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Laurent Clerc's Spritual Life

In 18th Century France, spirituality and religious adherence were significant parts of a person's life. It was especially important for the Deaf born to Roman Catholic families, like Laurent . If he could not receive the Body of Christ and the Sacrament he would be condemned to Hell. Let us follow what history we have of Laurent's religious transformation throughout his life.

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Laurent Clerc: A Spiritual Man

March 22, 2023

The Wilton Clerc Papers have given us some more insight into this important personal milestone for Laurent.

We see Laurent’s road to Catholicism begin with his baptism on December 29, 1785 (the foundation of the Sacrament of initiation and frees one from original sin) in the L’église Saint-Pierre in La Balme-les-Grottes. It was said that Laurent’s mother, Elizabeth Candy was a very devout Roman Catholic, and it could be postulated that she lost some sleep over Laurent’s inability to receive the Holy Rites because of his deafness. Her church (pictured below) was just up the street from the Clerc family home. It is safe to say that Laurent, unable to attend school and wandering the local countryside, would have spent some time up at this church.  

After baptism, his mother would have wished that Laurent receiving his first communion was the next step towards full acceptance into the community of believers. However, his deafness would have precluded him being able to understand the concepts that were essential for his receiving it. 

Lucky for Laurent, 4 days' carriage ride from La Blame, events were unfolding in his favor. A new movement called the “Enlightenment brought about a new faith in reason and a new curiosity on the part of scholars about the ability of deaf people to achieve rational and abstract thought. In Paris, Charles-Michel, abbé de l’Épée, founded what would eventually become the first state-supported school for deaf children, later known as the Institut National des Jeunes Sourds (INJS).”

As we know, Laurent attends this new school with one of the express purposes that he become educated enough to receive the Holy Sacrament. We know that he received religious education while at school and that he became the protege of the abbé Sicard. We can be sure that the abbé was as proud as Laurent’s parents when the days were set for his students' communion and confirmation. 

In a letter dated, May 5, 1804, from Laurent’s father, Joseph Clerc, he asks Laurent to “Tell me also whether you have yet made our first Communion.”

In a second letter on July 6, 1805 father Clerc says “The second (letter) informed  us of the date of your first Communion, which was to take place on the 16th of the present month of August.” 

In a letter on August 11, 1805, Laurent writes to his parents saying “My dear Papa and my dear Mamma, You are good, you love me dearly, you care for my happiness, and I ought to tell you that the day so greatly desired and so long expected, the day of my happiness and the brightest of my life, the happy day when, for me, Heaven will stoop to earth and when I shall be fed with the adorable Body and with the precious Blood of our Divine Redeemer, is fixed. Next Friday, the 16th of August will be the happy day, so interesting and so dear to my heart. You and all my relations take too deep an interest in my welfare, not to help me in your prayers to obtain from God the needful grace to make that holy day the epoch of my eternal salvation. I beg you, my dear father and mother, to inform all my relatives and particular friends, of whom, as of you, I now ask forgiveness for all that ever, during my childhood, may have offended or caused you shame. I ask for your blessing. Dear friends, I embrace you all, with all my heart. Your devoted friend and loving son, L. Clerc.

In a 3rd letter from father Clerc (of August 11) “gives me the exact date for your first Communion. What thanks you must have given, and we too give thanks to God, for that bright day when you were fed with the Precious Body and Blood of that Divine Master. Remember all your life, my son, that sacred day which will be that of your happiness if you have worthily received your Savior. We supplicate Him, who has showed you this favor, and so do all your relations and friends to whom I have showed your letter. They have no reproach to offer; on the contrary, they have only praise and commendation to bestow. We all pray to the Lord to give you his holy blessing and our own. 

