Denis, Father Pierre
1903, March 2
Date of Birth: 1820, July 7
April 20, 1903
Fathers and Very Dear in Our Lord:
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The venerable Father Denis, who died at St. Charles last March 2nd, was associated with that house since March 1860; he worked there for nine years under Father Jenkins, who was its founder. Twenty years previous, in 1849, he had been a member of the first class with which the Grand Seminary of Montreal began. Thus, through his own recollections he went back to the origins of two of our most important works; and through those of his family, he went back to the very origins of Canada, where his first ancestor was a soldier in the second half of the seventeenth century. What is more to the point is that he had been deeply imbued with the patriarchal spirit of the best Canadian families and with the priestly spirit of the holiest disciples of Father Olier.
He alone, of all our confreres today working in North America, had never seen France nor gone through the Solitude. He was, however, full of the spirit of St. Sulpice which by itself can only give a high idea of the old Montreal confreres from whom he received it. It must be said that the ones of whom he kept the vividest memory were Fathers Roque and Baile. Father Roque, confessor of the faith at the time of the French Revolution was the one to whom Father Duclaux, before that same time, gave the name of saint when he was working under Father Roque’s direction at the seminary of Angers; and of whom Father Garnier said at the time of his death: “I recommend him not only to your prayers and good works, but to the imitation of the whole Society.” Father Baile was the one of whom Father Icard in his turn wrote that it seemed he had proposed for himself to take Father Roque for a model in everything; and for Father Denis he was like a second exemplar of the perfect Sulpician.
The parish of Vaudreuil, where Father Pierre Paul Denis was born on July 7, 1820, belonged then to the Diocese of Montreal from which it was later separated to become part of Valleyfield. There his parents were owners of a plot which their children worked after them. Of the fourteen sons and daughters whom God gave them, at least four consecrated themselves to His service – our confrere and three of his sisters who, after fifty years of religious profession, are still making their contribution to the teaching order of Notre Dame.
Paul Denis was twelve when he was sent to the college of Montreal by his pastor; himself a real patriarch for whom he always cherished the highest regard. From the first, the boy was ranked among the good students; but perhaps because he was successful, he was thought to be a little proud. He was fifteen when Father Baile, director of the house, undertook to straighten him out. Having summoned the young Denis, at first, he let him knock on the door but he did not answer. Then, letting him come in, he continued to write without looking up at him. Finally, he told him that he had asked for him to give him a punishment but that, decidedly, he did not feel him worth it. So strange was the procedure that it succeeded, thanks, doubtless, to some personal gift of the holy director. Father Denis was, it seems, transformed. Certainly, he became in time a most humble – even timid – priest, manifesting in his demeanor an air of dignity and gentility which inspired in anyone at all only a sympathy full of respect. He ended his classical studies brilliantly and acquired for Latin poetry a taste which his confreres called upon up to his old age to add to the interest of big celebrations at St. Charles.
By a regrettable necessity in the time when the college of Montreal and the Grand Seminary were intermixed under the same roof, he was involved simultaneously in the study of Theology and in teaching. Ordained priest on June 1, 1844, he expressed the desire of entering the Society of St. Sulpice; and by way of probation he was employed for a year in parochial ministry. After that year, spent under the eyes of the Montreal superior and some venerable veterans, he was sent back to the college as teacher and worked there for seven years with much zeal and success. He was a teacher of Rhetoric when, in 1852, a serious illness obliged him to give up teaching; and it was in the parochial ministry that he again gradually regained his health.
When in 1854 he went back to the college it was as director of the house; and more than ever he exercised there an apostolic zeal for opening the hearts of boys to piety.
The sweetness and humility of his character, the evenness of his disposition, made him particularly sympathetic to certain of his students and young co-workers; and with several he entered into lifelong friendships. In these friendships, supernatural inspiration never let him make excuses for their failings. Very firm in the keeping of the rule, he was especially so in regard to those for whom he had the most affection.
In the running of the college, Father Denis was obliged to unite some service at the Grand Seminary and the care of the common treasurership of the two houses. It was a great deal, considering his far from robust health. His health had brought him back once more to the rectory of Notre Dame when, in 1860, Father Blanc, young director at St. Charles, died of consumption. The Baltimore superior asked for help from Montreal. Father Denis was temporarily lent to him for the house. He found himself so benefitted by the climate and calm of his new assignment that the change seemed providential; and the loan soon changed into an indefinite separation with the complete approval of Father Carrière who, on June 29, 1860, wrote to Father Denis: “I am delighted that you have been allowed to come to the help of St. Charles and that you are well there. I hope that your health will improve and that you will be able to continue to render service in an establishment on which we base some great hopes. Your case will show that Montreal and Baltimore must regard themselves as brothers and furnish to each other mutual aid as needed. I also regard that point as one of great importance.”
