Cheverus, Jean Louis Lefebvre de
CHEVERUS, JEAN LOUIS LEFEBVRE DE
First bishop of boston, Mass., bishop of Montauban, France, and cardinal archbishop of Bordeaux; b. Mayenne, France, Jan. 28, 1768; d. Bordeaux, July 19, 1836. He was the eldest of six children of Jean Vincent and Anne Charlotte (Lemarchand) Lefebvre de Cheverus. Educated first at the local collège of Mayenne, he was awarded a scholarship in 1781 for Louis-le-Grand in Paris. He subsequently entered Saint-Magloire Seminary and was ordained in Paris on Dec. 18, 1790, just as the french revolution was gathering momentum. Returning to Mayenne he became (1791) an assistant to his uncle Louis René de Cheverus, pastor of Notre Dame de Mayenne. He refused to take the oath required by the civil constitution of the clergy and fled to England in 1792. He first taught French and mathematics in a Protestant school in Wallingford and offered Mass at Overy until he learned enough English to serve a congregation. In 1794 he founded Tottenham Chapel, one of three émigré foundations in the London suburbs that endured.
In 1796 he went to Boston at the invitation of Francis A. Matignon, pastor of Holy Cross Church. Submitting to the authority of Bp. John Carroll, he was first destined for the Detroit mission, but Matignon's protests retained him for the Boston area. In Maine he did yeoman service among the scattered white Catholics and the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes, receiving for his missionary efforts among the Native Americans an annual stipend from the state of Massachusetts. Owing to the prejudice against Catholic clergy in New England, he was brought to court in 1800 to 1801 in both civil and criminal actions for having officiated at the marriage of a Maine couple, but was exonerated in both suits. His labors in Boston won the affection of Protestants and Catholics alike, particularly after his fearless and charitable efforts during the yellow fever epidemic of 1798. He was instrumental in the conversion of Elizabeth Bayley Seton, of New York; Dr. Stephen C. Blyth, of Salem; Thomas Walley, of Boston; Calvin White, of Connecticut; and Daniel Barber, of Vermont. His defense of the Church against an attack by John Lowell in the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review in 1807 earned him the respect and lifelong friendship of Anthology Club members Harrison Gray Otis, Josiah Quincy, John Kirkland, and Theodore Lyman. To the club's Athenaeum Library, he left his personal library on leaving Boston.
When Boston was created a diocese in 1808 he was named first bishop and was consecrated in Baltimore on Nov. 1, 1810. During his American episcopate (1810–23) he traveled ceaselessly, "more priest than bishop," in the pastoral care of a diocese that included all of New England. A fine preacher, he graced the pulpits of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore on his wider travels. In 1815 he dedicated old St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. In Boston he founded an Ursuline convent (1817) and a second Catholic church, St. Augustine's (1819). His greatest contribution was fostering genuinely friendly relations between the Catholic minority and the non-Catholic majority. Protestant ministers, notably William Ellery channing, Edward Everett, and Thaddeus M. Harris, remained his warm friends for life. When in 1823 Louis XVIII summoned Cheverus back to France, 226 Protestants framed a petition to the king pleading that Cheverus be left in Boston, saying, "We hold him to be a blessing and a treasure in our social community which we cannot part with." Among the signers were Elbridge Gerry, Daniel Webster, Josiah Quincy, and John Lowell.
Returning to France he became bishop of Montauban, a strong Protestant city, rebuilding from 1824 to 1826 a diocese that had suffered the ravages of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era. In 1826 he was made archbishop of Bordeaux and peer of France, serving in the upper chamber of the French legislature from 1827 to 1830. In 1828 Charles X made him councilor of state and in 1830 conferred the office of Commander of the Order of the Holy Spirit. In 1829 Cheverus instituted the first retirement plan for the clergy in the diocese of Bordeaux. Although devoted to the Bourbon monarchy, he nevertheless became a supporter of the Orleanist regime after the July Revolution of 1830. On the recommendation of Louis Philippe he was named cardinal in the consistory of Feb. 1, 1836, with the king himself conferring the red hat in the Tuileries Chapel on March 9, 1836. One of his last pastoral acts was the creation of an association for the care of 167 children left fatherless by a fishing disaster at the Teste in April 1836.
Bibliography: a. j. hamon, Life of the Cardinal Cheverus, Archbishop of Bordeaux, tr. r. m. walsh (Philadelphia 1839). a. m. melville, Jean Lefebvre de Cheverus, 1768–1836 (Milwaukee 1958). w. m. whitehill, A Memorial to Bishop Cheverus (Boston 1951).
[a. m. melville]