Magnien, Father Alphonse

1902, December 21

Date of Birth:  1837, June 9

February 23, 1903

Fathers and Very Dear in Our Lord:

Some days after the death of Father Colin, that of Father Magnien came to burden us with another great sorrow, but without causing us any great surprise.  For six months the doctors of each of them had foretold that their patients would not last out the year’s end; and in both cases that prognosis was realized with sad accuracy.  Father Magnien, after a life spent in entire dedication to carrying out our work in the United States, with great calm saw the approach of his slowly advancing death.  He was ready for it in the sentiments of the lively faith which sparked his whole life, but which never seemed more edifying than in the last days when his confreres witnessed his patience and his serenity.

Father Alphonse Magnien was born on June 9, 1837, at Le Bleymard in the Diocese of Mende.  In his home he breathed in the atmosphere of faith that characterizes that section of France, always rich in priestly vocations; and his own began very early to manifest itself by a lively piety and a great sweetness of character united to very promising abilities.  At Saint-Chely-d’Apcher – main center in an important district – where his father had to go as underofficer of police, the boy was the best student in the Christian Brothers’ school; and his parents soon consented, on the advice of their revered pastor, to place him in the minor seminary of Chirac.  In there he was not always in the first rank, it was because he had to contest it with two remarkable rivals who still hold high positions in the clergy of Mende and in the Society of Jesus.

At the time Alphonse Magnien brilliantly finished his classical studies, Bishop Dupanloup had for some time been Bishop of Orleans and was striving to fill up the numerous gaps which he found in the ranks of his diocesan clergy.  The Diocese of Mende offered him a bounteous overflow of excellent candidates, and he copiously drew on that overflow.  On a visit to Chirac in 1857, he addressed to the senior students an ardent appeal to which the young Magnien was among the first to respond.

So it was that in the following October he entered the major seminary of Orleans where he was to spend five years.  There he was a model of piety, regularity, and application to study.  The likeable and outgoing character which he joined to fine talents gave him a remarkable leadership over his fellow students, with excellent results.  A penetrating and solid theologian, he was – by liveliness as well as by the sharpness of his mind – a redoutable adversary in debate; and we recall one quite serious debate which he won over a revered adversary by switching (without attracting attention) from the defense to a very pressing offense.

At the close of his seminary days he revealed to his director his desire to become a Sulpician.  “That is what I wish for you,” the venerable Father Benech replied to him, “but I didn’t want to say anything so that all might come from Heaven.”

Ordained priest on June 15, 1862, Father Magnien did not, however, soon obtain the freedom to follow his bent.  Bishop Dupanloup insisted that first he give some service to the diocese, assigned him during the months of vacation as an assistant at St. Mark’s, then for two years as teacher in the two lowest grades of the minor seminary of the Chapelle Saint Mesmin.  Before entering the Solitude, Father Magnien was again sent as an auxiliary to the seminary of Philosophy at Nantes where he conducted the Science course during the year 1864-1865.  In the following October he finally came to the novitiate.  His outgoing nature and the habitual activity which he already treasured made that year of testing trying enough, but he generously went through it, showing to his fellow-Solitaires only a happy and friendly spirit.

At the Seminary of Rodez, to which he had been assigned, he taught in 1866-67 the Philosophy course, and joined to it, during the two following years, the course of Holy Scripture; he put into each course a clarity and an interest which spontaneously sprang out of the innate qualities of his mind.  One of his boyhood schoolfellows recently depicted him in these terms which are applicable to all the periods of his life:  “Right from the beginning he clearly and precisely saw into the most difficult questions, and conveyed his thoughts with ease and marvelous logic.  He put forth everything from the first throw, and he put it forth well.”

At the time when Father Magnien was finishing his studies at the major seminary of Orleans, that house was host to Father Dubreul, then Superior of Baltimore.  Father Dubreul gave some interesting spiritual readings on the work of St. Sulpice in the United States; these talks were the beginning of Father Magnien’s American vocation.  In September 1869, two months after Father Jenkins’ death (he was the founder of St. Charles), he went to Baltimore to join Father Dubreul whom nine years later he was to succeed for the long period of twenty-five years.  As at Rodez, he began with the Philosophy course to which he added the following year the course of Liturgy, and at the end of a second year, the course of Holy Scripture.  He taught these three courses from 1871 to 1875; then from 1875 to 1878 he taught Holy Scripture and Dogma.  Father Dubreul died in 1878, and Father Magnien was chosen to succeed him.  He continued the Scripture course up to 1880, and then took over the training of the deacons and the treasurership up to 1886.  Later, unfortunately, he let himself be caught up too much in external affairs; and although he kept from then on only the superiorship, he had enough to do in that into the last years of his life.

