They Came to Georgetown: The French Sulpicians

Georgetown Magazine: July, 1977
by George M. Barringer

In its first two decades, Georgetown drew heavily on the abilities—and availability—of French Sulpician priests and seminarians. (Sulpicians were members of the Society of Saint-Sulpice, founded in 1642 primarily for the purpose of training priests to administer seminaries and to engage in pastoral work.-Ed.) Led by Fr. Francois Charles Nagot, the first band of Sulpicians came to Baltimore in 1791 to open a seminary for the Diocese of Baltimore and to establish a haven for their society in the event of religious persecution in France. Georgetown College was to supply candidates for the priesthood to the seminary in Baltimore.

As it turned out, by 1801 only one candidate, Michael Cuddy, had gone from Georgetown to the seminary; but the college had profited greatly from the presence of the Sulpicians as administrators and teachers. And the Sulpicians, perceiving their original mission as a failure, were contemplating complete removal from the diocese. The ex-Jesuits who were by then once again in control of Georgetown: English, Irish and American, were not entirely unhappy to see them go.

Georgetown's first teacher, according to the account left in his memoirs, was the Sulpician seminarian Jean Edouard de Mondesir, born in or near Chartres and then about 22 years old. Sent to Georgetown in July, 1791, shortly after he arrived in Baltimore, Mondesir found the college building unfinished and no students yet enrolled. Mondesir claimed to be the first to sleep in the building, and the first to teach there. In two stretches of about two years each between 1791 and 1797 he taught French and Latin (in the process acquiring a knowledge of English) and prepared himself, though he does not tell us how, with a knowledge of Greek. He was ultimately ordained by Bishop Carroll in 1789.

Mondesir's memoirs (really a rambling series of letters and discourses) afford us a good deal of first-hand knowledge about life in clerical circles in Baltimore. One of his finest stories concerns Fr. Nagot's hilariously unsuccessful attempt to introduce Gregorian chant to cathedral services, an event which ended with Bishop Carroll losing his episcopal decorum to laughter. Only two anecdotes, however, tell us of life at Georgetown. The first recounts the annoying presence and habits of Fr. John Thayer, the famous convert, who insisted on saying matins aloud at the stroke of midnight, pacing the corridors of the college with prayer book in one hand and a candle in the other. The other anecdote chronicles Mondesir's adventures in escorting three brothers to New York for vacation, including a formal presentation of them to Bishop Carroll and some first-hand experience (almost shocking to the Frenchman) of American religious toleration via visits to Protestant households.

Fr. Louis Guillaume Valentin DuBourg, a Sulpician from Cap Francois, Santo Domingo, became Georgetown's third president at the age of 30 in 1796. It was chiefly on him that the antagonism of the exJesuits and their allies centered. Fr. DuBourg, later to be the first bishop of New Orleans and finally archbishop of Besancon, brought a number of changes to the college. He donated books to establish a library, and he published a French prayer book (probably La Journee de chretien, Baltimore, 1796), copies of which he sold to the Georgetown students. He spent a very large sum of money for a set of silver candlesticks and a monstrance for the college altar and another sum, not so large, for a piano.

He hired Frenchmen whenever possible. Besides the established French professors, Mondesir and Fr. Flaget, there was a Monsieur Duclaracq who instructed the young gentlemen in dancing and fencing and a number of others as well, including two women retained as nurses, Mrs. Justine Dau (or Douat) and one known only as "Alzire," who were sufficiently well off to lend the college money from time to time.

Under Fr. DuBourg's presidency some aspects of college life that we think of as essential first took shape. A more formally organized board of directors assumed overall control of the college in 1797. Among its first acts was the issuing of a directive to Fr. DuBourg to publish a prospectus of the college in three languages: English, French, and Spanish. This prospectus, which was printed in Baltimore in January, 1798, was the college's first catalog, albeit a brief one. The French and Spanish versions, printed somewhat later, recognized the large number of Georgetown students who came from Louisiana and the Caribbean and the importance of assuring a continued flow of students from those regions.

Unfortunately, Fr. DuBourg and the Board of Directors could not get along. At a time when American sentiment was becoming strongly anti-French, and when the American navy was fighting an undeclared war with French naval forces in the Caribbean, Fr. DuBourg's emphasis on a strong French influence at Georgetown was not politically feasible. In December, 1798, Fr. DuBourg resigned the presidency in favor of Fr. Leonard Neale, under whose direction the college took on a much more American flavor.

One other Sulpician who contributed much to Georgetown in the 1790's was Fr. Benoit-Joseph Flaget, a native of the Auvergne, later to become the first bishop of Bardstown. Fr. Flaget was 32 when he was recalled from his missionary work at Vincennes, Indiana, to become vice-president and professor at Georgetown in September, 1795. Mondesir has much to say about Fr. Flaget's goodness and amiability, but nothing at all about what he did. Certainly he spent much effort at learning English, in which he was barely competent when he arrived. He shared with Fr. DuBourg a taste for the theatre, which he attended in the company of Justine Douat.

Fr. Flaget shared with Fr. DuBourg the distinction of being the first Georgetown professor to dine with the President of the United States. Along with two students, John Law of Washington and Garrett Barry of Baltimore, Frs. Flaget and DuBourg visited Mount Vernon on July 10, 1798. Law's father and Barry's uncle were friends of Washington, and it seems likely that the two Sulpicians functioned as escorts rather than as guests of honor.

Fr. Ambrose Marechal, a Sulpician later to become archbishop of Baltimore, served briefly at Georgetown in 1801. But after 1798 the French presence at the college never approached the level it attained in the middle of the decade. The Sulpicians stayed on in Baltimore and elsewhere, but Georgetown was to find its strength henceforward in the ranks of the ex-Jesuits and those who would become Jesuits following the restoration of the Society. Georgetown would become increasingly more American.