- Personnel and Main Events from 1836 to our Day.
- Apostolic Activities of the Community.
- House of Study
- The ministry of the Oblates since the War
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate still reside in the convent of St- Francis of Vico, the ninth foundation accepted in 1836 by the Founder. Situated fifty kilometers north of Ajaccio, this franciscan convent dates back to the end of the XV century. It become national property at the beginning of the French Revolution and thus the building escaped destruction.
Bishop Raphaël Casanelli, appointed Bishop of Ajaccio in 1833, decided to endow his diocese with a community of missionaries. He bought the property in February 1836 and, by an act signed on May 7 of the same year, donated it to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who had arrived in Ajaccio the previous year.
Personnel and Main Events from 1836 to our Day.
The life of the Oblate community of Vico has never been without problems. More than anywhere else, personnel changed often there. The brothers who remained on the spot habitually suffered from loneliness and asked for a transfer, whereas for most of the Fathers, mission life was so rough and exhausting that soon they were in poor health and needed to be transferred elsewhere.
The community counted seventeen Superiors from 1836 until 1903, the date when the Oblates were expelled, and thirteen from 1935 till 1991, i.e., an average of four years for each Superior. An interesting fact to be underlined is that among the first five Superiors, two died in the odor of sanctity – Charles Dominique Albini, from 1836 until 1839, and Dominique Luigi, from 1851 until 1858 – and two became Bishops – Étienne Semeria, from 1840 until 1847, and Mathieu Balain, from 1858 until 1859.
The personnel of the house always numbered between five and ten Fathers and Brothers, according to the various ministries and the more or less greater demand for parish missions.
A few important events have marked the history of the community. Here are the main ones.
On May 20 1839 Fr. Albini died. “Because of him”, it has been written, “the convent of Vico acquired great celebrity. Continuing with a new spirit, with undiminished ardor the religious work that the Franciscans had pursued for centuries, the Oblates made this convent perhaps the most important in all of Corsica. (Paul Fontana in Missions, 70 (1936), P.414).
Very often Bishop Casanelli stayed in Vico and, especially during the summer from 1837 till 1869, he spent a period of holidays there. The house then became the ‘rendez-vous’ of numerous pastors and faithful. Bishop de Mazenod and Bishop Hippolyte Guibert accompanied them during the month of October 1851. The Founder then ascertained personally the inconveniences of this presence, of which the Superiors had often complained, not only because of the greater expenses, but especially because it was impossible to continue regular life as called for by the Rule. He therefore made a brief canonical visitation, the text of which ends in these words: “This is all that I can say in the ‘brouhaha’ in which we find ourselves ( … )”. That is why Bishop de Mazenod sometimes thought of recalling the Oblates from Vico. For example, he wrote to Fr. Semeria on November 3, 1848: “That house (at Vico) is too much of a burden to us, and so I am leaving there only two missionaries, and waiting for a time later on to remove them, if we can establish ourselves elsewhere, in a house which will be really ours, and where we can be the sole masters” (Oblate Writings, 4, p.21).
The canonical visitations also left traces in the life of the community and the archives; we know those of Frs. Henry Tempier in 1838 and 1846, Casimir Aubert in1856, 1857 and 1858, Ambroise Vincens in 1860, Louis Soull¡er in 1874, Celestin Augier in 1874 and 1876, Victor Bourde in 1888. In 1838, Fr- Albini thanked the Founder for sending Fr. Tempier. He wrote him on July 7 that the Visitor had re-established order and regularity in the house at Vico, and ended with these words: ‘We hope to have one of these so vivifying visitations every year”.
