Marcetteau, Father Benjamin

1958, April 23

Date of Birth: 1877, February 9

June 8, 1958

My dear Confreres:

Father Louis Arand has had the kindness to send to me some pages which will call up before you the person of one of our most well-known confreres in the American province, Father Benjamin Marcetteau. I thank him for his courtesy and present for you his text:

“Father Marcetteau died on Thursday, April 23rd. The following Monday His Excellency, Archbishop Keough of Baltimore, celebrated in the chapel of St. Charles College in Catonsville a Pontifical Requiem Mass, after which a procession of hundreds of priests and seminarians conducted the remains of our well-beloved confrere to the cemetery of the college. Such was the consummation of a life consecrated to God’s service, a life of which more than fifty-seven years had been lived in the priesthood and in the Society.

“Father Benjamin Marcetteau was born on February 9, 1877, at Aizenay, a little town in the heart of the Vendée, in the Diocese of Luçon. He was baptized the same day and received the name Benjamin out of the mistaken notion that he would be the last child in an already large family. He was the ninth. From confidences which now and again he was pleased to give us, we learned how highly blessed he was in the parents whom God had given him. Both were fervent Christians, but his mother especially seems to have been a person out of the ordinary. In spite of the heavy responsibilities which having a large family brought to her, she was never heard to voice the least complaint. No more did she ever show any trace of worry, so great was her trust in God’s help. Such was the religious heritage which endowed him with someone from whom he received his first and his best lessons – his mother.

“At the early age of five, Father Marcetteau was admitted to the public school. A few years later certain signs of anticlericalism in its teachers brought about the opening of a parochial school run by the Brothers. It was there that the young student finished his primary grades, after which he dedicated a whole year to the study of Latin under the direction of one of the parish assistants.

“He was only twelve when he entered the minor seminary of the Sables d’Olonne, conducted by the priests of the diocese. He spent six happy years there, and in 1895 he entered the major seminary in Luçon, at that time conducted by the Sulpicians, to make his Philosophy and Theology. At the end of his course – which was then one of four years – Father Marcetteau was intellectually and spiritually ready for priesthood, but he was not of canonical age. Meanwhile he had made up his mind to seek admission to the Society. His superiors sent him to the Catholic Institute of Paris, where he studied for a licentiate in Literature. He obtained it at the end of two years. He was just twenty-three years old. On August 5, 1900, he was ordained priest in the church of the parish he had been born in by Bishop Gendreau of Hanoi in Indochina.

“Towards the end of his course at the Catholic Institute, he made known his wish to come to work in one of the Sulpician houses in the United States. He arrived in Washington some months after his ordination and was enrolled in The Catholic University as a candidate for the doctorate in the Department of Greek, Latin, and English Studies. But an illness which put his life in danger kept him from earning his diploma. In the fall of 1903, he returned to France to make his Solitude.

“On his return to the United States, he began his Sulpician ministry in the major seminary in Boston, where he was given a class of Philosophy and the position of Master of Ceremonies. He spent seven years there. One of his former students is convinced that Philosophy lost a real Master when, in 1911, Father Marcetteau was changed to St. Charles College. He always cherished the memory of his years in Boston, and he treasured letters of former students.

“At Catonsville, he helped in the reestablishment of the college after the terrible fire which had destroyed the old house at Ellicott City. But he was not long at St. Charles, for he was soon sent to St. Joseph’s College in California, where he spent twenty years, first at Menlo Park then at Mountain View. There, too, he taught Latin, Greek, and French to the Rhets and served as Master of Ceremonies.

“After this long ministry in California, Father Marcetteau had come to believe and to hope that he was settled there for good. But in 1933 Father Viéban took charge of the Sulpician Seminary in Washington, and Father Marcetteau succeeded him as Superior of the American Solitude. There he introduced eight groups of candidates to Sulpician life, but this period seems to have been the hardest of his life. From the beginning he felt that his long years in the midst of minor seminarians had not prepared him for the task he had accepted out of obedience. So it was with joy that in 1940, at his own request, he left the solitude to become Spiritual Director in the seminary in Washington, where he was cordially welcomed.“None of those who knew Father Marcetteau would hesitate to acknowledge his faithfulness in carrying out class commitments and in doing all the jobs entrusted to him. If he was able to write several books of spirituality – nearly all centered on preparation for priesthood or ecclesiastical life – it was because his methodical mind and the regularity of his daily life let him find the time. These books are still widespread in seminaries and among the clergy. They give promise of continuing the apostolate of their author long after his death.

“About four years ago Father Marcetteau became conscious of a noticeable loss of memory, but at its onset, like all his confreres, he saw in this only a sign of age. Nevertheless, the gravity of his condition was recognized after a few months. He was afflicted with arteriosclerosis. He was suffering from an increasing inability to find words. But he accepted this as a cross which he carried with resignation, and his perfect resignation to God’s will made it less heavy. From that point on he seemed to live in complete peace in a world which became more and more unreal. While these ‘lost years’ were a source of sadness to all his friends, it seemed as if for him time and suffering no longer existed. The only question was that of finding out when death would manage to wear out a constitution that had never been very robust.

“In the last days he received Extreme Unction with, it seemed, a hazy realization that he was nearer to Heaven than earth. Death came gently, like an angel of mercy who helped him climb out of earth’s shadows into the light of eternal glory. We are sure that he rests in peace in the arms of God Whom he always loved so tenderly and Whom he served so faithfully in the course of his long life.

“In the will which he made about six years before his death, Father Marcetteau included this simple and touching farewell to his American confreres:

‘Before leaving my Sulpician confreres, I wish to thank them from the bottom of my heart for the kindness they have shown me during these many years in which I have lived and worked with them in this country. I have never had a second’s regret for the decision I took in 1899 at the end of my seminary days of dedicating my life to the training of the priests of the United States of America. I deeply regret the faults and errors which have kept me from doing all the good which I should have done in the course of my Sulpician life. I beg forgiveness from the confreres and the students whom I may have unwittingly offended or harmed by negligence. I ask my confreres, our students and our alumni, to remember me at the altar. With God’s grace, I shall not fail to pray for them and for the success of their ministry. Farewell until the day of our last meeting in Heaven.’

“We could go on about the traits of character which have given to his confreres and students so high an opinion of Father Marcetteau: his admirable regularity in the accomplishment of all his duties; his almost exaggerated fidelity in not leaving the house so as to be always at the disposal of his students and penitents; his deep love for the Sacrifice of the Mass; his unfailing and always charming kindness towards those who came to him. But for those who knew him, there is no need of praise. If he was not an eloquent speaker, his life was always the best sermon that one could hear on the priestly and Sulpician life. In all, he was the perfect model of the ‘priestly gentleman and the gentlemanly priest.’

“To have known him, to have been his student, to have had the privilege of his guidance – all that is the sign of a remarkable grace accorded by the Source of all gifts.”

I recommend the soul of our dear departed to your prayers, and I tell you anew, my dear confreres, of my affectionately devoted sentiments in Our Lord and Our Lady.

Pierre Girard, S.S.

Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice