Missionary Bishop: Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans [NOOK Book]


In 1822 a young French missionary priest arrived in America, where he would devote the rest of his life to the mission field on behalf of the Catholic Church. Jean-Marie Odin served first in Missouri and Arkansas, then in 1840 moved to Texas, becoming the first Bishop of Galveston in 1847. He held that office until 1861, when he became Archbishop of New Orleans.

The twenty years he served in Texas were important years in the life of the young republic-turned-state. His life and ...

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Missionary Bishop: Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans

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In 1822 a young French missionary priest arrived in America, where he would devote the rest of his life to the mission field on behalf of the Catholic Church. Jean-Marie Odin served first in Missouri and Arkansas, then in 1840 moved to Texas, becoming the first Bishop of Galveston in 1847. He held that office until 1861, when he became Archbishop of New Orleans.

The twenty years he served in Texas were important years in the life of the young republic-turned-state. His life and career during this period allow readers to view, in the words of this book’s foreword, “French missionaries and their collaborators treading the almost limitless Texas landscape to serve encampments of settlers and to preach the Gospel in English, French, Spanish, and German.”

His decade in New Orleans during the Civil War and Reconstruction spans a period of immense importance to America, the region, and the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, in 1870, Odin returned to Hauteville, France, and died in the same home in which he had been raised.

The role of the church in those turbulent times is revealed through the life and ministry of Jean-Marie Odin.

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Meet the Author

PATRICK FOLEY, professor emeritus of history at Tarrant County College and for many years the editor of Catholic Southwest: A Journal of History and Culture, has contributed articles to several books and encyclopedias. His PhD is from the University of New Mexico.
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Missionary Bishop

Jean-Marie Odin in Galveston and New Orleans

By Patrick Foley

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2013 Patrick Foley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-994-6


From France He Came

The nineteenth century dawned over France recoiling from the recent upheavals associated with the French Revolution that had devastated the country and the 1799 coup d'état of Napoleon Bonaparte. Among the regions of the land known for having remained faithful to the realm's centuries-old Roman Catholic heritage during those difficult years was the ancient Archdiocese of Lyon. The historical narrative of this metropolitan see had its origins dating back to the early days of Christianity, to even before the inspiring episcopacy of Saint Irenaeus spanning the years a.d. 177–202. Over the course of its long history, the Archdiocese of Lyon had emerged as one of the Catholic Church's most important ecclesiastical strongholds.

A few weeks into the 1800s, the tiny hamlet of Hauteville, situated in the far western reaches of the archdiocese, celebrated the birth of a baby boy who was destined to go down in history as a renowned Catholic missionary on the American continent. His name was Jean-Marie Odin. The story of that Frenchman's life serves as a testimony to the faith that numerous churchmen and women brought to the Americas as they labored to build a Catholic presence in their adopted lands.

Hauteville existed as a rustic rural community nestled into a wooded area amidst surrounding farmlands, lying a few miles west of the city of Roanne. At the time of Jean-Marie's birth the historic priory church of St. Martin d'Ambierle served as the Catholic community of that locale, a church that could trace its origins back to the waning days of Roman Gaul.1 Prominent among the residences of Hauteville stood the sturdy but unpretentious home of Jean Odin and his wife, Claudine-Marie (Serol). Typical of the region, the Odin house was a squared multifloored building erected on a family-owned plot of land set in close to a clump of trees for shade. Abundantly planted in crops of the season for that particular region of France, the Odin property blended in well with the verdant, tilled, low-rolling hills and flatland acreage that dominated the area's landscape. Neighbors held the Odins in high regard, viewing them as one of the locale's best-liked and most-respected Catholic clans. That proved to be significant for a family living in an archdiocese where the church had been targeted for attack from revolutionaries from the very outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.