No other event surpassed in importance and danger of a riot by the people than when the community was expelled in 1903. By the decree of March 29 1880, the French Government expelled religious from France. The Corsican Oblates were spared for a time. Three thousand citizens of Vico and the neighbourhood had signed a petition declaring themselves ready to lay down their lives to keep the Oblates in the convento. In July 1901 came a new expulsion law against unauthorized Congregations. The Oblates of Vico received the order to give up the house to the Government on May 2 1903. The crowd gathered to prevent the forces of law and order from dislodging the Oblates and the judicial authorities from sealing the doors. The Prefect called in soldiers who were to arrive on the 3rd. To avoid bloodshed, Fr. Bernadin d’Istria spoke from a window of the convent and convinced the faithful to permit the departure of the community, which was then solemnly escorted from the convent to the village of Vico.
The convent was nationialized for only a short time. Bishop Noël Casanelli, Vicar General and nephew of Bishop Raphaël Casanelli d’Istria, contested in court a clause in his uncle’s act of donation of the convent to the Oblates; it stipulated that if the latter left the convent for whatever reason, the property should return to his family. He won his case in 1907 and the convent became the property of the Casanelli family, who made it their summer house.
Did Bishop Noël Casanelli promise to give the convent back to the Congregation after his death which occurred in 1910? The fact remains that Fr. BartélemyAlbertini, supported by the Bishop, laid a claim to it.The four Casanelli descendants refused; Bishop Jean- Baptiste Desanti excommunicated them as illegitimate holders of Church goods. The reconciliation of the family with the Church took place only in 1927. The convent was then given to the diocese
The house remained practically unoccuppied. Bishop J.M. Rodié asked the Oblates to settle into it again, but the Province of Midi wasn’t interested. Fr. Hilaire Balmès, director of the major seminary at the time, wrote a long plea in favour of the Oblates’ return to Vico. Without insisting on the good that could still be done, he asserted that this house should remain a family heritage because of the souvenirs left there by Fr. Albini whose remains lie in the Church.
On August 2 1935, after a thirty-two year absence, the Oblates took possession of the convent again. Since then, they continue their apostolic ministry in the region.
One of the dominant concerns of all the Superiors who succeded one another in Vico was to repair, restore and improve the buildings. In 1837, Fr. Guibert accomplished the most urgent repairs during his summer holidays. In January 1838, he obtained permission from the Founder to use the salaries of the seminary directors to complete the furnishing of the convent. In 1847-1848, Fr. Antoine Rolleri got the roof repaired and raised the ceilings of the rooms. During his Superiorship from 1862 until 1867, Fr. Antoine Mouchette restored the Church. In 1878-1879 Fr. Antoine Audric had a ‘Calvary’ constructed and, in1889, Fr. François Semeria adorned the Church with a facade and bell tower. The reports published in Missions from,1885 until 1897 give an account of the work: church roof, stair-cases. corridors, etc.
When the Congregation returned in 1935, electricity was installed and after the war, Fr. Clément Chaigne renovated the house again, at great cost. On May 20 1954 on the occasion of the Marian Year, a Lourdes grotto was inaugurated. Since that time, each year a Marian day draws the faithful of the surrounding areas together; all of them hope that this will one day be the Feast-day of (Blessed) Dominique Albini.
Except between 1903 and 1935, a few Brothers always lived in Vico; some of them remained there for a long time and played an important part, especially Bros. Jean- Bernard Ferrand, Pierre Métifiot and later, Noël Nati, able gardeners and even cattle-breeders; they thus contributed to the maintenance of the community whose revenues had never been high.
Apostolic Activities of the Community.
By buying the convent of Vico and giving it to the Oblates, Bishop Casanelli d’Istria had intended to make it a centre of missionary outreach. In fact, it is through the work of parish missions that the convent became famous in Corsica since 1836-1838. However, Fr. Albini preached only nine missions and a repeat-mission, but the power of his teaching, the enthusiasm of his example, the excitement kindled by the miracles he worked left an unforgettable remembrance. Frs. Étienne Semeria and after 1847, Antoine Rolleri, who in their turn had replaced Fr. Albini among the Italians of Marseilles, came to Vico and continued to preach missions with the same success.