Your mother and sisters tenderly embrace you. Adieu, my son, make good use of your time for your own glory and our continent. Your loving father, Clerc”

A memorandum was later entered onto the original letter “I made my first Communion, Sunday the 30th Termidor, 13th year (Revolutionary Calendar, August 18, 1805) and I was confirmed by the Bishop of St. Flour at the Church of St. Eustatius (Saint Eustache), Tuesday, 2nd Fructidor, 13th year (August, 20, 1805).”

His communion on August 18th, 1805 (to partake the Body and Blood of Christ to be a part of his sacrifice) and his confirmation on August 20th, 1805 (the second Sacrament of initiation and is a ritual that signifies strengthening of one's faith)  took place in the imposing Church of St. Eustatius (Saint Eustache).,_Paris. However, it is not clear to me who performed this communion service. 

So who would have been at the church that day with Laurent? His parents were away in the country, in La Balme. His uncle Laurent we know visited him in Paris about 4 times a year, so we wonder if he would have been present, but Laurent does not mention him. We assume that abbé Sicard was there, never wanting to miss an opportunity to display Laurent to the public and so proud of being Laurent’s spiritual guide. Jean Massieu would surely be there checking his watch frequently, thinking of Laurent’s salvation and lunch? 

We know that the confirmation service (This reception is concluded with the reception of the sacrament of confirmation, it is the last step. Then the believer is a full member of the religious community, endowed with all rights and duties) was performed by the Bishop Jean-Eléonor Montanier de Belmont of Saint-Flour, (March 8, 1756 - May 1, 1808). Was he also the one that performed the communion ritual?

So far, Laurent’s religious teaching or spiritual life goes dormant for us. We do not see it referred to, as of yet, until he has met Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and the……is fretting over Laurent living among the natives and Protestants in West Hartford, Connecticut. And we will remember that Laurent’s decision to immigrate to the United States in 1816 caused significant stress between himself and Abbe Sicard. So much so that the abbe decided to write a letter to the Very Reverend Bishop Cheverus, then Bishop of Boston’s Catholic Diocese about Laurent’s faith in the land of Protestants. 

History of the Catholic Church in Hartford, CT "The Memorial History of Hartford County, Connecticut, 1633-1884, editied by James Hammond Trumbull 1886

***Note that there was visit by the bishop that sicard wrote to came to hartford. laurent might already have converted


In 1785 Dr. John Carroll, a priest of Baltimore, and brother of the Hon. Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, reported to the Propaganda, that the number of Catholics in the United States was about twenty-live thousand, and the number of priests was twenty-four.

The Dioceseof Baltimore was created in 1789, and comprised all of the then existing United States ; on the 15th of August, 1790, the Rev. John Carroll was consecrated its first bishop, and until 1808 he was theonlyRomanCatholicbishopinthiscountry. Inthatyearfournew diocesan sees were erected ; namely, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown.

TheDioceseofBostoncomprisedallofNew England,andwasuntil 1825 governed by Bishop John B. Cheverus, who was translated to Montauban, and afterward to Bordeaux, where he was Cardinal Arch bishop. The Right Rev. Benedict J. Fenwick was bishop of Boston from1825until1846. In1843theStatesofConnecticutandRhode Island wore made a new diocese, with Hartford as the episcopal see, and the Right Rev. William Tyler was consecrated the first bishop on the17thofMarch,1844. BishopTylorfoundinConnecticut,onhis arrival here, three priests, four church buildings, and about five thou sand souls. The laity was made up principally of emigrants from Ireland and their families, although there was in Hartford a respec table number of Catholics, who like Bishop Tyler himself, were converts from Protestantism and natives of New England.

Mass was celebrated in Hartford in June, 1781, by Abbe* Robin, the chaplain who accompanied the French auxiliaries under Count dc Ro- chambeau, in their march across Connecticut from Providence to Phil- lipsbourg. Thiseventoccurredonsomedaybetweenthe22dand25th of June; since itappears from the Count W. de Deuxpont's Journal of his " Campaigns in America," that the French army halted during those days in Hartford. An eye-witness to the ceremony, informed the pastor of the Roman Catholic church at Hartford of the fact fifty years afterward, and pointed out to him the very spot where the Mass was said, on the meadows now belonging to the estate of Colonel SamuelColt. Itismorethanprobablethatoutsidethesoldiersthem selves there were no Catholics present at the Mass.