In that house about noontime on a cold twenty-fifth day of February in the year 1800, Jean and Claudine-Marie welcomed into their family their seventh child, a son. As often occurred throughout much of Catholic Europe in those days, this newest addition to the Odin family received the sacrament of baptism within just a few hours following his birth. He was given the Christian name Jean-Marie. The devout Jean and Claudine-Marie elected not to have their newborn baptized in the local church, because the cure of St. Martin d'Ambierle at the time, Pere (Father) Francois Loche, pastor in residence there since 1785, had earlier pledged fealty to the infamous 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which the revolutionaries had forced upon Catholic France. Instead of Pere Loche, a nonjuring priest—that is, one who had refused to swear by the despised document—Pere Didier from the nearby town of Boisset, administered the sacrament. However, Jean-Marie's baptism was recorded in the sacramental records of St. Martin d'Ambierle. Just exactly where the baptism occurred remains shrouded in uncertainty. Likely, though, Pere Didier officiated at the sacrament in the Odin home, given that it was the place of birth. According to Jean-Marie's baptismal certificate, an aunt on Claudine-Marie's side of the family, Virginia Serol, served as the baby's godmother (marraine). A cousin, Jean-Perrichon, acted as godfather (parrain).

Ultimately Jean and Claudine-Marie were blessed with three more children, bringing the total number of Odin offspring to ten. Young Jean-Marie grew into his adolescence in a home atmosphere that early on nurtured his natural inclination toward a life of Catholic piety. His attraction to religious matters unquestionably received encouragement from such a strongly Catholic household environment. A circle of immediate family, relatives, and friends who were themselves devoted Roman Catholics surrounded Jean-Marie throughout his youth. As a result, the future missionary's early years were steeped in the life of the church, its sacramental and sacerdotal character, and embellished through national and local Catholic devotions, customs, and traditions.

During those days also, Jean-Marie began to show a sensitivity to the needs of other people, a characteristic that would deepen in him as he grew to maturity. Of this aspect of him Odin's nineteenth-century biographer, the Abbe Bony, described the youth: "He delights in helping the poor. He brings food to needy neighbors; his mother greatly encourages him; he becomes bold.... The impetuosity of charity [sometimes] had carried away young Odin, who was by nature timid and reserved.

Jean-Marie, in addition, endeavored to share without complaint the household chores that his mere (mother) and pere assigned him and his siblings. He enjoyed especially tending the sheep that his parents owned. As an aging Archbishop of New Orleans many decades later, Odin reminisced that among his happiest experiences at home back in Hauteville as a youngster were those times he spent as a shepherd in the countryside. A half-century beyond those pleasant days at Hauteville, and thousands of miles removed from his native land, the missionary from France looked back to that period in his life with nostalgia.

As Jean-Marie reached his seventh birthday, his parents began to seek out ways to get him started along the path to a formal education. A distant relative of the family, a cousin who prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution had been a seminarian and now lived in the nearby village of Tremieres, proved to be the answer. That unnamed cousin had gathered around him a group of children for the purpose of teaching them to read and to write. Jean-Marie joined those pupils. Two years later, in 1809, Jean and Claudine-Marie sent their son to stay with another relative, an Uncle Serol, quite possibly—though not for certain—Claudine-Marie's brother. Uncle Serol was a priest who served as cure of the parish church in the nearby town of Nouilly. Jean-Marie experienced firsthand at Nouilly, under the watchful eye of Cure Serol, life in a rural French Catholic rectory. Odin's residence there brought with it another first—his introduction to Latin. Pere Serol, perhaps sensing that his nephew might have a vocation to the priesthood, labored enthusiastically to instruct the boy in the rudiments of the language of the church.

Painfully for Jean-Marie, Claudine-Marie, and the rest of the Odin and Serol families, in 1811 his uncle died. Only eleven years old at the time, Jean-Marie was returned to his parents' home at Hauteville, his happiness over his being back home with his family tempered somewhat his sadness at the death of his priest uncle. Quite likely, by that time Jean and Claudine Marie suspected that their son might have a vocation to the religious state in life. Thus, they deemed it time for him to embark upon his seminary training.

