December 2, 2010
Rev. Michael Coleman
P O Box 419037
Kansas City MO 64141-6037
Nearly ten years ago you asked for my help in locating the tomb of Rev. Benoit Roux, the first diocesan priest to serve among the pioneers in what eventually became the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. I finally had the opportunity to visit the region where he worked in France. Sadly, I was unable to locate his tomb, but I did photograph most of the churches where he served as a priest.
Back in 2001, Rev. Paul DeClerck, former director of the Institut Catholique in Paris, contacted the chancellor of the Diocese of Lyon on our behalf. Here is the email that Paul sent me on March 3 of that year:
Il y a longtemps que j’aurais dû répondre à ta question concernant B. Roux.
J’ai interrogé le chancelier du diocèse de Lyon, et voici ce qu’il m’a
“Il n’y a eu qu’un Benoit Roux dans le diocèse. Il est né le 30/11/1801 à
Saint-Etienne, a été ordonné prêtre le 13 juin 1829 à Lyon, a été vicaire à
Longes, puis à Givors jusqu’en mai 1831.
Le 13 mai 1831, il a obtenu un exeat pour les Missions étrangères de Paris,
mais il n’y a pas d’autre indication que : Saint Louis. Je pense que c’est
la ville du Missouri dont il s’agit.
Puis il est rentré en France pour devenir vicaire à [la paroisse de ] St
Emmerand à Saint-Etienne. De 1848 à 1860 il a été curé de Saint-Just en
Bas. Il est décédé de 5 décembre 1865 à Chaussan, où il s’était retiré”.
Si tu veux savoir s’il est effectivement enterré à Chaussan, il faudrait
écrire au curé, à F-69440 Chaussan.
J’espère que tout va bien pour toi. Merci pour ta belle carte de Noël !
Remets bien mon bonjour à la famille qui t’a accompagné à Paris,
As he suggested, I sent a letter to the priest at Chaussan that year, but I never received a reply.
This year as I planned a family vacation in France, I realized it would be possible to return to this investigation. I admit I did not pursue this methodically. In hindsight, I could have done more preparation for the project – writing to all the churches in question and setting up appointments with people there. But I did not know for sure if I would be able to visit these places on this particular trip, and when the opportunity did present itself, I decided I should do what I could. So on Wednesday, November 24, 2010, from my gîte in Ozenay, Burgundy, I started up the rented car at 6:30 a.m. and drove to all five French cities where Roux worked, finishing around 3:00 pm in Chaussan. Most of the churches were locked. I was rushing to complete the tour in time to pick up my nephew and his daughter at the Lyon airport that afternoon. Without a GPS or another human being in the car to help navigate, it was a stressful day, and I got lost several times. I put nearly 500 kilometers on the car, and I’m sure Roux would have been astonished that anyone could see all five cities in a single day.
So, here is a commentary not in the order of my tour (Saint-Just-en-Bas, Saint Etienne, Longes, Givors, Chaussan), but in the order in which Roux lived in these cities.
After his ordination in 1829, Roux became the vicar at Longes. This is a small town in some gentle country hills southwest of Lyon. As a newly ordained priest with the title “vicar”, Roux likely began his career there under another priest who served as pastor. On the day I visited, the front door was open to give access to the small vestibule, but glass doors into the nave were locked. Still, I photographed the interior through those doors. I also picked up a bulletin indicating that Longes is today part of a larger parish in Condrieu named for Frederic Ozanam.
Shortly after that, Roux became the vicar at Givors. This is a larger city at a bend in the Rhone River, with good access to Lyon. We have no further information from the chancellor’s office except that Roux complete both these assignments within two years. It would be sheer speculation to imagine that things were not working out in the first assignment, or that instead he was successful and the bishop decided to move him to a larger parish with more responsibilities. Incidentally, on the road between Longes and Givors stands a Saint Regis Cross, indicating – I believe – one of the places where the secondary patron of our diocese had walked and preached.
On May 13, 1831, at the age of 29, Roux signed up with the foreign missions of Paris, which assigned him to “Saint Louis.” That is what brought him to Missouri. According to notes written by Gerard Fournier, Roux served as “a curate at the St. Louis Cathedral until 1833. He wanted specifically to be a missionary to the Indians, but Bishop Rosati did the next best thing by setting him near to the Indians.” Roux arrived in Clay County on Nov 4th, 1833. He visited a Mr. Hughes in Clinton County, who, though not Catholic, wanted to start a Catholic school. Roux arrived at the Catholic settlement in Kansas City on November 14. He visited the Kickapoo village in Leavenworth four days later. He returned a rented horse in Liberty because the parish could not afford it; Francois Chouteau then gave him a horse free of charge. He celebrated Christmas mass in the home of a local Protestant and gave his first sermon. Unable to bring sisters to found a school, he focused on baptisms and first communions in the 12 French families of the region. Comfortable staying with the Chouteaus, he had no church building yet.
Again according to Fournier’s notes, Roux’s parishioners rented a house in 1834 for services and another one for a rectory at 2nd and Cherry. The first service was Sexagesima Sunday, February 2, 1834, but the first mass was on Easter. Some English-speakers started attending; there was yet no Protestant church. Among those Roux baptized that year was Elizabeth, the daughter of Daniel Morgan Boone. My notes indicate that he acquired 40 acres of land on April 5 that year, including the ten acres where the present cathedral sits. Roux offered that site to Bishop Rosati for two dollars.
Fournier says Roux became ill with chills and fever after August 15, 1834, and remained so for 5 months. He ultimately wrote, “There are too few Catholics here to support a church.” His last baptism in the area was April 5, 1835. Bishop Rosati wanted Roux in Kaskaskia, Illinois, but his health was failing, and he returned to France.
Upon his return to France, Roux worked as a vicar again, but this time, according to the chancellor of Lyon, at St. Emmerand in Saint Etienne. I drove to Saint Etienne, hoping to stop at the tourist information office and locate the church, but I discovered a very large modern city there. Driving twice through the downtown area trying to find the tourist office, I abandoned the effort in the interest of time. My map of the region indicates the location of a St. Ennemond Church in Saint Etienne, and the website for the diocese concurs that there is a St. Ennemond Church, but none dedicated to St. Emmerand. I have downloaded two photos of that church from the internet. I suspect that this is the place where Roux went upon his return from the missions. Again it is speculation, but it seems logical to me that the bishop would bring his sick young priest home from the missions and let him work in the city where he was born, perhaps to reconnect with family and friends and get his feet on the ground after his first few years of such diverse ministries in his priesthood.
In 1848, at the age of 46, Roux became pastor of Saint-Just-en-Bas, where he remained for 12 years. The location is, in a word, remote. Saint-Just-en-Bas is a beautiful mountain village, and, as the name implies, it rests more in a valley than up on a hill, but the view of the town and its church from the upper reaches of the area is quite stunning to the visitor. Saint-Just-en-Bas is a good distance to the north of Saint Etienne, and quite far from Lyon. It was the furthest distance for me to travel on my pilgrimage (three and a half hours from Ozenay), and as you can tell from the photos, snow had fallen the night before. I’d like to imagine that Roux flourished here – just judging from the length of time he stayed in this place and the natural beauty of the area.
Roux retired in 1860 to the church in Chaussan, where he spent the last five years of his life, dying less than a week after his 64th birthday. Chaussan is close again to Lyon, a small town in a hilly region. On my drive there, I passed quite a number of bicyclists taking the challenge to make it up the long hill from Givors – and enjoying the thrill of coasting down. Parochial duties were probably minimal in Chaussan, and it is likely that Roux was not in good health. The chancellor’s email says Roux retired there – not that he became pastor there. Was the pastor there a good friend of his? Given the distances involved and modes of travel available at the time, I can’t imagine that the priests of the diocese saw each other very often. A house adjoins the church in Chaussan. Was it the place where Roux lived? And died?
I assumed that Roux was buried at the cemetery in Chaussan, but I was unable to find his tomb there. The small cemetery commands a spectacular view of the region. It is crowded with family plots and a new section has been added. I walked through the cemetery a couple of times – this only takes a matter of minutes, but I did not find any evidence of Roux’s grave. On my drive into Givors, I had seen a very large cemetery. Was Roux buried there? Did his family have a cemetery plot back in Saint Etienne? I just don’t know.
It was inspiring to pursue the life and ministry of a man who became a priest at the age of 27, took up the challenge of missionary work, but found his calling working in parishes mostly located in the hills of his vast diocese at home. In relative obscurity the first diocesan priest to work in this area, Benoit Roux, inaugurated the ministry that every parish priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph now follows.
Rev. Paul Turner