Viéban, Father Anthony

1944, January 28

Date of Birth: 1872, January 18

May 17, 1944

Fathers and Dear Confreres:

A message from one of our confreres in Washington, Father Arand, informs us that Father Viéban, Superior of the Sulpician Seminary in Brookland, close to the university, died last January. I want to bring to your mind’s eye the very attractive likeness of our trans-Atlantic confrere.

Antoine Viéban was born at St. Pantaléon of Lapieau, a little parish in the diocese of Tulle, on January 18, 1872. He had the happiness of keeping his parents for a long time. His father, deceased only a few years ago, had remained his great concern and his affection. Separated from him and from his native land by the designs of Providence, he never forgot the village of his ancestors. He loved to go back there as often as he could.

In his good, religious family he felt the desire to be a priest. His parents, and perhaps also the pastor of St. Pantaléon, placed him in the clergy college of Theil, near Ussel. He made his secondary studies there and was a very brilliant student. A magazine article, published at the end of his course, showed him to have remarkable intelligence and style.

On October 1, 1891, without, it seems, having any doubts or hesitation about his vocation, he entered the major seminary of Tulle, run by our confreres. All the time he was there, Antoine Viéban showed himself a seminarian of exceptional worth. In his studies he obtained grades that have never been bettered. With his fellow-students, he was the happiest and, at the same time, the most serious, if not the most solemn, of companions. His teachers thought highly of him and liked him, and probably asked themselves what he was going to become.

Before his ordination to priesthood on June 29, 1895, he made known his wish to enter the Society of St. Sulpice. Bishop Dénéchau, to his credit, gave him the permission which Father Renault, Superior of the major seminary, requested for him. So, the following September, Father Viéban came to Paris, to the Maison St. Jean, in order to attend courses at the nearby Catholic Institute.

He stayed there two years, working in Theology and Canon Law. His fellow-students of the time remember him as a very intelligent, charitable, likeable man. In 1897 Father Viéban entered the Solitude. He found there – to speak only of those who have gone to their reward – Fathers Bernachon, Brassac, Brulé, Dechaumet, Duboeuf, Lalanne, Panissal. By his own testimony he was a very happy man there.

When the end of his spiritual preparation for work in seminaries came, Father Captier, Superior General, gave him his appointment to the United States. He received it simply, joyfully, as he did all things, in spite of the sacrifice which was being asked of him: to leave his family for some years and go to a strange land to work there for the training of the clergy.

Father Viéban came to the United States. He was received there by a superior who has left in America a great name which the bishops and priests of that country never utter without gratitude and admiration – Father Magnien. The welcome was extremely cordial. Father Viéban never recalled it without emotion. But after the first weeks (which were given to visiting and getting used to things), our confrere was sent to St. Austin’s College in Washington. There he was going to involve himself in writing and in speaking English, to attend courses at the university, and prepare himself as soon as possible for his Sulpician ministry.

Father Captier, at Father Magnien’s request, named Father Viéban to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. There he taught Canon Law. To that he added Holy Scripture (New Testament) in 1900. In 1903 he was teacher of Dogma at the same seminary. A few years later he had to be appointed to Boston, for there was occasion in that seminary of defending the memory and ministry of the venerable Father Chapon, whose departure all the clergy regretted, so much was he venerated and loved. After that, Father Viéban came back to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore where, with marked success, he had begun his Sulpician career.

Doubtless he hoped to end it there. His teaching was very well received there. Had he not collaborated on the treatise on the Incarnation in Father Tanquerey’s Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae and given some courses at the Catholic University in Washington?  But an event which at first seemed to have nothing to do with him changed the direction of his life for some years.

Father Dyer, former Superior of the New York seminary and Superior of the Baltimore seminary, had become, several years before, Provincial of the Society in the United States. At the time of World War I, uneasy about recruitment for St. Sulpice in his province in the course of the hostilities, he asked Father Garriguet and obtained from the Council of the Consultors permission to open a Solitude in Washington. That Solitude, which the 1921 Constitutions made definitive, was opened in St. Austin’s. The revered Father Havey became its Superior. Because it existed and functioned, the United States Solitude turned out to be a viable and timely institution before becoming canonically necessary. It was decided in 1919 that it would continue. But when the Sulpician Seminary in Brookland (founded in Washington by Frather Dyer) lost its Superior, Father Fenlon, through his being named Provincial of the United States, Father Havey, Superior of the American Solitude, replaced him and Father Viéban was called on to succeed Father Havey.

Meanwhile the Solitude had been transferred from Washington to Catonsville, near the minor seminary of St. Charles. It was Father Viéban who organized it in a definitive way. Father Havey had brought over the traditions of the French Solitude and had firmly planted them. Father Viéban adapted them to the particular conditions of Catonsville, that is, to the Solitude’s proximity to the minor seminary. For a number of years, - to be precise, up to the opening of the school year in 1932 – he ran, to everyone’s satisfaction, with vigor and wisdom, his community of Solitaires. His successor found a house well equipped for its purpose and with traditions fitting in with the life of St. Charles, a life in which the aspirants to the Society of St. Sulpice were to some extent involved.

That year [1932], Father Tennelly, Father Havey’s successor as Superior of the Washington seminary, had to resign his post. His Eminence, Cardinal Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia and head of the Catholic Indian Missions asked the Provincial, Father Fenlon, for Father Tennelly as Director of the Bureau of these missions. For our confrere it was a real sacrifice to leave the Catonsville Solitude. But he made this sacrifice, as he did all things, in a supernatural and happy spirit.

He was very soon rewarded for it. Under his leadership the magnificent community of Washington’s Sulpician Seminary came to know happy and glorious days. Seminarians flocked to it from all parts of the United States.

