Dorvaux, Father Jean Etienne

1931, March 3

Date of Birth: 1859, July 16


No Memorial Card is Available

May 14, 1931

Fathers and Dear Confreres:

Two months ago Father Dorvaux was called to God. Thanks to the articles which have come to us from Montreal, today I can go over the important threads of his life and, for the benefit of the Society, throw some light on our confrere’s role (as if in high relief) – our confrere who, before giving the best of himself to Canada, worked many years in the United States and Issy.

Father Etienne Dorvaux was born in Boulay in the Diocese of Metz on July 16, 1859. Of his childhood and youth we know nothing except that he came from a very religious family, that he received a very manly upbringing, that he was early initiated into the most austere virtues of Christianity. In spite of the heroic detachment which he later exhibited, he remained deeply attached to his little land, Lorraine. A land of soldiers and saints; coveted by some, defended by others. Fiercely determined to be itself; always in the path of invasions; tilting ground on which peoples confronted one another for centuries. Crucible wherein, with the virtues peculiar to Christian living, were compounded the qualities which assure to its inhabitants circumspection, reserve, tenacity, energy.

Influenced by one of his uncles, and like his brother, Father Nicolas Dorvaux (deceased at Metz in 1923), Father Etienne Dorvaux early dreamed of dedicating his life to the service of the Church and God. And like them, he wished to devote himself to the training of the clergy in the Society of St. Sulpice.

He entered the seminary at Issy in October, 1877. His priestly ordination took place on July 15, 1883. Meanwhile, Father Icard had sent Father Dorvaux to the Sulpician Procure [in Rome], where he finished his studies before making his Solitude.

In 1885, his novitiate over, Father Dorvaux was named teacher of Philosophy at Issy. He must have stayed there up to the 1894 vacation period. The memory that he left there is still alive. His former students recall him with gratitude because they immediately appreciated his practicality, and his teaching – precise, clear, methodical, well-adapted to the make-up of the young minds which the teacher was to train. His penitents have not forgotten the paternal and shining devotion with which he made them his own, nor the example of detachment which he gave them. And all, as much his confreres at St. Sulpice as his colleagues at Issy happily remember Father Dorvaux’s high sanctity and his virtue – which he displayed in making himself accessible and affable, especially to close friends.

In 1891 Father Icard sent Father Dorvaux to the United States. There, from 1891 to 1896, Father Dorvaux successively taught Philosophy and Dogma at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton in the Diocese of Boston. He filled there the post of Superior of Philosophy for four years, from 1892 to the end of his stay in the United States.

But the greatest part of his life was to be dedicated to our work in Canada. Successively teacher of Dogma, Moral, Hebrew, Canon Law, and Pastoral Theology. He was also secretary of the faculty council, Vice-rector of the seminary of Theology in 1901, Superior in 1924, and chaplain of the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1927. Father Dorvaux lived for thirty-five years only for his adopted country.

No one could doubt that he loved that country, his Church, so prospering and alive. and the traditions of real Christian living which flourished there. Its clergy knew how to preserve the traditions. But as a man of faith in every trial, giving to all by his appearance and the way it matched his outlook the impression of death to the world, he hardly conveyed to others his deepest and most vital sentiment. It was necessary to deduce them from their presence in the working out of his unyielding dedication.

With Father Dorvaux, that dedication mainly showed itself in the care of conscientiousness with which he prepared and did his teaching. That was solid, supported by the best sources, based on solid and deep-rooted evidence. Above all, he was careful about doctrine, doctrine always elevated and – for subjects of prayer and sermons in particular – fully expounded. In his practical judgement he examined questions in depth, weighing the merit of reasons, taking against the danger of error all precautions deemed wise, and watching out jealously to convey to others only the truths and decisions which he was able to make clear to himself. It is possible that his prudence sometimes seemed stultifying. Or, at the end, that his teaching did not have all the rationale desirable. His impassivity, the monotony of his teaching style, a certain difficulty in adapting to the psychology of students, age – and before that, fatigue – amply explain the deficiencies which some had to put up with.

In Father Dorvaux, teacher and director melded into one saint. “Man of faith for every trial, he saw everything from a supernatural point of view. Human outlooks and the flow of events on earth did not count with him. Earthly horizons seemed never to hem him in. At certain periods it was said that he never even was aware of them.

“His attachment to St. Sulpice was striking. He loved everything about our Society: its spirit, its working, its traditions. And he would have liked that there always be applied – if that were possible – the nihil innovetur [let nothing be innovated] out of respect for and fidelity to the wisdom and the very fruitful activity of the first superiors of St. Sulpice. He loved community life in the traditional form that it had in our houses. With heroic faithfulness to common exercises, he did not ever absent himself from them. Everything that contributed to bringing the life of the fathers into line with that of the seminarians was precious to him. Truly, for him the seminary was “the training ground of the clergy.”

“Of a regularity more than exemplary, of a mortification still without let-up even on his deathbed, of an austerity of life appaling, right from the start, to ordinary human beings, he realized to perfection St. Paul’s admonition: Tempus breve est qui utuntur hoc mundo tanquam non utantur; praeterit enim figura hujus mundi. [The time is short … they that use this world as if they used it not; for the fashion of this world passeth away]. He did not indulge himself in any way – for the pleasures of life, of loving, of being loved – things in his eyes of little value. His devotion to duty made things a bit rough for himself, and sometimes for others. But even in his necessary relationships, he always remained someone, a personality, a value, an authority, a true priest. His appearance was that of the serious saints, the like of which the Church has always had, of those saints who have an uncontested superiority, whom one venerates while being put off by their rough and unpolished attitudes, who win the esteem of men as they are sure of winning God’s final reward.”

