Life and Spirituality of Félix de Jesús Rougier

Risking the Future
Life and Spirituality of the
Venerable Félix de Jesús Rougier, M.Sp.S
by Ricardo Zimbrón L., M.Sp.S.



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When that unexpected meeting occurred, Father Félix was a 43 year old priest. He had been born in France, in the province of Auvergne, in the town of Meilhaud, the 17th of December 1859. His parents, Benedict Rougier and Luisa Olanier, were middle class peasants, hard working and very religious. Félix was the first of their children. When he finished grade school, they sent him as a boarder to a school in Le Puy. The school was known as "La Cartuja" because it was housed in a building that had formerly been a monastery of Carthusian monks. Félix studied there from 1874 to 1878. He was a mediocre student. He had friends who were good and not so good. And he committed adolescents’ sins. In short, this is what he tells us in his Memoirs. 

One day, towards the end of his last year at La Cartuja, all the students (there were about 400) were requested to come together in the main patio because a bishop wished to address them. The bishop was an old missionary who had lived in the Samoa Islands. 

He told many stories about those primitive islands. He told of the pagan tribes, their constant warring and their cannibalism. He told of the many lepers who wandered around like wild beasts with no one to care for them. He also told them the following story: 

"With great difficulty I built some sheds intending them to be a makeshift leprosarium.  Then I gathered the priests at the mission and asked if any of them wanted to volunteer to care for the lepers. They all stood up as if moved by a spring, except two who were the most advanced in years. They were almost deaf and had not understood anything. When we explained to them what it was all about, they not only volunteered as the others had done, but they argued that since they had seniority, they had a right to be chosen first. And the two of them are there, evangelizing the lepers with their words and with their love, living in those sheds and hoping to become infected and to die as lepers among their brothers the lepers". 

The old bishop told them about many heroic deeds and finished by saying to them: 

"The harvest is great but the laborers are very few. I have come to knock at the door of your faith and generosity. 

If there are any among you who would like to go with me to the missions in Oceania, let them raise their hand.” 

In his diary, Father Félix says: 

"I looked around me. No one had raised his hand. Then I felt an irresistible internal urge to raise my hand. I decided on the spot to go with the missionary bishop. I was sure I was inspired by God to do this." 

On September 21, 1878, eighteen-year-old Félix bade his parents’ good-bye and on the 24th he entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Marist Fathers who served in the Oceania missions. 

The written reports (hat his novice master (Father David) sent his superiors every three months still exist. Those, which refer to Brother Félix, indicate that he was good. The second trimester, however, the novice master observed that: "His health is good but he suffers from arthritis in the right wrist." And in the reports of the third trimester we read: "We wonder about his vocation because of the arthritis." The reports of the last trimester indicate that: "His loyalty to the Society of Mary is not only sincere, but enthusiastic. However, his vocation is still in doubt due to his health." 

Crippling arthritis attacked his right hand and arm. Brother Félix learned to write and eat with his left hand. 

Despite his illness, the novice was admitted to first vows on September 24, 1879, and the 7th of October he entered the scholastic to study philosophy. 

Two years went by. His arm was in very bad shape and his muscles had become atrophied. Operations and medicine were useless. Moreover, the illness also invaded his left leg. His vocation was in danger and this caused Brother Félix a great deal of pain. 

Around that time, Don Bosco (now St. John Bosco), the founder of the Salesians Fathers, arrived in Toulon. His fame as a saint extended all over Europe. Brother Félix's mother was a supporter of the Salesians and it was at her behest that Don Bosco agreed to speak to the Marist student with the diseased arm. He laid his hands on the student’s head and prayed for his health and for his vocation. 

Father Félix was cured of arthritis in the leg in a few days. The arthritis in the arm stopped spreading immediately and, although it disappeared very slowly, it was no longer considered an obstacle to his vocation. After some time he was completely cured. 

Father Félix was always grateful for this cure, and confidence in the intercession of Don Bosco never left him. 

I will now recount an extraordinary event that took place many years later (on March I, 1932). I will retell it exactly as I heard it from the lips of my father: 

"When you were two weeks old, you contracted enterocolitis, and no medicine was able to stop the illness. Your condition worsened so that, when you were twenty days old you agonized and died. Dr. Escondria, who had been taking diligent care of you, went to see about the death certificate and Dr. Alejandro Velazco also confirmed that you had died. 

Two hours later, Father Félix arrived to offer his condolences. I never knew who called him. He asked to pray for the child and we led him to the room where we had laid the small body on the bed, cold and purplish, awaiting its little white coffin. 

Father Félix knelt down. He began to pray in silence. And he prayed so long that we grew tired and left the room one by one. Father Félix kept on praying, alone... 