After the death of Bishop de Mazenod, the number of retreats and missions given each year increased little by little until the end of the century. About ten a year from 1861 until 1867, at a time when the Oblates also directed a minor seminary; about fifteen thereafter. Few missions have been featured in the review Missions as much as those of Corsica. In practically every issue until 1903, highly detailed reports of the principal missions were published. From 1869 till 1873, three or four Fathers preached thirty-seven missions, sixty-five retreats, lenten retreats, etc., from 1873 until 1879, ninety-one missions and retreats; about a hundred between 1879 and 1886; about ten each year from 1996 until 1902. In a note published in Missions in 1873, we read that the demands for missions had lessened ‘as a result of the establishment in Corsica of religious missionaries of various orders, who had been obliged to leave Italy”, but also because of the poverty of parishes.
In order to increase the revenues of the community, Bishop de Mazenod had asked Bishop Casanelli as early as 1841, to put a priest in charge of the rectory of Nesa, a hamlet close to the convento The latter consented in 1845. Fr. Joseph de Veronico served there for many long years and built the church which was completed in 1874.
At the convent itself, the ministry at the church kept a priest occupied all the time; several had to be there during Holy Week, the Feast of St. Anthony, the Portiuncula, St. Lucy; the church then became, according to Franciscan tradition, a much frequented place of pilgrimage.
House of Study
On several occasions the convent of Vico received seminarians or Oblates in formation.
In 1836, Bishop Casanelli gave up sending seminarians there because of the distance from Ajaccio. However, they spent the school year 1838-1839 there, while the workmen added three floors to the old seminary of Ajaccio.
When he arrived in Corsica in 1846, Fr. Jean-Joseph Magnan suggested to Bishop Casanelli d’Istria the establishment of an ecclesiastical school in Vico. The episcopal council was opposed and Bishop de Mazenod was happy about it. Fr. Dominique Luigi, Superior at Vico from 1851 till 1858, got what had been refused to Fr. Magnan. The convent of Vico received the seminarians from 1855 until 1864. The idea was to foster the vocations of poor children and simplify the program of studies. Some of the students were boarders, about thirty others came daily from Vico or the surrounding areas. In 1863, Fr. Joseph Fabre closed the boarding-house and the two higher classes because the number of students was not in proportion to the sacrifices which the Oblates were imposing upon themselves. On June 1, 1865, Fr. Antoine Mouchette announced that the school had not opened its doors for the school year 1864-1865 and that the house had reverted to its original purpose, missions. He did not give the motives for this decision.
When the convent was re-opened in 1935, for three years Vico became a juniorate for late vocations. About ten juniorsts were listed each year as members of the community. In 1941, the house took the name Albini Scholasticate for ill or convalescent scholastics. It was closed in 1947 because some of the five or six Brothers were often ill and it was not possible to have a regular ordered life-style; besides, they had to travel often to Ajaccio for visits to the doctor for hospital treatment.
The ministry of the Oblates since the War
During the 1950s, the Franco-Canadian school of Lyon organized catechetical camps in Corsica. In 1956, for example, the camp counted sixty-two participants with seven Fathers; divided up among six working sessions. They taught catechism to hundreds of children.
The demand for missions lessened progressively and stopped in 1962. The Fathers therefore moved to parish ministry, taking charge of what Fr. Chaigne called, in1946, pioneer sectors. By an agreement of July 11, 1946 between Bishop Collini and Fr. Albert Schneider, Provincial , the Oblates took charge of parish ministry in a rural sector composed of eleven parishes. During the same period, the Fathers worked in abandoned parishes situated in the center-east of the island. Porta Ampugnani remained for twenty years a center for pastoral activity, from where the Oblates ministered in twenty to twenty-five rural parishes. In 1991, Oblates were serving in twenty-eight rural parishes.
The convent has become a place to receive sessions, retreats, but also a ‘rendez-vous’ where numerous socio-cultural activities are organized for a regional population that is losing its demographic vitality.
Corsica remains a mission country with few priests and a religious practice which does not surpass ten per cent on the average. The zeal of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate has not diminished but alas, it can no more be maintained because of their age and physical strength.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.