Everything was all right in France when he left for America; he had to make the sacrifice of family ties, ties to which he was always sensitive.  But the apostolic spirit had spoken loudly enough in his soul so that he placed himself with no reservations at the disposal of his superiors, and they were well-advised to accept his dutifulness.  He always had the missionary’s lively faith, the high aspirations, the zealous glow, which he evidenced all through life.  In the resources of his rich make-up, Divine Providence had, moreover, brought together all the means of carrying out a wide influence in the country to which he had been sent: an open and large mind, quick-as-a-flash prompt, sure and practical; a heart generous, outgoing, and affectionate.  He quickly gained the sympathy of the Americans and gave them his own.  Although at his age he was not as flexible perhaps as in early youth, he adapted very rapidly to the customs, ideas, even the language of the country of his adoption.  His maturity and the experience acquired in the seminaries of France were from then on only all the more a force and a light to guide him in his work.  The considerable development which the Baltimore seminary underwent during Father Magnien’s administration was not only the result of circumstances but the result of his influence and of his personal prestige; and the same must be said as well of the burgeoning of the work of St. Sulpice in the United States.

When Father Magnien came to Baltimore in 1869, Father Dubreul was exactly in the middle of his career as Superior, which had begun in 1860.  He had already rendered eminent service to the diocese and to the seminary; and the Society could not, moreover, forget that it had received from his hands the first four American confreres to work in the major seminaries of their country.  All the time, in the period in question, he had not yet lost a certain rigidity of manner which affected the young men with some apprehension and some holding back.

Father Magnien, without failing from the start to show himself firm and strong, early introduced into the community’s life a more expansive element.  He later said that to gain the esteem and confidence of American seminarians it was important that a director make himself known as capable and practical in teaching, and on the other hand, sympathetic to the spirit and institutions of the country.  In so speaking he was without doubt influenced more than he realized by his own experience as well as by his non-personal reflections simultaneously.  Whenever he went back to the classroom as Professor of Philosophy, he was found to be clear, interesting, and practical.  As for his sympathy for America, it was the spontaneous fruit of the large and generous dispositions of his mind and heart; of the apostolic spirit whose rule is to do everything for everybody; and of the view under which the situation of the Church presented itself to him in the midst of his adopted country.

In 1869, although the horizon had been darkening for the Catholics of France for the previous ten years, it was glowing with a new light for those in the United States.  There, priests and religious had won admiration by their dedication on the battlefields of the Civil War just over.  Since Protestant sects, broken by that war into hostile fragments, remained divided between North and South, the Catholic Church had kept its peacetime unity and showed it with flair by holding, as soon as peace was reestablished, the Second National Council of Baltimore.  The general public was struck by this vigor, this impressiveness; and little by little it was stripping itself of its prejudices against the faith.  The Church became an object of respect and esteem to a great number of Americans and was enabled to develop freely without arousing resentment.  This happy state of affairs, in itself and in contrast to what was going on in Europe, was bound to inspire in Father Magnien a kind of enthusiasm which he was not the man to hide.  From then on, between the Americans – always proud of their country – and our confrere – filled with sincere admiration for it – inevitably was born a growing sympathy which was always to be one of Father Magnien’s great motivations.  No doubt it could happen that it was sometimes exploited as a weakness by the malicious wiles of some of the young men.  It can also be mentioned that when certain differences of opinions and trends created some malaise in the American Church, the very well-known loyalty of Father Magnien to those with whom he first sided caused him some temporary embarrassment.  If ever he was the diplomat, it was not at all by the skill of deception nor even of keeping his mouth shut or lying low.  With him, frankness of speech was a principle; it was at bottom a practice and a habit which he never cared to back down from.

The slight embarrassments which ensued did not nullify the fact that he, more than anyone else, contributed in giving the Baltimore seminary a unique position in the American Church and in evincing from the American bishops signs of a quite valuable trust in their recognition of the Society.

When, on Father Dubreul’s death in 1878, Father Magnien was named his successor, Archbishop Gibbons had just taken possession of the See of Baltimore.  A former student of St. Charles and St. Mary’s, nearly as young as the new Superior, he showed himself immediately to have an affection and a trust in Father Magnien which for twenty-five years has never known a lessening.  “I have lost my right arm,” wrote the Cardinal on Father Magnien’s death.  “I had absolute confidence in his judgement, his ability, and his dedication.”  So close a relationship between the Superior and the chief shepherd of the diocese and the head of the American hierarchy had to have added even more to the prestige which Father Magnien enjoyed in the eyes of the seminary community.

But his mind, his heart, and his preaching were nonetheless to remain as the great means by which he exercised a saving influence on the young men, an influence truly powerful during the fine years of his administration.  His spiritual readings especially in those years were remarkable for power and interest.

