The following is adapted from something I posted on Facebook last year on Francis de Sales’ feast day. As the patron saint of writers, Francis may not necessarily appeal to poets and novelists–his work was more of the journalistic and propagandistic type–but the sixteenth-century Frenchman still holds an esteemed place in many writers’ hearts.
St. Francis Bonaventure de Sales
Born to the noble Sales family in modern-day France on August 21, 1567, young Francis was destined by his parents for a career in the magistracy. As the eldest child, he was baptized with the name of both parents (François and Françoise!) and the name of the famous Franciscan philosopher-priest Bonaventure. He was an avid student of rhetoric and philosophy, and obediently learned aristocratic arts like riding, dancing and fencing, but his heart remained in religion.
As a youth, Francis avoided temptations to impurity by making a vow of chastity under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, but was constantly tempted to anger throughout his life. His war against anger drove him to practice gentleness to all. When later in life his friends chastised him for being too lenient with heretics and sinners, he said, “I would rather account to God for too great gentleness and for too great severity. Is not God all love?” He was also tempted to despair when presented with the recently deceased John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, fearing greatly that he was not among the elect. His prayer that he would be allowed to love God even in Hell freed him from this fear, and this trial undoubtedly gave him the compassion to later minister to those lost in Calvinism.
By the age of 24, Francis had received his doctorate in law and his family pressured him to marry a local young heiress, but he maintained a distantly courteous relation to her that made it clear he held no interest in marriage. Over the next two years he gradually convinced his father to permit him to receive ordination as a priest.
At that point, Francis was quickly dispatched on missionary journeys to bring areas lost to the Calvinist heresy back to the Church. He was frequently homeless and abused by the local people, twice escaping assassination, and beaten by an angry mob while trying to restore an oratory. Once he was forced to flee the attentions of wolves and had to spend a freezing night in a tree. He wrote endless pamphlets against heresy and slowly brought many apostates to reconciliation with the Faith. Later estimates put the number of his converts somewhere between 60 and 72 thousand.
In 1602 Francis was made bishop of the Calvinist stronghold Geneva, over which he presided from the nearby city of Annecy. From then until his death in 1622 he continued his work of preaching against heresy with the help of the Capuchin friars, founded the women’s religious order of The Visitation of Holy Mary with the pious widow Jane Frances de Chantal, wrote many books of theology and spiritual direction for religious and laymen, and always insisted on increasing the virtues of humility and meekness.
His beatification forty years later in 1662 was the first to take place in the recently reconstructed St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and he was canonized a saint three years later in 1665. His heart was preserved as a relic in a silver case and venerated by the Order of The Visitation until the French Revolution, when it was removed to Venice for fear of sacrilege, and it is kept to this day at the Monastery of the Visitation in nearby Treviso.
The American city of St. Louis was home to many immigrant groups, including a burgeoning German Catholic community in the 1800s. On September 15, 1867, the first cornerstone of St. Francis de Sales Church was placed on land purchased by seven German dairymen. This building was destroyed in the Great St. Louis Tornado of 1896, an F4 from a supercell which also claimed 255 lives. It was rebuilt under the direction of the German-American architect Viktor Klutho in the Gothic style, and rededicated on May 27, 1908.
The result must be seen to be believed, containing a wealth of stained glass windows by renowned St. Louis glazier Emil Frei, mosaics, statues, and side chapels. The parish declined with the decline of the city, especially from the 1950s onward, and the building was scheduled to be demolished in 2005 when Archbishop Raymond Burke decided to place the church in the hands of the Institute of Christ the King, an order founded in Africa dedicated to celebrating the old Latin Mass. Since then, the Oratory community has been slowly but persistently restoring the church and its campus to its previous state.
In modern times St. Francis is known mostly for his book Introduction to the Devout Life, a work of spiritual direction written generally for laymen, and particularly for his cousin Madame Marie de Charmoisy (addressed as “Philothea” or Lover of God throughout). The main thrust of the work is the insistence that holiness be pursued by people in all walks of life, not just by monks and clergy.
The feast of St. Francis was celebrated on January 29 since 1666. This was moved to January 24, the day of the saint’s burial, by Paul VI as a part of his general Roman calendar revisions in 1969.