The life of Blessed Frederic Janssoone

 
 

Birth and childhood of Frederic : 

It all began when little Frederic was born on November 18, 1838 in Ghyvelde, Flanders, in northern France. His father was Pierre-Antoine Janssoone and his mother Isabelle Bollengier. Frederic was the eighth and last child of his parents. He had half-siblings, however, since his parents were both widowed from a first marriage. Pierre-Antoine already had three children when he married Isabelle, and she had five.

Frederic was baptized five days after his birth. On the same day, his parents consecrated him to the Blessed Virgin, as was the custom in his family.

Mr. and Mrs. Janssoone were farmers who were financially well off because of their hard work. Their dedication to their work did not prevent them from taking all the time they needed to make their children excellent Christians. They never failed to recite the rosary daily as a family. Mother had such a high regard for Holy Mass that, on days when she was ill, she would drag herself from house to house and from threshold to threshold to make sure she didn’t miss it.

Isabella’s dearest desire was to make saints of her children. That’s why she took some of her time almost every day to tell them holy stories. For the Janssoone family, this was one of the most precious moments of the day. Among their favorite stories were those of the Desert Fathers, the holy hermits who spent much of their lives secluded in the most remote places, praying and fasting for hours or even days.

One day, when Frederic was two years old, the good mother realized that some of her children had not given any sign of life for several hours. Worried, she began to look for them, fearing that something had happened to them. She searched for many hours, until she saw little Frederick, hiding behind a millstone with other siblings. They were all on their knees, holding their hands together.

My children,” said Isabel, “for so long I have been looking for you worried! Why then have you not answered my call?”  

To which one of the children innocently replied, “Forgive us dear mother, we had no intention of worrying you. We just wanted to play the holy monks of the desert. Didn’t you tell us that they sometimes spent long hours in prayer without being distracted by any noise?

Death of Frederic’s father:

The year 1848 was a year of great pain and sadness for the Janssoone family. Pierre-Antoine, the father, died of stomach cancer at the age of 51. Frederic was only ten years old.

Frédéric said to his dear father: “Don’t die, Dad, please. We still need you.

My dear son,” said Mr. Janssoone to Frederic, “if the Good Lord wants to take me now, it is because I will be more useful to him in Heaven. Don’t worry, I will continue to take care of you from up there. Then he turned to all his family and said to them with tenderness: “May the Good Lord keep you, goodbye… in Heaven” (c.f. Léon Moreel, Un grand moine français, Le R.P. Frédéric Janssoone, page 38). These were his last words.

Following the death of Monsieur Janssoone, the family suffered from poverty. So much so that a few years later Frederic had to leave his studies to help his mother support the family. After much effort, he finally found a job as a traveler’s clerk. He worked for the Albert Ledieu Company and was very successful, which earned him the esteem of Mr. Ledieu, his boss. The latter offered him many promotions which allowed him to earn a lot of money and to lead a more comfortable life. With his hat on and his silver-headed cane in his hand, he roamed Flanders with horse and carriage. “I was dressed like a real muscandin”, he admitted smiling in his old age (c.f. Léon Moreel, Un grand moine français, Le R.P. Frédéric Janssoone, page 41). All these ambitions made him forget little by little the idea he had had since his childhood of becoming a priest. Vanity was his guilty pleasure. His beautiful blond hair was often the object of his pride, so much so that one sometimes spent hours taking care of it.

Death of Isabelle Janssoone :

One fine day, Mr. Albert Ledieu, Frederic’s boss, offered to marry his daughter, which would have happened if another tragedy had not struck the Janssoone family. Indeed, Mrs. Isabelle Janssoone fell seriously ill after having offered herself as a victim to save the religious vocation of all her children. The death of his pious mother, which took place on May 5, 1861, upset Frederic’s worldly ambitions.

The wish of his dear mother was not long in coming true, for barely three months after her death, the children who had not yet entered religion consecrated themselves to God; Henri entered the seminary where he died before his ordination; Pierre went to the Foreign Missions of Paris; sent to India, he died there in the odor of sanctity. As for Frederic, it was a combination of providential circumstances that finally led him in May 1864 to the Franciscan novitiate in Amiens, in northern France.

