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.
Laurent Clerc: A Spiritual Man and Journey - Draft 1
The Wilton Clerc Papers have given us some more insight into an important personal spiritual journey 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. https://www.labalmelesgrottes.com/decouvrir/patrimoine/saint-pierre/. 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 Laurent’s baptism, his mother would have wished that Laurent receive his first communion, 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, just four (4) day 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). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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?
Afterwards, at least for the time being, 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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Louis_Lefebvre_de_Cheverus
“Monseigneur (Sir), The most earnest desire to supply the knowledge of our holy religion to the unfortunate deaf-mutes of the land in which you live and in which you so worthily fill the commission of the holy Apostles, leads me to a sacrifice which would otherwise be beyond my strength. I am sending to the United States the best taught of my pupils, a deaf-mute whom my art has restored to society and to religion. He goes with the determination to live and to die in the faith of the Catholic religion. You can satisfy yourself, Sir, by questioning him in writing, upon the dogmas, the mysteries and the morality of Jesus Christ. He possesses in an eminent degree, the faculty of teaching. Unaided, he has been accustomed to prepare the pupils of the School over which I preside, for their first Communion, and for the sacrament of Confirmation. This good and interesting young man goes, indeed, with a cleric belonging to the Anglican religion; but is is understood that he will teach nothing contrary to the Catholic Faith, that he will stop short where that Divine Faith stops; that he will himself observe its usages, its abstinence and vigils and the fast days of the Church.
I commend him to you, Sir, as tenderly as a mother would her only son. Make him acquainted with the feasts and fasts and days of abstinence of our Church. Allow me to place him under the wings of our tender charity. He is a young master who will be of immense service to the deaf-mute children of Catholic families with you, as he has been here with me. He was its chief ornament and pride. Buy every consideration yields to the good which he will accomplish. To console myself for his loss, I love to think of him as the Apostle to the Deaf Mutes of the New World, to whom God will make Himself known, mercifully scattering their darkness and enlightening them with the Faith of Him.
He will write out his confessions on a sheet of paper, noting his sins on the right half of the page, and his father’s confessor will record his reproofs and exhortations on the other. He has slight knowledge of English, and as he learns with great care, he will need no help from you in acquiring the languages.
I commend him with the utmost confidence to your goodness. Charity will incite you in behalf of one wholly brought with the blood of Jesus. I have said enough for one whose soul is consumed with love of Him. I commend myself to your fervent prayers, and beg you to accept the homage of the profound respect with which I have the honour to be you (Lordship’s) very humble and obedient servant.
L’ Abbe Sicard.”
We know from somewhere that Laurent was not allowed to teach his Roman Catholicism at the Asylum. I believe it was stated so in his employment contract. On Laurent’s arrival to Hartford, Connecticut, he started out traveling around the East Coast raising money for the Asylum. On September 30, 1816 the Bishop of Boston felt it was necessary to send a letter to a Rev. Enoch Fenwick, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedict_Joseph_Fenwick Pastor of St. Peter’s Church https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Peter_the_Apostle_Church, introducing Laurent for what purposes we are not certain.
We know that Laurent had made the decision to remain a Roman Catholic until the death of his spiritual mentor, the abbé Sicard on May 10th, 1822
There was a note by an editor that it is not clear that Laurent used this letter of reference with the Rev. Fenwick, but that it was subsequently used during his residence in Philadelphia while superintendent of the then Pennsylvania for the Deaf and Dumb. And check out our webpage on the school and Laurent’s time there https://www.laurentclerc.org/general-8-12. What we do know is that Rev. Benedict Fenwick of Boston oversaw the Catholic parishioners in Hartford until he opened its first Church in 1829. Elizabeth (born March 25 1820) and Sarah (born August 10th, 1828) Clerc under the care of said clergyman. Laurent’s sons, Francis (born April 18th, 1823) and Charles (born January 13th, 1826) were baptized in Hartford by Bishop Cheverus (Diocese of Baltimore) before his appointment as Archbishop of Bordeaux on July 30, 1826, and his elevation to the rank of Cardinal February 1, 1836. Laurent’s other children were baptized by clergymen of Christ Church in Harford, where he and his wife at length became communicants during the pastorates of the Rev. Dr. Burgess, Bishop of Maine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Burgess_(bishop),
of the Rev. R. M. Abercrombie D.D., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Abercrombie_(priest)
and of the Rt. Rev. Thomas Church Brownell D. D, Bishop of Connecticut. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Church_Brownell. Let us hope that Laurent and Eliza did not subscribe to the bishop's racist views? and have involvement in the American Colonization Society.
It seems that when Sicard passed Laurent began his spiritual transition to the religion of Eliza’s family. Perhaps he straddled the border between Catholicism and Protestantism through his worship in the Episcopal Church in Hartford. It is said somewhere that Laurent Clerc “deliberately chose for himself and for his family, and recommended to the educated deaf-mutes of the land, the worship and services of the Protestant Episcopal Church. He frequently and publicly declared that its doctrines, set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, reformed from Roman novelties under Episcopal authority, were far more consonant with his early religious education in the Gallican Church than are the teachings of modern Rome. He was a firm believer in the Catholic faith, and he enjoyed and used the forms of Liturgical worship set forth in the Prayer Book. He regarded the decent and reverent ritual which it prescribes as being well suited to the spiritual needs of the Deaf.”