Boyer, Father Arsenius

1939, January 1

Date of Birth: 1852, July 18

March 14, 1939

Fathers and Dear Confreres:

A priest of former times, in the likeness of Nagot, Tessier, and Magnien, one who has left so strong a memory in Baltimore, perhaps the most beloved Sulpician in the United States in 150 years – such was Father Boyer, whom God called to Himself in the earliest hours of the present year.

Arsène [Arsenius] Boyer was born on July 18, 1852, at St. Jean de Pourcharesse in the Diocese of Viviers on a farm belonging to his family for centuries. The house goes all the way back to the 1400s. His parents, Apollinaire Boyer and his wife, Madeleine Pansier at birth, had eight children, all of whom lived to be quite old. He was baptized by an uncle who lived to be ninety-two; his godparents were a brother and a sister. That particular sister became a nun.

The Boyer family was deeply religious. At the time of his golden jubilee, one of his friends wrote to him: “In contrast to mothers of today, your mother knew what it meant to fast, for she did it … Your father, who worked all week, would not, when Sunday came, miss Mass even if threatened with a cannon ball. No one in those days forgot the adage – God comes first.”

After his parents, the two individuals who had the greatest influence on Arsenius Boyer’s upbringing were Father Brun, the pastor of St. Jean de Purcharesse, and his assistant, Father Deschanel, who was to be his successor. To the first, our confrere attributed his vocation. He said;  “He was the one who imbued our mothers with the spirit of religion – the vehicle of so many vocations to the priesthood.” The second, Father Deschanel, was his first teacher. As assistant, he took under his wing boys who showed some signs of vocation. He prepared them for minor seminary or college. He tested them.

Father Boyer passed the test. In 1868 he entered the Basilian College at Aubenas. From there, in 1873, he went to the major seminary of Viviers. There, he did a year of Philosophy and three years of Theology. Finally in 1877, he was admitted as aspirant to the Society. He came to the seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris, attended Father Brugère’s course on the Church and Father Hogan’s on Marriage, and at the same time he was a student of the Grand Cours [advanced studies].

In October, 1878, Father Boyer entered the Solitude. Some months later, on December 21st, he received priesthood at the Church of St. Sulpice at the hands of Archbishop Richard, Titular of Larisse and Coadjutor of Paris. His Solitude was begun. It went on as a happy one, smoothly and quietly, while there was growing in our confrere’s mind the wish of going to work in our Canadian houses.

His hope was only partially granted. Father Boyer was sent to America, but to Baltimore and not Montreal. Father Icard, Superior General, deemed that, more than Canada, the United States needed help.

Our confrere arrived in Baltimore during the 1879 vacation. We have no doubt about the extreme cordiality of his reception. He was to work there for nearly sixty years, always in the venerable St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca Street, which he never wanted to leave.

When he arrived, the construction of the seminary, under way for some time, had just been completed. The house, then one of the few seminaries in the United States, contained from 100 to 150 seminarians. Father Boyer did not expect to stay there. Father Icard had meant him to teach at the minor seminary of St. Charles, situated miles from Baltimore at Ellicott City. But Father Magnien kept him at St. Mary’s.

For a while Father Boyer did no teaching. He was learning English so as to be able to exercise his twofold ministry of teaching and director. His first teaching assignment was Holy Scripture. But he taught that for only a few months. Almost at once he was put in charge of the sciences. With some changes of detail and a distinct emphasis on Biology, he retained this assignment from 1881 to 1929.

His first students bear witness that in this subject his mastery was already extensive and deep. Father Boyer began by teaching Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. Then as the need arose of giving Biology an expanded role in the seminary, our confrere kept that branch of science for himself and turned over the teaching of Physics and Chemistry to Father Besnard. With other scientists Father Boyer very soon acquired the reputation of a real expert. He did a good deal of work in Chemistry at Johns Hopkins under the direction of the famous Remsen. And it was in that university, as well as at the school in Woods Hole in Massachusetts, that he perfected himself in Biology.

His classes were very interesting. Experiments were interspersed with explanations. To these he added “science walks” for research and the study of living things – plants and animals. It was on one of these excursions that he happened upon the spot where Belvedere [now Northern Parkway] and Roland (Park) Avenues intersect and which struck him as the possible site for the new St. Mary’s Seminary.