Brother Frederic at the Franciscans of Amiens:

Young Frederic received his religious habit on June 26, 1864. At the time of the vesting, the superior declared: “It is not enough to change one’s habit to be a religious. One comes here to die to oneself” (c.f. Un grand moine français, le R. P. Frédéric Janssoone, by Léon Moreel, page 49).

Life in this convent was very demanding. The novices got up at 3:30 a.m. and took part in the community services until 8:30 p.m. They mended their own habit and were not allowed to leave. They repaired their habit themselves, and in the evening returned to their cells (rooms) where they suffocated from the heat in the summer, and then in the winter, they suffered from the cold, since they were not heated. Never have I suffered so much from the cold as in Amiens,” said Father Frederic in his old age. When we got up in the morning for the recitation of the Office, we had to break a layer of ice in our basins in order to wash ourselves. (c.f. Un grand moine français, le R. P. Frédéric Janssoone, by Léon Moreel, page 50).

He was ordained a priest on August 17, 1870, by Bishop de la Tour d’Auvergne, in the chapel of the archbishopric of Bourges. At his first Mass, he shed abundant tears, signs of his deep piety and his deep gratitude.

 For a month, however, France and Prussia were at war. Soon Paris was under siege. The Germans were soon only about thirty kilometers from Bourges. The wounded and the sick flocked to the city. The boarding school of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart was hastily converted into a hospital. Father Frederic became the military chaplain. He always did his ministry with great courage and strength. As a military chaplain he went to the front lines to give the sacraments to dying soldiers. As a hospital chaplain, he risked his life on several occasions, visiting the contagious sick. The sick called him “Our good little chaplain”.

Without tiring, he assisted the wounded and multiplied his penances: in particular, despite the rigorous winter, he accompanied each dead person to the cemetery, barefoot in simple sandals, through paths filled with snow. “Most of the time he arrived at the edge of the grave with bloody feet. He would bless the grave and say the last prayers on behalf of the absent family of the deceased. There were many returns to God, first communions made in the wards, the baptism of a Muslim about to expire”

Departure for the Holy Land:

 In 1876, Father Frederic asked his Superior General for permission to go to the Holy Land to collaborate in the apostolate of the Franciscans mandated by the Church to guard the Holy Places. His request was granted and he left on May 9 of the same year.

He took advantage of this trip to stop in Rome and Assisi to visit the places where St. Francis had lived. He even visited the mountain where St. Francis of Assisi received the stigmata. Thirteen years ago, in the novitiate,” says Father Frederic, “I said to myself, ‘Oh, if the good Lord would only let me see this holy mountain one day ! And I am climbing it, this mountain, now, at this very hour; I can already see up there those rocks and that summit, crowned with tall trees as if by an immense head of hair […] ! I am mad with joy! You will forgive me, my most reverend Father, if I do not tell you about all our other emotions on reaching the top of the mountain. One feels these things, one does not say them: they are ineffable.

Having arrived in the Holy Land, Frederic Janssoone was soon sent to Egypt to preach retreats in Catholic institutes. He gave himself to his ministry with such ardor that his superiors feared for his health and invited him to greater moderation, but too late. He fell ill and the fever brought him to the brink of death.

Although he thought he was going to die, God had decided otherwise. After a few weeks of respite, he finally recovered and continued his work with untiring zeal. He focused all his efforts on frequent confession and communion. Oh,” said Father Frederic, “communion, holy communion, frequent, yes, yes, frequent and holy, as our mother the holy Church tells us. Let us preach, let us preach holy communion, frequent holy communion! Let us be mad with love for Our Lord in the sacrament of his love. St. Francis loved Jesus-Eucharist madly, all the saints, his children, loved him in the same way: they preached this love to the people, and God blessed them and the people were converted.”

Appointment as Custodial Vicar of the Holy Land:

In June 1878, he was called back to Jerusalem to take up the high office of Custodial Vicar of the Holy Land. His intelligence and his virtues recommended him for this delicate post, since it involved managing the Holy Places, which were often the target of harassment from the Turkish government and other religious confessions. He held this position for ten years, where he demonstrated the qualities of an outstanding diplomat and administrator.

