and speak with Bishop Casanelli d’Istria and to convince him to accept the new professor. “One has to know how to adopt a reasonable firmness and know how to maintain a good cause, respectfully however, and wise decisions. I remind you of these things because I think it necessary to forewarn you against a defect which arises from your excessive timidity.”
The work and the success of Father Semeria in Corsica are summed up in his necrology note in these words: “The similarity of his maternal dialect to that of Corsica may have facilitated his success; but what ensured that success, what gained him the general confidence of the clergy and what caused the enthusiasm which he generated and the following which he had, was the sum total of his apostolic virtues, his piety, his zeal, his dedication, his forgetfulness of self, his kindness, his consummate prudence…”
In Ceylon (1847-1868)
It was during the summer of 1847 that Bishop de Mazenod accepted to send some missionaries to Jaffna, Ceylon, at the request of Bishop Horace Bettachini, coadjutor of the Apostolic Vicar of Colombo. It seems that he had no hesitation in choosing Father Semeria as superior of this mission but he feared to displease Bishop Casanelli d’Istria by depriving him of the man who, after Father Albini, had become a well-known and loved apostle. He informed him of the choice in what was a rather solemn letter on October 7: “You know what a sacrifice is being imposed upon us by the Master of the Vineyard by calling us to work in an island where one and one-half million Gentiles are awaiting the light of the Gospel with which the Vicar of Jesus Christ asks us to enlighten their eyes and where 150,000 Christians who are almost abandoned are also calling out for our ministry; it is a very delicate mission from many points of view and I would need a man who has been tested such as Father Semeria to entrust it to him for my peace of mind. That is the sacrifice which the good God requires of us and I have had to make it joyfully with firm confidence in the immense good which will be the result …”
Father Semeria received his obedience on October 21, 1847. At the end of the year, after a 37 days voyage, he had reached Ceylon in the company of Fathers Louis Marie Keating from Ireland, Joseph Alexandre Ciamin from Nice and Brother Gaspard De Stefanis from Genoa. Another three missionaries set out in 1849 and two more in 1850. In a period of fifteen years (1847-1861) thirty-three Oblates left France or England for Ceylon.
There were numerous problems to be dealt with by the superior at the beginning: the opposition of some of the Goan priests in the region of Jaffna, the prejudice of some Europeans (two Spanish Benedictines, an Italian Oratorian and three diocesan priests from Lombardy), no long term planning by the bishop who, according to the needs of the moment, appointed the Oblates as he did the other clergy in different missions and even changed them often etc. In the necrology note on Bishop Semeria, Bishop Bonjean listed some other sufferings of the superior: “a debilitating climate, frequent outbreaks of cholera, the fatigue of long journeys, the special food which Father Semeria’s dyspeptic stomach never accepted, the difficulties of the language for an older man, the problems of ministry in this country, the failure of many plans, etc. in fact there was a whole series of heavy crosses. Besides, we can only imagine the horror felt by a holy man of even the shadow of anything that would offend God, his charity which a mere look could upset, his zeal for the mission and his dedication to the Congregation, his natural shyness of character and his consequent hesitation, the scruples which tortured his upright and pure soul, to understand how much he suffered. Alone, with nobody to whom he could speak openly, he often lay awake throughout long nights, plagued by thoughts of unease and alarm…”
Nevertheless, he did confide in Bishop de Mazenod who, from 1848 to 1860 wrote him thirty-seven long letters. In 1851, the Congregation of Propaganda asked Bishop de Mazenod to send missionaries also to Bishop Bravi, an Italian Sylvestrian Benedictine, who had recently been appointed bishop of Colombo. The bishop unwillingly, received four young Oblates. He demanded that they have no contact with their superior in Jaffna and insisted that they hide their Oblate crucifixes and any sign of their belonging to the Congregation. This was a further complication for Father Semeria. In his letters he spoke more of his problems than of the apostolate of the Oblates. Bishop de Mazenod began by inviting him to be prudent and patient, but then he started to use another method. On January 17, 1850, for example, he wrote: “you do not seem to me to be doing very much and what you do is after much prodding. I look in vain in your letters for something about your work. Until now you have not spoken to me about any conversion and, quite frankly, I sent missionaries to Ceylon only in the hope that they would be working for the conversion of souls.”
