Cardinal; b. Ajaccio, Corsica, Jan. 3, 1763; d. Rome, May 13, 1839. His father, François, a native of Basel, was a military officer in the service of Geneva. Through his mother, Angela Pietrasanta, he was the half brother of Letizia Ramolino, and uncle of her children napoleon and Joseph bonaparte, who were his companions in youth. A priest in 1785, he was archdeacon of Ajaccio at the outbreak of the french revolution, and took the oath of obedience to the civil constitution of the clergy (1791). Expelled by his fellow countrymen, he took refuge in France (1793), renounced the ecclesiastical state, and devoted himself for eight years to profitable business enterprises. Napoleon, general of the French army in Italy, helped promote his fortune. When the first consul reestablished Catholicism in France by the concordat of 1801, Fesch obtained absolution (April 1802) and reentered the Church. His nephew had him named archbishop of Lyons (July 1802), and then ambassador to the Holy See (1803). Pius VII created him cardinal (1803). He resided in Rome from May 1803 until April 1806. He was the one who induced Pius VII to come to Paris for the imperial consecration and coronation of Napoleon I (Dec. 2, 1804). On the eve of the consecration, he officiated at the marriage of Napoleon and Josephine, but later he pronounced the union null when the emperor decided (1809) to marry Marie Louise of Austria. When he failed to convince the Holy See that it should be part of the Great Empire of the West, he was recalled as ambassador.
He then dwelt at the French court (1806–12) as Grand Almoner and counselor in ecclesiastical affairs. The role of mediator was forced on him during the differences between the emperor and the pope, causing him to be accused in Paris of being complaisant to the Vatican, and at the Vatican, of gallicanism. Napoleon confided to Fesch the presidency of the National Council convened in Paris (1811) by the emperor. But, discontent with the weakness of Fesch, and with the resistance of the majority of the bishops, Napoleon brutally dismissed him. Fesch had to return to his diocese, where he had scarcely ever resided, although he had confided it to the care of excellent vicars-general. Thereupon a veritable religious renaissance followed, with six seminaries erected, numerous vocations, and even new congregations. But Napoleon became irritated at the ultramontane and royalist opposition to him among Catholics, and raged against ecclesiastics who were partisans of Pius VII. A persecution seemed imminent when Napoleon's military defeats led to the invasion of French soil. Before the allies reached Lyons, Fesch had fled to seek refuge with the pope himself.
The cardinal had to pass his last 25 years in Rome, leading a pious and retired existence. Pius VII and Leo XII took away his jurisdiction over his diocese, but he persisted in retaining the title archbishop of Lyons. His last will disposed of important legacies to his diocese, where he was generally forgotten by the time of his death.
Bibliography: f. masson, Napoleon et sa famille, 13 v. (Paris 1897–1919), hostile. a. latreille, Napoléon et le Saint-Siège: l'ambassade du Cardinal Fesch à Rome (Paris 1935).