With a marvelous abundance and variety of explanations he taught them the fundamental principles of the Christian and spiritual life.  He excoriated, too, the abuses against which he especially sought to forewarn the young clerics, and he was adept at picturing those abuses by examples from real life. 

He crowned his work by close relationships with the young and did not limit himself to his penitents.  Thanks to his quick-as-a-flash insight and his manner of speaking – strong, to the point, and attention-getting – he rendered to many the services of an excellent director by revealing to them the strong traits of their make-up, and of the work they must undertake to reform that make-up.  He had, moreover, by his openness of manner and his goodness of heart the gift of cheering up anyone who came close to him, even the very community.  The good spirit for which the community was always noted, even when firmness over some shortcomings had to be used to restore good order, must certainly be attributed in large measure to the fatherly influence of Father Magnien.  That disposition of benevolence – sincere, practical and familial – was so pronounced in him that it often struck even those who saw him only in occasional and passing relationships.  From that point of view, the testimony that one journalist gave him at the time of his death depicts him so faithfully that it is worth quoting:

“In the eyes of the representatives of the press, Father Magnien was par excellence the typical gentleman.  He was always approachable, kindly, likeable, obliging.  If anyone went to him to ask for information, he always got it on putting the question.  He did not try to dodge giving it like a man upset at being annoyed; but he took pleasure in explaining to you an interesting subject, as a father might do with his son.  It really was a pleasure for him to do a favor.

“When he could not give the desired information, he said so frankly without trying to throw you ff the track: “My son, right now I cannot tell you that.  Perhaps I can do so in a while.  Come back and see me.”

“He spent his life in the service of others and loved his brothers like himself or even more than himself.  He has honored the religion which he taught in showing it alive in himself.  We gave him, in preference to more dignified titles, the simple name of Father – not because he was not outstanding in his priestly activity, but because we had for him the love and trust that we have for a father.”

Fifteen years after Father Magnien came to Baltimore and six years after he began heading the work of the seminary, in 1884, the Third National Council of Baltimore was held in that city on which the possession of the oldest Episcopal see in the United States has always seemed to confer a kind of primacy of honor.  The Archbishop of Baltimore was to preside over the meeting as Delegate of the Holy See.  It was his desire that the Council hold its sessions in a hall of the seminary, and Father Magnien eagerly strove for the realization of a role so complimentary to the house.

Too, the services which he had occasion to render to the members of the Council, and the important part he took in the sessions as the Archbishop’s theologian, won him the esteem and good will of the bishops.  The seminary benefitted in more than one way and especially in that the community helped in welcoming the renowned gathering by the useful part it took in the solemn ceremonies which marked the opening and closing of the Council.  These ceremonies brought to the attention of the whole country the majesty of the Catholic Church; and the Baltimore seminary appeared at that moment to have become the center of the American continent.

The same honor was renewed in 1886 when a very great part of the hierarchy came together in Baltimore on the occasion of Archbishop Gibbons’ elevation to the cardinalate; in 1889, when an even larger gathering came there to celebrate the centenary of the foundation of the See of Baltimore, the first Catholic Congress of the United States, and the opening of the Catholic University in Washington.  Finally, in 1891, the seminary was again to see a remarkable gathering – less august, perhaps, but more intimate – for it was the centenary of its own foundation that it was then celebrating.  Moreover, the close bond of the seminary and the diocese was highlighted by this:  The solemn functions of the centenary were celebrated at the Cathedral.  It was hardly big enough to contain in its interior the crowd of priests and also of the faithful, drawn there by a memorial observance which in our old country would have doubtless excited less interest. 

At these splendid celebrations, the benefit of which was surely guaranteed to the seminary by the largeness of Father Magnien’s mind and heart, there accrued, too, solid and lasting profit for the work of St. Sulpice in the United States:  just in the Diocese of Baltimore, the growth of St. Charles and St. Mary’s (the latter now surpasses three hundred in its registration); in Washington, the seminary of the Catholic University, a common project of the American bishops in whose name we were expressly asked to undertake its direction; in several large dioceses, the importunities of the bishops for us to establish for them a Sulpician seminary – in most cases an impossibility for us.  Especially when a foundation was actually in operation, Father Magnien took a lively and most practical interest in it.  That must be said in particular about the most recent, our house of studies called St. Austin’s, intended to prepare for the seminaries of the United States young confreres, either French or American, whom Divine Providence will send us for that work, vocations which are the principle means of the work’s serious hopes for the future.  So limited in fact is the number of new seminaries we have accepted that it is hard to hide from ourselves the fact that the division of forces entailed in these few foundations has been the occasion of a certain amount of harm to the Baltimore seminary – to speak only of it;  that the division of forces coincides with the expansion of its registration, with the declining health of Father Magnien, and with the attenuation of his involvements in too many questions of general or particular interest on which he was being consulted.