The Seminaries of Lyon and Cardinal Fesch

From the days of the conversion of King Clovis of the Franks under the influence of his Catholic wife, Clotilda, at the end of the fifth century, to the outbreak of the French Revolution more than thirteen hundred years later, France had ripened to maturity thoroughly Roman Catholic. The noted French historian Gillaume Bertier de Sauvigny described the realm's Catholic legacy as one in which "every Frenchman, from the king to the lowest 'villain,' considered himself to be first and foremost a Christian, a member of the vast society of the Church."

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, witnessed France being wracked with a destructive assault on that Catholic heritage from, first, the revolutionaries of 1789–95 and then by the presumptuous reign of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. As the revolution that had begun with the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, intensified into a de-Christianization movement, the church took the brunt of the attack.

The Catholic Church became a target because it was viewed as an integral part of the ancient regime. Thus, one of the earliest decisions of the revolutionaries was to nationalize ecclesiastical properties. Such was to include not only arable lands and forests but real estate as well. Concomitantly there developed among the Enlightenment-influenced leaders of the revolution an intellectual opposition to the teachings and traditions of Christianity, especially as the Catholic Church represented them.

From the perspective of the revolutionaries, the attitudes and ideals of the Enlightenment must replace the nation's traditional Catholic ideology. Fundamental to such a development would be a need to energize an onslaught against France's seminaries. In tandem with this, the French clergy's interaction with the state had to be redefined. No document of that period more clearly mirrored this antireligious feeling of the revolutionaries than the aforementioned 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Through that law—which much of the population detested—a reluctant French Catholic nation and its clergy and religious were pressured to render to Caesar not only that which was Caesar's, but to Caesar also that which was God's.

Bertier de Sauvigny wrote of this constitution:

Inasmuch as the state undertook to support the clergy, the Assembly [a revolutionary establishment] held that it could reorganize the Church of France as it might any other public service. It began by abolishing religious vows as contrary to fundamental human liberties (February 1790). The diocesan clergy was given a new organization called the "Civil Constitution," based on that of the general administration. There was one diocese to a department [France had been divided into separate civil departments], one parish to a commune. Bishops and priests were elected like other civil officials. In a Gallican spirit the Assembly also decreed that the elected bishops would receive spiritual investiture from one of their colleagues, called the metropolitan bishop, and no longer from Rome, as the Concordat of 1516 [France's current concordat with the Holy See] had ordained. The Holy See would only be "informed" of the elections.

The revolutionary assembly pushed matters even further by requiring by law that "all paid churchmen must take an oath to support the Civil Constitution of the Clergy under penalty of losing their posts." The lower clergy's reaction to that demand varied both geographically and demographically. Approximately two-thirds of them either refused to take the pledge or swore fealty under pressure but with reservations (with Pere Didier an example of the former and St. Martin d'Ambierle's Cure Loche the latter). The French historian Andre Latreille wrote about the power clergy had that "on the one side were those who took the oath, and on the other those who did not: those who in disdain, were called 'juring,' or 'refactory,' or who in admiration were styled 'civic,' or 'good' priests." Of the country's 160 prelates, active or retired, only seven gave their assent. On March 10, 1791, Pope Pius VI condemned the Civil Constitution of the Clergy as having "as its aim and effect the destruction of the Catholic Religion."

Within a short period of time (as early as 1793) the revolutionary leaders initiated a de-Christianization program. France's centuries-old Catholic legacy came under an even more intense assault, with radical secularism emerging as the aim of the defiant rebels. The September 17, 1793, Law of Suspects allowed the arrest of all persons presumed enemies of the revolution. The revolutionary tribunals in Paris and in the provinces multiplied the number of death sentences until the guillotine became the symbol of the new regime. Between thirty-five and forty thousand victims were executed and more than three hundred thousand were imprisoned. As the revolution took shape, its antireligious tone intensified. Seminaries were closed, religious communities—both male and female—were aggressively expelled from France, and ecclesiastical holdings were further nationalized.

