Founders of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit
Claude Poullart des Places
From privilege to poverty, the life of Spiritan founder Claude Poullart des Places is an inspiring tale of transformation through the Holy Spirit.
In 1679, Claude was born into wealth and status as the son of a French aristocrat. He lived during the reign of Louis XIV and enjoyed the lavish lifestyle of a nobleman. His early education was with the Jesuits, which laid the foundation for his later entry into the seminary.
Then, on Pentecost Sunday 1703, Claude assembled a small band of impoverished fellow seminarians to form a community dedicated to the Holy Spirit, under the special patronage of Mary. The Holy Ghost Congregation was born. Their aim was to support students with little means on their way to the priesthood.
The intention was that these priests would in turn serve the poor people of rural France and people in missions overseas. Claude was still a seminarian when he formed the group. He was ordained four years later at the age of 28.
While he was studying law at the Sorbonne in Paris, Claude was awakened to the extreme disparity of society's needs. Living with the Jesuits, he became aware of the desperate living conditions of homeless boys and chimney sweeps. This opened his eyes — and heart. Claude was moved to help and used his allowance to provide food and shelter. He soon saw that the boys lacked education and spiritual nourishment as well. Claude took it upon himself to teach skills and guide the children in their faith.
Claude's involvement with the street children deepened his faith and presented him with a struggle. Should he give up everything — a law career, wealth and a seat in Parliament — to help the poor? After much discernment and spiritual direction, Claude decided to enter seminary. He left his parents and their desires for their son's distinguished career and went to study theology with the Jesuits. Claude saw that many of his fellow seminarians were also struggling to meet their basic needs and again he sought a way to help.
After ordination, Fr. Claude continued to administer to his rapidly growing community. It was a short-lived assignment; two years later Fr. Claude died at the age of 30. He was buried in a pauper's grave. Fr. Claude's legacy lives on in the Congregation through its service to those in need. The Holy Ghost Fathers, or the Spiritans, became recognized by the Church for going places that no one else wanted to go and for living simply in deep faith.
Venerable Fr. Francis Libermann, C.S.Sp.
Venerable Francis Libermann had a most remarkable journey of faith. He was born into an orthodox Jewish family in the Alsace region of France in 1802, and given the name Jacob. Jacob Libermann's father was a rabbi, and Jacob was preparing to become a rabbi himself when his studies led him to the New Testament and to Christianity. He was baptized, Francis Mary Paul, in 1826, at Christmas. Soon he was studying for the Catholic priesthood, but violent attacks of epilepsy put his vocation on hold. It was fifteen years before he was finally ordained, in 1841.
In 1848 Libermann brought personnel and a renewed Spiritual energy to the Spiritans that transformed the Congregation.
Those intervening years were a time of grace and of maturing, as Libermann became an advisor and confidant to many seminarians and others wanting to grow in the spiritual life. His own trials and painful experiences, as well as joys and perceived blessings, developed in him a great confidence in Providence and a sense of the Holy Spirit directing human affairs.
His approach of “practical union with God” helped him, and others, find the divine in the everyday and to face life with confidence and faith.
His spirituality of responsiveness to the Spirit served Libermann well during the difficult period of organizing his Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and of gaining official permission from Rome to begin this apostolate to people of African descent. Libermann's followers viewed his being cured of epilepsy at this time and subsequent ordination as approbation from heaven on the mission of his "little band", whose charismatic leader and visionary apostle he had become.
Soon his growing group was asked by Rome to join another much older religious community, legally and canonically established in France, but on hard times by the mid-1800s.
The Congregation of the Holy Spirit — the "Spiritans" — had been started in 1703, on Pentecost Sunday, by another seminarian. Claude Poullart des Places was only 24 years old when he began a seminary residence for poor students preparing for priesthood. After des Places' death in 1709 the Spiritans went on to work in France, in North and South America, and in the Far East.
Libermann recruited and educated missionaries, both lay and clerical. He negotiated with Rome and with the French government over the placement and support of his personnel.
Francis Libermann was a pioneer of strategies now recognized as a blueprint for modern missionary activity. He urged the Spiritans to "become one with the people" so that each group received and understood the Gospel in the context of their own traditions. Fr. Libermann's zeal was so inspiring that when seminarians in France heard of the deaths of some of the first missionaries to West Africa, they lined up at his door to volunteer as replacements.
He exhausted himself in the process of leading his great enterprise, and died on February 2nd, 1852, before his 50th birthday. Surprisingly, Fr. Libermann himself never went overseas. Yet he inspired and empowered literally thousands of missionaries around the globe.
Today his spiritual descendents serve in 62 countries on five continents, and more than 3,000 members. In Europe a dozen Provinces of the Congregation emerged to provide and finance the manpower for Libermann's vision. The Spiritans returned to North America, to Canada and to the United States in 1872 to minister especially to minorities, immigrants and ethnic groups. For decades the Holy Ghost Fathers worked closely with St. Katherine Drexel in the apostolate to African-Americans in the urban North and in small towns and cities of the South and Southwest.
On June 16, 2009, the East and West Provinces of the Congregation in the United States merged to form the Province of the United States.
Rapidly-growing Provinces in Brazil, in French-speaking Africa, in Angola, Nigeria, Ghana, Eastern Africa and now in southern Africa and in the Indian Ocean are sending out missionaries to Asia and to non-evangelized areas of their own continents.
Libermann was a visionary, a missionary, a profoundly spiritual man who has affected the course of history in the last 150 years. His influence and that of his Spiritans, in the Church and in the emerging world (including our own country since the late 19th century) has been inestimable.
Fr. Libermann faced incredible obstacles, yet patiently accepted his trials and tribulations with great inner peace and tranquility. May God bless the Spiritan Congregation, and all of us, through the intercession of Venerable Francis Libermann. And may his spiritual teaching of practical union with God through the Holy Spirit bring us closer to the path of holiness our daily lives.