In class his teaching method was very much his own. In conducting his course, he assumed a very easy-going attitude, and threw in such witty remarks that his students – while becoming very fond of the teacher – acquired a taste for his subject matter, very willingly applied themselves to it, and (for the most part) made great progress in it. It is true that his classes were very free and easy. As to discipline, for one who was so traditional in everything Sulpician, he loosed the reins a bit on the necks of his students. When they went too far, he called them to order: “A little silence, Gentlemen!”  But such remonstrance was rare. He thought – and everyone knew it – that the best way for a teacher to control his class is to get it to work hard and to get sufficient – and perhaps a little more than sufficient – evidence of the work in various examinations. Father Boyer was not amiss here. So usually he gave the students free rein. And they used this freedom, usually without abusing it but conscientiously. That did not at all interfere with his authority. If now and then to tease him, they gave him the “silent treatment” (remaining serious in class, being attentive to the teacher’s explanation, not asking questions, not discussing the subject matter with their neighbors), Father Boyer, disturbed and worried, would say to his hearers: “Gentlemen, what is it?  What have I done?”  And then they would give him a new and rousing evidence of their approval of him, they would follow his lessons carefully, show how pleased they were with them, benefit from them, display truly scientific procedures, be mindful indeed of the teacher and his instruction, attempt to get others to benefit from the advantages that they themselves had derived from our confrere – like that American bishop, former student at St. Mary’s Seminary, who on the day of his old teacher’s diamond jubilee announced that he was donating $5,000 to establish a Chair of Biology in honor of Father Boyer.

But it would be a mistake to see only the teacher in the venerable Sulpician who has just left us. He was a director, sought after and very popular.

His spiritual influence on his penitents, in the seminary and out, was neither possessive nor devious. In the things he said in private, in the advice that he gave, in the opinions that he expressed to such or such of his penitents to set them on the right path or to keep them from straying, he took his lead especially from the teaching and example of St. Francis de Sales. His personal fervor in his religious life, his open friendliness to everyone, his readiness to help anyone who came to him for anything, but especially for spiritual or supernatural help, his way of responding in any of these matters, were completely simple and natural. As Bishop McNamara, Auxiliary of Baltimore, recalled with eloquence and delicacy in the sermon which he preached on the day of Father Boyer’s diamond jubilee, our confrere would not threaten souls with fear. He recommended rather zeal for God’s glory, the supernatural feeling of loyalty towards Our Lord, the utmost of faithful devotion to the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament.

Father Boyer’s teaching, both public and private, bore fruit first of all because he lived it and because it shone through his being. “He was,” wrote His Excellency, Archbishop Edward Mooney of Detroit, “the visible ideal of those to whom our country’s clergy owe so much because they have transplanted in the United States the incomparable work of St. Sulpice, learning quickly to love America without ceasing to cherish France, their native land. The ideal of those who are past masters in the art of teaching seminarians to become priests, opening up to them for that purpose the book of their own priestly lives with all the details of their daily mode of living.” And His Excellency, Archbishop Curley, emphasizing again that aspect of the Sulpician ministry which none among us should forget, summed up the secret of the sanctifying influence of Father Boyer in these words: “Father Boyer’s death takes from us one of the most blessed sources of influence which has been exercised in this diocese and this country. For sixty years his life has been that of a seminarian, simple, docile, fervent, devoted. Although he has been an expert and a teacher with an extraordinary pedagogical talent, his labors in the field of science were overshadowed by the good which his example did and which his life exhibited. The thousands of priests of this country who knew Father Boyer as teacher, counselor, and guide may forget what he said; they will never lose the memory of what he was and what he did.”

In effect, Father Boyer was identified with the spirit of St. Sulpice, the traditions of St. Sulpice, and St. Mary’s Seminary. He lived in that spirit, he made others aware of those traditions. Better than anyone else he knew the history of the Society of St. Sulpice in the United States. It was said [wryly] that he had personally met Father Nagot and the first Sulpicians sent to Baltimore by Father Emery at the request of Bishop Carroll, first bishop of that city. Archivist of the seminary, he jealously watched over the documents confided to his keeping. But charitable and obliging in that regard as in everything else, he generously supplied documents to Father Ruane for his thesis, The Beginnings of the Society of St. Sulpice in the United States, and to Mr. Herbermann for his fine work, The Sulpicians in the United States.

How highly he was thought of and loved in America!  This “old saint,” as he was called, “simple as a dove, prudent and wise as a serpent” for ten years led a rather retired life. He had been relieved of teaching. He had kept the account books of his confreres. But he did not in the least give up, near and far, his priestly and Sulpician influence. On fire with an ever-young missionary spirit, he was interested in the growth of the Church in the Far East, and helped with all his power our confreres of the Sulpician seminary in Hanoi.

