As one of the youngest founders of a major religious congregation (he founded the Spiritans at age 24), he accomplished so much and influenced so many other young people during his short life, that he continues to be a role model for young people today. Like them, he, too, had to struggle with all the agonies and ecstasies of growing up and making career decisions that at first were not fully understood or approved by his friends, his professors or even his family.
Claude began high school at the local Jesuit College in Rennes (St-Thomas). There, before long, he was recognized as an honor student. As valedictorian at his graduation he gave such a remarkable speech (a dissertation in Latin) that he was invited to Versailles in Paris as guest of the Royal Family. Wow!
But Claude was more than a serious scholar. He was a great all-rounder, very popular with the staff and greatly admired by his peers. Handsome, gifted with a wonderful speaking voice and stage presence, in all three years in high school he had important roles in the annual school plays and featured in frequent gigs and ballet sessions. Outside of school he was an avid hunter, a very good horseman (no cars in those days!), and very useful with a sword and a gun. He even thought of joining the armed forces.
A Serious Side
Claude may have been a live wire in and out of school, lively and restless like everyone else, but there was a deeper side to his character. He had been given a wonderful Catholic upbringing at home (particularly by his mother Jeanne) and, like so many boys then and now, he might have been considered “out to lunch” if others knew he still believed in God and said his prayers, but not Claude!
As one of his biographers tells us – “Claude gathered some of his friends and without saying anything to his parents or teachers, formed a small prayer group with its own rules of devotions, silent reflection and self-discipline exercises.” However, as that biographer was quick to add, Claude was no Jansenist (the religious fundamentalists of his day) or ready-made saint, “he had a very lively and restless temperament that inclined him in a very different direction.”
In passing, it might be mentioned that among this group was none other than the now well-known St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, a life-long friend and later a collaborator in trying to solve some of the serious religious problems of the Church in rural France.
Graduating from high school at 16, Claude was considered too young to go on to University, so he was given a ‘finishing off year’ in the university city of Caen on the coast. Away from home, for the first time, as a biographer put it “Although there were many opportunities to become dissolute in a large town of young men from different countries who were, like him, on their own, Claude apparently didn’t compromise his morals but went on to win three of the five student awards. This was no small achievement in a college that was one of the most famous in the Kingdom of France and where gifted students from several provinces and even abroad entered into keen competition.”
From Law School to the Priesthood
The real test for Claude came when he was 19. To satisfy his parents’ wishes he spent three years in the Law School of Nantes. Student life there was at an all time wild. “Instead of being locked in intellectual discourse with the professors in the halls of learning, the law students were frequently involved in brawls, fist fights, even armed violence on the streets”. Claude once again passed all his exams with flying colours. At 22 he graduated with a Licentiate in Law. His family had great plans for him. Claude, however, had other ideas. He would become a priest.
With the world at his feet and so many promising careers open to him, he had great difficulty deciding between a military career (a family tradition), law and provincial politics (like his father), management and future ownership of the family real-estate business (as only son), or the priesthood where he saw several possibilities as a diocesan or a religious priest. But once the die was cast, there was no turning back; not even a compromise with his family’s suggestion that he now combine his theological studies with another degree at the Sorbonne, the University of Paris.
No, Claude would concentrate solely on the spiritual preparation and take non-degree courses at the Jesuit College in Paris. This, as history was to show, made all the difference in his life.
Learning About Social Justice
All during his high school and university studies Claude had been very active in the usual solidarities and charitable organizations (many similar to the present day Legion of Mary, KC Squires and Vincent de Paul Society). As a seminarian at St. Thomas College and member of the AA’s (The Assembly of Friends), he became involved in helping immigrant chimney sweepers from Savoy and some poor seminarians at the Jesuit College. The hostel he opened for the latter eventually became the famous Holy Spirit Seminary, and the nursery of a whole new religious foundation – the International Missionary Congregation of the Holy Spirit (the Spiritans)
Claude des Places, then, was no ready made hero or miracle-working saint, but an ordinary school boy and young adult, striving by the grace of God and his own best efforts to be and do the best he could and hopefully to be a credit always to his family, high school, college, country and the Catholic Church.
Even in founding the Holy Spirit Seminary he was no old or middle aged rector laying down laws for others, but a young man in his prime – the first to follow the Rules he wrote.
Living and Dying
Most unexpectedly in the late summer of 1709 he fell seriously ill of pleurisy accompanied by a violent fever and after a short but painful illness, patiently borne, he died peacefully at the age of 30 years and 7 months on October 2 of that year.
Even in dying, Claude left a memorable lesson to his youthful associates, many of whom had difficulty understanding why God would take one still so young, so necessary to the Seminary, and only two years a priest. Claude breathed his last breath, happily quoting Psalm 84, the triumphant pilgrim hymn, confident that the good God would use his untimely death for the best interests of his young foundation. He made only one request – that his friends bury him not with an expensive tombstone, but in a nameless plot among the poorest of the poor, whom he and they had pledged to serve.