Blessed Frédéric Janssoone
Birth: November 19, 1838 – Ghyveldge, France
Ordained to the Holy Priesthood: August 17, 1870, in Bourges, France
Death: August 14, 1916 – Montreal, Quebec
Beatified on September 25, 1988, by Pope John Paul II
Feast Day: August 5
Rarely do we know the impact of a person’s life, or appreciate their gifts and talents, until long after they’re gone. Only in their absence do we begin to understand what a blessing they were – how our lives were touched by their words, actions, or mere presence. Such was the case with Frédéric Janssoone (also known as Frédéric de Ghyvelde), a French priest who worked tirelessly and selflessly for the Lord throughout his lifetime. Only now, more than a century after his death, are we able to truly appreciate the contributions he made, not only to the Church and his religious community but to the entire world.
Frédéric Janssoone was born on November 19, 1838, in Ghyveldge, France, a coastal city near the Belgian border. His parents, Marie-Isabelle Bollengier and Pierre Janssoone, farmed the land and raised their large family to love God and their Catholic faith. Frédéric’s father died when the boy was only nine, so as the youngest son, he was responsible for supporting his mother. Even though this meant quitting school for work, he did so willingly and without hesitation. Initially, he found a job as an errand boy but then became a traveling salesman, discovering a way with words and an affinity with people, talents that would serve him well later in life. After his mother’s death, Frederic went back to school to complete his studies and began to seriously consider a vocation to the priesthood.
Frédéric’s faith-filled upbringing naturally predisposed him to religious life. His mother’s “words of wisdom, her pious practices, hard work, and strong character… colored the whole atmosphere of family life.”1 “The children would later relate how they spent many a happy hour playing “hermit” amid the haystacks at the farm, with young Frédéric calling for silence in order to “preach” to his older siblings. Many blessings came to the prayerful family living near the sand dunes of northern France, even during the terrible time of the anti-Catholic Revolutionary governments.”2
Frédéric learned to trust in the Lord at all times, in times of prosperity and in want. He was a hard worker by nature and never doubted God’s goodness or providence. Perhaps it was this attitude of simplicity and childlike faith that ultimately attracted him to the Franciscans. He decided to become a “follower of Il Poverello – the humble “little poor one,” St. Francis of Assisi” – and soon entered the novitiate in Amiens.3
But life as a friar was more difficult than he had imagined, and Frédéric was plagued by doubts. Was he cut out for this austere life? Could he endure the cold, damp cells, the scarce food, and hard labor? With God’s grace, he persevered and grew in holiness. In 1870, as the Franco-Prussian War broke out, there was a great need for military chaplains. Soon after Frédéric was ordained – on August 17, 1870, in Bourges, France – he was assigned to a military hospital to minister to the injured and infirm. It was only the beginning of his life of service.
After the war, Frédéric was sent to Bordeaux to help establish a friary, serving first as assistant novice director and librarian, then later as superior of the community. He soon realized, though, that he was ill-suited for this type of work and requested a change after just a short time. In 1876, Father Frédéric was sent to Palestine to join the Franciscan mission there.4 His first assignment took him to Cairo, Egypt, to serve as chaplain to the Brothers of the Christian Schools. In 1878 he returned to Jerusalem and was appointed custodial vicar, working under a superior who held the title of “custos” (Latin for guard). The priests and missionary brothers in the Custody of the Holy Land were charged with protecting and overseeing the holy sites around Jerusalem and Palestine, a task entrusted to the Franciscans since the 13th century.5
During this time, Fr. Frédéric proved to be a “fine diplomat, a capable builder, and an exceptional preacher.”6 He encouraged the faithful to take up the custom of making pilgrimages to the Holy Land once again and also re-established the practice of the Stations – the Way of the Cross – on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. To strengthen the community of Christians in Bethlehem, he oversaw the construction of the parish church of Saint Catherine, situated over the ruins of a Crusader-era church that also adjoins the Basilica of the Nativity.
As significant and important as these contributions were, one of the most critical things Fr. Frédéric did during his time in the Holy Land was to revise the guidelines and practices for the use and maintenance of the holy sites shared by various Christian rites – the Latin rite (Roman) Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, as well as smaller Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian Orthodox communities. The so-called ‘Status Quo’ had been put into place in 1757, but because relations amongst the various groups were often tense and divided, it was necessary to more clearly define rights of possession and use. “Père Frédéric piously saw in this situation a symbol of the divided garments of Christ,” and sought to change it.7 His revisions helped ensure a more peaceful coexistence for those who worship in this holiest of places, both then and today.