At the old St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca Street (which he wished never to leave), he followed the rule in its entirety. Each morning he was the first at chapel to begin, before community morning prayer, his own hour of prayer. He was present at all the seminary exercises; took his place in the midst of the students, who admired and loved him. He remained for his superiors and confreres the frank counselor, loyal and kind, who never refused either advice or help of any kind.

His concern went beyond the seminary. He did much – and very unobtrusively – to help the Oblate Sisters of Providence. He was always at the disposal of his former students, whose names he remembered, and whom from a distance, he followed in their various ministries. Finally, his spiritual correspondence continued to enlighten and support the priests and bishops who had entrusted to him the direction of their souls. “Father Boyer’s letters,” wrote one American Archbishop, “did me as much good as two weeks of retreat.”

In spite of this deep and wide influence, Father Boyer lived in Baltimore for years and years without being known by the public, even Catholics. He went on that way at least until the day in 1928, when the Archbishop of Baltimore, laying the cornerstone of the new St. Mary’s Seminary at Roland Park, was praising in his talk St. Sulpice’s work in the United States, and was speaking of the hidden life of the seminary teacher and director. Suddenly interrupting himself, he exclaimed: “Father Boyer, come here!”  Then addressing the immense crowd of Baltimoreans who were at the ceremony: “Who among you know Father Boyer?  He is in your midst doing the most important kind of priestly work and you do not know him?  He is not looking to be known. He goes on living the life of a perpetual seminarian, devoted to the work of his community. I want to show him to you. Here he is!”

Father Boyer, we learn, was highly embarrassed at this unforeseen praise. He was still more so when in that same year of 1928, some days after the blessing of the cornerstone of the new St. Mary’s Seminary, the golden jubilee of the venerable Sulpician was celebrated. The same trial was given to his humility in November, 1928, at the Alumni Day gathering of former St. Mary Seminary students, when – anticipating it by some weeks – Father Boyer’s diamond jubilee was celebrated. Archbishop Curley of Baltimore presided. His Auxiliary, Bishop McNamara, preached at the Solemn Mass. Several bishops, many monsignors, 200 priests, and 270 seminarians were present. In consideration of the failing state of his health, Father Boyer appeared only at the end of the banquet which followed the chapel ceremonies. The Archbishop of Baltimore sat him at his own right hand. He asked him to speak. Father Boyer obeyed. The venerable Sulpician spoke of the past, of St. Mary’s Seminary, of his superiors and colleagues, of students and priests he had known, remembered and loved. And he referred to himself only to ask prayers: “I have finished my race. … Pray that I may say my Nune Dimittis without uneasiness and with resignation.”

When he had finished, the Archbishop of Baltimore, addressing the guests, said: “Let us all kneel, bishops as well as priests and seminarians, to receive Father Boyer’s blessing.” And so it was done, without anyone asking whether or not it was usual that the highest in rank be blessed by the lowliest.

A little more than a month after that moving scene, on the day of the sixtieth anniversary of his priesthood, December 21st, Father Boyer received the last sacraments. After that he gradually weakened, not sick except for that incurable sickness called old age. Some days before his death several of his confreres were around his bed on their knees. His Superior, Father McDonald, said to him: “Father, we are going to pray for you.” The sick man asked: “Pro hora mortis [For the hour of death]!”  “Yes, Father,” said Father McDonald in reply. And Father Boyer said: “Blessed be God.”

On the morning of January 1, 1939, the soul of our confrere was called to God.

The funeral was held on Wednesday, January 4th, at the Baltimore Cathedral. In Archbishop Curley’s absence, the Pontifical Mass was sung by Bishop McNamara, Auxiliary of Baltimore. Five other bishops, many monsignors, 250 priests (some from a distance) were present at the Mass. The 420 seminarians from Roland Park and Paca Street carried out the liturgical singing and ceremonies. Nearly all the city’s religious orders of men and women were represented at the Cathedral.

After the absolution the body was brought to Catonsville and buried in the cemetery of the minor seminary of St. Charles. On arriving in the United State sixty years previous, Father Boyer thought he was going to fulfill his ministry in that institution. In his last years he came there each week to give conferences to the Solitaires and to see his St. Charles’ confreres. It is there that he sleeps his last sleep, surrounded by the veneration of those who knew him and by the prayers of all.

Please, fathers and dear confreres, pray yourselves for Father Boyer’s soul, and accept the expression of my respectful affection in Our Lord.

P. Boisard

Vice-Superior General of St. Sulpice