Ouvrard, Father Jean

1946, December 4

Date of Birth: 1881, December 5 

No Memorial Card is Available

February 21, 1947

Fathers and Dear Confreres:

Last August Father Ouvrard was named director at the Issy seminary. In the first days of the school year his health, which we all believed sufficiently robust, proved very frail. We were hoping that it would do for the job at hand – relatively light – which had been confided to him. Alas!  In the early days of December he went to heaven after a very laborious life. A life more exciting than Sulpician lives usually are.

Jean Marie Ouvrard was born at Gugand in the Diocese of Luçon on December 5, 1881. His maternal grandmother was Irish. Perhaps that explains his decision to dedicate the best part of his life to the training of the American clergy – in large part Irish by origin – and the ease with which they understood him and he them. About his early years we have no exact information. When he was young his parents, no doubt wishing to encourage the musical talent that he was already showing, had him take piano lessons and violin lessons. This twofold study lasted only a short time. He was stricken with paralysis in both arms and both hands (fortunately only temporarily) – this paralysis forced him to give up the study of musical instruments and to concentrate on vocal music, in which he was also adept.

After beginning his major seminary studies at Luçon, he expressed the desire of dedicating himself to the work of our Society, and he came to the Seminary of St. Sulpice. He had a notable stay there.

First, to illustrate: His mother had given him a little telephone apparatus. Father Ouvrard brought it to Paris with him. By agreement with one of his neighbors in the dormitory, he installed it in such a way as to enable them to communicate with each other – to constitute, as we might say today, a partnership – a bit like Pierre and Thomas Corneille. When the apparatus was in place, and silence was otherwise being observed, Father Garriguet, director of the seminary, came along. Father Ouvrard, in all innocence, invited him to take a look at the communications system just installed. The look was not a long one!  You can imagine Father Garriguet’s reaction and young Ouvrard’s shock at the reaction. Of this communications system no more was said. The incident was closed, and it had no dire consequences. If history or legend kept its memory alive, that was for the delectation of the hero as well as of his future confreres and students.

At. St. Sulpice Father Ouvrard was very soon known and for entirely different reasons. He made an impression right away. Very intelligent, hard working, glowing with youth and happiness, he was very well accepted by his teachers and his fellow students, and he enjoyed in the community a very great and very gratifying popularity. At this time illness brought him to a halt. He was forced to interrupt his priestly training for a year or so. At last, on June 30, 1906, he was ordained priest and was going to be able to carry out his Sulpician vocation.

That same year, in October, he entered the Solitude. There he met two Americans whom later he joined on the other side of the Atlantic: Father Edward F. Coyle of Taunton, Massachusetts, and Father Eugene Moreau of St. Jean of Montreal, Quebec. When his novitiate was finished, he left for the United States, where he arrived at the beginning of September, 1907.

For two years he worked for his degree at the Catholic University in Washington and set himself to gaining a mastery of the English language.

His first assignment was to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. At first he taught Philosophy and Chant. Then, for three years, Church History, Patrology, and Greek. Those years of teaching at Baltimore were perhaps the hardest of his life. He had to make an effort to express himself clearly in a language he had not yet completely mastered. Sometimes he made mistakes in his choice of words or in his phrasing. At that point, he would ask the help of his students, and they were simply not able to give it. Everybody was laughing good-naturedly, with himself in the lead, because of the mix-ups he was getting himself involved in and because of the mistakes of pronunciation and grammar into which he was falling. It is thus that the former students of that time still remember Father Ouvrard happily. The rapid stride of the little priest along the corridors of Paca Street; his piercing and penetrating voice when he cried “come in!” to seminarians rapping at his door; the pleasure they experienced when – very busy at his desk – he greeted them with a smile as mischievous as it was welcoming, a smile which put at ease his regular or occasional visitors.

His spiritual direction was very highly thought of. He did not let those who came to him take it easy. Constantly bringing them back to the field of the Faith, he showed them – with a clarity which left nothing to be desired – the end to be attained and the means to attain it, especially those means which, although they were trying to ignore them, they had to use to arrive at the desired end. The memory he left behind in the seminarians of 1909-1913 was of an extraordinary personal dynamism and of a complete dedication to the tasks confided to him.

In 1913 Father Ouvrard was named to St. Patrick’s Seminary, Menlo Park, in the Diocese of San Francisco. He left Baltimore not without regret, for he was deeply attached to his students and to his St. Mary’s confreres. But he left in no grudging manner, for he willed to serve wherever the will of God called him. It called him to the Far West, an enchanting area which he came to love with all his being and to which he gave himself without, perhaps, sufficiently counting the cost of his time or of his health. But he was not thinking of all that only that he would be at the end of the earth and that he was going to have to take a week’s journey to get there.

