Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel used to be noted for its penthouse night club called the “St. Regis Roof.” What connection did St. Regis, whoever he was, have with a posh night spot? Absolutely nothing but the name. The real St. Regis was a missionary and social reformer whose life was as far removed as possible from the world of show biz.
John Francis Regis was a native of Narbonne in southern France. At the age of 16 this son of devout parents entered the Jesuits. He was ordained a priest in 1631. At that time the French Jesuits had just begun their great and difficult missions to the Indians in Canada and the United States. Father Regis desired with all his heart to be sent to New France and perhaps to become a martyr. He asked, but his superiors said no, and assigned him instead to preach a religious revival in a southern France that had all but lost its Catholic Identity. Regis accepted this appointment as coming from the hand of Providence, and he was correct. He succeeded magnificently in restoring Catholic practice; and in the process he gained a reputation for holiness throughout France. (Happily a Jesuit mission to the Iroquois was named after him: the St. Regis Reservation on the New York-Quebec border, founded around 1752.)
It was early recognized that John Francis had an astounding talent for effective preaching. With that gift went the deeper gifts of piety, complete unselfishness and utter dedication to his task, come what might. When critics said, “you are trying too hard,” he replied, “If my efforts do no more than to hinder one sin, I shall consider them well expended!”
In his search for straying sheep, this shepherd would visit the remotest hamlets in the severest weather, thus inspiring the same sort of courage in his more timid fellow-missionaries. Thus, one pastor recalled the impact the saint had in his rural parish: “After the mission, I did not recognize my own parishioners, so completely had he reformed them … No cold, no snow-blocked path, no mountains, no rain-swelled torrent could stop him …I have seen him stop in the middle of a forest to satisfy a crowd who wished to hear him. I have seen him stand all day on a heap of snow at the top of a mountain instructing and preaching, and then spend the whole night hearing confessions.”
Gradually the work of Fr. Regis reached out to people of all classes. He converted a number of Huguenots (as the French Protestants were called). Whenever he discovered social needs, he made provision for them. With the help of free-will donations and volunteer workers, he set up a large system of social services: prison visitors; sick-nurses; guardians of the poor. There was a granary for the hungry and a refuge for women who had fallen into sinful ways. Regis had to suffer slander from some enemies; but most people recognized him for what he was. “We are waiting for the saint,” they would say, as they looked forward to his visits. God also rewarded his activities with miracles. He restored sight to a man and a boy who were blind; and, when the wheat in the granary ran out, it was three times replenished miraculously, to the utter amazement of the woman in charge.
In December, 1640, Fr. John Francis was invited to give a retreat in the town of LaLouvesc. The weather was very bad, but he and his companion set out nonetheless. They lost their way, and, as a result of exposure, the missionary developed pleurisy. Still, he forged ahead to his destination and struggled through the mission over Christmas. But that was his last retreat. He died there on December 31, aged forty. His tomb at LaLouvesc is still a center for pilgrimages.
Almost single-handed, St. John Francis Regis had turned the tide of dechristianization in southern France. He set a marvelous example for his own contemporaries and for those to come. It was at LaLouvesc in 1526 that the first retreat house of the Cenacle nuns was opened. And twenty years before that, St. John Vianney had made to St. Regis’s tomb the pilgrimage to which he attributed his own vocation to be an outstanding rural pastor.
The Second Vatican Council has given us a wonderful new program to follow. What we need now is a few St. Regises to thrill us into applying it.
–Father Robert F. McNamara