Colin, Father Louis
1902, November 27
Date of Birth: 1835, January 11
February 6, 1903
Fathers and Very Dear in Our Lord:
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Father Colin’s death at Montreal has occasioned deep feelings whose vibrations have been widespread. From all sides they flocked to his funeral; and by reason of the throng it took on an imposing character. It was a symbol of the greatness of the work begun by Father Olier in Canada, and of the outstanding qualities of the confrere who presided over that work so worthily for more than twenty years.
Coming to Montreal in 1862, Father Colin filled the first of a series of offices which put him in close contact with various classes of society both ecclesiastical and lay. When he became Superior in 1881, he had not only formed some broad relationships but had acquired a comprehensive knowledge of the state of the country and its needs. Like several of his predecessors, he saw himself called upon to give to French and Catholic Canada service of the highest order, and to that he devoted himself entirely. From the days of Father de Queylus and de Belmont, the land had doubtless been changed by the work of the centuries, and the task which presented itself to Father Colin had become very complex; but Divine Providence had endowed him with all the skills necessary for success. If, moreover, he has been well served by the thrust of his mind, by the versatility and variety of his talents, by the powerful energy of his will, we can only suspect that a larger part still of the good he accomplished was rooted in the saintliness of his life, in his fervent prayers, in his admirable patience in continuous and sometimes nearly unbearable suffering. The supernatural character of Father Colin’s virtue was especially a great source of edification for the Montreal community to which he never ceased to dedicate the best part of his zeal and his care.
Father Frederic Louis Colin was born at Lignières (Cher) on January 11, 1835, of a deeply religious family. He early evidenced a well gifted nature, but impetuous and adventuresome for his years. After his early studies at the Lignières school, young Louis was entrusted to a neighboring pastor, a family friend, who educated him up to his fourteenth year. At that time, he entered the college at Chezal-Benoit and there always kept himself in the first ranks, progressing in piety as well as in his studies. His vacations, spent in the company of a fellow-student and a worthy friend, did not slow him down in any way.
Still uncertain of his vocation, he came to Paris, where, at the St. Louis Lyceé, he followed an introductory course at the Upper Normal school. He was also accepted in the Science section for the 1855 course, but it was the seminary at Issy that he entered. Later he humbly said that, ready for another career, he saw in himself the makings of a sceptic and a climber. His skepticism was to change into scorn of the world and his ambition into ardent zeal.
At Issy and at St. Sulpice his attitude was that of an exemplary seminarian but withdrawn and reserved. His virtue, already strong, was enhanced by Father Pinault’s teaching on “The Nothingness of Everything;” and all his life he kept on calling back the memory of that teaching. Later, at the Solitude, the austere teaching of Father Renaudet also took him captive and left its mark on him.
Ordained priest at Paris on December 17, 1859, he was still searching out his path in more than one direction. He returned to his diocese, was assistant at Mehun-sur-Yèvre, teacher at Chezal-Benoit, dreamed of the religious life, and finally settled for that of St. Sulpice. He came back to us then as a novice two years after his ordination. During his months of trial-teaching, excessive sleeplessness brought on a neuralgia-related facial tic. The neuralgia grew so bad at the Solitude as to keep him from saying his breviary. So it was that, barred from teaching, his mind turned to Canada, where he might find a ministry more suitable to his health. Providence directed him in this decision in placing his strong nature in the crucible of pain.
At Montreal he was first assigned to Notre Dame de Gràce, and put in charge especially of the Côte des Neiges, then of St. Henri. Scorning to the limit the bad weather and all kinds of fatigue, he was – so he said – cured of his neuralgia by the onset of serious rheumatism which got into all his limbs, affected his heart, and remained until death the roughest of his means of penance.
In 1865 he was called to Notre Dame, put in charge of an old folks’ home and a community of the Children of Mary, but began to exercise a great influence by his talks. A speaker of rare power, he exhibited in the pulpit a profoundly Christian eloquence capable of drawing on all sides the most discerning audiences.
At the same time by his conferences on Philosophy given to serious young students, he was preparing without realizing it for the work of the Catholic University and establishing some lasting ties with the most cultured classes of society.