More than an hour went by and Father Félix was still praying... Suddenly, we could clearly hear the crying of a child coming from that room. We all rushed to the room and saw Father Félix visibly moved. 

He was flushed with emotion and he was shouting: "I prayed to Don Bosco for him! I asked Don Bosco to protect him!" 

He then took his hat and ran for the door. He only told us: "Feed that child!" 

But let us continue with our story. 

In 1882, when Brother Félix was 21 years old, he was sent to the Institute of St. Mary, a school the Marist Fathers had near Toulon. There he was made prefect of discipline the intermediate group. 

The children nicknamed him "Pionbete", which roughly means idiot. Brother Félix wrote in his diary:

"I intensely dislike being prefect of the intermediate group. My appointment has been renewed for another year. I will not complain and I will always appear to be happy. Divine Providence has been so good to me that I cannot doubt that being prefect of discipline of the intermediate group is good for me, at least spiritually". 

In the years that followed, Brother Félix finished his studies of philosophy and theology; and finally, on September 24, 1887, he was ordained a priest: 

"Msgr. Gonindard, Archbishop of Rheims, ordained me a priest in the chapel of the Franciscan sisters. My father, mother and brother Stanislaus were present at my ordination" (Diary). 

From that day on, Father Félix asked God for the grace to celebrate the Eucharist in a saintly manner. And every day of his life he celebrated the holy sacrifice with such devotion that all who saw him at the altar were impressed. One of the recommendations his superior made to him was: "Try not to spend so much time celebrating Mass." 

The recently-ordained Father Félix was sent to teach Holy Scripture at the scholasticate in Barcelona, Spain, because the study of the Bible had fascinated him since he was a novice. He had learned Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in the original, and had even published a Hebrew grammar. 

In a letter addressed to his Superior General we read: 

"I am especially attracted to the life of the major seminaries: a hidden life of prayer and study. I am giving myself over to the study of Scripture which I love so much, and which now more than ever gives me great joy." 

For 8 years (1887 to 1895), he taught Sacred Scripture, Hebrew and Church history.  He had always yearned to go to the Oceania missions, but as always, he saw the will of God in the orders of his superiors and he obeyed joyfully. 

A strong personality trail of Father Félix was his joy and his constant good humor. In a letter from his Superior, we find this advice: 

"You should not joke so much with your students. Be kind to them, but without so much familiarity." 

In his Memoirs, years later, Father Félix wrote: 

"I have always considered having been sent to teach Sacred Scripture for eight years to have been one of the greatest graces of my life. How many inspirations came to me as I prepared for this dear class! How many readings full of God! What graces of enlightenment for my soul! As I studied the Gospel in depth, I found the soul of Jesus there, His Heart, His thoughts, His love for the Father, His teachings, His spiritual life. How lucky I was to be able to dedicate all my time to meditate on these divine pages for such a long time! 

All his life, Father Félix insisted on the need to study the Scriptures constantly.

"If you are careless about the reading of the Holy Scriptures, your religiosity will become superficial", he said frequently.

One day he confided to his novices that: "Since the time of my Biblical studies I have engraved in my heart a constant remembrance of Jesus." 

When the 1895 school year ended, Father Félix received a letter from his General Superior with the command to go to Colombia in order to found two schools in the province of Tolima, one in the town of Neiva, and the other in Ibagué. He wrote in his Diary:

"I was delighted with this hidden life but the command confused me for although one is a religious, one cannot become immediately detached and keep from feeling uprooted when one has lived for a long time among very dear brothers and students and among well-beloved books. 

I went downstairs to the chapel, and at prayer I was completely flooded with happiness. To Colombia! The missionary dream which had been born in me eighteen years before, and which had filled me with enthusiasm during the novitiate, was going to become a reality... I was about to leave for a new country, 12,000 kilometers away from my loved ones and... perhaps forever. I felt that this was a great and undeserved grace, and this moved me deeply." Father Félix made a one-week spiritual retreat and a general confession. And after finishing the preparations for the journey and saying many loving good-byes, he embarked at Burdeos the 26th of October, 1895, together with two other priests, Fathers Joseph Gauven and Francis Gandy. 

After a 23-day sea voyage, they disembarked at Port Colombia. From there they went to Barranquilla where they boarded a small steamship which moved goods and people up and down the busy Magdalena River. 

Father Félix had to travel more than once in these dilapidated steamboats. In his diary, he wrote down not too pleasant memories, but we can see that he kept his sense of humor. 

