Levatois, Father Andrew

1948, April 20

Date of Birth: 1871, October 1

June 4, 1948

Fathers and Dear Confreres:

We have just lost one of our American confreres, Father Levatois, who worked in our American houses for forty-two years. It was there that he spent nearly his whole Sulpician life, except for eight years in Reims. From both sides of the ocean when he was spoken of, these words sprang spontaneously to the lips: “He is a saint.” The summary of his life will show you whether or not priests and seminarians were right in saying this.

André Michel Lô Auguste Levatois was born at St. Lô in the Diocese of Coutances on October 1, 1871. His was a very religious family. His parents had eleven children, of whom he was the second. Enrolled with the Brothers who ran the school, he received from them his elementary education. When that was over, his parents, for his secondary studies, entered him in the Oratorians’ college at Agneaux, quite near St. Lô. Apparently our future confrere was a day-scholar there. This did not lessen his affection for, nor his gratitude to, his teachers, but it doubtless explains, at least in part, André Levatois’ attachment to his family and the childlike openness which, up to his last days, marked his dealings with others.

When his studies were over (and they were markedly successful), he left his family to enter the major seminary at Coutances. For his “naturally priestly” soul had always set its course for the priesthood of Our Lord.

For him the seminary was a revelation and an enchantment. In it, he was in every sense a model. His soul, simple, open, generous, dreamt of giving itself wholly to others and to God. It is even possible that at that time André Levatois was contemplating, not only the Society of St. Sulpice, but apostolic work in America. While he was a seminarian, he saw his fellow Norman, Father Tanquerey, and heard him speak of the splendid Sulpician work in which he was then engaged across the ocean. Was he perhaps thinking that he would one day go to join him?

In 1892, at twenty-one years of age, André Levatois was ordained subdeacon. He was already a candidate for the Society. The following year he was at Paris in order to pursue courses at the Seminary of St. Sulpice, then at the Catholic Institute, from which he received a doctorate in Theology. Meanwhile, on June 29, 1895, at Coutances, he received priestly ordination from his Ordinary, Bishop Germain. The next day he celebrated his first Mass in his native town, St. Lô. The church in which that Mass was said, his parish church, Holy Cross, to which Father Levatois remained so attached, has disappeared. It was a victim in the battles which were like a ransom for our liberation. The loss was a thing our confrere could not have regretted more.

In October, 1896, Father Levatois began his Solitude at Issy. There was a young American there, Father Harig of the Diocese of Louisville, and a native of Nantes, Father Saupin. It is possible that at that time none of them realized that Sulpician work would bring them together in the United States.

Father Levatois’ first assignment was to the major seminary in Reims. There he was named teacher of Fundamental Theology. Both in his classes and in his directing of penitents, he showed himself right away a priest of very delicate conscience and of unmatched sanctity. Someone in a position to evaluate his life at Reims has written: “I was always extremely edified by his piety, which seemed beyond comparison, and his actions, pushed to the very limits of all the virtues – in him ideally realized – encouraged in the Solitude. Without conscious intention and hence with exceptional openness in his nature, he ‘betrayed’ himself in everything he did. So we knew what was most personal in his life, which he exposed to us either naively or in response to a barrage of questions to which he replied with unbelievable simplicity. Stunned by a fervor visibly carried to its utmost or by an innocence which embarrassed them, (some) tried to get him to fall into some imperfection, such as impatience in class, or to cause him (through charity to them, they said) to fall into this or that liberty or this or that omission, more or less against the rule . . .  to end in this way would be little compared to the low opinion or disapproval of another . . . Father Levatois withstood the test, sometimes without being able to hide his anguish, but always without falling into the trap . . . “Personally,” added the witness being cited, “I believed him so holy that, all in all, it seemed to me that he dealt with us in the spirit suggested by St. John Baptist de la Salle to his followers, of agreeing to let their students become their torturers.”

That edification and that “martyrdom” lasted eight years. Those eight years implanted in him a thorough devotion to the work of St. Sulpice. He himself described them as “happy and fruitful.”

They would probably have been followed by many others in France if an occurrence, religious persecution, had not steered Father Levatois’ life in a different direction.

In 1904, M. Emile Combes, President of the Council of Ministers, had forbidden the bishops of France (the Concordat was still in effect; and in his eyes, so were its accompanying Articles) to keep in their seminaries the Religious who, up to then, were running them. This measure had as its object the Vincentians, the Marists, the Picpus Fathers, and above all (although they were not Religious in the strict sense of the term) the Sulpicians. At the same time, for reasons which had nothing to do with politics, our houses in the United States were in need of teachers and directors. The death of Father Lebas, the Superior General, and the election of Father Garriguet as his successor, had brought to France the two Superiors of Montreal and Baltimore.

The latter, Father Dyer, made known his lack to Father Berrué, at Paris for the election. He was the Superior of the major seminary in Reims, and had – after being appointed to do so – made the canonical visitation of the Sulpician houses of Canada and the United States earlier that year. He therefore knew well the situation of St. Sulpice in that country. He was likewise aware of Father Dyer’s worries and wishes. As a consequence, knowing that legally Father Levatois’ Sulpician career at Reims would be over at the end of the current school year, he recommended his young confrere to the Baltimore Superior. Father Dyer was impressed by his conversation with Father Berrué. When the election of the Superior General and its subsequent Assembly were finished, he left for Reims. On Christmas day he had a talk with Father Levatois which lasted no less than an hour and a half. Father Levatois was charmed and taken by the enthusiasm and delicacy of the American Sulpician. He agreed to go to the help of his confreres across the Atlantic. “The result of that talk was capital for thousands of American seminarians and priests.”

The school year of 1904-1905 was therefore the last that Father Levatois spent in France. He definitively left the country at the end of August and arrived in Baltimore on September 2, 1905.