This judgement, which in large part is copied from Father Garriguet’s notice about Father Dorvaux’s brother, seems applicable to our venerated confrere.

However, in spite of his cold appearance, Father Dorvaux had a very sensitive soul, like nearly all those like himself. In public, as we have said, the softness of his heart most often hid under an impenetrable veil. But in private, it showed itself. Then he was open, affable, full of amiability for his visitors. “Under his seeming severity,” wrote an American priest, “he had a very kind heart. I shall remember all my life my meetings with him in the happy seminary days. I was always at ease in his company, for he never ceased to show me the most generous attachment.” And even in public, on the occasion of a retreat or a spiritual reading, when he spoke on a subject dear to his heart, Father Dorvaux – almost in spite of himself – revealed himself to his hearers. It was felt that his heart came through his voice, and that he himself had lived and experienced the spiritual benefit in his soul – such was the conviction that he communicated to his hearers, such were the practices of Christian and priestly living that he was recommending.

For this ascetic was an apostle at the same time as he was the most humble and trusting of Christians. He had a deep interest in the life of the Church. The foreign missions were his favorite work. He gave to them his alms, his sacrifices, his prayers. In the recesses of his Sulpician room he lived heart and soul with the missionaries. Their successes, their sufferings, their disappointments, their hopes, he shared. And along with that, he had the devotion of a child towards Our Lord, Mary, and St. Joseph. Did not his love for the Queen of St. Sulpice induce him to use part of his savings to provide on a regular basis for Masses in honor of the Blessed Virgin?

From 1896 to 1927, as we have said, Father Dorvaux lived at the Grand Seminary of Montreal and worked there without let-up. But in the vacation period of 1927 he had to leave. “That was,” wrote one who was there, “the great trial of his life. He accepted it humbly, docilely submitted to God’s will, and devoted his remaining strength to the ministry his superiors gave him – the community of the Little Sisters of St. Joseph. There he was listened to, esteemed, and loved.”

A day came when the cross, which he had never avoided, pressed more heavily on his shoulders. The good old man gave up active ministry to prepare himself for death.

At the Hotel Dieu, where he had been taken in, he celebrated his last Mass (a delicate favor from the Blessed Virgin to her servant who loved her so much) on November 21, 1930, the day of the Presentation and the patronal feast of the seminary. And from then on, his life was a long preparation for the last journey. “He showed,” wrote our confrere, Father Guilbert, “the greatest fidelity to his particular rule. Thus, during the week which preceded his death he recited a good part of his breviary, he had himself brought down to the chapel in a wheel-chair to make his visit to the Blessed Sacrament, and he performed the best part of his exercises of piety.

“On the evening of February 28th, as he was seen to be very weak, the hospital intern was summoned to him. After the intern informed Dr. Manon by phone of Father Dorvaux’s condition, the doctor recommended that he be given the last rites. Immediately I was called. I reached the patient about 11:45. While awaiting my coming he had been given a heart stimulant. As the medicine began to produce its effect, Father Dorvaux – feeling better – expressed a strong desire to put off the reception of the last sacraments till morning. I did not want to insist too much. About a half-hour later Father Dorvaux asked for me, saying he wanted to be anointed immediately. In accord with his wish, I gave him Extreme Unction, Holy Viaticum, and the Indulgence for a Happy Death. He was fully conscious, and he himself made the responses to the liturgical prayers. When everything was over he told me: ‘I will everything God wills.”

“During Sunday and Monday, March 1st and 2nd, Father Dorvaux felt well enough to be visited by some confreres and to perform again some pious exercises. He continued in this condition up to midday on Tuesday, March 3rd. But in the afternoon of that day, the strength of the patient declined little by little. About four o’clock, his agony began. With several confreres present, the prayers for the dying were said, then an entire rosary. Father Dorvaux was still taking part in the prayers. Several times he even thanked those who were there, among them Father Gattet, his confessor. Although Father Gattet was himself ill, he was with the patient to help him in his last moments. About 5:45, after two great Signs of the Cross, he seemed to lose consciousness completely. He breathed his last a little after six.”

So returned to God this venerable confrere of whom Father Lecoq said: “Quite often, when I see Father Dorvaux at his duty, I think of Renan’s words – ‘At St. Sulpice the absolute of virtue is to be found.”

“The absolute of virtue” is not always lovable on all counts. On this earth, it is often mixed in with fault. But it always attracts attention, esteem, and respect because in the midst of our mediocrities it remains grand and beautiful. And so it was in “this priest in whom,” according to the beautiful sermon of His Eminence, Cardinal Rouleau, “religious austerity left to our contemporaries so high an example of penitence and abnegation.”

The funeral for the repose of Father Dorvaux’s soul was celebrated on March 6th at Notre Dame of Montreal. The Sulpician communities of the city and about a hundred priests were there, Bishop Deschamps, Auxiliary of His Excellency, the Archbishop Administrator, consented to honor the funeral with his presence and to chant the absolution. Following custom, the body was buried in the crypt of the Grand Seminary: appositus est ad patres in pace, in spem venture saeculi. [In peace he was laid near his fathers in the hope of the age to come.]

In recommending Father Dorvaux’s soul to your charitable prayers, I beg you to accept, Fathers and dear confreres, the expression of my respectful and very fraternal affection in Our Lord.

P. Boisard

Vice-superior of St. Sulpice