Abbé de Mazenod returned to Aix in the beginning of November 1812. After a few months of recollection and study he preached in Provençal in the church of la Madeleine all the Sundays of Lent, 1813 up until April 11. On April 25, the first Sunday after Easter, he laid the foundations of the association of Christian youth along with seven young people among whom was Jacques Marcou who was to become a Missionary of Provence.
Shortly after his return from exile in 1802, Eugene had already noticed that the youth were growing up without any Christian education in the schools, in the colleges under the monopoly of the universities where ministry by the clergy, although officially allowed as far as catechism and public worship was concerned, met with indifference and even hostility. Encouraged by the success garnered by his Lenten preaching to the lower classes and the poor people, he decided to “work” also on the youth. This endeavour was not without its dangers. From 1809 on, Napoleon had forbidden all kinds of meetings for religious purposes. Youth associations like that of Abbé Allemand at Marseilles were dissolved.
The congregation, initially called an association, grew at a rapid and regular rate. From a membership of 25 at the end of 1813, it grew to about 60 in 1814, 120 in 1815, 200 in 1816 and about 300 at the end of 1817. It subsequently diminished little by little after the founding of the Missionaries of Provence and the numerous commitments of the Founder.
Abbé de Mazenod accepted young people from 10 to 12 years of age and from all social classes. In order to avoid arousing suspicion on the part of the police, the association initially disguised itself as a young people’s club and often changed its place of meeting. After the purchase of the former Carmelite convent towards the end of 1815, the meetings were held in the Mission church. Missionaries, postulants and novices mingled with the young people in the same house, especially on Thursdays and Sundays. That explains why some twenty members of the association became postulants and novices in the Missionaries of Provence.
In 1813 already, Abbé de Mazenod drew up a rule “which covers all the duties that [the members] are to fulfill, whether as Christians, or as congregants, and which provides them with the means to sustain their piety, to study properly, in a word to achieve their salvation amid all the dangers that beset them on every side.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 16, p. 125) This rule was completed little by little and, in 1816, the statutes appeared in the form of 544 articles. The Youth Association was a preliminary experiment preparing for the future institute of the Missionaries of Provence. In the statutes and in the explanation of the exercises of piety, the ceremonies of acceptance or of expulsion, the account of the director’s suffering at the death of association members, etc., we see elements of the future congregation of missionaries as well as common themes such as: the imitation of Our Lord and the first Christians, the blood of the Savior, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, divine office, etc.
After Father de Mazenod’s departure for Marseilles in 1823, the Youth Association staggered on and disappeared about 1840.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.