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Joseph René Vilatte (24 January 1854 - 8 July 1929) was, at different times, a Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Russian Orthodox and Jacobite. He is best known, however, for his activities as an Old Catholic cleric.
Early life and conversion to Roman Catholicism
Vilatte was born in Paris to French parents hailing from the Maine region and who belonged to the Petite Eglise, a sect formed by so-called rigorist Catholics angry with the Holy See and the dioceses for signing or accepting the Concordat of 1801, which in their eyes was a betrayal of the Catholic Church and an heretical liberal compromise with the French revolutionaries of 1789. The Petit Église sect had all but died out, and Joseph was baptized as an infant by a layman, as the sect had become priestless. His mother died soon after his birth, and he was raised in a Parisian orphanage operated by the Brothers of the Christian Schools after having been conditionally baptized anew. He finally converted to Roman Catholicism and was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church in 1867.
Following Napoleon III's Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Uprising of the Commune of Paris, Vilatte decided to emigrate to Canada, where near Ottawa, he worked as a catechist in a small school. After two years, he returned to France, but being informed that he would need to serve in the armed forces for seven years, he moved to Belgium, joining the Congregation of the Christian Brothers at Namur. However, he decided to try for the secular priesthood, and once again emigrated to Canada in 1876, principally in order to avoid arrest and extradition to France for dodging the draft.
In Canada he studied with the Congregation of the Holy Cross Fathers at the College of St. Laurent in Montreal, until, about three years later, he met a former Roman Catholic priest turned Presbyterian minister, Charles Chiniquy, who persuaded him to turn Protestant. Chiniquy introduced Vilatte to a Protestant pastor who helped him to get admission to McGill University. After two years, however, Vilatte once again reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church and entered the Clerics of Saint Viator at Bourbonnais, Illinois. Here he once again met Chiniquy, who told him of Franco-Belgian Catholics (Walloon settlers) in North-East Wisconsin who wished to integrate with the American mainstream as Protestants. Chiniquy also introduced Vilatte to another former Roman Catholic, Hyacinth Loyson, formerly a Carmelite who had been excommunicated in 1869 after marrying an American widow and founding the "Gallican Catholic Church". Under the inspiration of Chiniquy and Loyson, Vilatte moved to the Green Bay area of Wisconsin as a Presbyterian minister.
Episcopalian and Old Catholic connections
However, he was not able to make much headway with the Franco-Belgian immigrants so, after a few months of trying and at the advice of Loyson, he turned to John Henry Hobart Brown, the Episcopalian Bishop of Fond du Lac for support. Vilatte suggested to Brown that his (Vilatte's) Presbyterian mission should be taken over by the Episcopalian Diocese of Fond du Lac as an Old Catholic outpost. Brown seized on this as a means of building a bridge with the Old Catholics in Europe and agreed to support Vilatte.
At the same time Loyson, who had migrated to France, wrote to Vilatte to come over and be ordained a priest by Eduard Herzog, the Old Catholic (Christkatholische) Bishop of Berne, Switzerland, as a first step in founding the Old Catholic Church in North America. With the support and encouragement of Brown and his fellow Episcopalian bishops, Vilatte then traveled to France where Herzog ordained him to the diaconate and priesthood on 6 and 7 June 1885.
In 1888 Brown, who had supported Vilatte morally and financially, died and was succeeded by Charles C. Grafton. Grafton, unlike Brown, did not favor Vilatte and conflicts soon arose. In order to correct the canonical situation created by Brown, Grafton demanded that Vilatte surrender ownership of his missions to the diocese which had paid for them in the first place; Vilatte complied in August 1890. Despite this, however, the relationship between the two deteriorated fast.
At the heart of the dispute was the conflicting vision for Vilatte's missions held by Vilatte and Grafton. Vilatte hoped that Grafton would continue Brown's policy of financing these missions in the hope of converting Roman Catholics to non-papalist Old Catholicism and of using these missions as a springboard to founding the Old Catholic Church in North America. Grafton, on the contrary, wished to integrate these missions into his Episcopalian diocese.
Adding to the dispute was Vilatte's refusal to break with the Franco-Belgians' adamant rejection of Anglican orders as invalid, while accepting the validity of Old Catholic orders; an attitude carried in from Roman Catholicism. Brown had been willing to countenance this but Grafton took this as an affront to the legitimacy of his own orders as a bishop.
