Fr. Louis Querbes, founder of the Clerics of St. Viator, was born Aug. 21, 1793, in Lyons, France in the midst of the “Reign of Terror.” The Reign of Terror took place during the French Revolution, during which many priests were killed and churches were destroyed because the Catholic Church was seen as an ally of the French royalty. He became a parish priest during its terrible aftermath. Living conditions were deplorable for young people and schools were in a shambles.
Many people saw the clergy as the source of all their troubles. It was not a very promising time for a young priest. But Querbes was ready for it. He was a man of deep faith, intelligence and vision. He cared deeply about people and knew that it was fear and ignorance that caused them to blame others for their own failures and unhappiness. He worked tirelessly at dispelling both.
As pastor of a small, run-down church in the village of Vourles, near the large city of Lyons, France, he received several anonymous and threatening notes from townsmen who supported the Revolution and resented the Catholic Church. One of these notes read: “People are correct in calling you brave, for there now exists very few priests who dare preach, as openly as you do, against the evils caused by the Revolution. Say what you like, now, and find excuses for the clergy. Formerly you clerical prigs kept the world in ignorance, but our eyes have finally been opened. We now realize that the clergy is the source of all our trouble. Continue to say and do whatever you like, but never again will you be able to control the people as if they were puppets.”
Fr. Querbes gained the respect of his people by answering such attacks from the pulpit. We find this reply among his sermons: “Each morning, for quite some time now, I have discovered letters in my yard, obviously thrown there during the night. Since they do not bear a signature, I am unable to reply privately to those who honor me by taking time to write to me. On the chance that the author might possibly be in this audience, I offer him my reply publicly.” He then read the letters, pausing occasionally to clarify and comment on the principal accusations. Skillfully and truthfully, he answered their arguments, pointing out in everyday language the false logic of their conclusions. The opposition was disarmed. The anonymous letters ceased.
Fr. Querbes was understandably encouraged by his success with the people of Vourles, but he realized that much more needed to be done. Schools throughout France were still deplorable. The disorganization and confusion following the Revolution caused very serious neglect. Few centers of education existed; practically none in the areas outside the larger cities. Teachers were ill prepared and always poorly paid. Parishes, too, were understaffed, their pastors overworked and battling discouragement. They needed help.
Fr. Querbes devised a plan he called a, “Pious Association of Lay Auxiliaries.” He would train Catholic men to serve as teachers who also helped their pastors with liturgy. Originally, the group was not meant to become a religious congregation. There would be no vows, and membership was opened to married and unmarried men. The association would guarantee spiritual, intellectual, profession and material benefits to its teachers. But the church had other plans for this “Pious Association of Lay Auxiliaries,” and in 1831 it became a new religious congregation called the Clerics of Saint Viator.
Father Querbes would speak of the mission of his society as “the teaching of Christian Doctrine and the service of the Holy Altar.” As he explained to Gregory XVI, his society would be a congregation of religious who pronounce simple vows with very few priests and would be parochial clerics (“service of the Holy Altar”) and catechists who teach Christian Doctrine and secular subjects in elementary schools. Bishop de Pins, in his letter to Gregory XVI, emphasized “the very good spirit, the zeal, the virtues and the fully effective and laudable end” of the institute. He also made it clear that the society had already dedicated itself to the education of the poor in the rural areas surrounding Lyons.
With pontifical approval the congregation began to grow and expand. The community attempted a foundation in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1841 that lasted only until 1847. The foundation to L’Industrie, Canada was much more successful. By 1859 there were 45 religious in Canada. In France the community also grew in size. By the time of the founder’s death in 1859, there were more than 200 Catechists of Saint Viator in France. More and more villages that could only afford one Brother would turn to Querbes’ community because his Brothers could be missioned individually rather than in the customary groups of three.
In the summer of 1859 Father Querbes’ diabetes began to takes its toll on him. After receiving the Sacrament of the Sick on August 19, Father Querbes was reported to have said to his brothers gathered around his bed, “Obey him [Father Favre] as you would me. Banish any spirit of division among you. Be obedient. Share my recommendations with those who are absent. I bless you one and all.” Father Querbes died two days later, on Thursday, September 1, at the age of 66. He is buried in the cemetery at Vourles. His gravestone describes him as a “priest of great zeal, selfless and admirable charity.”
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