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Catholic Heroes… Servant of God Jacques Fesch

October 31, 2019 saints No Comments


“Great sinners make great saints. God has big plans for you.” These are words of wisdom from the Church as handed down by Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, which explain the lives of great saints.
In Sacred Scripture we meet St. Matthew, a reviled tax collector, who became one of the apostles; Mary Magdalene, a woman of pleasure, who stood at the foot of the cross and became the apostle to the apostles after the Resurrection; and St. Dismas, a repentant thief, who was promised Paradise as he died next to Christ on the cross.
Likewise, St. Augustine of Hippo not only espoused the heresy of Manichaeism, but also fathered a child out of wedlock and yet became the most prolific writer as a father of the Church.
St. Callixtus, a thief, brawler, and felon, became a Pope and died a martyr.
In the 1950s, a man known for his immorality was executed for killing a cop. However, he died as a follower of Christ and he tried to convert his family from his prison cell during his last days.
On April 6, 1930 an avowed atheist and his wife brought Jacques Fesch into this world in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. Accounts differ on whether the father was close to his son or distant. Little is known about Jacques’ mother, but she was at least nominally Catholic.
Jacques seemed to be a troublemaker from his earliest days. He neglected his schoolwork, disrupted classes, and made mischief until he was finally expelled from school. As he grew older, he did not improve and failed to practice any semblance of faith, soon living a life of crime and hedonism.
Although his father managed to get Jacques a job in a bank, Jacques wasted the opportunity by his laziness and bad attitude and was soon fired. Time after time his father found him other jobs, all with the same result.
In the meantime, Jacques’ life spiraled into deeper immorality. He fell into a shambles of unsavory results as his main objective in life was to enjoy the pleasures of this world, not caring what the consequences were. He rarely took responsibility for his actions.
Before he was 24, he had fathered a child out of wedlock by his girlfriend, Pierrette, whom he married before his daughter was born. This unhappy union did not last long, soon ending in divorce. Jacques felt no compunction to care for either his wife or his daughter.
Once again, after this relationship ended, Jacques continued his womanizing and fathered an illegitimate boy, a son who never knew who his father was until years after Jacques was executed.
Jacques’ avoidance of God and his total abandonment to worldly pleasures cast him into a deep depression. In an effort to break free of his misery, he decided to sail to the South Pacific. He dreamed of buying a yacht and living an idyllic life of constant pleasure and relaxation on a tropical island.
Jacques, an adulterer, thief, and ruffian, became angry when his father refused to support his plan in any way. Undeterred by the refusal, Jacques continued to scheme. He decided to steal the money to fund his quest by diabolical means.
Alexander Silberstein’s currency shop soon became his target. Foolishly, Jacques entered the shop just as the rush hour was beginning on February 25, 1954. He beat Silberstein relentlessly with his pistol, grabbed 300,000 francs — hardly enough to finance his scheme — and fled.
Having lost his glasses in the scuffle, he fled from the shop as Silberstein stumbled out the door, shouting for help. A witness saw Jacques flee and called the police. Later this same witness recognized Jacques. The police officer cornered him, drawing his gun and telling Jacques to halt and surrender.
The police officer, Jean Vergne, was a 35-year-old father. Jacques’ response to the order was to pull his pistol and shoot the officer three times in the chest, killing him instantly. Others wrestled Jacques to the ground and he was arrested.
Pictures of Jacques show an emaciated man with darkened eyes and sunken cheeks from his dissipated lifestyle. During the trial, he proved his evil nature by his surliness, nasty responses to questions, and total lack of remorse. The jury had little trouble finding him guilty of his crime, and he was sentenced to death by the guillotine.
By the mercy of God, Jacques sat on death row in solitary confinement for three years, allowing him time for his conversion, and finally for his repentance.
God works in threes. Jonah was in the whale for three days. Our Lord rose on the third day and three apostles came with Jesus during the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden. There are three persons in the Holy Trinity and in the Holy Family. For Jacques, there were three men who guided him on his way to conversion during the last three years of his life.
These three men, the prison chaplain, his lawyer, and a monk who was a friend of Pierrette, his wife, never abandoned Jacques.
His conversion took some time, but finally after nearly one year, the realization, the horror of what he had done, struck him. As he wrote in his journal that he began to keep, “The Spirit of the Lord seized me by the throat.”
Immediately, he asked for the prison chaplain so that he could make his Confession after many years.
He began a life of deep prayer as his journals indicate — even becoming a mystic. Jacques also sought to repay the many and deep hurts he had caused his family. He reconciled with his wife and daughter. He also wrote many letters to his family, including his brother and stepmother.
During Jacques’ last two years, he wrote much in his journal about his conversion, his love of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and his repentance. At the end, he serenely accepted his sentence.
His letters reveal a man no longer preoccupied with seeking pleasure. Rather he sought to comfort others and to console them and convert them.
“I am living through marvelous hours, and I feel as if I had never lived any other life than the one I’ve been experiencing now,” he once wrote. “Jesus draws me to Himself, and knowing the weakness of soul He gives me much, while asking for so little. For each effort that I make I receive another grace, and, in view of the shortness of time, this ascent toward God is achieved far more quickly than it would be for someone who still had years ahead of him.”
His last journal entry before he died was, “In five hours, I will see Jesus.” On October 1, 1957, just before he died on the guillotine, Jacques pronounced his last words, asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to have mercy on him.
After his death, Pierrette and his daughter worked with Sr. Veronica, a Carmelite nun, and Fr. Augustin-Michel Lemonnier to publish the writings of Jacques Fesch. Since the 1970s, his writings have brought encouragement to many souls. Many plays have also been written about him.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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