Some respite was eventually to come for the church with the 1799 recognition at Paris of the ascendancy of Napoleon Bonaparte. He signed the Concordat of 1801 with the Holy See. That agreement superseded the former Concordat of 1516 and eliminated, or moderated, many of the atrocities against the Catholic Church that the revolution represented. The grandiose Corsican, however, proved to be no special friend of the church. In his vision for learning, the Imperial University that he established oversaw an educational system aimed at training military officers and civil officials, while marginalizing the system. Furthermore, during the initial decade of the nineteenth century, a period contemporary with Jean-Marie Odin's early years, Catholic seminaries continued to suffer from lack of support in several regions of the country, and several religious orders remained suppressed. In addition, Napoleon's well-recorded brusque treatment of Pope Pius VII resulted in the emperor's eventual alienation of the Catholic clergy and masses of the laity. In 1809, Pius VII excommunicated Napoleon because of the French ruler's earlier expropriation of Rome and the Papal States. Finally, when Napoleon divorced his legitimate wife, Josephine, and married Archduchess Marie Louise of Hapsburg, daughter of the Austrian emperor, the pope refused to recognize the marriage.

Unknowingly, Bonaparte did act in a beneficial way for the seminaries of the Archdiocese of Lyon when he nominated his priest-uncle, Joseph Fesch, to be the new archbishop of that metropolitan see in 1802. Soon named a cardinal, Fesch served as Archbishop of Lyon for thirty-seven years, from 1802 to 1839. When he nominated his uncle for the Lyon post, Napoleon most probably assumed that he was rewarding a family member who had been loyal to him during the recent past. Surprisingly, however, the emperor had named a man who was to emerge as the great rebuilder of the seminaries of the archdiocese, a system of priestly formation that the revolution had decimated. In his later years Cardinal Fesch became a dedicated supporter of missionaries to foreign lands, including noticeable support given to Jean-Marie Odin.

Almost immediately after he was named archbishop, Fesch turned his attention to seminaries. Cardinal Fesch steadily matured as the leader of a religious renewal throughout the Archdiocese of Lyon, inspiring clergy, religious (male as well as female), and laypeople alike. Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, a Cistercian abbot of Notre Dame de Sept-Fons, writing a century after Fesch ascended to the episcopal chair of the archdiocese, exclaimed that "the fact that France got back on her feet after the revolution must be accredited to a priesthood [of which Cardinal Fesch was a leading member] that learned the interior life the hard way, by persecution."

The late Father J. Edgar Bruns of New Orleans, a Catholic historian, offered his estimation of Cardinal Fesch: "The cardinal archbishop of Lyon at this time was Joseph Fesch, Napoleon's uncle, a man not easy to characterize. Most would see him as a grasping opportunist, but it is a known fact that in his diocese he gave shelter to every kind of prelate, vagrant, or displaced monk and humblest lay brother, while he surrounded himself with dedicated young priests who were to lead the Catholic revival of France for the next generation. Fesch's seminary [St. Irenaeus] was outstanding for the quality and caliber of its students."

In 1816, L'Ami, an influential French church newspaper, reported that regarding the renovation of Catholicism in France following the French Revolution, the faithful of the city of Lyon "are not limiting themselves to momentary succor, they are taking steps to perpetuate it." As the years passed the French church was steadily restored, although it was not exempt from constant pressure from Napoleon's government until the Archdiocese of Lyon was reborn under the guidance of Cardinal Fesch. Back at Hauteville, Jean-Marie Odin seemed drawn unhesitatingly along the path of an apparent vocation to the priesthood while the restoration was underway.


Excerpted from Missionary Bishop by Patrick Foley. Copyright © 2013 Patrick Foley. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. From France He Came,
2. At the Barrens,
3. Missouri and Arkansas: A Prelude to Texas,
4. Odin and the Emerging American Vincentian Presence,
5. The Call to Texas,
6. Send Us Some Priests,
7. On the Shoulders of Odin,
8. A Vice Prefect Apostolic Arrives,
9. The Mission beyond San Antonio,
10. He Is to Be Vicar Apostolic,
11. A Missionary Still,
12. The Search for Priests and Nuns,
13. Back from Europe,
14. Bishop of Galveston,
15. Adieu, Texas,
16. New Orleans, the Civil War and Reconstruction, Then Home,

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