Among the works which have marked the second half of his career as Superior we must especially note:  in the material order, the completion of St. Mary’s construction thanks to which the Division of Philosophy is henceforth provided for by a distinct wing, very well equipped for its purposes;  and in the spiritual order, the preaching of a great number of retreats for priests, on which our zealous confrere used up, without sufficiently reckoning with his health, a large portion of the seminary vacation period.  His deeply profound knowledge of priestly living; his preaching, equally nourished by faith, by doctrine, and by experience – always appealing to priests by its lively, practical, unpretentious form – made him much sought after for this so rich ministry; and several bishops have paid him a testimony full of gratitude for the good work he did in their dioceses by his retreats.

Unhappily, Father Magnien allowed himself to exercise zeal without sufficiently reckoning with his health.  Some years ago, at the beginning of a retreat which he was to preach to the clergy of St. Louis, he was suddenly struck down by a serious illness which brought him to Death’s door.  God allowed him to recover, but medical men deemed that a real cure would be possible only at the risk of a delicate and dangerous operation.  With that in mind, Father Magnien came to Paris to consult an eminent specialist.  After explaining to him the dangers inherent in surgical intervention, the specialist left it up to him.  Seeing the hope of once again working for the American clergy, Father Magnien made up his mind firmly, and with a promptness which deeply impressed the head nurse of the Brothers of St. John of God who was present at the consultation.  Among the great number of the sick whom that good religious had aided in similar circumstances, he had never seen death faced with more simplicity and less hesitation.  Anew this time God blessed the surgeon’s consummate art, and our confrere’s readiness to risk all gave him back his health.

But when Father Magnien returned to Paris for the last time in 1901, if he had thanks to bring to the man who had operated on him, he had on the other hand to submit to our doctor a heart condition which, from then on, made clear the next weakening of his health.  At the beginning of the school year, he courageously took up again the running of St. Mary’s Seminary, but he was several times obliged during that year to get someone to take his place; and during the vacation of 1902, the necessity of giving him a successor became evident to the eyes of all, even his own and those of Cardinal Gibbons, who had wished more than anyone else to put off as long as possible the critical moment.

Father Magnien with customary generosity made the sacrifice of the active life which was his identity.  He retired to a room in the Philosophy Division and there passed the last months of his life in the most edifying and serene dispositions of spirit, surrounded by the affectionate care of his confreres, especially of the one whom ten years previous he had cast his eyes on as his future successor.  He celebrated Holy Mass for as long as his health permitted; but dropsy, caused by his heart condition, soon made so much progress that the least movement caused him great pain.  It did not – any the less – inhibit his happiness and his usual amiability; and if he was happy in receiving the visits of his confreres, he also made them happy by his interesting conversations, always rich in memories.

A puncturing which the doctors had purposely put off gave him briefly noticeable relief; but it was known that a second procedure of this kind would be the sign of an approaching end.  And when it took place, a month after the first, Father Magnien was aware that he was on his way to his final moment.  From the first signs of serious danger he had been strengthened by the last sacraments under the eyes of his confreres.  On December 15th, he again received the Holy Viaticum in the presence of the whole community, able still to announce some words in a strong voice, and to ask pardon of all those around for any scandal which he might have given.  He also expressed a wish that the eldest of his confreres inform the Superior General of his regret for anything he had ever done contrary to the spirit of St. Sulpice.

Father Magnien lived another week; but during the last five days he had nearly lost the use of his faculties and could only now and then recognize visitors.  On Sunday, December 21st, about seven in the morning, he sweetly gave his soul to God, assisted in his last moments by Father Dyer.

The funeral took place on Tuesday, December 23rd, at the Cathedral.  Although the nearness of Christmas kept many priests from coming, the seminary chapel would have been much too small to hold the crowd which included ten bishops and two hundred priests.  His Eminence, Cardinal Gibbons, opted to say the Mass and give the absolution.  One of his former secretaries, Bishop Donohoe of Wheeling, preached an eloquent funeral sermon that had such a ring of sincerity – with emotion very deep and very evident – that the emotions themselves seemed the finest eulogy for the one who inspired them.  After the ceremony, Father Magnien’s body was brought back to the seminary, where it rests in the little community cemetery.  Doubtless it will continue to be visited for a long time by the many generations of priests for whom our confrere worked so hard and so devotedly.  Let us join our prayers to theirs.  Fathers and very dear in Our Lord, let us also ask God to watch over the work in the United States that He has confided to us since Father Emery’s day, and whose future is in His hands.  I renew to you the expression of my very affectionate and devoted sentiments in Our Lord.

J. Lebas

Superior of St. Sulpice