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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With Archbishop Ibarra's help, Father Félix began looking for the first candidates to start a novitiate that would form the missionaries of the Holy Spirit. Both had agreed on Christmas Day, 1914, as the official date to declare the foundation started and the novitiate open. 

The times were so difficult that Father Félix could only find two novices to start: Moisés Lira, a seminarian from Puebla, and a priest from Mexico City, Father Domingo Martínez. 

Given the religious persecution which happened concurrently with the Mexican Revolution, the founding took place behind closed doors and surrounded by secrecy, in a chapel located on top of the hill of Tepeyac called the Chapel of the Roses. It is believed that this was the place where roses glow in December of 1531 and Juan Diego cut them by order of Our Lady of Guadalupe 

It was a very simple ceremony: the Veni Creator was sung and Archbishop Ibarra then celebrated the Holy Eucharist. The two novices occupied the front pew. Behind them were Conchita, two Sisters of the Cross of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, two Visitandines, and Mr. and Mrs. Alvarez Icaza, owners of the chapel. 

After the Eucharist, Archbishop lbarra read the pontifical decree authorizing the founding of the missionaries of the Holy Spirit and ended with these words: 

"In virtue of the powers vested in me by the Holy See, I declare the Novitiate of the Congregation of the missionaries of the Holy Spirit canonically open. Father Félix, here present, will be the Master of Novices. Respect, love, and obey him, dear novices. He will teach you the genuine gift of the Cross, and will make you good religious. May Jesus bless you, as I do now.” 

Then, kneeling before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Father Félix and the two novices said the following prayer: 

"Most holy Mother, we place in your hands this humble Congregation, born on the same day that the Church commemorates the birth of your Son, Jesus. Accept it as your own and help it to grow and develop". 

Archbishop Ibarra returned to his hiding place. Father Félix wrote the following in his diary: 

“We all left that beloved chapel very moved and thanking God. We were very careful so as not to compromise the owners."  

Conchita also wrote in her diary: 

"I do not know how to express the joy and gratitude my soul experienced. Blessed be you, My Lord! How true it is that those who believe in You will not be disappointed! 

"Father Félix was beside himself with joy and Father Domingo and Brother Moisés were also very happy. That afternoon I paid Archbishop Ibarra a visit and he was radiant with joy." 

Archbishop Ibarra had bought a little house on Av. Tepeyac No. 14 to lodge the poor pilgrims from his archdiocese who came to visit Our Lady of Guadalupe. He was happy to lend it to the fledgling Congregation as its novitiate. Father Félix and Brother Moisés went there after leaving the chapel. Father Domingo could not join them until a week later. 

The little house was empty. Father Félix and the novice went to find something to eat. Upon returning to the house, the Novice Master gave Moisés a paper with the schedule they would follow and a bell he should ring to signal the changes of activity. Moisés very obediently looked at his paper and rang the bell for "the community", that is, Father Félix, to respond. 

In the evening, the Novice Master sent the novice out to buy something for supper. Moisés brought two loaves of bread and some cheese. He spread out a newspaper as a tablecloth; on an empty crate he put a bottle holding a candle. Then he rang the bell. When "the community" came, he had to sit on the floor. (I heard Father Moisés Lira tell this story many times). 

Shortly after, Father Félix wrote to Archbishop lbarra: 

"The novitiate has been open for five days now. They have been five days of internal joy, peace and trust in God; five days of gratitude to God and to you, who are our father and our visible Providence. Both of us are happy here, with the same thoughts and the same desire for perfection.'' (December 29, 1914). 

But the peace and happiness were short-lived. On January 2, when they had only been there nine days, a Mexican government official appeared and asked Father Félix many questions: if he was a citizen, how many religious lived there, what their occupations were, etc. Immediately, Father Félix went to speak with Don José Alvarez Icaza, the owner of the Chapel of the Roses, who in turn sent Father Félix and his novice to a house he owned in downtown Mexico City, on Sta. Teresa Street, No. 105 (now Guatemala). The Sisters of the Cross gave three beds for the two novices and the Novice Master. Father Félix wrote in his diary: 

"I feel happy to be as poor as Jesus was. I have nothing. I have to accept everything." 

Father Domingo Martínez finally arrived on January 8, and Father Félix told his Superior: 

"I am happy because the number of novices has doubled, (we now have two). We follow the schedule as if there were thirty in the group, and this is paradise." 

But "paradise" did not last long because in those days Carranza's troops launched a great offensive against Villa and Zapata. On January 27 General Obregón recovered Mexico City and the horrors of religious persecution began all over again. Because of this situation, Archbishop lbarra ordered Father Félix and his novices to move to a safer place. 

Msgr. Antonio Paredes lent Father Félix some rooms in a country home owned by the Archbishopric of Mexico City in the nearby town of Tacuba and the pilgrim novitiate sought refuge there. 

In the Book of Chronicles started by Father Félix, on the page which corresponds to February 19, we read the following: 

"Today, at 10 a.m., all priests in Mexico were asked to go to City Hall by order of Commander Cesáreo Castro "to receive instructions." They were treacherously imprisoned and a ransom of half a million pesos was demanded in exchange for their freedom."