In the course of his secondary studies, he had learned English, but in the way one learned it in those far-off days: with no insistence on proper pronunciation and taking no account of correct accentuation. Since this was the way our confrere had learned the language, he had to go back to being a beginner. He made rapid progress: six months after he had arrived in the United States, he gave in English for his first time the points of meditation. The following year he acquired his first penitents. It was at that point that he began to exercise on the seminarians and the clergy the wide and deep influence which characterized his Sulpician work in the United States.

His devotion to Sulpician work was beyond compare. Outside the teaching assigned to him, he was ready to assume almost any job: Philosophy, Moral, Dogma, and Hebrew. Was the Treasurer ill?  Father Levatois graciously agreed to fill in. Was the Choirmaster or the Organist going to be away?  Father Levatois took the podium or sat down at the organ. Behind his always smiling face, he had an indomitable will – that of serving wherever Providence might seem to call him.

An informed and conscientious teacher, never show-offish or self-seeking, he wanted to efface himself before all to give to his students what he judged essential for the ministry which would be theirs to exercise.

As a director of souls, he was from the start incomparable and, up to the end, indefatigable. He remained so. For him, direction was the Sulpician and priestly work par excellence. Calmly, in silence, day after day, hour after hour, with no thought of self, he listened, counseled, absolved, and comforted. What seminarians he molded!  What priests he received, encouraged, and directed!  He fashioned souls on the pattern of Christ the Priest, and he poured into them the flame of the charity which visibly burned in his heart. That was what those long lines of penitents and advice-seekers were coming to find out – those long lines which seemed to renew themselves endlessly.

His spiritual ministry often called him forth to be of service to our other Sulpician houses. His faithfulness and punctuality in this was proverbial. There was no need to ask heaven if he would be there. He was always at the place arranged for at the announced hour. Whether it was snowing or raining or freezing, whether the sun was roasting hot or the temperature was stifling – it mattered little – he was always there at the appointed time. Most often, he came, like Christ, on foot, with no thought of hardship, happy to put himself at the service of the priestly souls who were waiting for him. It has been written and rightly said: “With him, the Priest had succeeded in submerging the Man.” But the Man had lost none of his traits. The careful grooming of his clothes, the distinctive personality, the good order of his desk and of his room, were not with him the signs of personal fussiness but the evidence of his respect for human beings and of his devotion to God. Friendly, optimistic, benevolent, always ready to excuse in others the slightest faults, he gave the impression of holding up before his eyes two truths: all souls have been ransomed by the Blood of Christ and all men are children of God.

It goes without saying that the Cross was not absent from a life so perfect in the eyes of men and of Christ, and completely dedicated to God. But the Cross with Father Levatois, like the secret of his supernatural influence, remained above all an interior one. He hid it under a smile, he lived by it, he used it to nourish his ministry, he added to it by prayer, in order to assimilate it to that of Our Lord, and to authenticate in his own eyes the integrity of his supernatural life. The Cross remained, up to the end, an element of his optimism and the underpinning of his goodness.

This is not to say that at times the Cross did not weigh heavily on him. On September 30, 1936, Father Levatois went to the Solitude to hear confessions. He fell and broke his leg. He was sixty-five years old. At that age, healing was not rapid. For six months he had to stay in the hospital. It was only on Holy Saturday that he was allowed to return to St. Mary’s Seminary (with what joy only those who lived with him understand) to take part in the Easter Liturgy.

He seemed to have rediscovered his youth. He took up his work in the seminary. He recommenced, as if nothing had happened in this outside-the-house ministry, going to the Sulpician houses to hear confessions in them. It was Resurrection!  Now to jump ahead to June 10, 1945 – that was almost heaven for our venerable confrere. He began at that time to celebrate his golden priestly jubilee in the midst of his confreres and the students of the seminary. We should say: “of the seminaries.” For, since he exercised his ministry in several of our houses, each of them held a jubilee banquet. It was his last great joy.

On May 5, 1947, as he was coming downstairs from his room to attend the farewell festivities for the deacons, he fell a second time. That evening he was taken to St. Agnes Hospital. There it was found that he had fractured his hip. St. Agnes Hospital was to be his last abode on earth. At first, Father Levatois was buoyed up by the hope of returning to the seminary, as in 1937. He continued to be interested in the life and progress of the seminarians. But as his strength went on failing, he understood that Providence was not likely to permit him to resume his very much loved duties in the house in which he had lived for so long. It was then that the dear patient experienced how heavy is Christ’s Cross when it is carried without hope of ever putting it down. In spite of his undoubted saintliness – or rather because of it – he suffered indescribable pain. His beautiful soul needed that last test for establishing its resemblance, already so far advanced, with Christ the Priest, Whom he preached so often and loved so much. Last April 13th, we believed that God was going to call him to the supreme reward. That turned out to be a warning – the last.

A week later, on April 20th, our confrere entered the Father’s House, about which he had spoken so often and so well.

Father Levatois’ body was brought to St. Mary’s Seminary, Roland Park, where he had worked nearly all his life. The funeral was held on Friday, April 23rd. His Grace, Archbishop Francis P. Keough, presided and gave the absolution. Their Excellencies, Bishop John F. McNamara, Auxiliary of Washington, and Bishop Lawrence J. Shehan, Auxiliary of Baltimore, were present as were a multitude of priests from that and neighboring dioceses. The Mass was sung by Father Lardner, Provincial Superior of the Society in the United States. Father John C. Selner preached the eulogy.

After the absolution, Father Levatois’ body was taken to Catonsville and buried in the little cemetery of St. Charles. After that, Bishop McNamara, friend of the deceased, recited the last prayers.

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

P. Boisard

Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice