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Ven. Francis Mary Paul Libermann
Founder of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which was afterwards merged in the Congregation of the Holy Ghost (q.v.). The son of a Jewish rabbi, he was born at Severne in Alsace, 12 April, 1804; he died at Paris, 2 February, 1852. He received the name of Jacob at his circumcision, and was the third youngest of seven children whom his mother Lia Suzanna Haller, bore to his father, Lazarus Libermann. He was brought up according to the sternly strict tenets of the Talmud, and his mind was early imbued with a special horror of the "Goim", or Christians. He lost his mother when he was nine years old; and this, together with the harsh treatment he received from his schoolmaster, caused his boyhood to pass in much bitterness. The learned and universally esteemed rabbi of Severne fixed his mind on his son, Jacob, as his successor in the rabbinical office. With this in view, he sent him to Metz to perfect his studies in the Talmud, and in Hebrew and Chaldaic. But God had other designs on the young man, who was then in his twentieth year. During his stay at Metz, the Gospels, translated into Hebrew came accidentally into his hands, and impressed him deeply. Moreover, his eldest brother first, and afterwards two other brothers, embraced Catholicity. And, although Jacob deeply resented their change of religion, he gradually came to recognize their happiness and peace of soul, which was in strong contrast with his own distracted frame of mind. Finally, he obtained from his father permission to go to Paris; and there he came under the influence of M. Drach, a convert from Judaism, who had him received into the College Stanislas, where he was instructed in the truths of Faith, which he embraced with eagerness. He was baptized on Christmas Eve, 1826, in the twenty-third year of his age. At baptism he took the three-fold name of Francis Mary Paul, the first two in gratitude to his godfather, Baron Francois de Mallet, and to his godmother, Comtesse Marie d'Heuse, and the last as a mark of his admiration of the great Apostle of the Gentiles, whom he was so closely to imitate in many respects.
Immediately after his conversion, M. Libermann displayed marked signs of a vocation for the ecclesiastical state. His protectors and friends found a place for him, first, in the college of the Missions de France, where he received tonsure five months after his baptism, and later in the seminary of St. Sulpice, which he entered in October, 1827. On the very eve of his promotion to subdeaconship, he was stricken down by an attack of epilepsy which was to be his companion for the next five years. During that time he was kept by his charitable superiors at the seminary of Issy. It was there that he was brought into close apostolic relationship with two Creole seminarians, M. Le Vavasseur, from Bourbon, and M. Tisserand, from Santo Domingo, both of whom were filled with zeal for the evangelization of the poor ex-slaves of those islands. This acquaintanceship evoked the first concept of a religious society for the conversion of those abandoned souls. It took five years more of prayer and patience to accomplish the foundation of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, for that purpose. Meanwhile, M. Libermann was called away to become, though yet only in minor orders, master of novices for the Eudist Fathers at Rennes. After two years of devotion to that work (1838-39), he felt a very positive call from God to unite with MM. Le Vavasseur and Tisserand in furthering the apostolate to the negroes. At their suggestion, he proceeded to Rome and laid his plans before the Holy See. The year of his sojourn at Rome (1840-41) was passed in great obscurity and poverty. He profited by the time he was kept waiting for a decision to write the provisional rules of the proposed institute, as well as a remarkable "Commentary on St. John's Gospel". At last, after a year's waiting, the obscure and friendless ecclesiastic received the warm encouragement of the Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda, to pursue his project for the evangelization of the negroes. He repaired to the seminary of Strasburg to prepare for his ordination, which took place at Amiens, 18 September, 1841. On the twenty-seventh of the same month the novitiate of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was opened in the neighbouring village of La Neuville.
The first occupants of the novitiate were the founder himself, his first associate, Father La Vavasseur, and a sub-deacon, M. Collin. Others filled with apostolic zeal quickly joined them, among the number being Rev. Ignatius Schwindemhammer, who was destined to be the founder's immediate successor. Missions were soon offered to the infant society in Mauritius, where Father Laval wrought wonders which continue to the present day; in Bourbon and Hayti; and, especially in Africa. Father Libermann's sons were, practically, the first since the downfall of the African Church to penetrate the Dark Continent. Most of the first missioners paid for their heroism with their lives; but others filled their places; and the widespread prosperity of the Church in Africa, at the present day is, in large measure, due to the initiative and self-sacrifice of the first members of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Venerable Libermann was the heart and soul, the father and model of the nascent community during the seven years of its independent existence, 1841-1848. By that time it had become numerous and flourishing; and Divine Providence ordained that it should be engrafted on the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, which had a similar object, but which had become almost exstinct during the Revolution (see HOLY GHOST, RELIGIOUS CONGREGATIONS OF THE, I). This difficult and delicate task of uniting two congregations was successfully accomplished, at the request of the Holy See, by Father Libermann; and he was chosen superior general of the united societies, a post he occupied till his death. By the time of his death, the Venerable Libermann enjoyed the reputation of the highest sanctity in the minds of all who knew him; and shortly after his death there was a widespread desire to have the cause of his beatification introduced. The usual ecclesiastical tribunal was erected in Paris, in 1867; its labours were continued till 1872, when the depositions of the witnesses and the other documents bearing on the case were forwarded to Rome. After mature examination and deliberation, the Sacred Congregation of Rites unanimously decreed the introduction of his cause. This decree was ratified a few days afterwards, 1 June, 1876, by Pius IX, who thus declared the holy convert from Judaism Venerable. Since that time, the cause of his beatification has progressed through the usual forms; and his spiritual sons throughout the world expect to see him ere long declared Blessed.
Several thousand of his letters have been preserved; and these, together with all his other writings, have been examined and approved by the Holy See. His method of spiritual direction was, like his life, a mingling of sweetness and self-denial, breathing peace and courage, in the midst of all manner of trials. His published writings are, "Lettres Spirituelles", 2 vols. (Paris, 1880); "Ecrits Spirituels" (Paris, 1891); "Commentaire sur l'Evangile de St. Jean" (Paris, n.d.).
PITRA, Vie du R. P. Libermann, (Paris, 1872); Vie du R. P. Libermann par un pere de la Cong. du S. Esprit (Paris, 1878); GOEPFERT, Life of Ven. F. M. P. Libermann, (Dublin, 1880).
John T. Murphy.