It was in this capacity that Father Frederic erected the present stations of the cross in Jerusalem and built the parish church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem, adjacent to the Basilica of the Nativity. All of these events forced the Custody to advance the necessary funds for the realization of these numerous projects, to the point where the Franciscans of the Holy Land ended up without money. “The Fund of the Holy Land is absolutely empty”. But it was the gradual decrease in alms, caused by the religious persecutions that afflicted some European countries, especially France of the true republicans, that put in question the survival of the Franciscan works in the Holy Land.

Father Léon Provancher

It was decided to send Father Frederic to France to make “an extraordinary collection” in favor of the Holy Places. However, he was not very successful because of the growing anticlericalism. After several attempts, it became obvious to the good Father “that he could hope for little or nothing and that he would have to return to Jerusalem very soon without any favorable results” (c.f. Un grand moine français, le R. P. Frédéric Janssoone, by Léon Moreel, pages 101-102). Fortunately, he had a conversation with Fr. Léon Provancher, a great Canadian botanist, who was passing through Paris after his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

My dear Father Frederic,” said the Canadian priest, “what a joy it is to see you again! You probably remember that we met in Jerusalem a few weeks ago.

Yes,” said Frederic Janssoone, “I remember well. The Lord gave me the grace to preach the Way of the Cross to you in Jerusalem.

Absolutely,” added Father Provancher. Moreover, I must confess that your meditations were so beautiful that tears of tenderness and repentance flowed more than once.

Following this cordial welcome, Father Frederic presented to this good abbot the concern he had to find money to preserve the Holy Places. The Canadian abbot suggested that he go and beg in his country, praising the generosity of his people.

Arrival in Canada:

This idea appealed to Frederic Janssoone who immediately went to Le Havre and embarked for Canada on July 31, 1881. He sailed first to New York, from there he took the train to Levis, Quebec, where he arrived on August 24. His arrival caused a stir in the little town and soon in Quebec City. It had been nearly a century since the robes of the sons of St. Francis had been seen on the shores of the St. Lawrence; the communities of Recollects, as they were once called, had slowly died out after the English had banned their recruitment. The physical aspect of the religious was not foreign either to the immediate sympathetic reaction of the people: his ascetic face, illuminated by an extraordinarily lively and luminous gaze, his bare feet in sandals, his poverty just as evident as his recollection, immediately won over those he met.

While waiting to obtain permission from Bishop Taschereau, the Archbishop of Quebec, to begin the collection, he preached a week-long retreat to the few members of the Franciscan Third Order. It took place from September 4 to 10 and was held in the small church of Notre-Dame de Jacques Cartier, in the parish of Saint-Roch in the lower town of Quebec. On the evening of the first day, there were already three thousand participants, and the crowd grew daily. Soon the whole city of Quebec was in retreat, so to speak! “People were won over by the ascetic figure, by this little monk radiating holiness. It was so beautiful, so new to hear about the Holy Land, the land of Our Lord, from someone who had seen it! One listened to him as a saint; “Our Lord had to speak like this!” The tone, which was that of a talk, was so religious, so modest that it made one think of a prayer. The preacher recounted facts, evoked with unction the shrines of the Holy Land. His speeches were long. But, as one witness confessed, “he could have talked for hours and hours, and people never tired of listening to him.” His words sometimes moved the listeners to tears. Sometimes he spoke for up to twelve whole hours to an almost permanent assembly of thousands of faithful.” In the meantime, it was obviously endless confessions. “The people went to him with a bold confidence: “He is a miracle-working saint,” they said, and they asked him for it. And they asked him for them. And, he did! (c.f. Baillargeon… ).

Father Frederic: “I solemnly promised, on my first trip to Canada, to work, for the rest of my life, for the spiritual and temporal good of this dear country, of which we were the first missionaries, and I bless the Lord, I have the consolation of having been able to keep my promise for more than twenty years.

He finally took such an affection for the Canadians that he spoke only fondly of “this dear country” and “his Canada.” (c.f. Un grand moine français, le R. P. Frédéric Janssoone, by Léon Moreel, pages 108).