At St. Patrick’s in Menlo Park, as at St. Mary’s in Baltimore, Father Ouvrard was going to hold down a congeries of jobs. In his first year he was – in principle – teacher of Philosophy. But to that he added the teaching of Chant and the direction of the Choir. In that day at Menlo Park there were two seminaries: the minor, with which the Sulpicians had started; and the major, which had developed out of it. So, the superiors called on the various talents of Father Ouvrard. In the Philosophy section, to Chant he added the teaching of Church History. He kept this from 1914 to 1924. In the minor seminary, he taught French for eleven years. When he took over Dogma in 1914, he left to another confrere the teaching in the Philosophy section.

All his life he was a remarkable teacher. It was especially in his teaching of Dogmatic Theology that he deeply affected the minds and hearts of his students.

In that subject he was, in a kind but firm way, demanding of himself and his students. He wanted to make them think. His great concern was to show them that in Dogmatic Theology everything is tied together; that its truths are not contradictory but embedded in each other, dependent on each other; that they have a single life which informs each without cutting it off from the others and which unites them all without some stifling others. His classes were extremely lively, for he brought to them the fruit of very searching work, the flame of zeal for divine truth, and the intention of having his own conviction and enthusiasm pass into the minds of his students. It so happened. Many of those who studied under him owe it to him that, to this day, they have kept the will to study and to seek more and more revealed truth. He took care, too, in a country of more than one church, that his students should recognize heresy, and its symptoms or traces, in writing they came across or which they had to consult in the line of duty. His students were very highly appreciative of this concern. When they learned that God had called Father Ouvrard to Himself, some made certain to mention this and to express their gratitude for the teacher who had trained them so well.

He went to a lot of trouble to keep to the point in his teaching. From both coasts has come this testimony: that when Father Ouvrard finished a tract, he destroyed the notes prepared for it. “In this way,” he used to say, “I shall not give an out-of-date course; I must constantly keep at work to keep my teaching fresh!”

That is not to say that he was equally demanding of all his students!  He easily determined what each one could do, but he was adamant in demanding that much. Sometimes there were complaints about the divisions and subdivisions he gave. He was aware of them and smiled, knowing well that in these refined matters, if distinctions were not made, confusion would result. 

More than one would be grateful to him, thanks to his famous letters and Roman and Arabic numerals, for having had highlighted distinctions and precisions without which very few would have been able to remember very much. His great concern in teaching was to be of real help to all his students without neglecting either the bright or the mediocre, and with the intention of nourishing the vocations of true theologians. He succeeded in doing so.

Father Ouvrard was a director of souls as well as a teacher of Theology. He had a good number of penitents at Menlo Park. The work of direction deeply interested him. His penitents have especially kept in mind his counsels in confession. He based them very solidly in Dogma. He always stirred into his counsels a large dose of encouragement, but he insisted on setting in the full light of the Faith and in strict confrontation with their present duties those who confided their consciences to him.

His influence in the spiritual area was further increased when in 1931 he became Superior of Philosophy at St. Patrick’s Seminary. There, from the height of his platform, he worked over the minds and hearts of the seminarians by his vibrant speech, his very penetrating spiritual teaching, his concern to help them to react against the onslaughts of routine, and to help them to hold always in their minds the evangelical ideal of the Christian life and of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. He was listened to with eagerness. They drank in his words.

If to the various sides of the influence exercised by Father Ouvrard you add his very refined artistic sense and the opportunity he had to show it in musical matters in his duties as Choirmaster, you would not be surprised at the exceptional confidence placed in him by the Archbishop of San Francisco, by the Bishop of Salt Lake City (a convert from Protestantism and a godson of our confrere), and by other bishops on the west coast of the United States. You would understand the recognition given by the Reverend William J. Butler: “I must confess that on the day I heard the news of his transfer, my first reaction was one of resentment, and I was upset by my not very loving thoughts on the subject of the superiors of St. Sulpice. But, when I came to know about the state of Father Ouvrard’s health and the other reasons which swayed them to give him a less demanding office, I understood that the step was inevitable. Even with that knowledge, I am none the less convinced that we suffered an irreparable loss.”

Father Ouvrard’s health was already seriously affected in 1936. He had to be hospitalized. It was decided that he would leave for France. But before our confrere left the United States, they wanted to give him a farewell banquet. At it, he appeared on the arm of his doctor, his face seamed from suffering, and in view of his extreme fatigue, he stayed there only a short time. In leaving his students and his confreres, he left to them a thought attributed to St. Ignatius of Antioch: “If you stay with the bishop, you stay with Jesus Christ.”

