Victor Hugo and Guernsey: the Catholic Church

22nd May 2017

Victor Hugo was not a Christian in the strict sense. He was a deist, profoundly religious in his way. This is part of The Victor Hugo and Guernsey project.

Hugo was not a Christian in the strict sense. He was a deist, profoundly religious in his way (Bourde de la Rogerie, p 10). Hugo was on good terms with at least four Catholic priests during his Guernsey days—Le Menant, Guidez, Boone, and Baste.

Abbé Le Menant
Father Guidez
Father Boone
Abbé Baste

Le Menant

Theophilus le Menant des-Chesnais was born in Brittany in 1836. He was educated at St Vincent College, Rennes and attended seminary at St Méen. He became acquainted with Victor Hugo. On 25 January 1864, when preparing to leave Guernsey, he invited Hugo to accept his compass (boussole). On 29 January VH paid the abbé 267 fr 90 for a quantity of household goods—mattresses, bolsters, blankets, pillows, sheets, a stove, a cafetière, a small table, and two chairs. In the following days he bought an atlas, a solar quandrant, geography books, a clock, ‘St Vincent de Paul’. On 10 February the abbé visited Hugo to express his thanks and bid him adieu.

The abbé went to New Zealand as a Marist missionary. There he wrote Lectures on liberty, authority, free thought, socialism, naturalism & atheism (Auckland [N.Z.] : Printed at the “Freeman’s Journal” Office, 1883). He died in 1910. [Massin xii/1446-8; Obituary in the New Zealand newspaper Press, Volume LXVI, Issue 13658, 15 February 1910, Page 7]. A few days after the departure of le Menant the abbé Crispin visited Hugo to say adieu, as he was leaving for England [Massin xii/1451].

Amadeus Louis Joseph Guidez

Father Guidez (1813–1873) was a friend of Hugo. They were both interested in helping the poor. On 28 November 1859 Hugo gave help to a woman brought to his attention by Guidez (Massin x/1501). He gave Guidez 5 fr for a poor Irish woman on 9 May 1860 (Massin xii/1328). 

In the early sixties, a crèche was started for the children of the Roman Catholic poor, then mostly French, and a bazaar was got up by Father Guidez, the only Roman priest in those days in the Island, for its support. [Mrs James de Havilland, Recollections of Victor Hugo, p. 3].

Mme Hugo assisted in the project and this led Victor Hugo to institute his dinners for the poor children. Mrs de Havilland recollected:

Both Father Guidez and his successors did their best for the Hugo household, but, so far as the men were concerned, with, it must be admitted, small measure of success. Though he never entered a church, Victor Hugo was most careful that his womenkind should perform their religious duties, and would often stop a priest to say he hoped his servants were regular at church, etc. An enquiry why he did not also attend was always answered by 'Religion was necessary for women; he did not require it.'

Father Guidez went to South America to assist in mission work. Hugo noted his departure (13 January 1863, Massin xii/1413) and his return in 1864. Guidez gave several lectures about his travels. He was a talented speaker. The Gazette commented (23 July 1864) that a lecture delivered the previous Tuesday had lasted two and a half hours—clearly Guidez had known how to keep the audience’s attention. The Gazette paid tribute to the elegance and well-chosen terms that he employed to describe the magnificent scenes of distant Brazil. Guidez later lectured to the Association des Ouvriers about South America and about the Pampas (Gazette, 3 December 1864; 21 January 1865). 

Who was this priest? Details of his life are to be found in the obituaries printed in Guernsey newspapers in 1873. The following is from The Star, 27 May 1873.

The Rev. Father GUIDEZ, mission priest of St. Joseph’s Church, in this island, died on Sunday morning, after a long and painful illness, borne with great courage and patience, and persevering to the last week of his life in ceaseless work for his people and his church. 