In the meantime Herman Jan Heykamp, the head (archbishop) of the Ultrajectines in the Netherlands, hearing of Vilatte's difficulties with Grafton, wrote to him to disassociate himself from Episcopalians. In reply Vilatte asked whether the Ultrajectines would consecrate him as the Old Catholic bishop for North America. When Grafton was informed of these developments he wrote to the Ultrajectines that he would not oppose their consecrating Vilatte as a coadjutor Episcopalian bishop for the Fond du Lac diocese, but if Vilatte was consecrated as the Old Catholic bishop for North America, he (Grafton) would no longer support him and without his financial support Vilatte would be a nobody.
As the Ultrajectines of the Netherlands and the Old Catholics of Germany and Switzerland delayed answering Vilatte until they had met in their congress at Cologne, Vilatte next sought to affiliate himself with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). To this end he began correspondence with ROC Bishop Vladimir of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. He also opened negotiations to reconcile with the Roman Catholic Church. When Grafton learned of these developments he published warnings to Episcopalians to stop supporting Vilatte. He also demanded from Vilatte that he cease operating from the Old Catholic missions owned by the Episcopalian diocese. In response Vilatte announced in September 1890 that he was severing relations with the Episcopal Church and founded a new independent mission near Green Bay.
Russian Orthodox Church connection and Jacobite consecration
Probably due to Grafton's letters, the Old Catholic Congress of Cologne informed Vilatte that they would not consecrate him as the Old Catholic bishop for North America. Isolated by both the Episcopalians and the Old Catholics-Ultrajectines, Vilatte turned once again to the ROC Bishop Vladimir of Alaska who, in May 1891, publicly announced that Vilatte was accepted by the ROC as a priest and under its jurisdiction.
At the same time an associate of Vilatte, another former Roman Catholic cleric and missionary in British India, Augustine Harding, advised Vilatte to seek consecration from a church recently formed by former Goan Catholics in Goa and British India under the leadership of Fr. Antonio Francisco Xavier Alvares and Dr. Lisboa e Pinto; Alvares being consecrated as Mar Julious I, the Latin Rite Jacobite bishop for this sect, by the Jacobites of Antioch and the Malabar Coast. Collecting $225 and being elected bishop by his small flock (according to the records of the Episcopalian Diocese of Fond du Lac, Vilatte had about 500 adherents), Vilatte sailed to Colombo in Ceylon where Alvares and two other Jacobite bishops consecrated him with the permission of the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch as Mar Timotheous I, Jacobite Old Catholic Bishop of North America on 29 May 1892; Dr. Lisboa e Pinto, acting as the U.S. Consul, attested to the consecration. When news of this reached North America the Episcopal Church excommunicated Vilatte.
In 1893 Vilatte had a booth in the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago, although he had not been invited. Shortly thereafter, reduced to penury, Vilatte traveled the East Coast offering the sacraments to, and soliciting monetary aid from, Episcopalians and Romans Catholics, but was rebuffed; in some places he was driven away by the Franco-Belgian Catholics. Then he once again opened negotiations with the Roman Catholic Church for reconciliation. In March 1894 he approached Archbishop Satolli, the Apostolic Delegate to the USA, who wrote to the Bishop Messmer (Roman Catholic) of Green Bay that Vilatte was ready to reconcile. Three weeks later Vilatte himself wrote to Messmer that he was preparing his people for reconciliation. Further correspondence took place with Satolli and Messmer. In August 1894 Satolli advised Messmer to finance Vilatte's journey to Rome and that the Congregation Propaganda Fide (Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith or “Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide”) would refund him the money.
However, in spite of the offer of a journey to Rome at the expense of the Diocese of Green Bay or ‘‘Propaganda’’, Vilatte continued to waver. Matters dragged on for almost four years. Eventually both Archbishop Satolli and Bishop Messmer realized that Vilatte would not submit to Rome.
At this time Vilatte began his dalliance with Polish Roman Catholics who, dissatisfied with non-Polish Roman Catholic priests, sought to set up a schismatic Catholic church at the urgings of the priests Anthony Kazlowski and Francis Hodur, eventually founding the Polish National Catholic Church in the United States independent from Rome. In 1894 a Fr. Kolaszewski invited him to dedicate a church in Cleveland.