In 1870, at the end of a stay in Baltimore [Father Colin is listed as being at St. Charles College in 1869] where he picked up English, he entered on a new phase, one of the most fruitful of his vocation. Sent to the Grand Seminary as a Professor of Holy Scripture and Canon Law, he became in 1871 Assistant Spiritual Director, and in 1872, Spiritual Director of that house; and his value was ever going to increase. He continued to preside there up to 1880, regularly giving the Homiletics and Deacon Training courses, sometimes those of Canon Law and even Chant. After the Philosophy division was opened in 1872 in a section of the Grand Seminary, the total number of students reached and passed three hundred. To find a place for all of them, the inventive Father Colin had put to work all his resources; but the most beautiful of his eulogies is in the deep affection, the feeling of veneration, the lessons of his holy life, which his old students keep of him. A young American bishop who had seen him only at a distance during his Philosophy years, on hearing of his death, wrote: “What a blessing it was for me to have known him. It would be hard for me to say how vividly his patience, sweetness and piety have stayed with me in all the years of my priesthood.”
In 1880 the venerable Father Bayle, feeling the burden of his years, wished to take advantage of the visitation to resign as Superior. However, he assented to waiting for a while with Father Colin as his coadjutor. It was at that time that Father Colin came to live at Notre Dame; he was never again to leave there. May of 1881 was the time for the quinquennial elections, and Father Bayle managed to have his resignation accepted; Father Colin succeeded him. It turned out that he was to be reelected in the four following terms; the last time, eighteen months before his death. In 1882 he took his seat for the first time in the Society’s General Assembly in which the Montreal community had never up to then been represented by one of its members. It was also the first time he went back to France; but he was often brought back during the last twenty years either by the business of the Society or by that of the Canadian seminary, business which also brought him to England and to Rome. Although inconvenient he found on these trips a little time to go to his native region and visit the surviving members of his family who could not ever doubt his affection; for the sake of Canada he was involved in too many details to allow himself any leisure.
Father Colin’s work as Superior of Montreal was tied up at that time in serious changes going on in the country and in the situation St. Sulpice held in the country. Let it suffice to recall:
- the population of the city had doubled in half century;
- the notion of parish unity became impossible to maintain;
- the quasi-episcopal jurisdiction confided to the Superior by the Bishop of Quebec in 1836 was disappearing with the designation of Montreal as a diocese;
- the opening of the Grand Seminary followed closely on the setting up of the diocese;
- the temporal rights of St. Sulpice were confirmed by the Charter of 1840 for the first time since the English had taken over the country;
- the Society’s canonical reports to the Montreal Chancery were regulated – after long uncertainty – by the Pontifical decree of 1865;
- later, the question of the Catholic University being set up at Montreal in spite of the monopoly guaranteed to Quebec (which had generously acquiesced), became complicated soon after by reason of the rivalry of the two Schools of Medicine.
So much activity could not be stirred up, so many problems could not be thrown forth, in a region of narrow custom and wide publicity without upsetting minds and hurting feelings and creating in the lay and ecclesiastical worlds currents and ups and downs, whose repercussions were felt even in our community.
In all matters of public weal which touched on religious interests, Father Colin felt himself obliged to take part, and he generally did so with a finesse and a success admired by those best able to judge. Even diplomats and Statesmen, with whom he was dealing recognized in him the skills, to a high degree, of their profession joined to a clearly priestly mind and a perfect disinterestedness. The most noted among them was recently reported to have said in a semi-official letter that he had been “honored with the friendship of this great and holy man,” and to have praised in him, as eminent qualities, “prudence, wisdom, elevated views, firmness wed to gentleness, and especially a wonderful insight which intuitively let him, with luminous clarity, get to the bottom of the most complicated problems.”
For his part, the Vice-rector of Laval University at Montreal declared in a public discourse that “[the University] is mainly the work of Father Colin; he was one of its founders, its faithful friend, outstanding benefactor, strongest prop.” Again, this prelate said: “It was in this dear university that Father Colin, with his sure and deep outlook on the future of our country, had perceived a rich source of progress and development, a precious guarantee for the preservation of our faith and traditions.” He wanted the University to be under the control of the bishops, and he himself often said that his own role and that of the seminary was merely to take, at the beginning of its operation, a temporary function; then to place it entirely in the hands of the bishops and the Catholic people.
The Vice-rector, making allusion to the stormy infancy of the University governance, said again of Father Colin: “To his mild and firm activity, to his prestige and personal influence on the University’s make-up, we owe in great measure the period of harmony and peace which succeeded the critical phase of the divisions and strifes of an earlier day;” – a testimonial very complimentary to the memory of our confrere; and even more precious when we remember that it could be applied to other areas and reinforced very loudly by others. It was not only between Quebec and Montreal, between the savants of Laval and those of Victoria, that he arranged a happy accord, and made calm succeed arguments today forgotten; but in many other spheres where his influence was allowed to be exercised, it was also a pacifying and order-producing one.
In this man, seen to be afflicted with nerves, often tortured by pain, reactive to moods of uplift and let-down, there was indeed under the changeable exterior some hidden depth of soul where he worked in silence on his beneficent plans, pursuing them with a vision, a faith, a patience, a charity, a constancy, whose fruits would blossom in their due time to let us judge the tree.
Father Colin could often be one of those who arouse discussion. He did not escape – Have even many of the saints escaped? – the defects of his qualities, and perhaps some other defects. It has been said, not without justification, that he was imaginative and fickle, that he was authoritarian and self-assertive; but with less imagination, would he have been so rich in resourcefulness for avoiding numerous difficulties? In taking less responsibility on himself, would he have ever brought some of his best works to completion? Always he was the one whom the Montreal Assembly in four successive elections never hesitated to keep at its head and for whom, when death put an end to his work, there was a unanimous chorus of veneration and praise which sprang up near and far without any discordant voice mixed in.
There is no need to say here that from the effect of Father Colin on the Montreal community and on its proper work, he had from the first days of his governance to busy himself with the turning over to diocesan administration of the two Sulpician parishes, St. Joseph’s and St. Anne’s. In spite of some uneasiness manifested at first by the parishioners, the operation was soon handled under conditions very satisfactory to them. Several withdrawals from parochial ministry have since taken place without causing any complaint from laity or clergy.
At the same time as this ministry was being diminished, the work of priestly education at the Mountain was undergoing a remarkable development. The minor seminary, the Theology house, and the Philosophy house (the latest) today hold about seven hundred students and serve about forty Canadian and American dioceses.
At Montreal, even before Philosophy had acquired its own set-up, Father Colin had established at Rome what he called the crown of the edifice by founding the Canadian seminary, one of the works dear to his heart. Cardinal Howard, then our protector, had, it is true, been the first to suggest (it if met with Leo XIII’s approval) seeing all the Catholic peoples represented in Rome by a national seminary. Father Colin readily took to that idea because of its own shining worth and because of the burning love it made profession for the Holy See and the Pope; In Papa Petrus; in Petro Christus; in Christo Deus [In the Pope, Peter; in Peter, Christ; in Christ, God] was one of his maxims which he one day dared to recite to the Pope himself. To advance the enterprise, Father Colin surrounded himself with all the safeguards of prudence; he first consulted the whole Canadian episcopacy, whose unanimous opinion was favorable; he obtained from his Council a free hand; then from the government of Quebec [he obtained] authorization to use outside the country (though in its interest) some part of the endowment of the seminary; finally, at the end of the 1885 Assembly he went over to London to make sure also of the consent of the British Government and – if need be – the protection of its ambassador at Rome for a national establishment. Three years later the seminary opened; the ambassador, Lord Dufferin, former Governor-General of Canada, attended the opening and by an almost unheard-of exception took his seat at a table with a Cardinal at its head.
At Montreal, Father Colin (with no time to do everything) applied himself to put into our various works more unity, more regularity, more method, than was felt necessary in times past that were more or less patriarchal in regard to the life of the seminary and its relations with the faithful. But one of the greatest boons that all our confreres have to thank him for being was the example of his great faith, his holy life, his truly heroic patience in his continual pain.
His great devotions were those of Father Olier, the most simple and solid of all: The Most Blessed Sacrament, the Blessed Virgin, the Cross. When he prayed at the foot of the Tabernacle, his bearing was the evidence of a deep faith; but that enlightened faith placed in the Holy Sacrifice a trust above all others. When he was ardently desirous of gaining a difficult favor, his great resource was to Holy Mass with that intention for a considerable time.
One could not know him without soon being struck by his love of the Cross. Some weeks before his death, rheumatism piercing him to the core of another powerful malady, caused him torments beyond the usual. He called to mind then the torments of the martyrs and was heard to say: “It was not for Caesar nor for Napoleon that they suffered; it was for Our Lord Jesus Christ. And I am suffering for Him, too; it is only for Him and Him alone.”
His pain worsened several times each year to the point of causing serious concern; but even outside these crises the pain never completely left him. For a long, long time it was rare in his life that he had a good night’s sleep. Ordinarily in the night, either in prolonged sleeplessness or in on-and-off naps, he went from his bed to his armchair (or other furnishings) seeking everywhere – and hardly ever finding – some moments of half-sleep in complicated positionings. He was, nevertheless, faithful in invariably presiding at community prayer unless a serious sickness made this an absolute impossibility.
From his own continual suffering he learned to be compassionate with that of others. His ill confreres in the seminary infirmary were the objects of his most affectionate care. Often, he visited them at night, and took it upon himself, out of his own experience, to give them their medicine; and, what is more important, gently suggested some holy thoughts to them. The dying especially were the objects of every possible attention.
Those who confided their moral difficulties to him found in him a sympathetic delicacy, a selfless reaching out, which others might not have guessed at because of the apparent austerity of his energetic and militant character. For the young, for men of the world with whom he had dealings with less reserve than with his confreres, he was the best of friends and sometimes a real father.
It was more than fifteen years ago that a serious heart condition resulting from his rheumatism led Father Colin almost to the gates of death; and several times since, there were occasions on which he received the last sacraments. He received them in April, 1902, and he had recuperated but not perfectly; so, when a crisis occurred in the fall, it finished by pulling him down. On Wednesday, November 21st, he went for the last time to the Grand Seminary where the ceremony of the Feast of the Presentation was being presided over – in the absence of Archbishop Bruchesi – by Bishop Emard, suffragan of Montreal. On the following Sunday/Monday night, Father Colin, deciding to get up, fell down noisily; and when others rushed to his aid, it was seen that he was not conscious of his collapse. An attack of suffocation, coming on Wednesday morning, determined his confreres again to give him the last sacraments. From that moment on, up to his death (which occurred on Thursday the 27th a little before midnight) he rarely roused from a kind of sleepiness, and he seemed not at all to recognize several of his best friends. Thursday evening, however, one of them – a man of the world – being in his room, the dying man awakened for a moment when Bishop Emard (whom he welcomed with touching signs of affection) unexpectedly arrived. The friend who was present wanted to leave, but Father Colin held him with an expressive gesture, and said in a resounding voice: “Don’t go! I want you to have had in your life the sight of a priest who is abandoning himself completely to the will of God – completely, completely. Whether he lets me live or die, it is ever good.” “He bequeathed me,” said the witness, “an unforgettable memory as of a faith melting into eternal life.”
After that moving scene, Father Colin fell back into semi-consciousness, and it was without agony that he expired some hours later surrounded by his confreres.
The papers of Montreal, French and English, Catholic and Protestant, announced his death as a public mourning. Several were filled with very feeling testimonials extolling the merits of the deceased, written by a number of respected persons and even by public bodies such as the lawyers of the city and the various faculties of Laval University.
At the funeral, Tuesday, December 2nd, there were numerous official delegations, and Notre Dame Church, with its twelve thousand seats, was not large enough to accommodate the crowd. The traditional simplicity of a Sulpician funeral made a noble contrast with the majesty of a gathering which included three archbishops and nine other bishops, Canadian and American. The Lieutenant-Governor of the Province came from Quebec. The Governor-General of Canada was represented by his aide-de-camp. Many bishops, unable to come because of the distance or for other reasons, expressed their regrets. Several made known that they would hold some funeral services in their own cathedrals. At the Funeral Mass in Montreal, Archbishop Begin of Quebec – mother church of Canada – deigned to officiate. Archbishop Bruchesi on hearing the sad news at Naples hastened to send a telegram of condolence; and some days later he celebrated a Funeral Mass in Rome in the chapel of the Canadian seminary.
On the day before his death, Father Colin as founder of that seminary, received from the Holy Father a special blessing. “For this work,” Archbishop Begin wrote on November 29th, “Father Colin has a right to the eternal gratitude of the Canadian episcopacy. Thanks to this man of God our young levites can go to draw from the wellspring of the Catholic Church’s holy doctrine.”
It was equally consoling, Fathers and dear confreres, for us to see our revered deceased praised for his fine works, and to remind ourselves that he lived in the midst of his brothers with the humility of a true Sulpician, filled with the spirit of Father Olier. We may at times recall with a smile some details of his life by which he nodded to human weakness but let there be remembered also one of his favorite utterances: “The saints are terrible men!” And it is thus to him that the last word belongs.
At the same time as we pray for this holy priest, let us pray for the work at Montreal where his labors have not lessened its needs. I ask this of you, Fathers and dear confreres, while renewing to you my affectionate devotion in Our Lord.
Superior of St. Sulpice