On the day he announced that he would have relics from the Holy Land venerated, eight thousand people turned out. The ceremony lasted four hours. Everyone waited patiently for their turn, praying half-heartedly. However, there was great excitement when a young blind man regained his sight and a woman, paralyzed in both legs, stood up and walked normally in full view of the audience. The next day, it was inevitable that sick and crippled people from all over the city and even from the surrounding area flocked to the church and the presbytery. The miraculous healings were numerous. He became so fond of the Canadians that he vowed to devote the rest of his life to the temporal and spiritual good of this dear Canada.

When the retreat was over, Father Frederic gave the habit of the Third Order to a hundred or so carefully selected people, and then went up to the pulpit visibly moved. He once again let his heart speak and warned the Canadians against the errors left by the French Revolution which, at the same time, ravaged Christianity in Europe and turned souls away from the Church. “If all the countries of Europe are sick today, it is due to the great plague of liberalism, he said. This disease is wreaking havoc in France. It prefers to attack childhood: because in this way the liberals hope to reform society. They no longer want God in schools, they make crosses and images of Mary disappear, in order to teach children to blaspheme what they do not know. Let us fight this enemy, let us be true Catholics, and liberalism will not take root in Canada.

But, as was to be expected in these controversial times, the newspapers seized on his declaration, which caused an uproar among certain politicians in Quebec. Somewhat distraught by the turn of events, Father Frederic had a clarification published, saying that he did not want to meddle in Canadian politics of which he knew nothing, but simply to recall certain pontifical condemnations which he developed at length in the rest of the article! The result was not long in coming: Bishop Taschereau drove him out of his diocese. Father Frederic will admit that this ban was the greatest humiliation of his life.

The welcome of Trois-Rivières :

What was to become of the holy monk, and above all, what was to become of the works of the Holy Land without the financial help that it was urgent to provide them? Once again, the botanist was to find the solution. 

You should go to Trois-Rivières,” said Father Léon Provancher. The piety of the local bishop will probably not be an obstacle to encourage the collection in favor of the Holy Places.

And so it was that on Saturday, September 24, 1881, Father Frédéric presented himself for the first time at the bishopric of Trois-Rivières and received the blessing and then the embrace of Bishop Louis-François Laflèche whose welcome quickly erased the bitterness of his departure from Quebec. All the permissions were immediately given to him to preach, to confess, to beg, and even to build himself a Commissariat of the Holy Land in the near future! Without further delay, he was invited to go to Bécancourt to give three major conferences. On Sunday evening, he returned to Trois-Rivières to preach a retreat similar to the one in Quebec City, which had the same impact.

At the end of the retreat, Bishop Laflèche suggested that he go and take some rest in the parish of Cap-de-la-Madeleine, at the home of his friend, Father Luc Désilets, the same one who, two years earlier, had obtained the miracle of the ice bridge. The bishop, whose admiration and friendship for Father Frederic would never be denied, understood that the two men were made for each other!

Father Frederic arrived by canoe at Cap-de-la-Madeleine on September 29, 1881. The entire village gathered around Father Luc Désilets to welcome him. Many were struck by the modesty of Father Frederic’s gaze and the dignity of his bearing. The parish priest turned to Father Eugène Duguay, his curate, and said: “He is a saint! The good Lord blesses all that he undertakes; great conversions are made through him.”

The Father celebrated Mass in the chapel of the Holy Rosary and gave a sermon before accepting the hospitality offered to him by Mr. Désilets. He then spread throughout the province of Quebec with such success that the parish priest of the Madeleine wrote to Father Raphael: “You have sent us a saint”.

Father Frederic recalled to the Holy Land:

On January 21, 1882, he became so seriously ill that he thought he would die. He suffered his illness with such patience that Father Désilets said to his curate: “Come and see a saint suffer! How beautiful it is to know how to suffer for the good God! ”

Father Frederic received a telegram in April 1882 urgently recalling him to the Holy Land. A war was about to break out between England and Egypt. Soon, English ships came to anchor in front of the port of Alexandria, “keeping their guns pointed at the Egyptian city night and day” (c.f. Un grand moine français, le R. P. Frédéric Janssoone, by Léon Moreel, pages 115). They counted on the good Father to help restore peace.

In spite of his precarious state of health, Frederic Jansoone obeyed and left Canada on May 1, “with a great sorrow of heart, but not without some hope of seeing this little people blessed by God again. No sooner had he left than Father Désilets and Bishop Louis-François Laflèche did everything in their power to obtain the return of the holy Franciscan to Canada.