Bishop Messmer wrote to Archbishop Satolli: "For the present, he has an asylum among schismatic Poles, who will pay him court until he will be infatuated and foolish enough to consecrate one of them for the episcopate. Then they will cast him out."
Consecration of Kaminski and others
Anthony Kazlowski obtained consecration from the Dutch Ultrajectines (Old Catholics in Holland) on 17 November 1897. After Kazlowski's consecration, Vilatte was approached by a Father Stephen Kaminski, pastor of the Roman Catholic Parish church of the Holy Mother of the Rosary, Buffalo, New York, to raise him to the episcopate. This priest had failed to persuade the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht to raise him to the episcopate. It is rumored[who?] that Vilatte was paid $5,000 for this episcopal consecration and that the invitation stated that both James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop Martinelli, the Apostolic Delegate would assist in the ceremony. Vilatte arrived in Buffalo on 21 March 1898, and consecrated Kaminski. However, the new bishop fled the United States to Canada because of creditors. He was excommunicated by Rome and he abandoned Vilatte.
After the consecration in Buffalo, Vilatte sailed from New York to England, to meet-up with the Anglican-Benedictine Joseph Leycester Lyne (1837 - 1908) and his Llanthony Monastery which he founded in 1869 in the Honddu valley of the Black Mountains of South Wales; Lyne styled himself "Ignatius of Jesus, O.S.B." (Lyne's Llanthony Monastery must not be confused with the Catholic Llanthony Monastery suppressed by the Protestants, although they are near each other).
Vilatte arrived in England three months after the Kaminski consecration. Lyne was visiting the U.S.A. in 1890–1891, raising funds for his work in England, when Vilatte became acquainted with him. Lyne claimed that he belonged to the "Ancient British Church", the oldest after Jerusalem and Antioch. Vilatte first visited Dr. Frederick George Lee of the "Order of Corporate Reunion" and Anglican Bishop of Dorchester. Lee gave Vilatte a letter of introduction to Lyne.
Vilatte arrived in the Black Mountains on 18 July 1898, bringing all of his documents and vestments and offered valid orders to any and all, including Lyne, explaining that he was on his way to Russia. Eventually Lyne and others received ordination from the hands of Vilatte, using the Latin Rite.
In January 1899, most Catholic newspapers of Europe and North America reported that Vilatte was in Rome, seeking reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church, instead of with the Russian Orthodox Church.
On 2 February 1899, Father David Flemming, Defender General of the Friars Minor and Consultor of the Congregation of the Holy Office, issued a statement to the effect that Joseph Rene Vilatte had expressed his most sincere and heartfelt regret for having taught many errors and for having attacked and misrepresented the Holy Roman Catholic Church; that he withdrew any such teachings, and that he regretted that he had illicitly and sacrilegiously conferred upon others various orders. This Vatican cleric called upon others whom Vilatte had ordained to submit to the Roman Pontiff. On 25 May 1899 Bishop Zardetti wrote Bishop Messmer of Green Bay that Father Flemming had the case well in hand.
Then came reports that Vilatte had not made his final abjuration with Rome or been reconciled with the Church. It was explained that he was awaiting the result of the process before the Holy Office. Meanwhile, the Holy Office received an eight page report from the Diocese of Green Bay, in which the Bishop laid stress on the insincerity of Vilatte in the past; suggesting that he merely wanted Rome to say that his orders were valid so that he could go to England and validate the orders of the Anglicans.
By 1900, Vilatte was in France. His hosts were the Roman Catholic Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Saint Martin, near Poitiers, in order to make a careful study of his Orders from the Syro-Malabar Jacobite (Oriental Orthodox) Church, so that Vilatte could convince the Holy Office in Rome of the validity of his episcopate.
While living as a guest of the Benedictines of Poitiers, Vilatte did not cease his subversive, anti-Catholic activities, although conducted secretly. News of this reached Cardinal Richard of Paris who, on 17 April 1900, circulated a warning among his clergy to be on their guard against men who claimed to be ordained or consecrated by Vilatte. At this time, on 6 May 1900, Vilatte consecrated an Italian, Paolo Miraglia-Gulotti as the Old Catholic Bishop of Italy, with the title of Bishop of Piacenza; this later became known as the Italian National Episcopal Church, a church modelled in an Anglican fashion and moderately anti-Roman.