Luckily, neither Father Domingo nor Father Félix responded to the "instructions" of the Commander. 

The following day the French Minister told all French priests residing in Mexico that the Mexican Government had set February 22 as the deadline for them to leave the country. That same day Father Félix wrote to Archbishop lbarra: 

"...Happy are we who suffer because we are of Christ. This is an invaluable gift. But now, what do we do? I am willing to do whatever you tell me. Should I hide somewhere? Should I leave for Havana or some other place? My novices are ready to go with me wherever you say. They do not want to interrupt their novitiate for any reason whatsoever. I await your orders and will carry them out gladly and willingly." 

Archbishop lbarra decided that Father Félix should leave the novices in Tacuba and hide in a school run by Miss Clementina Bordes on Arenas No. 46. 

A few days later Father Félix wrote to Archbishop Ibarra: 

"My beloved father: Here I am, hiding in a place known to you. I am alone all day long, praying for my novices. I am making a kind of retreat, spending a great deal of time with the Holy Spirit. I have learned that the priests have not been freed. The Marist Fathers who ran the school for girls were exiled yesterday morning; the ones from San Lorenzo did not show up and are hiding; the priests from Veronica School obtained letters from Mr. Palavicini (Minister of Public Education) protecting them. 

"I write to the novices daily. I am certain they will be very faithful in keeping their rule and doing the work I planned for them in great detail." 

Luckily, it was possible to obtain a document from the French Consulate for Father Felix, which certified him as a teacher of the France-English School, (located on Veronica Street), which, as mentioned above, enjoyed the support of the Minister of Public Education whose sons and relatives studied there. As Bishop Martínez used to say: "In Mexico the prophets are more important than the law..." Father Félix returned to the novitiate on February 28, and everything remained "normal": the comings and goings of the soldiers, the shots of the followers of Carranza and Villa, and the generalized hunger which pervaded the city because of the interruption of transportation and the closing of many markets. 

Father Félix greatest need was to find more vocations, He had thought it would be possible to make his work known in seminaries and Catholic schools, but the government had closed them down. Moreover, it was very dangerous for him as a foreigner to move about, for he could be deported to France together with his certification. Everything was possible in the midst of a chaotic revolution which unseated not only Ministers of Education, but also Presidents of the Mexican Republic... 

On December 25, 1915, the fifth Work of the Cross was a year old. Father Félix wrote to his Superior General: 

"The small novitiate is coming along, but we only have three novices. If we were not in the midst of such an uncomfortable state of things which makes it impossible for me to work, we would already have twenty excellent vocations. As far as I can see, when God grants us a much-desired peace, the Work will also progress. But in these times, it is necessary to exercise patience and hope." 

In his reply to Father Félix, the Superior General commented on his "incurable optimism". And this was certainly true. The situation was so serious as to depress anyone, but not Father Félix. Quite the contrary, his enthusiasm was renewed when Archbishop Ibarra informed him that he had negotiated with the Superior General of the Marists permission for him to remain in Mexico another two years. 

Poor Father Félix! The threats of exile came not only from the Mexican Government, but also from the decision-makers in his Congregation, because the Superior and his Council were not of a mind to lend him for a long time. 

When the first two years were almost up, Father Félix wrote an anguished letter to an Irish friend who later became a missionary of the Holy Spirit: 

"Please pray for this small novitiate. It is the seed hidden underground which is germinating slowly. It is good wheat which promises an abundant harvest later on. But I have been granted a very short and fleeting time to work for Jesus planting this tree of His, which is to bear much fruit. (Letter to young Tomás Fallon. August 2, 1916). 

The "small seed" suffered an irreparable loss the 1st of February 1917: Archbishop Ibarra, the father, the protector and the "visible Providence" of the incipient community died. He had subsidized the novitiate with his own funds, so now Father Félix would also have to worry about the financial problems. 

Nevertheless, the most pressing problem was still the lack of vocations. Two and a half years after its founding, the Congregation only had three members: the first two novices who had already made their vows and a new novice, who, as it turned out, did not persevere. 

Under the circumstances, Father Félix had to go out looking for more novices in spite of the dangers posed by the civil war. During 1917 he made several trips to Puebla, Morelia, León and Guadalajara. He never lost his "incurable optimism"... 

The seminarians in those cities had to gotten together in private homes to continue their studies without government interference. Father Félix could therefore speak with many of them and interest them in the new Congregation. 

On August 27 bad news awaited him when he returned from one of his vocation-seeking tours: the Mexican government had decided to expropriate the house where he lived with the students because it belonged to the Archbishop. 

Miss Dolores Sáinz offered him a house she had in Tlalpan and the itinerant novitiate moved there, to Calle de la Fama No. 18. 

As soon as they were settled in their new home, Father Félix wrote to a friend in Morelia: 

"We are living in a better house, in the quiet of Tlalpan. 

