Poullart des Places: the youngest founder of a religious order

Poullart des Places: the youngest founder of a religious order

The Founder of the Spiritans

On the feast of Pentecost, 1703, a young seminarian, Claude Poullart des Places, brought together a dozen destitute students who were studying for the priesthood, known at the time as “the poor scholars”.

This was in Paris, in a place between the Sorbonne University and the College of Louis-le-Grand.

Six years later, Claude died at the age of 30, only one year and nine months after his own ordination to the priesthood.

But in that short time he had given his own response to the decree of the Council of Trent regarding seminaries and had set up the nucleus of a religious family, the Spiritans, which today has 3,000 members spreading the Gospel of Jesus throughout the world.

This was an amazing, almost miraculous, event. As we can see from the table below, all those who founded new religious orders when they were still young were well past 30 and practically all of them lived to at least 50:

  Age at foundation Age at death
Poullart des Places 24 30
M. Olier 34 49
Saint Alphonsus Liguori 36 90
Saint Philip Neri 40 80
Saint Jean Eudes 41 79
Saint Ignatius Loyola 43 65
Saint Vincent de Paul 48 84

In no way was Claude Poullart a “ready-made” saint. He felt the call of the Lord from his earliest years yet he took no notice because he was so obsessed by personal ambition. But when he reached the age of 22, he realised that he had lost the struggle and gave himself unreservedly to the service of God. The story of Poullart des Places is that of an apostolic initiative that proved to be extraordinarily fruitful, despite the incredibly brief period of its foundation. At the beginning of the 18th century, the extreme poverty of the rural clergy in Francewas one of the main causes for the mediocrity of a large proportion of those ministering in the Church. By attacking this poverty head on, this young seminarian was able to implement the vision of the Council of Trent: “a free seminary for the poorest”.

Thanks to him and his unshakable trust in Providence, these students were able to benefit from an extended and solid theological training. He also instilled into them a love of poverty, “the cardinal virtue of the priesthood”. The “Spiritans”, as they came to be known, renounced the attraction of lucrative benefices and became the apostles of the poor and most abandoned.

From the early days, some of these students were drawn to the foreign missions, so that by 1750, four of the six bishops of the Society of Foreign Missions, working in the Far East and North American colonieswere products of the Seminary of the Holy Spirit. Before the end of the same century, Rome had asked the Congregation of the Holy Spirit to take over full responsibility for the Apostolic Prefectures of Saint Pierre and Miquelon (North America), French Guyana(South America) and Senegal (West Africa). By this dedication to the most abandoned people of the black races, they were unknowingly preparing for that moment, chosen by Providence, when the members of the Society of the Holy Heart of Mary, founded by Francis Libermann to work for the black people, would amalgamate with the Spiritans. Libermann subsequently became the 10th successor of Poullart des Places and died in 1852.

Not only was Poullart des Places the youngest founder of a religious order; he was also given the shortest time in which to organise and consolidate what he had started. In this and many other ways, the story of Claude Poullart des Places is unique in the history of the Church. It presents us with an enigma that can only be explained by the work of the Holy Spirit, producing out of such fragile and unpromising beginnings a religious missionary family which would play a crucial part in the evangelisation of the African continent and many other parts of the world.

[Based on « Claude-François Poullart des Places,
Founder of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit
1679-1709” by Fr. Joseph Michel c.s.sp., 1962]

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