Back to Canada:

Father Frederic spent more than six years in the Holy Land and in Egypt, devoting himself to restoring peace there. In particular, he developed a code for the use of the Holy Places, which he was able to get approved by non-Catholic religious authorities. 

In 1888, Father Frederic obtained permission to return to Canada, after Bishop Laflèche had guaranteed the foundation of the Holy Land Commissariat in his episcopal city. On April 18, the good Father left Jerusalem where he left only regrets. Arriving in Canada in June of the same year with the title of Commissioner of the Holy Land and Visitor of the Third Order, he was given the mission of preaching parish retreats throughout the province in order to multiply the Franciscan fraternities, and to organize the collection for the benefit of the works of the Holy Land. He was also to build a Commissariat of the Holy Land in Trois-Rivières on the land put at his disposal by Bishop Laflèche. From there, he could prepare the re-establishment of the Franciscan Order in Canada.

When Father Frederic arrived in Trois-Rivières, he was told that he was just in time for the solemn dedication of the old church at Cap-de-la-Madeleine. Father Désilets had decided that on June 22, it would be dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. Father Frederic was asked to give the sermon on this occasion. He preached with such ardor that the crowd was astonished. According to some, his sermon had a prophetic character. Here,” he said, “will be the sanctuary of Maire in the future. People will come here from every family in the parish, from every parish in the diocese, and from every diocese in Canada. Yes, this little temple will be too small to contain the crowds that will come to implore the power and goodness of the Virgin of the Most Holy Rosary. (c.f. Un grand moine français, le R. P. Frédéric Janssoone, by Léon Moreel, pages 148).

The prodigy of the eyes :

On the evening of June 22, around 7:00 p.m., a sick man, Pierre Lacroix, from Trois-Rivières, was brought to the presbytery: he had come to ask for his cure. Father Désilets and Father Frederic took him under their arms to support him and led him into the chapel. They brought him to the balustrade. The priests knelt down, while Mr. Lacroix sat between them, for he could not do otherwise because of his infirmities. They had been praying for some time when the statue came to life. Its eyes, usually modestly lowered, opened and began to look straight ahead. Father Désilets, who was on the right of Mr. Lacroix, left his place and went to Father Frederic. He said to him, “But do you see? – “Yes,” replied the Father, “the statue opens its eyes, doesn’t it?” – “Well, yes! But is it really true?” Pierre Lacroix then told them that he too had been seeing this for a few moments. In spite of the affirmation of this new witness, the two priests could hardly believe in the reality of the miracle. They changed places, looked again at the Virgin… no illusion possible: her eyes were black, well formed, in full harmony with the rest of her face, which was even illuminated by the sunlight, and they remained visible for five to ten minutes. Although the cripple was not cured, a supernatural joy overcame the three men. Father Frederic immediately interpreted this look as a wish of the Blessed Virgin to see the crowds come to pray at her feet in this sanctuary; and he easily convinced the good priest Désilets.

Less than three months later, on August 30, Father Désilets died suddenly of a heart attack. Before he breathed his last, he asked Father Duguay, his curate, to continue his work of a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. It is the work of the Blessed Virgin,” said Father Désilets. If you neglect it, she will reject you and choose another worker. Besides, Reverend Father Frederic will be a help to you: for it is not without a special design of Providence that he came here.

Pilgrimages to the influx:

Father Frederic agreed to Father Désilets’ request to work on the foundation and development of pilgrimages to Our Lady of the Cape (he would be the soul of it until 1902, when the Oblate Fathers arrived). He did not forget his duties as a Commissioner for the Holy Land, nor did he forget to make Franciscan spirituality known in Canada. It is estimated that, during his lifetime, Father Frederic enrolled more than sixty thousand Franciscan tertiaries in the Province of Quebec. He also did not neglect to respond to requests from parish priests to preach retreats in their parishes. He simply took advantage of these retreats to organize pilgrimages to Cap-de-la-Madeleine. In the summer, he stayed most often at the Cape where he welcomed the pilgrims and preached to them tirelessly all day long. In order to nourish the piety of the pilgrims and their love of the Holy Places, the good Father had a Way of the Cross erected next to the sanctuary, which respected as much as possible the same distances as the one in Jerusalem. Later, he had a replica of the tomb of Christ and its aedicule built.