Thereafter, Father Semeria tried to give some news, at least on the nature of the work in Jaffna where he was pastor and secretary to the bishop. In April 1850, he wrote: “We must make up our minds to be almost martyrs of patience. The good that we will do here will not be apparent for quite a long time. To treat the Indians as you would Europeans would be to risk spoiling everything. Nevertheless, good can be done and is being done. Jaffna is proof of this. When the Goan priests were ministering here, the most fervent Christians scarcely went to confession even at Easter, and those fervent ones were rare. Now we have about thirty communions in our church every day. Before, the Sacred Presence was not kept. Now, many persons visit the Blessed Sacrament every day. Before, it was impossible to assemble the children for catechism. For the past two years, I have succeeded in doing so and grown ups also attend those lessons spontaneously. Within a short period, I have baptized between sixty and seventy adults.” Three years later he wrote: “I think that, sometimes, it is easier to convert an idolatrous people who are suddenly touched by previously unknown truths which are taught them, than to regenerate half-Christians who have abused the grace they had received. Nevertheless, although we cannot flatter ourselves that we have done all the good we wanted to do, the change brought about in the thinking and behaviour of many of our Christians is really marvellous. Anyone who was familiar with the city of Jaffna five or six years ago, would certainly have good reason to praise the Lord if he examined the enormous difference which exists between the Christians of that time and those of today.”
In 1856, Father Semeria was appointed coadjutor of Jaffna and was ordained to the episcopacy by Bishop de Mazenod on August 17, 1856, in the chapel of the scholasticate in Montolivet, on the occasion of the General Chapter. Scarcely had he returned to Jaffna, when he became Apostolic Vicar due to the death of Bishop Bettachini, which had taken place on July 26. He immediately put into action some of the plans he had made on arrival in Jaffna ten years previously. His first project was to form a team of missionaries (Fathers Constant Chounavel, Jean Le Bescou, and Christopher Bonjean) of which he himself often took charge, because, he said, he was the only Oblate in Ceylon who had preached missions in France and who was familiar with the traditional method of the Congregation. These missions were soon to prove as fruitful as they had been in Europe and in Canada. He also took charge of another important item in his plans: the opening of schools and even of a seminary for the purpose of forming catechists and priests. He brought the Holy Family Sisters of Bordeaux to manage the schools and to open dispensaries. As bishop, he also had six or seven churches built, as well as a number of chapels and presbyteries. According to his report to the general chapter in 1861 the number of Christians in the diocese of Jaffna had reached 55,000, divided into 240 communities.
Bishop Semeria also had the gift of being able to make himself loved by those who worked with him. In the words of Bishop Bonjean: “Perhaps sometimes he was strict for others, as he always was for himself, but this excellent superior was able to have others accept willingly what would have seemed burdensome if it came from another. That was because he had a delicate hand and his procedures were always amiable. He never put pressure on anyone and his patient charity always waited for the opportune moment. He was able to appreciate the differences in character and mood and to adapt to them. He would often say to me: ‘If only we knew the good that is in every person and were able to encourage and develop it while being less concerned with the defects which are inseparable from our poor nature, we would find that people are more docile, much more amenable. In that way they would become better persons. There are few people who could not be convinced if only we knew how to take them.”
The Apostolic Vicar came to Europe to take part in the 1867 General Chapter. He intended to return on January 26, 1858, after having visited the families of his missionaries. He arrived at the church of the Calvaire on December 29 with a bad cold. On January 15 he was shivering. He was diagnosed to have catarrh and a high fever. As well as that he developed complications of the gallbladder. He died on January 23 at the age of 54 years and eleven months. His funeral took place in the cathedral on the 24th and was presided by Bishop Place of Marseilles. He is buried in the Oblate tomb in the cemetery of Aix-en-Provence.
Bishop Bonjean ends his necrology note with these words: “As a little child, a student, a novice, a religious, a priest, a missionary bishop, Bishop Semeria was always the same: a kind and humble saint. He leaves our little society with the treasure of his example. To us, his children in Ceylon, by means of the precious goods of his dear memory, he leaves us the inheritance of his virtues and his good works.”
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.