Excommunication and additional ordinations
When the authorities of the Catholic Church learned of this, they issued on 13 June 1900, major excommunications against both Vilatte and Paolo Miragila-Gulotti. Vilatte decided to once again return to Canada.
In the summer of 1903, Vilatte was back in South Wales and raised to the episcopacy Henry Marsh-Edwards, with the title of Bishop of Caerleon. Marsh-Edwards was a former Anglican priest of the Diocese of Southwell. The next day both men consecrated Henry Bernard Ventham as Bishop of Dorchester. Priests were ordained that summer in both England and the Continent.
While Vilatte was in England and Europe a series of conflicts between the anti-Catholic Government of France and the Roman Catholic Church broke out, arising from the government's anti-clerical legislation. This gave Vilatte inspiration to return to his native country to exploit the situation with the hope of setting up a State-controlled Gallican National Church, under influence of the anti-clerical liberal and proto-socialist French government, in opposition to the official Roman Catholic Church. This he did in the summer of 1906. The previous December the government abrogated the Concordat that made Roman Catholicism the official religion of France. Vilatte was on friendly terms with Aristide Briand, one of the leaders of this liberal anti-Roman movement and the Minister of Education. The new legislation confiscated Roman Catholic Church property and made them State property. Soon after his arrival in Paris, Vilatte managed to obtain possession of the former Barnabite Church in the Rue Legendre, which he reopened for Old Catholic services in the vernacular. One of his former priests from Wisconsin assisted.
On 21 June 1907 Vilatte consecrated a formerly Roman Catholic, former Trappist monk, Louis Marie Francois Giraud, who had been expelled from the Roman Catholic Church for dabbling in magic and the occult. Shortly after this consecration Cardinal Richard issued a warning to the people about apostate priests who were celebrating mass under cover of a pseudo American Bishop, and excommunicated Vilatte a second time. Soon thereafter Vilatte returned to the United States.
Chicago became the next home to Archbishop Vilatte. At this time, he had severed all relations with Alvares' Independent Jacobite Church of Ceylon, Goa and India, the Syro-Malabar Jacobite Church and the Old Catholic Churches of Europe. The establishment of the Polish National Catholic Church and the consecration of Francis Hodur was the final blow to his hope of being recognized as the Old Catholic Archbishop of North America.
In 1910, Vilatte ordained William Henry Francis Brothers, prior of the Anglican-Benedictine Saint Dunstan's Abbey, Waukegan, Illinois. This was an Old Catholic group of men, legally incorporated in Fond du Lac in 1909 by Charles Grafton as "The American Congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict" (In 1911 the Abbey was united with the Polish Old Catholic Church).
It is claimed that in 1915, Vilatte consecrated to the episcopacy Carmelo Henry Carfora, formerly an Italian Franciscan priest who had been ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1901 and had been sent to the U.S.A. as a missionary, before falling into heresy; however, Carfora had no documentation to prove this claim. Carfora was also consecrated in 1916 in the English Old Roman Catholic Mathew lineage (Union of Utrecht).
Founding the American Catholic Church
In 1915, Vilatte founded the "American Catholic Church". At the same time he received Frederick Ebenezer Lloyd into his newly-founded sect and on 19 December 1915 consecrated him at Saint David's Chapel on East 36th Street, Chicago. Vilatte was assisted by Paolo Miraglia-Gulotti, formerly of Italy and then of New York and working with Vilatte in the United States. During this consecration Vilatte addressed the congregation and newly consecrated prelate saying:
- It needs no prophet to foretell for you and the American Catholic Church a great future in the Province of God. The need for a Church both American and Catholic, and free from Paparchy [rule of the Pope] and all foreign denominations, has been felt for many years by Christians of all the denominations. May your zeal and apostolic ministry be crowned with success.
The second wife of Bishop Lloyd, Philena Peabody was a descendant of George Peabody, the American industrialist and merchant who made his fortune in England (But George Peabody died a bachelor!). Subsequently, in a synod held in Chicago on 10 April 1920, Vilatte retired from his newly founded "American Catholic Church", naming Lloyd as his successor as Primate and Metropolitan. The clergy attending granted Vilatte the honorary title of Exarch. He lived in retirement at 4427 North Mulligan Avenue, Chicago and did not perform any more Episcopal functions until 22 September 1921 when he ordained Wallace David de Ortega Maxey to the priesthood.
