National Catholic Register


On Death Row, Peace and Light Came to Him

BY Mary Thomas Noble OP

August 24-30, 1997 Issue | Posted 8/24/97 at 2:00 PM


Light Over the Scaffold and Cell 18: Prison Letters of Jacques Fesch

presented by Augustin Michel-Lemonnier

New York: Alba House, 1996, $12.95)

On Monday evening, Sept. 30, knowing that he would be guillotined the following morning, Jacques went to bed, slept, awoke during the night (the guard on duty gave me this information) and asked what time it was.

“Three o'clock in the morning.”

He then asked for a light, “because I have to get ready at once.” He got up, made his bed, and took up his missal. This is how I found him on entering his cell at 5:30…. He had refused the traditional glass of rum and the cigarette…. I heard his confession for the last time. His communion, which followed, was very moving. I spoke briefly with him. His answers were calm, his peace profound. Then he fell silent….

“I faced him when they bound his hands, so that I might comfort him. The executioners had him mount the scaffold. At once, Jacques said to me, “The crucifix, Father, the crucifix,” and kissed it many times. These were his last words…. He died a great Christian.

THIS REPORT of Father Devoyod OP, chaplain of the Santé prison in Paris, brings vividly to mind, on two scores, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Jacques Fesch, who during three-and-a-half years of solitary confinement, had come to know and love Thérèse, was executed on her feast day, Oct. 1, 1957. And his last act was to kiss the crucifix many times—the very sign Thérèse had asked of God when praying, as a young child, for “her first sinner.”

Who was Jacques Fesch?

On a cold, rainy night in February of 1954 Fesch, husband, father, and jobless ne'er do well—but with no prior criminal record—assaulted a money changer in order to rob him. The attempt failed, but shortly after, followed by a pursuing crowd and seized with panic, Fesch reached for the gun he was foolishly carrying and shot at random, instantly killing a policeman. From there his route was simple and direct—to prison, to solitary confinement, to the scaffold, and beyond.

We are fortunate to have landmarks along this route. The prison letters of Jacques Fesch make for extraordinary reading. Under maximum security in solitary isolation, he spent much of the time of enforced idleness writing to his mother; his wife, Pierrette; his mother-in-law; his lawyer, Baudet; Father Thomas, a Benedictine monk who had been a childhood friend of Pierrette; his daughter Veronica (she was six when he was executed), and a spate of other correspondents.

The letters reveal the obvious victim of a wretched family background complete with hatred, infighting, and emotional deprivation; a high school dropout; a fallen-away Catholic; a veteran of World War II, unable on his return from the front to piece together his broken marriage; and at 24 a disenchanted atheist. We follow him through the prison years as he gropes his way inch-by-inch up from the slough of despair to the splendor of his terrifying death, to disappear finally over the edge of bliss.

It is strong stuff. To be quite honest, it is the stuff of life in this century. Prison life? The futile cruelty of our modern penal system comes through undeniably. Futile, because the result in most cases is not correction but moral degeneration.

“In comparison with your life,” Fesch wrote to his Benedictine friend, “the rules here are less strict, except for the perpetual solitude and being confined within four walls. It's hard to get used to it. Without God, the cell would be such a pit of darkness and despair that a person could easily rot away or else turn into a wild beast.” And two years later on the same theme: “You would have to be here to understand how disastrous incarceration can be for a person. With time, a man may acquire the external appearance of submission, but all the while a frightful gangrene is spreading in his soul. He is like a wildcat watching for one false step on the part of his trainer, and ready to leap…”

In this ‘pit of darkness,’ however, conversion was at work in Fesch's soul.

In this “pit of darkness,” however, conversion was at work in Fesch's soul.

In this “pit of darkness,” however, conversion was at work in Fesch's soul. He was moving toward the light. Urged and encouraged by the chaplain and his lawyer, he read the Scriptures and pored over lives of the saints, his special friend Thérèse among them. He tried with all his puny might to recapture his faith. He even prayed, “ever so little” he admitted. And then, toward the end of his first year in prison, “within the space of a few hours I came into possession of faith, with absolute certitude. I believed…. Grace had come to me. Agreat joy flooded my soul, and above all, a deep peace. In a few instants, everything had become clear.”

This was the beginning of a spiritual journey which led Fesch through growth, purification, inner darkness, temptation, anguish, fear, still deeper darkness, and on to “marvelous hours” when, writhing on his cross, he could all but see the crucified one look toward him, could almost hear him say, “This day….”

The neophyte's faith awakened a quality of humor special to Jacques, the humor he should have had as a child, now liberated. “We are allowed an hour's walk each morning from ten to eleven, with our hands chained,” he wrote to his mother-in-law whom he always addressed as “Dear Mama.” “In fact whenever we leave our cells we have to trail this hardware around. We're apt to end up with a watchdog complex.”

A few months before his death, he writes to “Mama” of a visit with his wife: “Yesterday I saw Pierrette, and yes, she gave me a hug for you (figuratively, alas) and also showed me the pretty little silver bracelet which shimmers like gold.” (The bracelet was Jacque's gift to his wife, which he had promised her before they had separated, and which he had recently commissioned his mother-in-law to purchase for her.) “She is pleased with it and plays with it as Veronica does with her rattle. So we both had our chains, similar in appearance, but I, being more spoiled, had two of them.”

The family he had loved “too late” was never far from his thoughts, and how these thoughts contrast with the common image of a criminal. One month before his death he wrote, “I received Veronica's little locks. What beautiful hair she has! So fine, so blond, so soft to touch! I really feel as if I had my little girl in my cell. Something alive of hers, that I can touch now…”

The new tenderness of human love was the outer face of unsuspected spiritual depth. Perhaps Fesch expressed his truest self in these lines to his mother-in-law: “I am certainly going through a strange agony in the preparation for this bloody and horrible farce [his execution]. Well, if I tremble at it, it is not out of physical fear but because I understand better now all the purity of Christ as contrasted with my meanness. In spite of all that is going to happen to me, I shall only be saved by grace, grace alone.”

At the end, mercifully, unshakable peace was given him. Two days before his execution he wrote to Father Thomas: “No harm shall come to me, and I shall be carried straight to paradise with all the gentleness bestowed upon a newborn child.”

One would like to see this life of Jacques Fesch blown up on a cosmic screen, as a symbol of the gargantuan chiaroscuro we live in. Its movement from despair to glorious ignominy to unimaginable glory proves, beyond a doubt, that hope can still have the last word.

Dominican Sister Mary Thomas Noble is a member of Our Lady of the Rosary Monastery, Buffalo, N.Y.