Since his return to Canada, Father Frederic did not cease to work miracles. Most often, he simply blessed or touched the ailment, and it was later, when he was no longer there, that the healing took place. He is also credited with having stopped fires, as in the case of the forest fire that surrounded the village of Hérouxville, where some houses were already in flames: the fire was extinguished when the Father passed by and made large signs of the cross in the direction of the flames.

On March 15, 1893, Father Frederic was asked to go and administer the sacraments to Alexandrine Rhô, a young girl living in Bécancour who was dying of tuberculosis. Her father, Adolphe Rhô, sent for him from Cap-de-la-Madeleine, located on the other side of the St. Lawrence River. The crossing by sleigh on the frozen river was quick. In the evening, young Zotique Rhô, then 16 years old, was asked to drive the Father back after his visit. They set out to cross the river, which was about two kilometers wide. After traveling a certain distance, the horse stopped dead in its tracks because the ice cover had disappeared. The young man suggested to Father Frederic that they turn back or try to cross further.

But no! No,” Frederic Janssoone refuted, “we passed through here this afternoon.

“This afternoon,” clarified Zotique, “there was ice, but tonight there is no more; we can’t pass here…”

The mysterious crossing

At these words, the Father bowed his head and did not say a word for a few minutes, then he turned to the young man and said, “Go home!” – “Father,” replied the youth, “I can’t leave you here like this; get in the car and let’s go back to Becancour, or else let’s go through Saint Angela.” But the religious repeated to him insistently: “Go home!” The boy obeyed and arrived home ten minutes later. The boy obeyed and arrived home ten minutes later. He later learned that Father Frederic arrived at the rectory at the same time. No one, however, could explain how he undertook this mysterious journey. In my opinion,” said young Zotique, “there is no doubt about it, it is a miracle! A miracle as only he knew how!

 

Crowning of Our Lady of the Cape:

On September 12, 1904, Pope St. Pius X finally granted the favor of crowning the statue of Our Lady of the Cape. Father Frederic was chosen to carry the crown on a cushion during the procession. It was from his hands that Monsignor Cloutier, successor of Bishop Laflèche as bishop of Trois-Rivières, received the crown to place it on the head of the miraculous statue. He did so with his usual modesty, but everyone noticed his ecstatic air. It was, by his own admission, the happiest day of his life.

In 1916, the good Father Frederic died of stomach cancer. Brother André was one of the last visitors he received in August 1916, a few days before his death. The holy Brother wanted to give his friend a medal of Saint Joseph to cure him of the cancer that had struck him in June, on his return from a pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré; but the Father stopped him by saying simply: “Let’s leave it to the good Lord”.

Death of Father Frederic:

Father Frederic and Father Augustine Bouynot in 1915

On his deathbed, Frederic Janssoone was suffering from intolerable physical pain. In addition to these pains, he was attacked by the devil who appeared to him in the form of a rabid dog. In his last moments, he was assisted by his incomparable companion, Father Augustine Bouynot who had joined him in Canada in 1895. On the afternoon of August 4, the good Father Augustine approached him and, as they had both agreed, made him repeat several times the “Veni, Domine Jesu, noli tardare” (Come Lord Jesus, do not delay). Father Frederic, sitting up in bed, seemed to be drawn to the crucifix on the wall and prayed to it fervently, his face looking illuminated and transfigured. The community was praying beside his bed, admiring his patience, his recollection and his serenity. After these words, he passed away at the age of 77 with great calm and an indefinable expression of peace.

A first funeral service was held in Montreal, in the chapel of the convent where he had just died, presided over by Bishop Georges Gauthier, auxiliary bishop. Then, the following Saturday, the body was transported to Trois-Rivières in an unopened coffin. For two days, hundreds and thousands of people, including many children, paraded before the mortal remains. Many miraculous healings took place. He was buried in the central aisle of the convent chapel. Thus ends the life of this great French monk, whose example had an impact not only on his contemporaries, but also on the generations to come.

 
 

Sources:

Léon Moreel, Un grand moine français, Le R.P. Frédéric Janssoone