To serve God well one must be ready to die every minute.
Once “the happy seminary days”, as he liked to call them, were over the young, newly-ordained priest was warmly welcomed in Bordeaux by his family, especially his mother who had always believed in her son and whose hopes were finally realised, by the ever kindly Bishop d’Aviau, not forgetting the parish priest of Saint Eulalie who claimed the right to have this enterprising young curate. Pierre Bienvenu was 26 years old and he shared his new mission with three other curates.
Fr. Noailles intended to live his priestly life by means of a project he had carefully drawn up in the seminary and duly submitted to his spiritual director. By observing the first steps of this young priest it is possible to discover what these guidelines were.
Pierre Bienvenu was determined to be poor among the poor. He left the comfort of the family home, where he had been offered accommodation on his return from Paris, to live in the heart of the parish sharing his roof and food with the destitute. He was notorious for giving everything, even his mattress.
One particularly rigorous winter he did not hesitate to walk the streets with a barrow collecting anything he could get to help the poor. Although he was well-known and much sought after as a preacher he preferred to devote the greater part of his time to ministering to the poor. That was why one day he promised God he would only preach in his own parish church or in poor parishes or to the country people.
Tireless courage in ministry
Although often ill during his life, it seemed that
Fr. Noailles’ strength knew no limits when it was a matter of alleviating suffering of whatever kind. He drew his tireless energy from his ideal of the life of an apostle and the urgency of his zeal to make God’s infinite mercy known to all.
Many moving anecdotes relate with what goodness, gentleness and humanity he visited the sick, even those with the most repulsive type of disease, comforted the dying and gave special attention to those on the margins of society. He was particularly solicitous for children in distress such as the little chimney sweepers of his day.
A young woman in the parish, Ms Lamoureux, had set up a shelter, La Miséricorde, for so-called “repentant” young girls who were excluded from society. Fr. Noailles visited them showing them much kindness and compassion. It was from the same sentiments that he assisted the death-row prisoners in the prison of Fort du Hâ not far from his parish, organised the Confraternity of Poor Mendicants and the Association of Ladies of Charity.
“Everyone has the same right to my care and I must make no exceptions. To serve God well one must be ready to die every minute.”
“I must have the lessons and example of Our Lord and the saints constantly before my eyes.” Fr. Noailles was consumed by the urgency of proclaiming the gospel. It was as if a burning coal had marked his heart and lips with the love of God. On arriving in his parish, like Jesus he was moved with compassion when he saw the district known as the Tondu abandoned without a shepherd. With the other curates he undertook to win it back by beginning a mission. And so he could be seen preaching in the open air with a tree trunk or upturned washtub for pulpit, visiting the pubs to argue with the most recalcitrant, hearing the confession of an old man on a log between two rows of vines, winning the hearts of all by friendliness and readiness to help.
Fr. Noailles also organised catechism classes on the lines of those he had known at Saint Sulpice in Paris during his last year in the seminary. In this way he gathered a considerable number of people – children, young and mature adults – to collaborate with him according to age, availability, aptitude. To all he proposed that they imitate Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the living of their faith day by day.
A friend of sinners
Church of Saint Eulalie in
the 19th century
One place Fr. Noailles never deserted was the confessonal. He spent long hours there convinced that through the ministry of reconciliation God’s love could be made known in a striking way.
He received his penitents with great kindness and understanding, proving himself to be a sure guide with spiritual judgement and depth surprising in one of his years. Manifestly, he was a man of God and so much in demand as a spiritual director.
Fort du Hâ Prison,
A man of prayer
“Love can only be paid for by love,” Fr. Noailles wrote in a homily for the feast of the Sacred Heart. His own remarkable faithfulness to mediation, the recitation of the breviary, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, meditative reading of sacred scripture are indications of a heart always anxious to live for God. All his writings and sermons are enlightened by the Word of God which he read every day.
“The Word of God has a charm and a sweetness to be found nowhere else.
It is enough to read it to be fully penetrated by it.” (Pierre Bienvenu Noailles)