The Superior was quite involved with the University authorities. His confreres, American and French, surrounded him with veneration and love. By his example, his students were induced to piety, to work, to the seriousness proper to seminaries, and to joy. The many penitents and students whom he had at Baltimore made him known a bit in all the dioceses. So his reputation as theologian, canonist, director of souls, and teacher was pretty widespread. Some people wrote to him, some came to see him from quite a distance to benefit from his insights. The number of priests who consulted him for spiritual guidance was considerable. This Sulpician did a great deal of good in the land of his adoption.

In our Society he had an uncontested authority with all who knew him. In the 1922 Chapter, the American Provincial, Father Dyer, who – together with Father Ayrinhac (whom the American Sulpicians had elected) – represented his province, wanted to have Father Viéban as his personal adviser. In the 1929 and 1936 Chapters, he himself was elected by his American Sulpician confreres. In the United States he was a Provincial Consultor. His opinions, in or out of Council meetings, were always asked for and most often listened to and followed. Briefly, in the United States, he was one of the most influential personalities in the Society.

The Superiors General thought very highly of him. In 1910, after the Montreal Eucharistic Congress, Father Garriguet – with his Socius, Monsignor Hertzog – took Father Viéban with him to go across Canada, to go down to San Francisco, and to come back to visit the Sulpician seminaries on the Atlantic coast. When a visitation was made by Father Verdier to the Sulpician houses of Canada and the United States after the first General Chapter of the Society of St. Sulpice, it was Father Viéban who was named as secretary to the Visitor. In the visitations of 1932 and 1938, if his duties kept him from doing the same job, he gave outstanding help to the Visitor by the support he lent him and the advice he gave him.

His opinion was always stamped with the seal of experience, of the spirit of faith, and of good sense. He suggested things without any hint of insisting on them. Most often, very prudent in spite of his manfully controlled spontaneity, he waited to have his opinion asked. But if it was asked, you could be sure of his sincerity and frankness, even if it might surprise or upset you. When you dealt with him, the cards were on the table, and you knew that this priest, very spiritual without seeming at all mystical, wanted only the good of the Church through the training of a competent clergy, an apostolic clergy, and – humanly speaking – a clergy without self-interest. He had, to the highest degree, that quality so prized in his adopted country, the quality of honesty. In conversation, what was on his mind came through with the clarity of crystal. You felt that you were seeing into that mind as if you were reading an open book. After thinking over what he had had to say, or the conclusions drawn from what he had to say, it was a matter of satisfaction and, beyond that, of gratification, to find that you were not mistaken.

No doubt it was precisely in that, in large part, that was the secret of the lasting success won almost everywhere in the United States by Father Viéban. For if, during the forty-six years that he worked there, our confrere had taught only in our seminaries in the eastern part of the country, it can be said without exaggeration that he had travelled through the whole land. On both coasts bishops appealed to him to give priests’ retreats. It cannot be said that he was an orator in the traditional sense of that term. But he was a listened-to speaker, always interesting, sometimes gripping or rousing, with a touch of humor, and a frankness which – far from going too far – was at times entertaining, often lively, and always striking home. For Father Viéban was an accomplished psychologist. He never in any way turned his ability in the discernment of spirits to his own advantage; rather, he used it to help souls and to bring them to self-knowledge and to make them whole. His zeal, fully supernatural, was acknowledged everywhere and acclaimed by all. What an influence he had on the clergy!  What good he did in his adopted country!  How they loved him!

The author of these lines remembers something, trifling in itself, but nonetheless significant. It was in 1932 at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore at Roland Park on the Feast of the Presentation. With Archbishop Curley at their head, there were about ten archbishops and bishops and perhaps a hundred of the alumni of the seminary. Pontifical Mass had been sung that morning. It was followed, as in France, by a sermon preached by the Bishop of Oklahoma, and by the renewal of clerical promises. Father Viéban was there, representing the Sulpician Seminary of Washington.

After the solemnities, there was a banquet. Everybody came into the refectory and began the meal. Father Viéban was not present; a visitor had kept him outside. When he came in, the meal was already in progress. When he appeared, an approving but very subdued murmur started up in the crowd. Some, a little distance away, waved; some, nearer, shook hands. One of the dignitaries, Bishop Rohlmann of Davenport, turned to his neighbor at the table and said: “It is Father Viéban – a very splendid man!”

If the Sulpician was loved in the United States, he was not forgotten in France nor in his little hometown. As often as possible he went back there to spend some weeks with his folks, especially his old father who lived to an old age, and to visit his numerous friends, who remained very faithful to him. Readily he responded to their invitations, agreed to preach in their parishes, and did them a great deal of good, both faithful and priests, through his simplicity and good nature. One year even, having come to France in the middle of June, he consented to preach the ordination retreat at the major seminary in Tulle. Right from the start his goodness, his very deep and attractive piety, won over his audience. He was of profound and lasting benefit to the ordinands. None of them has ever forgotten the American Sulpician who, by reason of his origin, was an honor to their region, and who so easily made himself at home with a French audience.

Up to January of this year Father Viéban carried on his ministry so dear to him and so universally acclaimed. We do not know the precise circumstances of his death. But we are certain that he was well taken care of by his and our confreres. Father Louis Arand – Superior of the university seminary for priests at Caldwell Hall – and his treasurer, Father Walter Schmitz, (both of whom were very fond of him), along with other confreres were around him and neglected nothing to make his illness and death as easeful and holy as possible.

We can do no better than unite ourselves with our American confreres and pray with them for this Sulpician priest who has over there made the Church loved and our Society esteemed.

Please accept, Fathers and dear confreres, the expression of my fraternal affection in Our Lord.

P. Boisard

Vice-Superior General of St. Sulpice