In 1813 the Rev. Dr. Matignon, a French ecclesiastical refugee, was stationed at the Roman Catholic Church in Boston, and having occasion tomakethejourneytoNewYork,passedthroughHartford. Reaching hero on Saturday night, ho was obliged to remain until Monday morning. The Puritan strictness that prohibited travel on the Lord's Day did not prohibit the courtesy of inviting strangers to occupy the local pulpits. Dr. Strong, pastor of the First (Centre) Church, extended the hospitali ties of his church and pulpit to the good priest, and tradition says that Dr.MatignonpreachedthereinonaSundayevening. AfewCatholics

had come to Connecticut by the year 1823, and had settled in and around Hartford,— chieflyyoung men and women who were employed intheserviceoffarmersandfamilies. ColonelJamesWardandMr. Samuel Tudor interested themselves in behalf of the Catholics; and when Bishop Cheverus visited this place in that year (1823), they ob tained for him the use of the Hall of Representatives in the old State House,wherehecelebratedMassandpreachedasermon. Occasional visitsweremadebytheRev.Dr.Power,ofNewYork,atwhichtimes Mass was celebrated in a house1 that stood on the west side of Main Street overlooking the old Centre Church burying-ground. In 1828 Bishop Fenwick sent the Rev. R. D. Woodley, his nephew, to this city to reside, as the first parish priest of Hartford and the first resident

priest of Connecticut.
Duringt hefollowingtwoyears,severalpriestsweresenttoHart

ford, some of them in the capacity of assistants ; the jurisdiction of the parish extending from New York to Rhode Island, and from Long IslandSoundtotheinteriorofVermontandNewHampshire. Among thesewereFathersO'Cavanagh,Welch,McCool,andMcDermott. In 1830 tho Rov. James Fitton was appointed pastor, and hold the posi tion until 1837, when ho was succeeded by tho Rov. John Brady. Father Fitton lived to participate in the centennial celebration of the first Mass in Connecticut, at St. Peter's Church, Hartford, on Sunday, June 20, 1881, on which occasion he delivered the historical discourse. HediedatBostononthe14thofSeptember,1881.

In November, 1828, Bishop Fenwick purchased a small lot of land on the cast side of Maiden Lane (now Welles Street), intending to buildachurchthereon. Thislotissometwelverodssouthfromthe presentjunctionofMulberryandWellesstreets. Bcforothowork began, an opportunity to do better presented itself, the church building that had been occupied by the Episcopalians being offered for sale. This edifice was of wood, and stood on the north corner of Church and Main streets. One of the conditions of its sale was that it should be removed from that site. Bishop Fenwick made the purchase, and the building was drawn, over to a small lot only a few feet larger than thechurchitself,onthenorthsideofTalcottStreet. Abrickbase ment was built underneath, and one half was divided into apartments for tho pastor's residence

Onthe17thofJune,1830,this,thefirstRomanCatholicchurchin Connecticut, was dedicated by Bishop Fenwick, by tho title of " Tho ChurchoftheMostHolyTrinity." FatherFittonsoonestablisheda parochial school in the basement, and Miss Agnes Whiting, of Boston, wastheteacher. Anewspaperentitledthe"CatholicPress,"published by Alfred Tally at his office on the corner of Main and Pearl streets, was removed to this basement, but proved a financial failure ; and in 1832 itwas transferred to Philadelphia, and continued for many years underthenamooftho"CatholicHerald."

Father B rady resided in the church basement until 1840, when he builtaresidenceforhimselfnexteastofthechurch. In1839hepur chased a small lot for a cemetery at the extreme western end of the Old North Cemetery, and in 1848 he added another piece of equal size.

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