Part of Fr. Frédéric’s duties as custodial vicar was to help raise funds to support the work of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. It wasn’t merely duty that inspired him to do so, but his great love for the land of Jesus’ birth. To that end, Fr. Frédéric reached out to Canada, with its strong French Catholic heritage, to make an appeal. He visited for the first time in 1881, traveling throughout Quebec. He preached retreats and gave moving homilies, exhorting the faithful to give of their hearts (and of their wallets, apparently!). Along with these famous fund-raising drives, he also established an annual collection for the Holy Land that “still takes place on Good Friday in every Catholic church in Canada” today.8
But make no mistake. Fr. Frédéric might have been an astute businessman, but first and foremost he was a man of intense prayer, a “workaholic of great piety.”9 “Wearing a wretched skimpy brown coat, fasting and sleeping on the ground, Fr. Frédéric went from parish to parish and from house to house, braving inclement weather, bad roads, and farm dogs, preaching in the churches, comforting the sick and afflicted, and selling his books for the benefit of the causes entrusted to him, while keeping a small commission for the Holy Land. Thus he returned to some extent to his former occupation: he was now God’s travelling salesman. Charmed by his gentleness and courtesy, edified by his deep piety and incredible austerity, and above all amazed by the marvels that occurred here and there in his wake, the faithful saw him as another Francis of Assisi and were in the habit of calling him ‘the Holy Father.’”10
Fr. Frédéric returned to Canada in 1888, settling in Trois-Rivières. He built a Franciscan house and delved into many projects throughout French-speaking Canada. “During this period the dynamic little friar travelled all through Quebec in search of pilgrims, bringing them to Cap-de-la-Madeleine by the train and boatload, leading them, exhorting them, getting them to pray, and finally consecrating them to Our Lady of the Rosary. Sensational cures gave credibility to his work, so that a small parish pilgrimage soon became a diocesan one and then verged on being a national one. By the time the Oblates of Mary Immaculate took over responsibility for it in 1902, the crowds had been averaging 30,000 to 40,000 annually for a couple of years.”11
An excellent and persuasive preacher, Fr. Frédéric drew crowds to the shrine of Sainte Anne de Beaupré, the Sanctuary of Reparation at Pointe-aux-Trembles, and the Oratory of Saint Joseph, where he apparently befriended Saint Brother André. In addition, he was a prolific writer, penning newspaper articles and pamphlets, as well as over 30 books that he sold door to door to help support various communities of consecrated life in and around Quebec.
Good Fr. Frédéric, as he came to be known, gained the love and respect of all those he met with his good-natured piety, joyful disposition, and great sense of humour. Yet more than that, he was a tireless apostle who had “the ability to make God appear to men who could not see God.”12 He utilized his God-given talents to reach out and touch the lives of so many, an apostle in his native France, in his adopted home of Canada, and to the Holy Land.
On August 4, 1916, Fr. Frédéric died of stomach cancer at the age of 77 and was buried in Trois-Rivières. He was beatified on September 25, 1988, by Saint Pope John Paul II with one miracle to his credit. According to the Franciscans promoting his cause, Good Father Frédéric is known to have worked many miracles during his lifetime, so they are certain it won’t be long before he’s declared a saint. “We have 26 lockers filled with binders full of testimonials written by people thanking him for favours obtained.’ These may not be miraculous healings as such, but he touched the lives of thousands, and that is what makes a saint.”13
– Kelley Holy
1 Eleonore Villarrubia, “Blessed Père Frédéric Janssoone,” Catholicism.org [online journal] October 23, 2008; available from http://catholicism.org/blessed-pere-frederic-janssoone.html; Internet; accessed 28 July 2017.
4 For more information on the Franciscan Mission and Custody of the Holy Land, go to: http://www.custodia.org/default.asp?id=307.
5 Constantin-M. Baillargeon, “JANSSOONE, FRÉDÉRIC,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003– ; available from http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/janssoone_frederic_14E.html; Internet; accessed 31 July 2017.
6 “Good Father Frédéric Janssoone, o.f.m.” available from http://perefrederic.ca/en/; Internet; accessed 30 July 2017.
7 Eleonore Villarrubia, “Blessed Père Frédéric Janssoone,” Catholicism.org.
8 Alan Hustak, “Franciscans rallying to have Good Fr. Frédéric declared saint,” The Catholic Register, [online newspaper], June 9, 2016; available from http://www.catholicregister.org/faith/item/22465-franciscans-rallying-to-have-good-fr-frederic-declare-saint; Internet; accessed 30 July 2017.
10 Constantin-M. Baillargeon, “Frédéric Janssoone,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
12 Hustak, “Franciscans rallying to have Good Fr. Frédéric declared saint,” The Catholic Register.