Claude Poullart des Places

Claude_Des_Place_by_Canell

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.

Drawing of the St-Thomas College that Poullart des Places attended in Rennes with his elder friend and neighbourg Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort. Founders

The College no longer exists: the site is occupied by the Lycée Émile
Zola. All that remains of the College are the cloisters and the chapel
which is now the diocesan Church of Toussaints. Claude and his friend
Grignion de Montfort both attended school there. In 1698, Claude
made a retreat in the retreat house of the college and this was the
point at which his vocation became clearer to him.

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.

Rue St-Sauveur, Rennes, where the Poullart des Places family was established. Founders

Claude-François Poullart of Place lived here with his family in 1690, in rue
St-Sauveur in Rennes. Born on the rue St-Georges, he lived near the Parliament
and Mint. His father was Judge and Warden of the Mint and his godfather
Chairman of the Parliament of Brittany! Young, he often came to pray with
Louis-Marie de Montfort before the statue of Our Lady of Miracles, in the
church of St-Sauveur at the bottom of this street.

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.”

Painting of Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort. FoundersIn 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.

The photographer stands where was the entry of St-Étienne-des-Grès church, where Poullart and the first group of 12 of his Seminarians made their vow on Pentecost 1703; facing the entry of Cujas (ex: “Cordeliers) street (left) where the very first Seminary was established; and looking to one of the sides of the present days Sorbonne University. Founders

The photographer stands where was the entry of St-Étienne-des-Grès
church, where Poullart and the first group of 12 of his Seminarians
made their vow on Pentecost 1703; facing the entry of Cujas (ex: “Cordeliers)
street (left) where the very first Seminary was established; and looking
to one of the sides of the present days Sorbonne University.

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

First Seal Seminary Holy-Spirit Founders

 

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.

2d_Seminar of the Holy Spirit, Paris Ve, Rue Descartes. Founders

Second Seminar of the Holy Spirit, Paris 8, Rue Rollin. Poullart knew it as: “rue Neuve-Saint-Étienne”.

rue Neuve-Saint-Étienne

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

A very unassuming patio area behind St-Étienne-du-Mont church in Paris, under which lies a common grave for the poor where Fr. Poullart des Places is buried. Founders

A very unassuming patio area behind St-Étienne-du-Mont
church in Paris, under which lies a common grave for the
poor where Fr. Poullart des Places was buried.

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.

by Fr. Michael Troy, C.S.Sp. Father Michael Troy C.S.Sp. 1917-2010 Founders