AMADEUS LOUIS JOSEPH GUIDEZ was born at Pont-au-de-Mer, France, in July, 1813. He studied humanities in the Petit Séminaire of St. Omer, and afterwards took a course at the English college of Douai, under the learned Benedictines there. For some time after this he was tutor of the nephews of the present Archbishop of CANTERBURY, and whilst a member of that family he formed friendships with eminent artists and men of science, himself being no mean art-critic and draughtsman. Having now resolved upon entering the priesthood, he prepared for Holy Orders at the college of St. Edmund’s, in Hertfordshire, was ordained in 1846, by the late Right Rev. Dr. GRIFFITHS, and commenced his missionary course in Guernsey. He resided here for some years, and then was called to a professorship of modern languages at St. Edmund’s. He was a proficient in French, English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian. Subsequently, Father GUIDEZ became chaplain to the TICHBORNES, of Tichborne Hall, when he intimately knew the late Sir ROGER TICHBORNE, and has, in consequence, been a witness at the Claimant’s trial. His next preferment was to the mission at Gravesend, at a time of great excitement, when the mob attacked and destroyed the Roman Catholic Church in that town.

A vacancy occurring in this island, he was again sent here to further the work of St. Joseph’s Church, and then for two years he accompanied a bishop on a mission tour in the Brazils, visiting the German colonies and penetrating to the Indian tribes, where Christianity once planted, was languishing, and where, undergoing great hardships and braving much danger, he was successful in preaching the Gospel of Christ and baptizing hundreds of converts. The history of this successful mission has been written by himself, and illustrated by admirable pen and ink sketches. Having returned to his Guernsey mission, he has since laboured earnestly and faithfully in the work of his ministry.

The deceased was a man of superior talent and high attainments, both as a classical scholar and a modern linguist; and by much travel and intercourse with the world he had acquired a large store of general knowledge—endowments which, added to highly courteous manners, gained for him much consideration in the society of the island. It is not for us to speak of Mr. GUIDEZ in his ecclesiastical capacity, further than to observe that he largely increased the congregation of his church, composed principally of the Irish and French portions of our population, and that by zealous and excellent management, the schools attached to St. Joseph’s were very numerously attended, and most efficiently conducted. Further we must record—and we do it with much pleasure—that during Mr. GUIDEZ’S long superintendence of the Roman Catholic Church in this island, we have had none of those dissensions which in too many places arise between the Protestant and Catholic portions of the community, thanks to his good sense and prudence.

His funeral takes place on Thursday, at 11 o’clock. The Roman Catholic BISHOP of Southwark has arrived, to preside at the arrangements and perform the usual ceremonies. (The Star, 27 May 1873).

The Comet observed:

Outside his communion the deceased priest’s influence was noiseless, yet not unfelt. His readiness to supply a vacancy as a lecturer at the Working Men’s Association kept him in the public eye, establishing for him a reputation for liberality which he retained to the last. His lectures were usually well attended by members of other denominations than his own, commendation of his ability as a lecturer proceeding as freely from one as the other. From the thorny field of controversy he prudently kept aloof. Never within our recollection but once did he permit himself to be drawn into it, his antagonist on that occasion being the Rev. Nassau Cathcart of Trinity Church. The contest was short on the part of the deceased who withdrew, conscious perhaps that whatever the amount of argument employed in those wordy combats the victory is equally claimed by the partizans of each side. But little is added to the cause of genuine charity, which inculcates a decent respect for men’s opinions, so long as they are based on conviction of their truth and not offensively thrust into prominence. …he won the respect of all classes by his unostentatious demeanour, even those whose theological bearings were antipodean from his own could not but admire the prudence which regulated his whole conduct. (The Comet, 28 May 1873).

Father Boone

Hugo was on good terms with Father Auguste Marie Boone and received him happily at his table. Victor Hugo gave proceeds of his petty gambling to the Reverend Boone for the benefit of the poor, saying 'qui donne au pauvre prête à Dieu' (Bourde de la Rogerie pp.8,14). Hugo presented a photograph of the poor children who dined at Hauteville House to Father Boone.