"It is very silent here; it almost resembles the solitude of a desert. And Jesus is in our midst, in His humble tabernacle, with this group that loves Him and is willing to give their life for Him". (Letter to Fr. Treviño). 

Father Félix hoped to find many vocations in Morelia. In his Memoirs he wrote: 

"Morelia is a kind of "promised land" for me because of the excellent vocations I found there..." 

He had in mind a good group of seminarians who decided to join the novitiate of the missionaries of the Holy Spirit. It happened that about that time, a strong epidemic of "Spanish fever" developed in Morelia. Many seminarians became ill. This led the vice-rector of the diocesan seminary, Bishop Martínez, to make the following comment: 

"If things don't change, this poor seminary will be done in by the Spanish fever and the French fever." 

Of course, the "French fever" referred to Father Félix. 

On Christmas, 1917, the third anniversary of the foundation, seven young men joined the novitiate, making a total of eight, since one was there already.  And henceforth the numbers grew. Father Félix had to dedicate every minute of his time to form these young men, so much so that he wrote the following to a benefactress of the seminary: 

"Perhaps you thought I died because I have not been to see you. The truth is that I no longer make visits or perform exterior ministries. I have closed my doors and have not gone knocking on others, even to ask for a crumb when we were in need, because I have given myself in body and soul to the work the Lord has entrusted to me and for which some day I will have to answer." (June 1st, 1918).

He wrote as follows to his father: 

"I will tell you about the blessings God has showered on this Work, which it was His will that I begin in Mexico. I think that now, after almost four years of honest effort, the Work is definitely moving ahead. The ten novices I have are so good that I would not change them for French vocations, unless these were very select ones. This house is a bit of heaven, where the ideal of the monastic life is realized: work, prayer, silence, modesty, charity, kindness, obedience, a great deal of meditation, punctuality at all times. Nothing is missing. How greatly has the Lord blessed this work. And to think that it has been implemented in the midst of this terrible religious persecution! When all communities were closing their novitiates, I was opening mine... And excellent people have come to us, and other very good ones will continue to come. I see the hand of God clearly in all of this" (August 16, 1918). 

Another letter which Father Félix wrote on the 29th of April, 1918, to his Superior General, gives us a glimpse of the reality our founder was living: 

"I received a letter from Archbishop Leopoldo Ruíz yesterday. He tells me that he has just written to you, with my approval, asking that you grant me two more years to continue working on this foundation. You know that I am wholly devoted to obedience and will do without hesitation whatever you say, because I wish to do nothing other than the will of God. 

"However, it seems to me that the permission sought by the Mexican Bishops is very reasonable since currently there is no one who could take my place in the formation of novices and, humanly speaking, my leaving at this time would perhaps cause irreparable harm to this Work, which is still in the initial stages. 

"Besides the formation of the novices, I have to look for housing for them, food, clothe and take care of them when they become sick, see to it that the newly-professed and the second-year novices work; and I have to work very hard to recruit new vocations, which is vital. I know that my efforts in the area of recruitment have to be very serious and careful, for I am setting the foundation for the future. 

For all these reasons, I am ready to give myself totally to this Work, if you think it convenient to give an affirmative answer to the bishops' petition." 

The Superior General of the Society of Mary answered this letter as well as that of the Bishops explaining, "he would lend Father Félix for two more years only and no longer, that is to say, until the month of July, 1920.” 

It must have been really uncomfortable for Father Félix to work for periods of two years at a time, without knowing if the permission would be renewed. Without a doubt, this situation favored his not becoming too attached to this Work and considers it his own. For a man who knows how to give himself with all enthusiasm to the realization of an ideal, it is easy for the work itself to fill his heart so much so that God is displaced. And God does not wish this. The holiest works lose their value if they are not done exclusively for Him, with him and in Him. 

For Father Félix it was spiritually healthy to always feel he was there on a temporary basis, and always "in the hands of obedience", ready to leave everything if that should be God's will.

More than a year went by... Father Félix continued working intensely and he felt time slipping through his fingers. 

He was concerned about the spiritual progress of his novices, as well as his own. On the 4th of October, 1919 he wrote thus to his spiritual director, Father Valverde, as follows:

"I have been wanting to write a long letter to you, my dear Father, to bring you up to date about me and this Work, but I have found it very difficult to take the time because of so many urgent and diverse occupations, which require my attention... 

"I will write about me first; that way, the rest of the letter will concern interesting things. 

"I am not progressing. I am still as disorganized as ever. I do not pray well. When I speak to the novices, I resemble fire, but I am really ice. However, I do not feel I'm a hypocrite because I really want to mean what I say and I am determined to implement it although I may not be able to carry it out. I am a man of good will who does nothing of what he ardently wishes to do. That is why I feel absolutely poor before God, and I beg you to feel sorry for me and pray to Jesus for me. 

"Regarding the novitiate, we currently have 18. They all have the true spirit of the Cross and wish to acquire the Christian virtues in all their perfection: obedience, humility, charity, poverty, purity and perfect abnegation.   Bless them and commend them to God.”

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