"Disorder reigned: there were mountains of wood for the engines, stacks of suitcases, animals, the crew and the passengers. The food was terrible. It was hard enough to be hungry, but a great deal of will power was necessary not to go by the kitchen... The boats had innumerable leaks. During the first rainstorm it was necessary to leave one's cabin to look for a dry corner, unless one believed strongly in hydrotherapy. When the rains continued for long periods, those who did not sleep with their face under a leak could consider themselves lucky. The muddy river water was all that was drunk on board. If we were lucky, they filtered it." 

Father Félix and his companions were so enthusiastic about their missionary work that in a short time they were overdoing it. In a letter dated May 25, 1897, the Assistant General of the Society of Mary wrote to Father Félix, who was the superior of the small community: 

"... you have gone ahead and made decisions, without waiting for things to happen. But I do not know how you could stand such weariness and attend to so many occupations and concerns, and moreover, give retreats. Take care of yourself, dear Father. Because excessive efforts, if they are constant, break down the healthiest constitutions. The work with which you have been charged must not be imperiled by these exhausting efforts which can take you to heaven before your time. Please, save your strength". (P. Leterrier, Assistant General). 

Father Félix answered this letter as follows: 

"... And I thank you very much for your paternal advice, which offers guidelines for one so inexperienced. I am very well, better than ever. So is Father Halliet. But we both understand that you are right, and that even though we have not become sick, we are both very tired. I promise that I will work a bit less." 

On April 24, 1899, Father Félix received a letter from his Superior General telling him that his mother had passed away on the 12th of that month. Father Félix answered that letter thus: 

"... Oh, Father, what a terrible blow! How full of pain these days have been!! I think there is no greater pain than having one's mother die. When I started thinking about the many sweet memories of my mother, I fell into a great depression. 

It is now twelve days since I received the news and I am still so nervous that the sound of the bell makes me jump. Physically and morally this test has been a very difficult one." 

The night of October 18th of that year, 1899, civil war broke out in Colombia and continued for three years. The schools became barracks and hospitals. The Marist Fathers devoted themselves to help the wounded, not only in hospitals but also in the battlefields. Father Félix was named military chaplain of the First Division of Tolima and later administrator and chaplain of the military hospital of Ibagué, with the salary and rank of colonel. 

The prisons were full. Father Félix made great efforts to improve the prisoners' situation. He spoke to the Governor on their behalf and constantly tried to obtain medicines, clothing and food for those unfortunate people. 

The war became more intense. The life of the missionaries was always in danger, and therefore the Superior General of the Society of Mary decided to recall all his personnel from Colombia. On November 30, 1900, the order to abandon the mission arrived. One by one, the Marist Fathers left for other assignments. Father Félix was the last to leave. The financial difficulties to pay for his trip and the dangers of the war did not allow him to leave until February I, 1902. On that day, he took a boat for Panama, which then belonged to Colombia, with Mexico as his final destination. He had lived for six years as a missionary in that land and had become attached to it. He was sorry to leave everything he had sown in these fields: 

"I did not enter my cabin until very late at night, so that I could see a bit more of my dear Colombia."(Diary) 

Father Félix was named superior and pastor of the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, staffed by Marist Fathers in Mexico City. He arrived on February 17, 1902. 

"Father Lejeune welcomed me.  He was one of the members of that community and while he showed me the house he made bold to tell me something which bothered him: 

-Father Félix...we have heard that you are very strict.

-You will see that is not so, I said.

Once more I extended my hand in greeting to him..." 

That church was designated for the French immigrants who lived in Mexico City. At that time they numbered some six thousand. 

With his characteristic enthusiasm, Father Félix began organizing this new area of work in the best way possible. He visited the French families to obtain a complete census and then organized the religious instruction, without overlooking maids and employees. He visited the sick at the French Hospital. He founded the associations of Bread for the Poor and Daughters of Mary, and organized a group of altar boys and a choir, he then began to print a one page parish bulletin which was a very helpful tool to inform and bring the parishioners together. Later he brought the Sisters of St. Joseph from Lyon to open a school, especially for the daughters of the French families and he look the first steps to found the school for boys staffed by the Marist Fathers, but it did not open for three years. Father Félix also served as confessor of the Marist brothers and their pupils. 

When all this was taking place, Father Félix was 43 years old. He was full of strength and experience and was an excellent priest with a missionary soul. He had many human qualities and solid Christian virtues, but he was not yet what you would call a saint. 

In his diary he recounts the need for a profound change in his life, far a greater surrender in God. To this end, in early February he began a novena to the Holy Spirit asking "that He might call him to a way of greater perfection." 

As in answer from God to this desire and this prayer, the surprise encounter with Mrs. Conchita Cabrera took place on February 4, 1903.  From this day forward he began a new stage of spiritual development, moving towards sanctity with giant steps.

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