Father Auguste Boone, a Belgian, was appointed curate to St Joseph’s in 1864. He appears to have been a very popular and highly esteemed priest. Years later he recollected:

I was sent to Guernsey; I found there a very disheartened French population and a bare church. I succeeded in restoring confidence in the hearts of those good and poor people; restored their church, and made a new mission where others had failed. Schools they had none. I played the part of the architect, the contractor, the bricklayer, and the carpenter, and the school was built, and there it is until now. I established a convent; we had no furniture and less money. I made an appeal, every one brought what he or she could spare, and there is the convent, there the sick are cared for and visited by the good sisters, there the children are educated, and it has not cost a penny to any ratepayer (The Tablet 16 Feb 1889).

Father Boone was born in Flanders in 1840. He moved on to a diocese in Greenwich, and eventually in 1901 to St Mary Chiselhurst, which ironically had been the parish Church of Napoleon III and his family.

In 1881 the Empress founded St Michael’s Abbey at Farnborough, where she transferred the Emperor’s sarcophagus and the Prince’s coffin in 1888. The Prince’s memorial remained in the church, and the spot in the chapel where the Emperor’s sarcophagus had rested was marked with an inscribed slab of black marble. (Apart from  the  chapel,  the  only  remaining  gifts  from  the  imperial  family  are  the monstrance, a prie-dieu and the presidential chair. On his retirement, Mgr Goddard apparently took with him the vestments given by the Empress.)

Fr Augustus Mary Boone, mission priest from 1892-1914, found the church in a state of neglect. He closed the churchyard in 1900, except for burials in existing family vaults. The parish school struggled against the competition from three local Anglican schools,  until  it  was  closed  in  1898.  Fr  Boone  made  numerous  additions  to  the church, including eight stained glass windows in the nave and the chapel (two by I. Daniel of Paris, and six by Hardman), one window in the sanctuary, an organ gallery, a large statue of St Peter, five other statues, the communion rails, and new seats by the Misses Butler. He also supervised (and mostly funded) the arrangement and colouring of the high altar and Stations (later replaced), and the painting of four panels in the old reredos by a Prix de Rome artist in Paris.

Father Boone, while priest at Chiselhurst, inherited an important collection of correspondence between Victor Hugo and Louise Jung (or Young) on Louise's death. Louise had visited Victor Hugo in Guernsey and was a friend and admirer of George Métivier. [DAB]

Abbé Edouard Baste

Abbé Baste was a venerable French priest who spent his life in England. He died in Southampton, at the maison de retraite run by the Franciscan sisters. Bourde de la Rogerie saw him in Southampton in 1922. Abbé Baste told Bourde de la Rogerie:

J’allai pendant ses vacances remplacer le prêtre français de Guernesey. Victor Hugo envoyait volontiers des fleurs de son jardin, des palmes de sa serre pour orner l’église: mais de cette église il ne franchissait jamais le seuil. J’allai lui presenter mes hommages. Il me reçut avec une courtoisie exquise. Je l’ai vu plusieurs fois.

Un jour, à propos du mois de mai, le mois de Marie, il me dit: 'Savez-vous que je m’appelle Marie? Mon nom est Victor-Marie. Ma mere voulut que je m’appelle Marie. Je dis tous les jours un Ave Maria. C’est une promesse que je fis il y a bien des années à ma mere et je n’y manqué jamais.' (Bourde de la Rogerie, p.15).

[During his holidays I went to take the place of the French priest in Guernsey. Victor Hugo spontaneously sent flowers from his garden, and palms from his greenhouse, to decorate the church: but he never crossed the threshold of this church. I went to him to pay my respects. He received me with exquisite courtesy. I saw him several times. One day, in connection with the month of May, Mary’s month, he said to me: ‘Do you know that I am called Marie? My name is Victor-Marie. My mother wished that I be called Marie. Everyday I say an Ave Maria. It is a promise that I made many years ago to my mother and I never fail.’] Bourde de la Rogerie found that this confidence 'might seem improbable' (‘peut paraître invraisemblable’). ‘I report the words of Abbe Baste without comment. I rapidly committed them to writing.’