Brianceau, Father Henry

1950, August 23

Date of Birth: 1874, November 23

September 14, 1950

Fathers and Dear Confreres:

One of our American confreres who came to teach at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in 1898, has just been called to God. He was one of those numberless French Sulpicians who, since April 8, 1791, left their country to go to America and, for the sake of the clergy in that great land, do there the traditional work of St. Sulpice. I am speaking of Father Brianceau, late teacher of Dogma in St. Mary’s Seminary.

Henri Louis Ferdinand Brianceau was born on November 23, 1874, at St. Hilaire de Talmont in the Diocese of Luçon. We have no information about his family, but knowing the very religious character of the Diocese of Luçon, we can, without being rash, believe that the family was solidly Christian and that it was from this inherent Christianity that our future confrere drew his priestly vocation.

He began his priestly training at the major seminary of his diocese, at Luçon, and he finished it at the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris. In that house the Sulpician who perhaps most influenced him was Father Boisbourdin. Along with him was the classes of Dogma which that venerable teacher gave for twenty-two years in the Patrology course. At first a bit surprised by the critical (in the best sense of that term) character of his teacher, he very quickly caught on to its value and usefulness. He also admired his teacher’s deep respect for Church tradition and his concern not to follow slavishly and a priori any author or any particular school. This respect and care was yoked with a very comprehensive knowledge of various philosophical systems; with a perfect faithfulness in looking into texts attributed or really belonging to the Fathers and Doctors; and with the attention to and the achievement of clarity and depth with which he looked into the most difficult questions, those especially which relate to the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Father Boisbourdin’s classes, it can be said, shaped Father Brianceau’s theological outlook and stabilized or strengthened his Sulpician vocation. That was again tested, because of particular circumstances, by the fact that Father Brianceau even before his priesthood was sent to England by the Superior General of St. Sulpice, Father Captier, to teach there and to perfect himself in the English language. Bishop Bourne of Southwark, later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, had asked for a Philosophy teacher for his St. John’s Seminary, and Father Brianceau was the one chosen.

Ordained deacon at St. Sulpice by Cardinal Richard at the Trinity ordinations of 1897, he left for England in the following vacation. At the opening of the seminary, he entered upon his duties. Bishop Bourne ordained him priest on December 18th of the same year, and he successfully completed the school year of 1897-1898 as priest-teacher and priest-student. He always congratulated himself on that trial which had been offered to him and which he had accepted with trust and good grace. In his last years he freely came back to that matter with his intimates, and he spelled out the advantages he had gained from it.

Normally, Father Brianceau would have been scheduled to make his Solitude the next year. Was there immediate need for him in the United States?  Did he prefer to test his Sulpician vocation for a longer time?  Whatever it was, during the 1898 vacation period Father Captier named him teacher of Holy Scripture and Church History at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. As an auxiliary, he taught those two classes for the two scholastic years, 1898-1899 and 1899-1900.

During the vacation period of 1900, Father Brianceau returned to France to visit his family and to make his Solitude at Issy. There he found some of his friends, Fathers Fenlon, Labauche, Mercier, and he cheerfully set himself at the exercises of his Sulpician novitiate. The outcome was fine. Father Brianceau settled into his vocation and [decided that he would be happy to exercise it in] the United States. That is why, after a short visit to the Diocese of Luçon, to St. Hilaire de Talmont, and to his relatives, he took the steamer back to New York and Baltimore.

Having reached St. Mary’s Seminary, he took up in the community the place he had left one year previous. But this time he was appointed to teach Dogma. After starting with the class of general Dogmatic Theology, he was appointed to Special Dogma for forty-five years, that is to say, until his retirement in 1948.

To this regular work, he joined several others, notably: chaplain to the Christian Brothers and their students at Calvert Hall College; chaplain at Spring Grove Hospital; and, now and then, part-time ministry in one or another of the Baltimore parishes. In all these ministries, as Monsignor Joseph Leary pointed out in our confrere’s eulogy, Father Brianceau showed himself to be and was a true priest of Jesus Christ. He could have taken as his motto the words of St. Paul the Apostle, the words which the preacher applied to him: “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ Jesus.”

