Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 19, 1999
Priest's fire continues to burn
The Hidden Way: The Life and Influence of Almire Pichon., by Mary Frances Coady. Novalis: Ottawa, 1998, 1999. 124 pp.
Review by GLEN ARGAN
This is a charming little book about the life, but mainly the influence, of Almire Pichon (1843-1919), a largely forgotten Jesuit who had an enormous effect on the Martin family of Lisieux, France, (including St. Th‚rŠse) and the Vanier family of Canada.
It's a remarkably hopeful book which shows how the sanctity of one person can be a powerful force for good which continues to bear fruit long after the person's death.
Pichon was born in 19th century France, one of the most spiritually fertile periods in the history of the Church. The terror of the Revolution had stripped the Church of its worldly power but had also helped it to become simpler and purer in its faith.
For many, the purity of the Church's faith was expressed in Jansenism with its exaggerated sense of personal unworthiness and its view of God as an angry judge. As a child Pichon rebelled against Jansenism and in the Jesuit novitiate he began to see another form of spirituality, the way of gentleness and trust in God.
Still a novice, he wrote, "I resolved to fight all my life against Jansenism which does so much harm to souls, especially generous souls who have often given up everything to follow Our Lord."
Pichon followed through on that resolution. Spreading the news of a loving God wherever he went, he became a well-known confessor, preacher and retreat master.
In 1882, he met Marie Martin, the oldest of the five Martin sisters of Lisieux and, through letters and occasional personal contact, pursued her vigourously to enter religious life.
His pursuit brought him into contact with the rest of the Martins and he eventually took up a correspondence with Th‚rŠse as well, most of those letters being written after she became a Carmelite at age 15.
How much did Pichon influence Th‚rŠse and contribute to the development of her "little way"? We can't say with certainty, mainly because the priest routinely (and prudently) destroyed the thousands of letters people wrote to him, telling of their spiritual troubles and seeking his direction.
Pichon also came as a missionary to Montreal, living there from 1884-86 and 1888-1907. There, he again attracted a band of followers, the most dedicated of whom was Th‚rŠse de Salaberry Archer, mother of Pauline Vanier and grandmother of Jean Vanier. After Pichon's death, Archer spearheaded a futile campaign for his canonization.
Pichon also had a long and close association with Delia Tetrault, the foundress of a Quebec missionary order of nuns who was declared venerable last year. It's an association the author chooses not to explore in detail.
Coady's book does not end with Pichon's death, continuing for two more chapters with the story of the Vaniers, their friendships with PŠre Thomas Philippe (a Dominican with a similar spirit to that of Pichon) and Jean Vanier's formation of the first l'Arche homes with the mentally handicapped.
Establishing one person's influence on another is tricky business and Coady is not so reckless as to state definitively that Pichon was a major source for St. Th‚rŠse's little way or for Jean Vanier's l'Arche.
What she does is tell a story. It's an inspiring story about the positive effect of one holy and dedicated priest. It's a story which also provides hope for the possibility that the little good we do in our lives might somehow contribute to the betterment of those around us.