‘A life of sacrificial charity’
When Burlington Bishop Louis deGoësbriand died at the age of 83 in 1899, it ended not only an era of building a Diocese, it also ended an era of sacrificial charity from the man whose highest episcopal ambition was to die in poverty, according to Sister Joseph, the Mother Superior of the Providence Orphan Asylum on North Avenue in Burlington, where the retired bishop lived out his last years — like one of his orphans.
Sister Joseph replied when asked which specific organization benefitted from his charity:
“No one knows. He never told anyone about his work of this kind. When he gave money to charities he kept the matter secret; but we all know that he contributed much of the money that helped to build up the churches in this Diocese. He gave liberally to the building fund of the Providence orphan asylum and much of his wealth went to help support priests whose parishes were too poor to sustain them. He also sent money to help build churches in other Dioceses. He was a very generous man. At different times I have told him about poor families in the city who were without food or coal in the winter. He invariably gave me money to supply their needs.
One night about 10 years ago, a telegram was received at the episcopal residence. It was from a man who was dying, 18 miles from Burlington. The priests at the bishop’s house had all retired for the night. He immediately asked a young student who was visiting him to get a team and a carriage to take him to the bedside of the dying man. He was 78 years old at that time. He never would ask the clergy to do things that he could do himself.”
At Bishop deGoësbriand’s death, Bishop John Michaud (his successor) and Sister Joseph found only $2.12 and a few clothes among the bishop’s personal effects. The saintly bishop had poured himself out like a libation; a sacrificial offering to the Lord. The testimony of his charity was as much a countercultural witness in the 19th century as it is in the 21stcentury.
Among Bishop deGoësbriand’s many literary achievements in popular catechesis, one of his major works was the translation into English of the Jesuit Father Pierre Chaignon’s “Meditations for the Use of the Secular Clergy” (“Méditations Sacerdotales”) which appeared in the first English edition in 1891. In this meditation, Father Chaignon writes:
“In this greedy, calculating age of ours, when men rush on in pursuit of wealth, hardly knowing any other code than that of material interest, nothing but the well-known disinterestedness of the clergy can remedy this evil and overcome that low tendency.”
A life of sacrificial charity can touch the lives of thousands of people during one’s lifetime and after. Bishop deGoësbriand’ssacrifices were a bright light among those who knew him, and that distant light still guides us today — 124 years later — like a candle in the night.
Chaignon, S.J., Father Pierre. “Meditations for the Use of the Secular Clergy.” Bishop Louis de Goësbriand, trans. Benziger Brothers: New York, 1906, p. 395.
Harlow, Father Lance W. “Vermont’s First Catholic Bishop: The Life of Bishop Louis de Goësbriand 1816-1899.” L. Brown and Sons Printing: Barre, Vt., 2001, p.109
—Father Lance Harlow is pastor of Corpus Christi Parish based in St. Johnsbury.
—Originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.