On learning, some weeks ago, of the death of Father Denis, a priest of Baltimore wrote to the Superior of St. Charles: “I distinctly remember, forty-three years back, the day of his arrival at the college where I was then a student, and how much we were struck by that fine and noble look of priestliness. When I became his penitent, [I remember] how many fine hours I spent in his room, and what holy advice he has given me since then.”
Much tribute of this sort has been paid to Father Denis by priests and bishops who knew him at different periods of the long ministry he filled at St. Charles. One of his old penitents, who holds an important post in a neighboring diocese, has recently written: “I always looked upon him as a saint, and I would not be surprised that in time he produce some extraordinary evidence of his sanctity.”
After teaching at St. Charles various classes and receiving, beginning in 1865, the title of Vice-President, Father Denis succeeded to the presidency when Father Ferté was recalled to France by reason of health. After ten years in that office – from 1876 to 1886 – he felt the need of having a successor. When, at the time of a visitation, he was granted retirement, he nevertheless carried on for more than ten years with zeal and wonderful humility to give – in teaching, discipline, and direction – all the help of which he remained capable, help which lessened from year to year as his health declined.
Although he seldom governed except by kindness (and perhaps never used punishments), as President of St. Charles, Father Denis enjoyed real authority. He was revered and loved by reason of his piety, his prudence, and his never-failing mildness. It is true that an excessive shyness sometimes kept him from acting, and that in a house whose students were at the outset of their formation a little more initiative might have been wished for in its head; he had at least the great merit of keeping alive good spirit and respect for the rule. He did not overdo counseling; but his seriousness, the penetrating tenor of his talks, and even a certain eloquence with which he was gifted, carried weight and scope with those with whom he chose to deal.
His preference was nonetheless for a more intimate ministry in line with his love of solitude and the interior life. For him this was not at all a matter of not giving himself entirely to those who came to see him; he had the gift of easy conversation, worthwhile, and above all pious when he had the opportunity of speaking from the abundance of his heart.
In the last years of his life he gave to prayer nearly all of his hours, dividing them between mental and vocal prayer – for which he had an extraordinary devotion; between the chapel and his room, transformed into a veritable oratory by the number of holy pictures and little statues which were in sight there. In this simple room he still observed at the age of eighty-three the whole daily schedule, following the old tradition which Montreal had impressed on him and which he was able to keep up to the day before his death. It took illness to reduce him to absolute helplessness for which he never accepted the least aid from the servants or the nuns.
These monk-like traits never kept Father Denis from having with many priests to whom he was extremely faithful. Because of distance outward signs might remain suspended for a number of years, but when contact was renewed there was found in him affection as alive as if the friendships had never been interrupted.
The feelings that he inspired in his old students evidenced themselves by touching celebrations both at Montreal where in 1885 there was a great reunion of the college (already more than a hundred years old) and at St. Charles in 1894 when Father Denis’ own sacerdotal jubilee brought together a hundred and fifty priests and five bishops in a celebration presided over by Cardinal Gibbons. A like gathering came together again on his behalf some weeks ago; but this time it was to pay him their last respects.
Father Denis’ health, which had been a bit delicate all his life, nevertheless held up remarkably into his eighties; and though since then his strength had weakened, he still followed the principal community exercises: he was at morning prayers, meals, even prayers. There was no immediate sign of his approaching end when it arrived all at once in a quite unexpected way. He spent the day of February 26th in his usual way and had even gone to bed; but on getting up, he put his foot down on a little splinter of wood; and although it had easily been plucked out, a little inflammation developed. On the afternoon of March 2nd, about half past three, he suddenly became unconscious. The revered sick man was given absolution, Extreme Unction, a plenary indulgence; prayers for the dying were begun. They were not finished before he gave his soul to God, though his confreres were not able to pinpoint the exact moment of death. The Holy Mass he had said the day previous had been his Viaticum.
At the funeral, which was celebrated on March 5th in the St. Charles chapel, the bishops of Albany and Wilmington were present; His Eminence, Cardinal Gibbons, had also deigned to come from Baltimore and gave the absolution. The mortal remains of Father Denis were laid at length in the community cemetery, near those of Father Rex, who had been a favorite of his and later his successor.
The last of Father Denis’ Latin poems had doubtless been an ode which he composed in 1898 for the golden jubilee of St. Charles’ opening; and the last strophe of it was a paraphrase of the Savior’s exhortation: “Rogate Dominum messis ut mittat operarios …” [Ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers …]. It is very applicable as to Sulpician vocations for the seminaries of the New World, and most especially for the minor seminaries from which have come almost without exception all our American confreres.
I leave it, Fathers and dear confreres, to your filial piety for the Society and to your zeal for its work, while at the same time I recommend our dear departed to your prayers; and I renew to you the expression of my affectionate devotion in Our Lord.
Superior of St. Sulpice