Claude des Places was born on February 25, 1679 in Rennes, the capital city of Brittany, France. He was the eldest child and only son of Francis des Places and Jeanne le Meneust. His parents were exemplary Christians and citizens, very hardworking and magnanimous in their dealings with employees and the poor neighborhood.
The Parents of des Places
Claude's father was not only one of the wealthiest business men in the city but also enjoyed considerable standing in the community as a lawyer advocate in the Breton Parliament. He was legitimately proud of his family that could trace its nobility back to the Middle Ages and spoke frequently about its many deeds of valor on the battle fields of France and their outstanding loyalty at all times to the Catholic church.
Claude's mother also belonged to the aristocracy and although her father died young and "left nothing to his daughter except a good education", it was thanks to it that Jeanne became governess to the First Family in Brittany, that of the President of the Provincial Parliament, Claude Marbeuf. After the President's wife died leaving a large family, Jeanne became as indispensable to the Marbeuf children as Maria, the Sound of Music heroine, was to the Von Trappe family. In fact, even after Marbeuf remarried, Jeanne delayed her own marriage another twelve months in order to help the new bride cope with her instant large family, a big city mansion and three country castles.
The Hands that Rocked the Cradle
As a result of her own husband's frequent absences on business and government affairs it was left to Claude's stay-at-home mother to take care of him and who more qualified than this wonderful lady who had previously given so much of herself to look after other people's children? What wonder then that these early years chez lui were to be the all-important foundation of Claude's future holiness. Jeanne had him baptized and consecrated to the Blessed Mother the day after his birth and, up to his seventh birthday, dressed him in white for all Mary's big feast days. With such a loving mother's care, Claude, as the records show, early manifested a great love for prayer and the things of God - even building little altars in honour of the Mother of God.
Early Childhood and Schooling
As early childhood kindergartens were unknown in those days, Claude was fortunate that his parents could afford to hire the best of tutors for him before they enrolled him at the age of nine or ten as a day student in the nearby Jesuit College of St. Thomas, thus beginning his life-long association with the Society of Jesus.
While well deserved credit is always given to Claude's mother for her wonderful influence in his childhood, all too often little or no importance is ever given Claude's father for his role in his son's teenage and early manhood years. Yet Francis was always there at the most decisive moments of those years - a rock of savoir-faire and common sense for an often-impetuous young man.
In fact to know the father was to know the son, so alike were they in so many ways, even as shrewd entrepreneurs in real estate. For example just as his Dad moved the family mansion very often in Rennes and in Paris, Claude moved his seminary three times in its first six years and always to a bigger and better location!
A Man for All Seasons
When he was one of the most eligible bachelors of Rennes as a young man, Francis waited for years for his girlfriend, Jeanne, to end the saga of her self-sacrificing devotedness to the Marbeuf family. When Claude, as a young boy once nearly killed his sister, Francis blamed himself for leaving his gun still loaded after he had scared off an intruder the night before.
One can imagine the scene - a mischievous little sister (six years his junior) annoying an older brother practicing his lead role in a high school play. To scare her, he picks up his father's gun and presuming it unloaded as it always was, aims it at her head - a perfect scenario for a family tragedy! Fortunately, the shot passed inches above Jeanne Françoise's head and in between Claude's mother and a cousin, Anne Marie, who lived with them at the time.
Then not long after, when Claude himself on a hunting trip was nearly killed by a careless close-range discharge from a companion's gun, it was mon père again, to the rescue relieved that his son was recovering from a life threatening stomach wound, he happily covered the operating surgeon's costs.
Later Claude full of himself in his early twenties, rode out on horseback on his way to law school in Nantes, and got himself into a roadside brawl in which he seriously wounded an unarmed 'commoner' with his sword. Once again mon père, in an out-of court settlement, safeguarded his son's good name and like many a father in public life today, forgave his son for all the bad publicity Claude had brought to the family.
And not surprisingly, mon père at first had difficulty in understanding why his only son, a very eligible bachelor, would not marry and keep the family name alive and why as a qualified lawyer he turned his back on a promising career in law. But when Claude finally indicated that he wished to dedicate his life to the service of God, although just as hard-headed a business man as the father of St. Francis of Assisi, Francis did not disown his son but backed him up completely even when Claude indicated that he would not be joining the Upper Clergy, so powerful in France at that time or entering a religious community as influential and as closely associated with the family as the Society of Jesus. Claude's plan was to start a small seminary to train young men from the working classes as priests to meet the long neglected spiritual and social justice needs of the common people of France. In this venture Francis gave his son his total support.
Seeds of Devotion
The home-life story of Claude des Places, and that of so many of his followers, over the last 300 years might be seen as simple endorsements of what Pope John Paul so strongly stressed in a recent encyclical. "It is through the family that all humanity passes for good or ill..."
As Spiritans so often attest, the seeds of their vocation to serve God in a special option for the poor were sown early in their hearts by the living example of wonderful parents rather than by any formal instructions.
by Fr. Michael Troy, C.S.Sp.