Our confrere went back to France to take his needed rest. In doing so he put himself at his superiors’ disposal to perform such functions as they might wish to entrust to him.

After a long convalescence, Father Ouvrard was named teacher of Sacramental Theology at the major seminary of Versailles. He joined to that, of course, the functions of a director.

His arrival at Versailles must have been sensational. It was known that Father Ouvrard had been in the United States and there was some curiosity about seeing this Americanized French Sulpician!  He appeared at the seminary and immediately his outline was etched: “Small, abrupt in movement, with trousers falling below an ill-fitting cassock, a face alive with energy, long hair, and eyes – eyes dancing under thickset brows, threatening brows, eyes which took in everything, frequently aglow with mischief!”

How was he as a teacher?  Let us ask one of his former students. “At the very beginning, his classes were a surprise. In them, moreover, he took a wicked pleasure. He analyzed in successive levels of depth the various aspects of the question. If he discussed a theory, he showed the holes in it. ‘That is only an opinion,’ he would say. What was significant to him were the declarations of Dogma (from Denzinger), the teachings of the Fathers and the Councils. He spent time in demonstrating their scope, their requirements. He loved at the end to highlight the unassailable good sense of St. Thomas citing the scriptural and patristic texts. When we priests get together, we often, with an irony masking our real feelings, recall Father Ouvrard replying to a timid objection, causing us almost to shrivel up, he would calmly put on his glasses and say: ‘I beg your pardon. That is not Theology, it is feeling.’  On the other hand, he would show surprise, astonishment – he who was so rarely astonished – in some of our discussions: ‘The Church so willed; why imagine anything else?’

In direction he gave evidence of a very acute psychology. With the most delicate eagerness he put his penitents and his ex-students at their ease. He had a knack for the training of the former and for the ministry of the latter, understanding everything and – from his quite considerable knowledge and his very informed experience – clearing up everything with a scrupulous concern not to put himself between a soul and God. In all – penitents and students as well as the many priests who came to see him – he strove to inculcate a sense of the Church. He was terribly mistrustful (perhaps from having lived so long in contact with Protestants) of all intellectual or spiritual subjectivism. Submission to Church-teaching, supernatural realism, opposition to mere sentiment to the point of seeming empty of a sense of the mystical: these, it appears, were the great guiding lines of his life and his apostolate.

While hard put to it, Father Ouvrard fulfilled with perfect faithfulness his double ministry of teacher and director. During the war he followed his confreres and his students to the Abbaye de La Pierre cui Vire, where the Versailles seminary sought refuge. At the time of the German invasion, he went with his confreres to the major seminary in Tulle. After the ordeal he returned to Versailles and resumed his functions except for the ministry of spiritual direction, which caused him excessive tiredness. A leak in the heating system nearly asphyxiated him. He was revived in time. But he had to stay at St. Joseph’s Hospital for a long time to achieve a complete recovery.

Recovered – at least apparently – Father Ouvrard returned to Versailles and resumed teaching. But his health had been too affected for him to be able to continue heavy work any longer. At his request, it was decided that he return to Issy. I suggested to him that he act as director to the Scottish seminarians who were to come back to us that year. He readily assented. But meanwhile, because he had been suffering for some time from a liver complaint, a surgical operation was deemed necessary. It was very successful. The patient, seemingly completely recovered, moved into Issy to begin his ministry. But very soon, overcome by pain, he had to give up all activity. He was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital – where he had previously been treated – and was well taken care of. But at the end of November there was no longer any hope of saving him. God called him to Himself at the beginning of December.

The Diocese of Versailles wished, in gratitude, to arrange the funeral of the dear deceased. It was held at the Cathedral, with His Excellency, Bishop Roland Gosselin presiding. Afterwards the body was taken to our gravesite in Montparnasse Cemetery, where the burial took place in the presence of our communities.

One of Father Ouvrard’s former students wrote: “He has not appeared before God with empty hands. Into all those who were close to him he poured the love of the Church, the sense of Tradition. They owe him an immense debt of gratitude for having put them on guard against the individualism which ignores the commonality and against the ill-conceived illusions which have nothing to do with enlightened piety, based, not on phantasy, but on Revelation.”

Servant of the Church, he was especially and always a real Sulpician and a model priest.

In recommending to your prayers the soul of Father Ouvrard, I ask you to accept, Fathers and dear confreres, the expression of my very devoted affection in Our Lord.

P. Boisard

Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice