TO YOU ALONE, 0 God, it belongs to touch the hearts of people. In acknowledging your power, with what effect do I also acknowledge your love! You love me, divine Saviour, and prove it in a striking way. I know your tenderness is infinite, for not even my innumerable and continuous acts of ingratitude can exhaust it. For a long time you have wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk with me. For just as long I have been unwilling to listen. You try to convince me that you want to make use of me in the most hallowed religious posts, but I try not to believe you. If your voice sometimes makes an impression on my mind, the world comes along a moment later and effaces all the impressions of grace. ... The siege you have mounted against me during this retreat will be glorious though not so difficult as its predecessors. I did not come here to defend myself but only to let myself be won over.*
* From young Claude's reflections while on retreat.
Claude Poullart des Places from Brittany went to the seminary of Saint Louis Le Grand, where the poorer seminarians studied and where they gave no degrees.
The street kids from Savoy - the chimney sweeps of Paris - were lonely and homesick in this faceless city. While a seminarian, Claude became their friend, taught them to read and write, gave them some basic religious education and looked after them as best he could.
It struck him that many of the seminarians were not much better off. In order to pay for their accommodation they had to get minimum wage, part time jobs. Claude shared his father's allowance with four or five of the poor students and prevailed on the Jesuits to give them any leftover food. Eventually he was able to rent a house for about twelve seminarians. On Pentecost Sunday 1703 he began the community and seminary consecrated to the Holy Spirit and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Mary. See Paris 1703
The Seminary of the Holy Spirit
Only poor seminarians were accepted. Claude did not want those who chose the priesthood as a career. There was one rule for everybody, staff and seminarians, including Claude: he washed dishes, cleaned shoes, ran messages and did the shopping just like everyone else. He expected everyone to "eat with gratitude what was placed before them and not go looking for something better."
In addition to being poor, the seminarians had to be willing to work in the most difficult and impoverished parishes, and as hospital chaplains. Bishops would later seek them for overseas work in the French colonies. They were trained to be both competent and caring. "A dedicated priest who lacks learning is blind," said Claude. "A learned priest who lacks dedication is in danger of falling into heresy." He gave these penniless future priests a training that was better and longer than that of most of their contemporaries.
It soon became apparent that he could not do it all by himself. He gathered a small community of formators who together would shoulder the responsibility for these young men. This marked the real beginning of the Spiritans.
Claude himself was ordained in 1707 and less than two years later he was dead. The severe winter of 1709 proved too much for him. They cared for him in his seminary as no bed was available in the local hospital. They buried him in a pauper's plot in the nearby churchyard of St Etienne - in a common ditch, to be covered over with earth and used again as needed. An unmarked grave. No monument. But an enduring legacy.
The church of St. Etienne-du-Mont from which Claude Poullart des Places was buried in 1709. The church is located near the present Spiritan Mother House. The grave site is now gone.
Interior of St. Etienne-du-Mont
The writings of Claude Francis Poullart des Places 1679-1709
Translated by Fr. Wilfrid Gandy, C.S.Sp.
Spiritan Research and Animation Centre
Clivo di Cinna, 195
(re-edition of Spiritan Papers # 16)
Picture from a charcoal drawing by Jean Dehais, C.S.Sp.