As a confessor and director, he gave his penitents, seminarians and priests, the impression that he lived habitually in the company of the saints; so naturally did he speak of them. Often, either in direction or in confession, he found a way to apply to the priest or seminarian who was with him some striking trait from the life of a saint who wonderfully matched the state of soul of the penitent and matched the penitent’s most pressing spiritual advantage.

He enjoyed excellent health. Thus, it seems, he never omitted his daily duties. But his punctuality, which had nothing affected or theoretical about it, could not have been solely the effect of innate disposition. It extended to his slightest obligation. So far as his spiritual ministry is concerned, it is known that he was always at the disposition of the clergy, and Baltimore priests took the opportunity of coming to him in large numbers. The same can be said of his classes: it is said that for nearly fifty years, he never missed a class and was never late for its opening.

We recalled, a moment ago, that Father Brianceau was the chaplain of the Christian Brothers and their students. It is a fact that for thirty-four years he was on the spot each week to hear their confessions, to attend – when he could – their spiritual exercises. He had particular concern for “the awkward age,” and long before there was an “organization for young Catholics,” he was busying himself with young people and was earning their confidence in solving the problems which their years involved them in. Through zeal, envied by priests much younger than he, he became at Calvert Hall one of the most familiar faces at their games or athletic events. It was one of his ways of spending himself for Jesus Christ and for the interests of Jesus Christ.

Each Sunday he celebrated Mass at Spring Grove, a psychiatric hospital. The problems he came across there he found interesting, like the patients themselves. His name became legendary with the hospital staff. For all who knew him, “Father Brianceau” was the ideal of the “Priest of God.”

In December, 1947, Father Brianceau celebrated his golden jubilee at St. Mary’s Seminary. After that – in 1948 – he gave up teaching and lived in retirement at St. Mary’s Seminary, Roland Park, in Baltimore.

For some months he had been declining when, at the beginning of August, a letter from the Provincial of the United States informed us that the doctors had diagnosed cancer of the liver.

The patient was taken to Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore. It was there that our confrere was called to God after some weeks of illness, on last August 23rd.

In the letter in which he announced to us Father Brianceau’s death, Father McDonald, Provincial Superior, gave some details. “The funeral was held on Saturday, August 26th at the Cathedral.” He added: “We wanted to use the Cathedral because we knew that there would be a large crowd of students from Calvert Hall, the Christian Brothers school. Father Brianceau had long been their confessor, and the students were very fond of him.”

The funeral took place on the date designated and at the place selected, the Cathedral. His Grace, Archbishop Francis P. Keough (who had been away) came back to sing the Pontifical Requiem Mass and to give the absolution. Monsignor Joseph Leary preached the eulogy. Two bishops, His Excellency, Lawrence J. Shehan, Auxiliary of Baltimore, and His Excellency, John M. McNamara, Auxiliary of Washington, were present as were several monsignori, many Sulpician confreres, and a crowd of secular and religious priests.

But what was especially noteworthy was the representation from Calvert Hall College. It was made up of Reverend Brother Gabriel Cecilien, present superior of Calvert Hall, of a great number of other Christian Brothers from Baltimore and elsewhere. With them were a throng of students and former students who had gathered to show their gratitude for their old confessor and spiritual director and to pray for his intentions. Bon Secours nuns, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of Divine Providence, and Franciscan Sisters had come together to fill the Cathedral.

The burial took place in the little cemetery at St. Charles in Catonsville, where Father Brianceau rests with his confreres.

In the course of his life, still more so in his last years, our confrere, just as he wished, lived alone. He wrapped himself carefully in silence and recollection. He seemed to be living a deep interior life and finding in it peace and comfort. He was practicing the Ambulare cum Deo intus [To walk within with God] of the Imitation of Christ. Let us pray that he may very soon contemplate in Heaven Him with Whom he so readily travelled here below.

Please accept, Fathers and dear confreres, the expression of my very devoted affection in Our Lord.

P. Boisard

Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice