de la Croze, Father Matthew
1916, April 23
Date of Birth: 1866, October 29
No Memorial Card is Available
May 10, 1916
Fathers and Very Dear in Our Lord:
To die for France on the field of battle, in the first line of trenches, in the midst of his soldiers whom he was leading against the enemy by the example of his quiet courage, soldiers whom he was winning to God and preparing for Heaven by the final help of absolution: to die on Easter morn, amidst the joy of the Resurrection, with the hope of going on high to join the glorious Savior – such as the death that our confrere, Father de la Croze had chosen, loved, sought for, and the best that his friends thought could happen to that soul, burning, austere, a bit tragic, restless and open, into which had passed, by a kind of atavism, the spirit of chivalry and of the Crusades. In a persecution, he would have gone as a martyr; in a national war it had seemed natural for him to offer himself and to sacrifice himself to serve as an example and as a ransom. He was happy to die. As his confreres, members of the Society to which he had given himself, we miss him and we weep for him. Certainly, we shall keep as an inspiration of purest devotion a feeling of admiration for that death into which he went. But there remains for us another duty – that of going beyond death with the friend, the brother, the son who has fallen at the Verdun front for us, for our liberation, for our victory. That will be the object of the prayers which I come to beg for him and to which I hope to influence you in briefly recounting to you what that life and that death meant.
Father Matthieu Annet Charles Marie Dumontet de la Croze was born at St. Jory de Chalais (Dordogne) on October 29, 1866. He was the only son in his family. In his early years he lived under the care of his mother, a saintly woman, and in the constant company of two equally saintly aunts. From dwelling in a home so out of the way and so somber, there remained on him an imprint of austerity and of a precocious maturity and the usages of an intense religious life. Still young, he came to Paris with his mother to pursue his classical education, which he did as a day-student in one of our good Christian institutions. We are not too well informed about how he spent the next seven or eight years of his schooling. Perhaps his family had looked forward to his taking up a career in the world. But God, Who had always possessed his soul, destined him for a better career. He was one of those who at the threshold of conscious and responsible life hear the call of the Master: Veni seouere me, [Come, follow Me] and who courageously replied: Domine, secuar te cuccomoue ieris [Lord, I shall follow Thee whithersoever Thou shalt go].
In October 1894, he entered the seminary at Issy, where he took his Philosophy course. Later, at Paris, he took Theology. At the time of his ordinations he was incardinated into the diocese of Paris and he received priesthood at the end of the scholastic year, 1898. His life as a seminarian was exemplary and very well fulfilled. He seemed to his fellow-seminarians to be destined for intimate and privileged service in the Church. But actually, once he was a priest, he said he wanted to be a Sulpician. With the title of aspirant, he was admitted in October 1898, to our scholasticate (St. John’s) where he spent a year and a half. In February 1900, he was sent as an auxiliary for the teaching of Philosophy to the seminary of Angers. In October 1901, he undertook his novitiate at the Solitude. In October 1902, definitively enrolled as a member of the Society, he was sent to the seminary of Bourges where successively he taught Philosophy and Fundamental Theology.
In July 1905, came the order for dispersion. Listening only to his zeal, Father de la Croze volunteered to go to work in our seminaries in America. That was generous and well-intentioned. He was allowed to do as he wished, but at the end of a year it was evident that adapting to the climate and learning the language was beyond his capability. He was probably too old. He said as much and requested his recall with the same rationale and the same clear mindedness with which he had expressed his intention of going. He came back to France and, very simply, took up again his role of director at the seminary of Bourges. He felt at home in that section of the country, with that people and that clergy. There he enjoyed confidence and credibility. There the teacher, moreso than the director, was looked up to. Everything about him contributed to his moral authority: his dependability, his punctuality, his piety, his discreet cordiality, his modesty – severe and even a bit glum.
The young clerics, particularly his penitents, did not apologize for admiring this priest, so austere, so strong in his convictions, so generous, and so vibrant in his promptings of zeal in view of all the apostolates which are open to the prospects of the clergy in today’s world. They loved and followed this master and this father [guide] of their conscience in his activity – caring, eager, exacting, meticulous. They were at the age when that activity is accepted, is profitable, and does good. Our confrere had a feeling for them, was happy for them, simply lived for them and for God. Sometimes the longing for something better – always the sensitive spot in that soul – showed itself; and after seven years, that is to say in July 1913, he took a resolution to pursue a higher vocation, that of the Carthusians.
It was a trial. It was also a right granted by the Church to all those who respond to a sincere conviction. The trial was permitted with the proviso that it was not more than that, and with the assurance that the door would remain open for a return to the fold. A few months were enough to prove that that vocation was not for anyone with his health and temperament. He returned to us in November 1913; and on our proposing it to the Cardinal Archbishop of Reims, he readily consented to give him place among the directors of his major seminary. He was to stay only seven or eight months in that seminary, long enough to give again the impression of edification, devotion, happy and fruitful activity as he had at Bourges; to win for himself there the deepest affection of directors and seminarians; to call forth for himself, after his recent death, the most heartfelt regret.
When war broke out in 1914, Father de la Croze was beyond the age of military service, but his noble and believing mind was all stirred up in his patriotism and his faith. He wanted to take part in the defense, which seemed to him to have as its motto: Pro aris et focis [for altar and hearth]. With the permission of his superiors and the blessing of his Archbishop, he volunteered as an army chaplain. By August 12th he was in the midst of his men of the Sixty-ninth Division, bravely sharing all their hardships, their privations, and their dangers; doing the work of a warrior, he was always in the front lines; doing the work of a priest because for the ill, the wounded, the fallen, he was always with them, raising their minds to God. He pretty much described himself in the Bulletin pastoral de Reims [Reims Pastoral Bulletin], in what he called “A Chaplain’s Program,” to do the work of evangelization by preaching, the work of religion by spiritual aid, the work of morale building by word and example. That meant contact with the troops in the trenches, on the full-pack march, in the rest area or the field hospital; the happy and good-natured meeting, the conversation, decent but engaging, the recalling of days dear to Christians, a shout of faith and zeal at the critical instant of assault; the coming together for Mass, for religious exercises, for prayer, for the beads, for confession, for Communion, for speedy and lively instruction, for picking out the good, for the apostolate by the few. For the chaplain it meant: intense interior life, union with Our Lord, devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the Breviary, the Rosary. This was the program proposed by Father de la Croze, and, to his credit, thoroughly carried by him. The effect it had can be judged by the endorsement given it. I have here before my eyes several letters about it, letters from soldiers and from officers expressing their admiration for its worth, for its zeal, happiness for faith recaptured and Christian life revived by its application.
More touching still is the tribute of Father Paulot, Superior of the major seminary at Reims, a tribute dated April 29th, in a circular letter to his seminarian-soldiers.
“God gave him the grace of being brave. Recently, last April 9th, he was observed to have followed a unit pinned under a heavy barrage, raising the morale of the men, helping them to carry things; he was always present at the place of most danger, especially when he thought he could help out. Again, on April 11th, he went out with the party assigned to bring back, under heavy bombardment, the bodies of three officers. In October 1914, he received a glowing citation at the order of the division. By that time his cassock had been shredded by shrapnel. He did not stop wearing it. Not long ago, in one of his brief appearances in the rue de l’Université, he was showing us the sections of it sewn together with wide needle tracks. It had to last to the end of the campaign; it did last up to the end of his campaign; the precious relic turned out to be his shroud.
“Such deeds were by their nature calculated to make the least impressionable give him their respect and to make him be regarded by them (I use the term in its best sense) a true comrade. There was, to his way of speaking, something more which appealed to them – patriotism.
“The strong feeling that made him shout: ‘Long live our dear beautiful France!’ determined for him his job in regard to the defenders of the fatherland. He saw himself as having a mission, that of building up their morale; and for that he had his own method.
“There has been much talk, and rightly so, of those young men, especially those priests, who have been sowers of bravery in the course of the Great War. Father de la Croze for his part sowed joy, the well-spring of bravery.
“On November 21, 1914, the Feast of the Presentation, joining in spirit ‘the joy experienced in our seminaries,’ he wrote: ‘As often as I can I preach joy (his underlining), the joy of suffering and dying for our great cause. I repeat in all registers that the hour is not one for tears, but for generous action which looks to the future without letting itself dwell on losses and griefs. … I have recovered the vigor I had when I was twenty, and I try to share it with all those whose memories of family tend to make them think of what is behind. That is the patriotic task. I give it my best.’
“He so expressed himself again in another letter: ‘Tell all those with you that the soldiers are confident and happy.’ Joy – he wished this word to be branded on them. He wished to wear it on his face in order to share it. His beaming smile, his frank good humor, his easy camaraderie, his constant goodness explain the hold he tried to take and did take over the soldiers as well as over the officers.
“But you must not think that gaiety came naturally to him. Real priest that he was, your revered director knew that he had reason for sorrow. Full of concern for the interests of Holy church, his mind at certain times revealed itself as a well of grief; and that made him say: ‘I am not sad, because I will not to be so.’
“Joy, then, was to him a virtue and a duty. And in order to communicate it to the men, he fueled it at its source. One time, in the course of his burdensome ministry, he believed he could take a leave of four days, a leave which he intended to spend – I break a confidence – with the Trappists at Sept Fons. The leave did not come. ‘At the last moment, I was not able to get leave to go,’ he wrote me; ‘I no longer think of it. There will be relief after victory. All by myself I made a kind of little retreat and took as a resolution: joy (again, his underlining), joy in being where I am. I wish you and all your little community this same joy, which must be before all else (don’t you think?) even before our cruelest griefs since we are working for our country and our good God.’
“And from a priest-nurse of his company we know that at dawn on Holy Saturday he chatted with his men for the last time without knowing it was the last time (to be brief) of the ‘holy joy’ of Easter when there remained to him only to enter into the joy of his Master.
“That joy, of which God Himself was the beginning and the end, could be only a triumphal joy.
“Those of our confreres who lived with him and who one day will tell us details must be heard; it is especially important to get the accounts of the soldiers.
“Here is one of them dated March 1, 1915; it is a letter written by a soldier to a friend who by chance sent it on to me: ‘Villa of Joy, Trench One (Yes, joy – I am not overdoing it!) We have a chaplain, Father de la Croze, who is one of the heroes of the regiment, as much by his bravery as by his holiness. The soldiers have seen him on the job during their difficult hours, going to care for the wounded under machine-gun fire. And all have only praise for his bravery and devotion. He preaches by word and by example, and everyone respectfully greets this minister of God who manages to have a good word for everyone. I have never heard a single word against religion – that says it all. And when we are at ease behind the lines, we go out to go to Mass or to prayer. … There is a movement for a return to God, and it will grow stronger as it goes on.’
“He was seen, more than as the convinced patriot, as – beyond all else – the man of God, who, as our dear chaplain, across the charms of his generous nature, let himself be known to the soldiers.”
His Eminence, the Cardinal Archbishop of Reims, forgetting for an instant the agony of his shelled episcopal city, in order to assuage our sorrow, honored the memory of our confrere by the following letter addressed to us on May 1st: “I am much afflicted by the great sorrow which has come to our seminary and to the Society of St. Sulpice. Since the beginning of the campaign, praise of Father de la Croze was on the lips of priests and soldiers. All praised his piety, his bravery, his devotion, his spirit of faith. In the midst of the dangers of a life so new and so hard, he kept a constant joy which bolstered confidence. God deemed him worthy of reward. He went to heaven to sing the Alleluia of the Resurrection. Now he is out of the furnace; de laborioso hujus vitae certamine [out of the laborious battle of this life]. He has left the proving ground, the combat, and the hatred to go to the country of peace and love. It is not for him that we should weep, but for those of his regiment during the war or for those of his seminary during peace, for whom he did so much good.”
It remains to us, after these tributes to our confrere, to tell you, according to the account of a seminarian-soldier of Reims, the circumstances of his glorious death. “It was on Easter morning, April 21st, between midnight and one o’clock, accompanied by his commandant, that Father de la Croze was heading for the trenches. In an uncovered passage both were struck. The chaplain died at once. It was impossible to carry the body to the rear to give him a fitting funeral. A captain of his regiment wrote: ‘He expressed a wish to be buried on the very spot where his body would fall.’ That wish has been carried out to the letter. The burial took place in a little cemetery set up to the northeast of Esnes near Verdun. Pious hands have taken care of that dear corpse and prominently marked its location so that later it can be transferred and given high honor.”
I recommend Father de la Croze to your prayers, and I renew to you the expression of my very devoted sentiments in Our Lord.
Superior of St. Sulpice