The Killer, the Confinement, and the Conversion

“Within the space of a few hours, I came into possession of faith, with absolute certainty.”

(photo: Register Files)

In April 1957, a French criminal, Jacques Fesch, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

Fesch’s period of confinement before his execution was to prove a moment of grace, however.

In February 1954, Fesch had entered the premises of a moneychanger in Paris. The young man had bludgeoned the merchant with a revolver. As he had done so, the gun discharged injuring the attacker. The older man was left lying stunned and bloodied as his assailant fled carrying a large sum of money. Police gave chase. The young man was apprehended but not before he had shot and killed one of the police officers pursuing him.

Fesch was taken to La Santé Prison and placed in solitary confinement while awaiting trial. With only an hour’s recreation — a walk around the prison courtyard — his life was to be his cell, and governed by the discipline of the prison regime. Soon after his arrival, the prison chaplain visited him. Fesch informed the priest:  “I have no faith,” and politely dismissed him.

The court process began to grind into action, and Fesch was appointed an advocate who would be his legal representative. His name was Baudet, and he was a devout Catholic. Fesch was intrigued by this lawyer who combined professionalism with a concern for his imprisoned client, and an interest, and fear for Fesch’s immortal soul..

To be in solitary confinement for over three years might drive anyone mad; in Fesch’s case, it brought him to his senses. This did not happen overnight, but gradually, a perceptible change documented in his prison writings. By 1957, there sat in the same cell not the apathetic youth who had in 1954 dreamed big dreams whilst sleepwalking into disaster, but a young man who was waking to another reality — a reality hitherto unseen —  of which Fesch had never dreamt.

For Fesch, while awaiting what would be his execution, there came to him in his cell a “liberation.” All his despair, anger and bitterness began to subside as, in their place, he found himself being gently filled with mercy, forgiveness, and love. The process had begun in prison in October 1954. He had, read a book about Our Lady. The change affected by March 1955 is documented in this extract from his writing:

At the end of my first year in prison, a powerful wave of emotion swept over me, causing deep and brutal suffering. Within the space of a few hours, I came into possession of faith, with absolute certainty. I believed … Grace came to me. A great joy flooded my soul, and above all a deep peace.

From then on, he had to come to terms with his own sinfulness and the harm he had inflicted upon others. Alone, he was surrounded by a silence that both helped and, at times, terrified him; there was also a “darkness,” always close at hand that attempted to pull him into despair. The few visits that he was allowed — from family, wife and child — punctuated this, even if the grille of the prison visitor-room threw permanent shadows across the faces of those sitting opposite him.

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Jacque Fesch was born at St. Germain-en-Laye on April 6, 1930. His family home was as miserable as it was outwardly respectable. Fesch was to call his family life “utter wretchedness.” Eventually, his parents were to separate.

Fesch’s schooling was nominally Catholic, and nominally educational. During a period of National Service in the military, he was to marry his then pregnant girlfriend, Pierrette Polack. At the age of 21, he had a wife and daughter for whom to provide. His wife was later to tell of her husband’s sense of personal failure, and how this permeated, and destroyed, everything between them. It wasn’t long before Fesch had abandoned his wife and child. By October 1953, he was back living with his mother in a home that had grown no less depressing than when he was a child.

Fesch decided that to escape from all his troubles what was needed was a yacht; with that, he thought he would set sail for faraway Polynesia. He visited a ship builder and had plans drawn up for such a vessel. There was only one thing he lacked, however: 2,000 francs. His dream had all the facile illusion of an adolescent fantasy, but with one difference: Fesch was as resolved, as well as desperate. By the end, the dream had turned to obsession, and a deadly one at that, not least for the policeman who, because of it, was to die.

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In the interminable hours of darkness in his prison cell, the now devout Fesch tried to prayer. His day would start with praying the words of Holy Mass from his Missal in the early morning light. He had been given a Bible. A book previously unknown to him, he was to study it like a cloistered contemplative; in fact, he was to joke in his letters that his prison life had become little different from that of a Carthusian.

It was in his letters that the fruit of the fundamental change that was taking place in Fesch revealed itself. Conscious that time was running out as his day of execution draw nearer, he wrote of the joy of finding Christ — echoing St. Paul, and decrying as worthless all that the world had to offer. Above all, however, he was concerned for the conversion of his loved ones: his wife and child, his father — and for the salvation of his mother now dead.

By the end of his three years’ imprisonment, Fesch was to write that he would change nothing of what he had suffered in solitary confinement. He knew the wrong he had committed, and accepted the sentence handed down by the court. But, he saw things more clearly still — he saw all that had transpired as the Hand of Providence. Only through tragedy, one in which he acknowledged that he was the chief player, had he come to witness the Grace of God enter his life, shattering the illusions that had captivated him and that had then wrecked not just his life but the lives of so many others.

The night before his execution, alone in his cell, a final combat was to take place. Fesch wrote the following:

Suddenly the thought comes: no matter what I do, Paradise is not for me! Satan is behind this. He wants to discourage me. I throw myself at Mary’s feet …

I am going to recite my Rosary and the prayers for the dying; then I shall entrust my soul to God…  But, good Jesus, help me!

On Oct. 1, the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the prisoner awoke in the middle of the night. He asked a guard what time it was: 3 a.m. came the reply. The prisoner then made his bed, before sitting with his open missal in hand to await the arrival of the prison chaplain, who duly came at 5:30 a.m. Fesch then made his last Confession, and received Holy Communion.

The two men spoke briefly. Fesch calmly told the priest that he offered his life for the conversion of his father, for those whom he loved, and for the man he had killed. Soon after, those tasked to execute the sentence of the court entered the cell, and the hands of the prisoner were tied behind his back before, with the priest following, he was led to the waiting guillotine. When Fesch was bidden to mount the scaffold, he turned to the priest with his last words: “The crucifix, Father, … the crucifix.” It was offered to him, and he kissed it.

The cause for Jacques Fesch’s beatification was formally opened in 1993.