Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
Can a cop killer become a saint? The late archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, thought so. In 1987, he opened an archdiocesan inquiry into the life of Jacques Fesch, beginning the formal process that could lead to a convicted murderer who was guillotined in 1957 being declared a saint of the Catholic Church.
Fesch’s case has generated some interest in France, if Amazon.com’s French site is any indication. You’ll find a selection of a few dozen books about the repentant felon, including editions of his letters from death row. Except for about half a dozen titles, all of these books are out of print. In the United States, Fesch is virtually unknown. And if the comments box of The Association of the Friends of Jacques Fesch is any indication, Fesch’s cause has made no progress in his homeland.
While there are French Catholics who find the story of Fesch’s conversion inspiring, not everyone in France is a Fesch devotee. A chief of a French police union asked a pointed question: “Where are we headed, if we start beatifying criminals?” Another police union official warned that judges and prison wardens could expect to hear from condemned criminals who claimed, falsely, to have experienced a religious conversation after sentencing in order to generate sympathy and escape punishment. The editor of a French newspaper proposed, with more than a trace of irony, that Fesch be named the patron saint of gunmen, and that in the future armed robbers and killers could hope for a lighter sentence if they kept a holy medal of “St.” Jacques in the same holster where they packed their Magnum 357. Shortly after Cardinal Lustiger announced his intention to open the Fesch cause, the daughter of the police officer Fesch killed had a private meeting with the archbishop. No statement of their discussion has ever been released, but if the poor woman had spoken in support of the cause, you can bet the press office of the Archdiocese of Paris would have shouted it from the towers of Notre Dame.
Jacques Fesch was the wastrel son of a wealthy family; a chronic adulterer who divorced his wife, then abandoned her and their daughter; a playboy who produced an illegitimate child, a son, whom he also abandoned.
His father, a patient man, used his influence to land one job after another for his son. Fesch failed at them all. At age 24, he decided he needed to make a complete break from the life he had known. He fantasized about buying a yacht and sailing to the South Pacific where he would live a Gauguinesque life of perfect hedonism. Of course, he had no money and his parents refused to bankroll his scheme. Undeterred, on February 25, 1954, just as Paris’ evening rush hour began, Fesch entered Alexandre Silberstein’s currency shop, grabbed 300,000 francs from the til, pistol whipped the proprietor, then bolted out the door.
Silberstein stumbled into the street after him, shouting for help. Jean Vergne, a 35-year-old police officer, intervened. He drew his revolver and ordered Fesch to surrender. Instead, Fesch drew his pistol and shot Officer Vergne three times through the heart. Vergne, a widower with a 4-year-old daughter, was dead before he hit the pavement.
At his trial Fesch was surly and unrepentant, which made it easy for the court to find him guilty and sentence him to the guillotine. Then, one year and three days after he gunned down Officer Vergne, as he sat on death row, Fesch had a forceful, even violent conversion experience. First, the realization of everything he had done crashed down upon him. Then, as Fesch put it, “the spirit of the Lord seized me by the throat.” From that moment Fesch was a changed man. He begged the prison chaplain to hear his confession. He began to pray. He tried to repair the breach with his family.
God may have forgiven Fesch, but the state was not so lenient. On October 1, 1957, a troop of prison guards led Fesch to the guillotine in the prison yard. His last words before the blade fell were, “Holy Virgin, have pity on me.”
Some readers may be shocked that someday there may be a St. Jacques Fesch. Yes, for most of his life he was despicable human being. Yes, he killed a man and left a four-year-old child an orphan. Yet, on the calendar of the saints you will find other men and women whose lives were far from exemplary, yet who were touched by God’s grace, which gave them the strength and courage to turn their lives around.
Fesch’s conversion came late, but not as late as that of St. Dismas, the Good Thief, who was crucified with Christ. As he hung dying on his cross, Dismas repented and begged Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Our Lord replied, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
Then there is St. Callixtus, an embezzler, a brawler, a twice-convicted felon. Yet Callixtus repented, became a priest, was elected pope, and died a martyr.
St. Camillus de Lellis was a mercenary, a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking cardsharp and con man. For six years St. Margaret of Cortona lived as a nobleman’s mistress and bore him a child out of wedlock. St. Moses the Ethiopian led a gang of cutthroats in the Egyptian desert. St. Hippolytus set himself up as the first antipope. And St. Pelagia was the porn queen of 5th-century Antioch; her contemporary, St. John Chrysostom, recalled, “Nothing was more vile than she was, when she was on the stage.” Perhaps the worst is St. Olga. When her husband, the prince of Kiev, was assassinated by a rival tribe, Olga embarked on a program of revenge that bordered on the genocidal. Some of her enemies she burned, others she buried alive, and the survivors she sold into slavery.
What makes these saints different from Fesch? I suggest it is time. Centuries have passed since Moses the Ethiopian was raising hell in the wastelands of Egypt and Margaret of Cortona’s scandalous life made her family reluctant to show themselves in public. But the crimes of Jacques Fesch are still raw, painful for the family he deserted and agony for the daughter of the slain Officer Vergne.
Years ago I gave a talk at parishes and groups of Catholic college students on sinners who had become saints. I’d just learned about the Fesch case, so I made it part of my presentation, and it always generated the most intense discussion. Usually, audiences tended to be willing to give Fesch at least some benefit of the doubt. But by and large, most of the people who heard his story were suspicious. He had mocked religion all his life, couldn’t his “conversion” be a fraud, one final shot at Christians whom he had always considered to be fools? It made for very lively discussions. And to this day, I’m not sure which side I’m on.
Who among us would not hope that Fesch’s repentence was sincere, that his soul was saved? But it would have been simple for him to gule the prison chaplain, his devoutly Catholic defense attorney, his family, none of whom wanted to believe he was an irredeemable villain. As a man raised in a Catholic household, in a Catholic society, Fesch would have known how to play the role of penitent.
My hunch is that is why Fesch’s cause has stalled. Who can prove what is really going on in a man’s heart? If the movement begun by Cardinal Lustiger falls by the wayside, it does not really matter. If Jacques Fesch truly repented, he is in Heaven, where all the saved are saints.
Sometimes, living in hope means living with uncertainty. I’ve been researching the Fesch case for some time, and I can find no hint that anyone has attributed a miracle to his intercession, and that miracle is what the cause needs to move Fesch to the being declared “Blessed.” So far, no such miracle has been reported, which makes me wonder if there is a reason why, in the matter of Jacques Fesch, Heaven is silent.