Daniel Brottier was born on 7 September 1876 at La Ferré-Saint-Cyr, a pretty little village not far from the town of Chambord in the Department of Loire-et-Cher. The house where he was born still stands. It lay close to the chateau where his father was coachman to the Marquis of Durfort. Daniel always wanted to be a priest, and started learning Latin even before he attended school. His little witticism, “I will be Pope”, was the first indication of his personality, his first intimation of the “all or nothing” that marked the main steps of his life: missionary in Dakar, chaplain in the trenches in 1914-1918, the person mainly responsible for the building of the Dakar African Memorial cathedral and of the Auteuil chapel dedicated to St Thérèse. His statement recalls little Thérèse's own statement: “I will become a Saint”.
Daniel made his first holy communion in 1886 at the age of ten, and entered the junior seminary of Blois the following year. His school companions remembered him as a lively, outgoing, boy, even mischievous ( espiègle ), but good-hearted. In 1896, at the age of 20, he did one year of military service at Blois . After long years in a seminary he was ordained priest on 22 October 1899 by Bishop Laborde of Blois . His first appointment was to the Free School of Pontlevoy, where he worked marvels with the children. But he felt something was wanting. His field of action was limited and his apostolic soul sought a more challenging field of activity. Like Père Jacques Laval while yet working in Pinterville parish, he wanted to be a missionary. His family were not at all happy with his decision but eventually acquiesced. Having got his bishop's permission he entered the novitiate of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit at Orly near Paris in 1902.
Professed in 1903 he wrote to the Superior General, Mgr Alexander Le Roy: “I have always envisaged the missionary's life as that of people willing to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of souls.” Before he set out for the missions he was photographed with members of his family.
St Louis in Senegal
To his disappointment Fr Brottier was assigned to the parish in the town of St. Louis , whereas he had dreamt of a rough life in the interior of the country. Welcomed by his parish priest, Fr Hyacinth Jalabert, later Bishop, he soon spent himself at his urban apostolate. He turned his attention to the most abandoned of the time, the half-castes. Where many missionaries had despaired of evangelizing them, Fr Brottier succeeded in convincing his companions there was hope. With youthful vigour he naturally turned again towards the youth, revitalizing apostolic works that had died with the transfer of former priests. He gave weekly instructions to the students of Faidherbe secondary school; he founded a child-aid centre; he published a parish bulletin The Echo of St Louis in 1906 that has continued for years under a title he would have liked, “ Unité ”. But the first issue was hardly out when he fell sick and was advised to return to France . After a rest of six months he was judged fit to return. Again he threw himself whole heartedly into the work of a missionary in a large urban area. He developed his journalistic talents and organized a band. St Louis was giving him full scope for priestly and missionary activity; he was creative, enterprising, progressive and disturbing! Prayer sustained all this activity, but his health deteriorated once more. He had to come home again in 1911.
A major interlude in his life at this juncture was his stay at the Trappist monastery in the Island of Lerins off Marseilles where St Patrick is said to have spent some time when preparing for the priesthood. Fr Brottier felt called to the contemplative life rather than the very active career he had been living to date. A short trial in Lerins, however, disabused him of that idea. Monks in that secluded area were known to suffer from depression if left there very long. Fr Brottier's problem was different, as he wrote to his sisters: “I lived unforgettable hours in the recollection of the cloister in an atmosphere of sacrifice and immolation. But the lack of sleep, and especially of food, wore me down, and after a few days I had to yield to the evidence: I was not made for this kind of life… There are big question-marks over my return to St Louis . I have promised to leave all to Providence and take no steps for or against.”
Bishop Hyacinth Jalabert had dreams of building a major cathedral at St Louis , the place where the great project of the evangelisation of the Black race had been launched due to the initiative of Bishop Edward Barron and Fr Francis Libermann. Jalabert wanted to build a fitting place of worship as a cathedral, and a monument of homage to all who gave of their energy, life and blood for the sake of Africa , in the service of the Lord and the African people. Knowing Fr Brottier's potential and his state of health vis-à-vis the tropics, he appointed him Vicar general of Dakar “residing in Paris ” and director of the African Memorial. Fr Brottier was enthusiastic that even in France he would be doing a missionary task. He threw all his energy into the new apostolate; he set up a secretariat and a public relations office that offended some of his zealous confreres; he involved lay people; he gave a soul to the work that Christians in France could not ignore. A network of reliable friends took shape that gradually covered all France . He concentrated on the African Memorial for seven years over two periods 1911-1914 and 1919-1923, interrupted by his chaplaincy during the war. It brought out his qualities and virtues providentially; his great faith and missionary spirit mobilized his remarkable human qualities. It challenged him adequately as he brought Bishop Jalabert's dream to a reality. The African Memorial entailed long days and nights at a desk, writing, replying all the time, frequent contacts with “important people”, from the Duchess of Chartres to the Prince of Aremberg, including Madame Savorgnan de Brazza and General Gourand. Fr Brottier had made it his duty to alert “all Paris ” to his noble work, and Paris responded generously. On 2 February 1936 the Dakar cathedral was consecrated by Cardinal Jean Verdier, papal legate. Notably absent from the ceremony was Fr Brottier himself, who preferred to remain hidden in the hour of glory. Bishop Jalabert was also absent: he had perished en route to Senegal with his band of missionaries in the shipwreck of the Afrique in 1919.
But this image of Fr Brottier, tied to the desk or frequenting the salons, is scarcely the
one we think of spontaneously. He was made for an “apostolate of contact”, both by nature and by his own wish. Chaplaincy during the 1914-1918 war offered him that field of activity, first in the Somme (1914-1916) and later in Verdun . Eye-witness accounts and stories proliferate about his deeds among his soldiers in open terrain or in the trenches.
Perhaps he felt better employed in that situation where risk was daily bread and the sufferings of the poorest were shared. For the fifty-two months of that tragedy he lived with danger. By word and example he brought comfort, he raised morale, he stimulated energies, he received confidences, he prepared people for death. Vulnerable all the time, ignoring danger, he heard and saw everything. In the name of Charity with a capital C he built “bridges” between the troops and the high command and he even changed the mind of a staff officer of the armed forces about the basis for an attack! He was conferred with the Légion d'honneur, Ordre de l'Armée in May 1916.
His priestly role during these terrible years is expressed in the words he wrote to his brother and sister-in-law on giving them his military chaplain's cross after the war:
“Keep it carefully, for it was my silent witness all during the war. How many lips of dying people kissed that cross! It heard the last sighs of innumerable young soldiers. It touched their mangled, shattered bodies. I can declare that if the cord of this cross knew all the blood it drank the water in which it dipped would run red”
The commendations he received are full of the superlatives the army uses; but one of them, that of 29 June 1918 , uses an unusual term: it dubs him a “legendary” chaplain . A halo of the “marvellous” was already enveloping him; everything in his life was “marvellous”.
National Union of Servicemen
Bishop Jalabert , Senegal , the African Memorial, the great war. God was writing straight with crooked lines, down to the thunderclap of Auteuil , still re-echoing. Père Brottier had dreamt of the extraordinary spirit of fraternity born in the course of the war continuing afterwards among the former soldiers. He saw the foundation of a wide movement develop. This simple military chaplain, who might be tempted to create “his” association of ex-servicemen along confessional lines, became a forward-looking priest aiming at a national union open to all without distinction. He did not hesitate to involve public powers and he even got access to Clemenceau, then President of the Council. Once again the driving-force behind his outsize plans was love. The union grew to two million members. Père Brottier never did things by halves; it was always “all or nothing”.
When Bishop Jalabert met Père Brottier after the war he showed a picture he had kept in his breviary – that of the “Little Flower” of Lisieux and said, “I prayed to her continually for your safety.” From that moment Père Brottier looked for an occasion to thank her. In 1923 the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Dubois, asked the Congregation of the Holy Spirit to take charge of the Auteuil orphanage. This great charitable project had been launched in 1866 by Abbé Louis Roussel, a former protégé of Fr Desgenettes of Our Lady of Victories fame. In spite of several setbacks, due mainly to political upheavals, it continued to flourish. In more recent years it had declined due to lack of its new director. Immediately he decided to place this work under the patronage of Blessed Thérèse. Having visited Auteuil , he found that the oratory there was but an old unworthy shed. He decided immediately to build there a beautiful church in honour of Blessed Thérèse. Before consulting the Cardinal he asked Thérèse for a sign, namely that he would receive the gift of 10,000 francs. The sign came and so began the saga of miracles associated with Père Brottier's years in charge of the Auteuil project. The Cardinal agreed to his plan. To say that not everybody else saw the building of a church as the priority would be an understatement. Dormitories, workshops, structural repairs etc were seen to be the requirements crying out in the rundown state of the institute. It was not as if Père Brottier had lost sight of these pressing necessities nor that his principal charges were to be the poorest and most unfortunate children of Paris, but his trust in Thérèse as his ‘heavenly bursar' paid off. Funds poured in and the chapel became a source of gracand a spiritual centre for all manner of requests and acts of thanksgiving. In spite of continued ill health he got down to Herculean work with innovative schemes and broad horizons. He thought not merely of the abandoned children of Paris but launched the association of “Orphans of France” involving many people in the care of these deprived children. Having experienced the power of the media and in particular the value of the visual image, he mastered the art of the camera and instructed the orphans in film making. He even produced a very popular cine film on the life of St Thérèse.