On 28 September 1921, Vilatte conditionally consecrated a former Episcopalian minister, the African American George Alexander McGuire in Chicago for McGuire's newly founded African Orthodox Church.
Reconciliation with Rome
Soon Vilatte was again reduced to penury. In 1925, he returned to France where he sought the assistance of the Gnostic magician “Msgr. Johnny” Jean Bricaud. However, as this did nothing to improve his finances, he sought to be reconciled once again to the Roman Catholic Church. On 1 June 1925, Vilatte made his formal declaration before Bishop Ceretti, Apostolic Nuncio at Paris, regretting and repenting having received illicitly Holy Orders and having conferred them on others. The Roman Catholic Church sent him on to the Cistercian Abbey at Pont Colbert to do penance. A week later La Croix and other newspapers announced that Vilatte, with an American boy-servant (named Maxey), was staying at Pont Colbert at the request of Pope Pius XI. The Holy See granted him a pension of 22,000 francs annually.
On 23 June 1925, the Bayerischer Kurieg published a statement on the orders of the "Swiss Christian Catholic Church", to the effect that Vilatte had never been a priest of this body nor any other genuine Old Catholic Church in the widely recognized Union of Utrecht.
Bishop Ceretti, papal nuncio, replied to the newspaper as follows:
- Archbishop Vilatte received the Minor Orders and the Order of Subdeacon on 5 June 1885, the Order of Deacon on 6 June of the same year, and on the following day, 7 June 1885, the Ordination to the Priesthood.
- All these orders were conferred upon him by Bishop Herzog (Old Catholic Bishop) in the Old Catholic Church in Berne.
- This proved by documents, seals and signatures of Bishop Herzog.
- Concerning his Episcopal Consecration, it took place on 29 May 1892.
- Archbishop Vilatte was consecrated by three Jacobite Bishops in the Cathedral of Archbishop Alvares in Colombo (Ceylon).
- Archbishop Vilatte is likewise in the possession of the consecration deed in question bearing the signatures of the three above mentioned bishops and of the American Consul, who was present at the ceremony.
This letter was published in the same newspaper and Vilatte was very pleased that Bishop Ceretti believed and accepted his priesthood and consecration, even though they were irregular from a Roman Catholic view.
For the next three and a half years, Vilatte led a quiet and secluded life in a cottage within the Abbey grounds. He was addressed as Archbishop, but wore a simple soutane (black cassock). Pope Pius XI offered to conditionally re-ordain him, but he declined. He attended daily Mass, receiving Holy Communion during them on Sundays. His end came suddenly of heart failure on 8 July 1929, and he was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Versailles.
Subsequently, it was revealed that Vilatte had "consecrated" one of the novices of Port Colbert in secret. This was dismissed by others however as a rumour. During his lifetime, he consecrated some seven to eight bishops. Shortly after his death, most of his papers vanished.
In Fr. Anthony Cekada's article (linked to below), we find the following personal statement of a Roman Cardinal:
- In Anson's book on the Old Catholics we learn that Merry Cardinal Del Val had decided that Vilatte's ordinations and consecrations had been commercialized. The Cardinal personally believed, therefore, that they could not be regarded as valid. (Peter Anson, Bishops At Large, London. Faber & Faber, 1964, p 29.)
By contrast, some of the Old Catholic sects descended from Vilatte claim that, despite the fact that he had, in practical fact, abandoned any connection with the Jacobites, some of the Jacobite sects in India consider him a "Saint" (The Jacobites in India have split into about three principal independent sects).
While the validity of Vilatte's Orders in the Roman Catholic Church was never finally settled, though personal opinions tend to the negative, most non-Roman Old Catholics concede his Orders were valid.
- Fr. Anthony Cekada on the Old Catholics in the United States
- Gallican.org webpage in French - Gallican National Church
- Biography at Gnostique.Net
- Vilatte, Joseph Réné - Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge
- An Encyclical to All Bishops Claiming To Be of the Apostolic Succession 1893 letter by Vilatte
|This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Joseph René Vilatte. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.|