Much has been written on the Auteuil miracle which continues to spread worldwide but we turn instead to some statements from Père Brottier's own pen. The amount of letters written by him is almost incredible – sometimes up to 200 a day. He was not a man for writing treatises about his work or spirituality nor had he ever the leisure to do so but his occasional obiter dicta are very revealing. Passing over the technical side of the training of the apprentices in various skills we quote rather from Brottier's statements about their caring attitude to the children confided to them :
What better life could you wish for a priest than the life we live here? Look, we spend the whole day doing what? Practising the virtue of charity. From morning to night, what do we do? Receive people in pain, encourage and help them, give them hope; receive orphans, clothe and feed them and give them beds, shelter them from want, train and catechize them, make good Christians out of them; serve as go-betweens for the unemployed to get them work; intercede with the civil, military or religious authorities for families or people in straits; enlighten and guide wavering souls looking for the right path; visit and console the sick and reconcile them with God; pray and get our children to pray for the thousand-and-one miseries we hear about; give a service to all, sometimes the rich more than the poor. What is all that, indeed, if not a perpetual exercise of charity? No, believe me, we have chosen the better part, or rather the good God has chosen it for us and we should thank him profusely. To live as Christ lived, is that not, for a priest, the way of perfection?
Elsewhere he wrote:
If we want to succeed at Auteuil , we must dedicate ourselves to these children wholeheartedly and unreservedly. I have offered myself to God to serve them until death. I desire no other job, I want to die here in their service. Those who come to live with us must be happy. The children must feel that I know what they are doing and that I follow them up affectionately. Let the children be treated without harshness, always with justice. Prefer rewards to punishments. Let them not have to complain about food, clothing, tools. Then you can preach to them and get them to pray. Your ideal, children, is to become men. A man knows what he wants and accomplishes it, no matter what it costs. Do not turn out to be aimlessly wandering shadows. Spiritual values are proper to men. Our financial and social situation can change, our personal, intellectual and moral value remains. Take it to heart to develop the personality in you, the gift that God gave you…
The Christian life will be inculcated in the children starting from the liturgy of the Mass. Only one must go to the trouble of minting it, making it thirty-five living, sung, interesting and basically happy minutes. The children must get the taste for the things of God, without being overdosed.
When people marvelled at the continued success of the Auteuil project Père Brottier wrote:
People who come looking for my secret are funny. My secret is this: help yourself and heaven will help you. My secret, as you well know, is twelve years of work, day and night, hard and persevering, and twelve years of hard and persevering prayer by everyone at Auteuil , priests, sisters, young people, and first communicants. I have no other secret. If the good God worked miracles here, through Thérèse 's intercession, I think I can say in all justice that we did everything, humanly speaking, to be deserving, and that they were the divine reward of our work, prayers and trust in providence .
The miracle of Père Brottier's life was that he achieved so much while suffering severely from ill health. His death came, after a brief but painful illness, on 28 February 1936 , a few weeks after the solemn dedication of the African Memorial Cathedral in Dakar . We quote a brief extract from one account of his remarkable funeral:
When the radio announced later on the following morning, February 28th 1936, that Father Brottier had died, an old employee at the orphanage at Auteuil who, for several months, had been confined to bed with painfully deformed arms and legs of rheumatic origin, cried out: “Good Père Brottier, if you are in heaven, cure me.” She was completely cured at once and lived to praise the Lord for many years. It was the beginning of a long succession of many favours of all kinds – spiritual, mental, moral and physical. Indeed, as I write, I have by me two heavy volumes each of over 600 pages, recording graces obtained through the intercession of Père Brottier between 1936 and 1959.
The mortal remains of Père Brottier were removed to the Chapel of St Thérèse of Lisieux at Auteuil and for forty unbroken hours a guard of honour was mounted by the catafalque. There his doubly-bereaved orphans stood alongside scions of noble families and humble tradesmen trained by him. There too stood officers and men who had come to know and admire him on the battlefields of Flanders . Most of these were members of the now two million strong National Union of Ex-Servicemen he had founded. Next day, Sunday March 1st, some 15,000 Parisians came to gaze affectionately for the last time, on that fine, noble face they had known so well, as he slept in peace at last. H is funeral was more a triumph than bereavement. All Paris , all France , it seemed, people of every class of society, official and private, were represented there.
Naturally work began immediately on the introduction of Père Brottier's cause for beatification. This process received a special boost when, in 1962, his body was exhumed as part of that process and was found as intact as on the day of his burial. Père Brottier was beatified by Pope John Paul on 25 November 1984 - the same day as the Carmelite – Sr Elisabeth of the Trinity.
For much of the matter and some of the text I am indebted to the excellent pamphlet by Fr Gerald
Fitzgerald entitled Blessed Daniel Brottier Friend of Youth